Professor Eric A. Hurley Discusses Misconceptions About African Americans That Contribute to Racial Divide in the U.S.

Professor Eric A. Hurley outside of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

The latest deaths of African Americans at the hands of police have brought the long-standing unresolved racial divide in this country to the surface. Amid massive protests and calls for drastic changes in the ways police operate, the nation is grappling with systems that perpetuate this racial divide.

Professor of Psychological Science and Africana Studies Eric A. Hurley says one of the many factors contributing to the racial divide is the lack of counternarratives to negative stereotypes about African American students, families and communities. Such misconceptions, he says, are the building blocks of the structural violence that produces the physical violence that is once again at the center of public attention. Because of that, he says, he has spent his academic career seeking to build authentic alternate frameworks for understanding African American people’s attitudes and behavior.

The structural and systematic reasons for our racial divide begin early in life, he says.

Could you briefly describe cognitive development among African American children?

Cognitive development for African American children is in the most basic way the same as it is for all children. Children’s minds develop in social interaction with others and with their environments, first at home and in their communities.

Most people accept pretty readily that the home and community environments, and priorities therein, vary between African American and European-American populations. What we make of those differences is more controversial. For too long the dominant interpretation has been that different (read: deficient) socialization practices are the main reason for educational gaps. It always reminds me of the Fanon quote: "a normal Negro child, having grown up in a normal Negro family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world." [from Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952 by Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon.]

There aren’t systematic differences on early childhood assessments. Somewhere between ages 3 and 5, schooling environments are added to the mix and soon thereafter you begin to see achievement gaps. In important ways they emerge at the onset of “contact with the White world.” This is where cultural difference becomes important.

What cultural values resonate in African American families?

It is well-documented that many African American families emphasize themes like communalism and verve in their socialization practices.

Communalism is a cooperative and affiliative orientation which cultivates sensitivity to the fundamental interdependence among people and to social bonds and relationships.

Verve refers to a person’s receptiveness to comparatively high levels of dense and variable stimulation in their immediate and ambient environments.

Both are integral features of African American homes and community socialization and manifest as, for example, households with lots of people and multiple activities occurring concurrently in the same space during overlapping conversations and with lively music playing. This patterning cultivates a receptiveness to variability and intensity of stimulation and a facility with interactive and collaborative activities.

More normative in Euro-American culture are Individualism (commonly defined as the belief that independence is a primary goal of development and is the best index of self-worth) and competition (embraces seeking superiority over others as the best means to success and self-actualization). Of course, no group does only one or another, it is a matter of priorities-based emphasis.

How does oppositional culture play a role in schooling?

There is no such thing as a “culture of opposition” to learning or high achievement among African Americans as one well known theory would have it. Neither do a significant number of Black Americans see those things as “acting white”. The preponderance of evidence suggests quite the opposite. African American students and families generally have high academic aspirations (a recent study found that most aspired to master’s degrees).

My colleagues and I make the case in a 2019 paper published in Urban Education. What we have found in our work is that many African American students are likely to reject, activity structures that demand, classrooms configured to require, and peers who achieve via highly individualistic or competitive attitudes and behavior. These largely describe U.S. schooling, not because they are inherently or especially appropriate for education, but because they are consistent with European-American cultural priorities and imaginings about how the ideal student should think and behave. Put another way, we find that many African American children reject not learning, but acting white, as acting white. They affirm those same things when the assimilation contingencies are removed. Our studies also confirm that their attitudes, engagement and achievement are improved when themes like communalism and verve are made part of learning environments instead.

What are some frameworks that educators are missing when teaching African American students?

Well, we can take that same analysis a step further. This is a great example of what I mean when I say we need alternate frameworks. Maybe the oppositional culture hypothesis persists against all evidence to the contrary because “racist stereotypes!” but that isn’t very informative as an answer. I think it persists instead/also because it seems to make sense of some educators’ classroom experiences with some Black and other minority students’ defiant and/or disengaged behavior in school.

But there are better ways to interpret such behavior. Put yourself in the position of a Black child raised to be communal, to attend to your connection with others and to share with and help others. Or high verve. Not only are you unlikely to experience confirmation for the academic worth of those identity-central values and behaviors, you will likely find yourself chronically penalized for exhibiting them, and for resisting the individualistic and competitive behaviors required for success in school. We should not be surprised if over time the combination of these leads you to negative attitudes toward academic activities, not in general, but as they are being made available to you. Toward schooling as it is being made available to you.

What social and educational implications does systemic racism have on minority children?

I don't really put much stock in white supremacy as a factor in these things. Don’t get me wrong; I think the current climate has revealed (and stoked) a shocking number of declared racists, but I believe that much more of the harm is done by people who are motivated by combinations of greed, laziness and fear. Each of those are sufficient to drive people to harm vulnerable targets via structural or physical violence (or to allow it). If you are greedy enough you don't need to be especially anti-black to see and seize opportunities to gain for yourself by taking advantage of Black and other marginalized populations (ready examples here are subprime loans and the water crisis in Michigan, both of which came down to money). You just have to believe that your actions are very likely to result in material gain and very unlikely to result in negative consequences for yourself. Anti-blackness is an afterthought in that. A way to avoid moral (and often legal and political) culpability.

But yes, everything I have described is exacerbated by systemic racism in education, be it conscious bias or not. For example, any skilled teacher, on perceiving that they are not successfully connecting with a student(s) whom they otherwise view as normal and able, will make adjustments until they do, as a simple matter of competent teaching. With African American students however, racialized thinking allows the same teacher to more readily code the disconnect as signaling yet another way in which the child does not conform to their imaginings of the ideal student. Once this is accomplished, it’s no big trick to blame the child (or their family or their community) and in so doing retain a sense of competence with no need for meaningful self-evaluation or extra effort, other than perhaps to escalate monitoring and discipline.

Would you say that the dynamics are similar among adults?

You can absolutely map the same basic dynamics into law enforcement, as police officers assess the situations they face. Any trained officer, on perceiving that they are not successfully managing a situation with a member(s) of the public whom they assume is otherwise normal and reasonable, will make measured adjustments until they do, as a simple matter of competent peacekeeping.

When that member of the public is Black however, officers may more readily code the disconnect in racialized terms, as threatening. When I was 18, I was bold/naive enough to openly object to a hyper-aggressive opening move by police officers. In my mind I was simply asserting my right (as a citizen) to be treated with respect. Of course, it became very scary very quickly and could have become deadly. Since officers’ decision-making can rationally include that use of extreme force is highly likely to bring the person or situation under their control and is very unlikely to have negative consequences for the officer, we should not be surprised that they escalate to violence as often as they do.

So yes, part of the solution is to consistently hold individual actors accountable, but we definitely should not lose sight of the fact that policy makers set (and could change) the conditions that support those dangerous logics. In so doing, they position racialized thinking to play a governing role in the decisions made by cops, teachers and other agents of the state. That's textbook structural violence and must lead us back to interrogating the motives and priorities of policy makers. Are racial terrorists capitalizing on those same circumstances? Obviously yes but again, focusing on them will lead us to “charge those racist cops” and “fire these racist chiefs” only, as if those who come behind them will somehow be immune to the larger structural racism that governs their functioning.

How do the events of these past few weeks affect African American children in particular?

African-American children are seeing a frightening preview of their own futures as citizens of the U.S., and for many of them, thanks to their experiences in school, the overall pattern (being chronically penalized simply for being who they are) is already familiar. As a consequence, a lot of African American families are giving “the talk” to younger children than they had ever imagined needing to.

In light of the events of these past weeks, what can parents do to broach the subject of racism with their children?

We’ve been taking our girls (ages 5 and 10) to participate in local protests in limited and safe ways while wearing masks and keeping social distance. Kids need to know. In age-appropriate ways and amounts, they need knowledge and lenses for understanding, and they will hear things on the proverbial “street.” So, if you feel at a loss for what to say to your kids about George Floyd’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s, Breonna Taylor’s, Rayshard Brooks’ and other murders, anti-blackness and state violence more generally and people’s response to those things, please take that as a sign of critically missing tools in your parenting toolbox. For your own and for your children’s sake, educate yourself quickly for now. (There are decent resources such as these online articles from The Grio, The Root and Medium  to get you started. Go find others as well!).  As a professor of Africana studies and developmental psychology, I can guarantee you that there is over 100 years of scholarship and research on this exact topic that could be of great value to your family, and consequently to this nation. Some excellent work is being produced right here at The Claremont Colleges. That fact alone clarifies two things: that there really is no excuse for anyone to be acting surprised today and, that there will be a next time.

How can schools and educators better prepare all children about topics of racial injustice?

It’s amazing to me that quality (or any) training for racial and cultural dialogue is still exceedingly rare in this country despite the fact that it is natural for students to look to those adults for guidance when things like this reach the public discourse. A few organizations, like The Capstone Institute at Howard University and The Culture and Equity Project at UCLA’s Center X, maintain rich online repositories of academic and pedagogical resources, but there isn’t much by way of systematic or mandatory training. Given that, I’m not sure I’d want to ask teachers as a category to interpret these events for my or anyone’s children. I think it's a good idea for them to express empathy and support. Some who feel equipped may be willing and able to offer more but should be aware that it is dangerously easy to add to students’ anxiety and confusion.

Any final thoughts you’d like to offer?

Yes. Enough people ask or imply a question that is worth addressing: Wouldn’t conditions for African Americans improve if they would only “be Americans first,”? (read: assimilate to the dominant culture). I strongly disagree. First of all, playing those kinds of identity politics has never really worked for us. Moreover, it is a credit to African Americans and other marginalized groups that we have held on to critical elements of our culture and humanity despite all we have been through and against incredible assimilation pressure. In fact, research shows that for African Americans, strong racial and cultural identities are positive contributors to academic and other kinds of thriving. Moreover, it is not at all evident to me that individualism and competition at the levels promoted in this country have been primarily positive forces in the world, for the nation or even for most for European Americans or their humanity.