Event Date
Mar 05, 2009
Daniel Perlstein, UC Berkeley
Na’ilah Suad Nasir, UC Berkeley

Daniel Perlstein and Na'ilah Nasir


Professor Daniel Perlstein, Education
Professor Na’ilah Suad Nasir, African American Studies / Education

The Brooklyn, New York based civil rights activist Sonny Carson once noted that the schoolhouses he attended were like prisons, and that the prisons themselves were posing as schoolhouses—metal bars ran down the windows of both. Various authors such as playwright George Bernard Shaw, sociologist Michel Foucault, and even the band Pink Floyd have drawn similar comparisons between institutions of learning and institutions of incarceration.

Professor Daniel Perlstein, Education, evoked these and other powerful images in his discussion about the relationship between institutional structures such as schools and prisons, and how they have contributed in part to shaping the African American male identity.

Perlstein discussed the case of Jeff Fort and Eugene “Bull” Hairston, the two founders of the Blackstone Rangers (later known as the Black P. Stones), a Chicago-based African American gang that would serve as the inspiration and organizational model for other national gangs such as the Crips. Interestingly enough, Fort and Hairston first met one another in a juvenile correctional facility. Perlstein suggests that instead of eradicating their delinquency, their time at  St. Charles actually served to reinforce it. Specifically, it brought them into contact with other similarly disaffected and disenfranchised youth, a phenomenon again, not unlike that of prisons. Additionally, the strict, regimented systems of  discipline and control they were subjected to while at “school” would provide the foundations for their future, organizational enterprise.

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Is the succesful African American academic identity a precursor or product of academic achievement?  Professor Na’ilah Suad Nasir, jointly appointed in African American Studies and Education, concluded the CRG Thursday Forum by examining the academic trajectories and personal identities of black high school students.

According to Nasir, educational researchers to date have limited their inquiries into understanding whether or not possessing a “black identity” is a help or hindrance in school. She argues that such an approach greatly oversimplifies the issue. For one thing, it neglects the role that contexts such as school and society play in shaping individual identity. Furthermore, it ignores the widespread prevalence and influence of social stereotypes. Nasir believes that a more generative approach may be to explore what types of black identies support or hinder schooling, and just as importantly, how they are shaped and influenced by the contexts the students are situated in.

Nasir presented the case of Victor, a student at a Northern California high school campus which had been divided between a sub-section of college-bound students, and those who were allowed to become marginal. The effort to improve the school had created spaces of exception, so that a minority of students enjoyed Advanced Placement coursework and extracurricular activities in the very same building as students who were left to fail. In this way, the academic identities available to students were already filtered by the limited number of academic opportunities provided them by school policy makers.

Victor’s story further exemplifies how students caught at the boundary between these two worlds can be funneled in either direction. Victor began with an academically oriented identity, and was placed into an Advanced Placement history course. However, because his prior classes had not sufficiently prepared him, he failed the class. This failure would eventually prevent him graduating, and lead him to adopt a school adverse social identity.