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Walking the Perimeter

Heather Killelea McEntarfer reviews The Trouble with Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education by Pedro A. Noguera

The Trouble with Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education by Pedro A. NogueraTrue story: the parents of a teenage boy are separating.  The boy’s father tells his son that he wants to kill himself; he instructs the boy to remove the family’s gun from the home. The boy, who earlier that summer had helped stanch the blood from his grandmother’s wrists after she tried to commit suicide, does as he’s told. He’s going to school, so that’s where he takes the gun. He’s rattled, so he shows the gun to a friend and shares the story. 

And next thing you know, he’s at an expulsion hearing, sharing the story with his principal and his school board. Now, taking a gun to school is a serious offense. But the board members hear the story. They learn of the boy’s excellent academic record and how his teachers describe him as “respectful, honest, hardworking, etc.” They ask how he would handle the situation differently if it happened again. He is not sure; perhaps he’d hide the gun in the bushes in front of his home. 

The board members lecture him on gun safety. Then, they expel him. “We need to send a clear message that guns on campus will not be tolerated,” his principal says.

That’s the outcome many post-Columbine readers would expect—and yet in his book, The Trouble with Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education, Pedro A. Noguera argues convincingly that it’s also indicative of the “gulf in experience” between many poor and minority students and their middle-class educators. A consultant for the boy’s school at the time, Noguera was in the room at that expulsion hearing. Where, he wondered, was any sense of empathy for a boy and his father sharing intimate details from their lives? Where was any understanding that the boy had at least faced a difficult situation? How, Noguera wanted to ask the board members, would you have handled the situation in his shoes? And to what degree did the desire to “send a clear message” trump the specifics of one boy’s case—before that boy was thrown out of school for good?

Noguera performs a sort of close reading on this story and others that he presents throughout his book, a collection of articles published in academic journals between 2001 and 2007. Throughout the book, he calls for educators to bridge that gulf, to understand the lives of poor and minority students and to respond with more empathy to their needs. In several articles on student discipline, for example, he acknowledges the very real need for safety, but offers examples of schools where teachers “question the tendency to punish through exclusion and humiliation and… see themselves as advocates of children, not as wardens and prison guards.” In one school, a local grandmother served as a monitor, admonishing out-of-line students the way grandmothers do. This was “the only junior high school in the [Oakland Unified School District] where no weapons were confiscated from students.”

With a background as a professor, urban sociologist, and school consultant, Noguera draws from a deep well of experience with schools. He culls stories from that experience and from his own life as black man and father to two sons, then weaves those stories with educational research, theory, and history. The style adds relevance and specificity to his arguments and lends the book easily to a wide readership.  From the boy’s story described above, Noguera leaps into a Foucauldian discussion of discipline and power and then into a historical analysis of why American public schools have “traditionally prioritized maintaining order and control over students, as opposed to creating humane environments for learning.” (His answers: partly to “Americanize” immigrant children, partly to prepare workers for an industrial economy, and partly to maintain the sanity of teachers who taught upwards of 60 students at a time.) Throughout, Noguera avoids the dense education-ese that can typify the genre.  

While he explores the challenges that black male students face, Noguera also rejects the notion that they are “helpless victims.” In the title essay, he describes the problems facing black men, including the highest rates of suicide and incarceration and the only declining life expectancy among any group in the U.S. Then he explores the roots of those problems in boyhood: the forces that work against the success of black boys and the behaviors some adopt in response. “There is no doubt that there are some legitimate reasons for young black males to be angry,” Noguera writes.  “Yet it is also clear that this thinly-veiled rage and readiness for conflict can be self-defeating and harmful to their well-being.” Noguera calls for further research on youth culture and identity, as well as on the students who do succeed. And all the while, he writes, we must work to change the conditions that cause their anger in the first place. About black students in our worst urban schools, Noguera writes, “With the rewards of education largely unavailable to them, we must realistically ask ourselves why we would expect that students would comply with the rules and adhere to school expectations.”

That approach illustrates a strength of Noguera’s book: the nuance with which he approaches the complex problems he takes on. The trouble with black boys is complicated, and the answers don’t lie in one theoretical camp or another, but in the range of experiences that shape their lives and choices. Noguera approaches other topics with the same nuance. With essays divided into three sections (The Student Experience, The Search for Equity, and The Schools We Need), he  addresses the needs of Latino students, critiques No Child Left Behind, and argues that poor schools need not only educational reforms, but political reforms that place information and power in the hands of poor families. He doesn’t pretend change is easy to create, but he offers concrete suggestions on how to start. 

Those suggestions tend to be directed toward people acting on the local level: parents, teachers, and administrators, rather than those in positions to make systemic changes (i.e., reallocating funding or desegregating schools). As an educational researcher myself, I admit that I tend to be drawn toward the latter. But Noguera’s suggestions are specific and, as he notes, “politically feasible” (p. 187). It seems fair to count that last bit an advantage. What’s more, the essays cover an impressive range of issues. They feel as if they’ve been written by a man who’s walked the perimeter of American education, peered from this angle and from that, and offered solutions from each of several perspectives. The trouble with black boys, it turns out, can often be traced back to the trouble with American schools, and of those, Noguera offers an insightful and engaging analysis.


Heather Killelea McEntarfer is a graduate student in English education at SUNY Buffalo and has taught college-level writing at Niagara University and the University of Pittsburgh. Holding an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh, she has contributed to Permafrost, Terrain.org, and River Teeth.
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The Trouble with Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education

By Pedro A. Noguera

   368 pages
   ISBN 978-0470452080


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