06/20/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Black Youth, Education and Sports: Resisting Stereotypes and Historical Blindness

Bernice McFadden begins her powerful novel Glorious, "If Jack Johnson had let James Jeffries beat him on July 4, 1910, which would have proven once and for all that a white man was ten times better than a Negro, then black folk wouldn't have been walking around with their backs straight and chests puffed out..."

Why is this important to those of us who appreciate the psychology of racial prejudice? While much has been discussed and debated about black youths' focus on sports, at times at the expense of their academic training, too often these discussions neglect to contextualize this conversation in our racial history thereby falling prey to reducing athletics to mere physical capacity and black youths' irresponsibility. (Certainly the movie Coach Carter, the Dr. Phil show, newspapers, and magazines have added to the conversation.) When we are informed by America's racial history, we see that excelling in sports is more than a question of physical capacity, but also a struggle against prejudice, a reaching and achieving of a measure of pride, and an urge toward making a more just America. Thus, holistic psychological thinking must consider this historical context to fill out and deepen discussions of black youths' interest and achievement in sports versus academics.

However, it is not only the lack of appreciation for the historical context that dulls people's understanding and analysis, it is also the fact that some people regard black aspiration in sports as a result of natural ability in athletics along with a concomitant lack of intellectual ability. Some even take this logic further insinuating that black athletic achievement is therefore not earned with diligence, hard work, and commitment.

Consider the Princeton University study "White Men Can't Jump" where subjects listened to a radio broadcast of a basketball game while being shown a picture of one player in the game. Some subjects were given a picture showing that player as black and some showing that player as white. Subjects rated the "black" basketball player as having played a better game but the "white" player as exhibiting more intelligence.

This kind of stereotyping is not uncommon. A case in point was when Michigan State University, in 1993, considered Dale Lick as a candidate for university president. Mr. Lick caused controversy when he earlier said that black athletes were naturally superior to whites in some sports. Lick defended his remark saying that his statement was based on research even though the research is less than conclusive and often raises the problems of stereotypes -- a discussion absent from Lick's comments.

Stereotypes about black intellectual capacity not only call into question the moral authority of those who carry these stereotypes, but even more insidiously they interfere with the intellectual performance of black students themselves. In effect, these stereotypes get internalized and lower blacks' performance on tests measuring intellectual ability. This was powerfully demonstrated in a study conducted at Stanford University. The study told some black students that they were taking a test to diagnose their intellectual capacity (a test set up to stimulate black students' negative self evaluation) and others that the test was simply as a laboratory tool to look at problem solving. Black students performed less well than white students on the diagnostic test but not on the test said to be used as a laboratory tool. The conclusion -- racial stereotypes and projections act like negative expectations on our black brothers and sisters, diminishing not only their esteem but also their performance while insidiously "confirming" the views of those who carry the stereotypes.

Psychological awareness and psychological thinking have important roles to play in guiding our nation toward a whole, democratic, and just nation. Those of us charged with being the psychological conscience of our nation must use our knowledge and eldership to keep the discussion about black youths and sports free of the unconscious prejudice and the neglect of context that feed hurtful stereotypes and projections -- a role that we must not only play when it comes to black youths and sports but to all discussions of race and matters of diversity in general.