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In urban schools across the country, the enrollment of Latina/o students is increasing rapidly. However, their academic presence--the recognition of their potential and opportunities for achievement--may diminish quickly in many of these schools. In worst-case scenarios, the evanescence of recognition and opportunity may lead to an increase in dropouts. That is, soon after entering high school, Latina/o students may struggle to succeed academically and before their junior year, disappear from the education system altogether. The simultaneous increase of Latina/o students alongside their persistently high dropout rate represents a significant paradox in urban schools.
Unfortunately, the high attrition of Latina/ o students is not a new phenomenon. Both the problem itself and its attributed explanations, ranging from segregation, poverty, resource deprivation, and cultural difference, have received considerable attention in education research (Ogbu, 1978, 1991; Orfield & Eaton, 1996; Perez & De La Rosa Salazar, 1993; Trueba, 1988, 1993, 1999; Valdes, 1996; Valencia, 1991; Valenzuela, 1999). Although the problem as well as its explanation may not be recent revelations, the paradox of a growing student population that demonstrates few improvements in academic success raises new questions. Why does a racial group that is quickly progressing from minority to majority status in certain districts, cities, and counties still manifest the typical and historical patterns of school failure associated with minority status? Meanwhile, these students' White peers who are now in the racial minority still achieve at significantly higher rates than what are typically attributed to minority students.
One might conclude that Latina/o immigration accounts for the increase of students who fail school; foreign-born Spanish speakers face the linguistic challenge of mastering an English-only curriculum. Although the linguistic dilemma may explain some student failure, research shows that first-generation Latinas/os often fare better than their second- and even third-generation--and more English proficient--counterparts (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995).
In my own study of Latina/o youth, students were either 1.5 generation or second generation, and all were proficient English speakers. Although many faced the daily threat of dropping out of school, linguistic factors did not weigh as heavily as one might suspect. According to statements made by the youth in my study, a racist ideology based on the assumption of their intellectual inferiority presented the most significant obstacle to their academic success.
Drawing from ethnographic research conducted in an urban school in the U.S., this article examines how the permeation of a racist ideology in the school context can render the academic potential of Latina/o students invisible to school personnel. The Latina/o students in this study indicated that teacher disinterest in their intellectual growth severely circumscribed their academic progress.
The discussion also briefly considers how the ethos of rugged individualism in the U.S. school system obscures the institutionalized ills of racism by suggesting that the only barrier to success is individual commitment. This culture of individualism allowed school personnel to place blame for the students' academic failure on the students themselves while completely exonerating the school system of neglecting their intellectual growth. Once the students' capacities for learning became invisible, the school system overlooked them as worthy of academic investment by treating them with apathy, withholding from them information necessary for achievement, and then blaming them for their failure.
This study's findings suggest that new pedagogical strategies for Latina/o students must take the three-pronged approach of caring for the students' personal life progress, demythologizing the value of individualism, and countering racist ideology. Because individualism harbors putatively meritocratic structures that perpetuate racist assessments of ability, the intellectual development of Latina/o students, and, for that matter, all students of color, must be safeguarded from ideologies that avow individual (as opposed to collective) culpability for failure and the belief in a natural order of ability.
Race in Education Research
Most urban public schools in the country exemplify what Boykins and Moll (2002) describe as "vertical diversity"--a racial hierarchy of performance and outcomes, in which Black and Latina/o students exist at the bottom. Research literature supports the existence of hierarchical structures in institutional settings where people of color experience inferior treatment. Social science scholarship offers a variety of important studies on the subject of racism (Miles, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1986; Wellman, 1977). However, the vast literature on racial theories of inequality has not been systematically employed in the analysis of educational inequality (Ladson-Billings &d Tate, 1995).
This analytical failure of understanding the causes of racial inequality in schools derives partly from the proclivity among researchers to attribute "racial achievement patterns" to "autonomous behaviors of assumedly distinct 'race groups'" (Pollock, 2001: 8). Noted anthropologist John Ogbu (1978, 1991), for example, explains racial patterns of school failure as the fault of students who adopt a set of cultural values that impede school success. In his formulation, individuals are blamed with little regard for the context of their actions.
Researchers also tend to claim that racial patterns in schooling occur because teachers have low expectations (Ferguson, 2003), or families do not instill the proper values to motivate students (Lubeck, 1995). Focusing on one distinct group, whether it is students, teachers, or parents, to say that characteristics of the group are responsible for racial disparities in education precludes any analysis that may identify the problem emerging from a wider field of ideological influences. Omi and Winant (1986: 64) offer a useful definition of racial ideology, which indicates its potential influences.
Racial ideology is constructed from pre-existing (or, if one prefers, "discursive") elements and emerges from struggles of competing political projects and ideas seeking to articulate similar elements differently.
Although identifying patterns among individuals may be an important starting point to understand problems in education, any analysis that ends there avoids consideration of the underlying ideologies informing those behaviors or articulating similar students "differently." Achieving a better grasp on racial inequality in schooling requires careful attention to the role of ideology in influencing people's subjectivities and experiences.
In this regard, Steele's (1992, 1999) groundbreaking research on race and education delineates the effects of racial stereotypes on academic performance. Steele and Aronson (1995) demonstrate how African Americans who are academically well prepared and have access to sufficient educational resources still can be at risk of failing simply from the threat, which they call "stereotype threat," of being identified as or labeled "intellectually inferior."
The stereotype threat does not have to be enacted by particular people, such as teachers, in order for students of color to experience it. Stereotypes emerge from ideological forms prevalent in society--negative images and media representations that suggest people of color are racially inferior. These forms saturate the students' social contexts and seep into their conceptualizations of their own educational potential. A stereotype threat therefore can operate independently from explicit negative typing by teachers and others.
Mickelson (2003) echoes this accord between context and students' perceptions of their academic abilities. After an exhaustive review of social science research on race and education, including Steele's and her own work, she concludes that racial discrimination in education "structures and conditions" (Mickelson 2003: 1075) the kinds of choices students of color make regarding their own schooling.
Moreover, this research indicates that racial discrimination is less frequently experienced as an isolated event or a personal attack levied by a particular individual. Rather, the cumulative effects--witnessed and felt over time by students of color--of such systematized racial disparities as under-resourced schools, lowered or differing expectations, racial tracking, segregated schools, and White privilege, amount to a more influential form of discrimination than any single incident. Mickelson adds that discrimination in education is bolstered by social circumstances that exist both within and beyond the …