There is lots of popular and scholarly concern today about why black students aren't doing better in school. The most popular explanation, the "acting white" thesis, is that they have a culture that rejects achievement-that students' peer cultures hold them back. As Karolyn Tyson convincingly demonstrates, that is not the main or even a central explanation of black academic underachievement. Instead of looking at the students, Tyson argues that when and where students understand race to be connected with achievement, it is a powerful, if indirect, lesson conveyed by schools. Integration Interrupted focuses on the consequences, particularly for black students, of the practice of curriculum tracking in the post-Brown era, and on the relationship between racialized tracking and the emergence of academic excellence as a "white thing." Desegregation may have been officially outlawed over fifty years ago, but race now determines which classes students are in: black students are typically placed in general and remedial classes and whites in advanced classes. In effect, same school, but different schooling.
Right after Brown, it was easy to see the deliberate use of tracking to separate kids in schools that courts had mandated integrated. The practice still exists in many schools, though perhaps exercised more subtly, but with same outcome-tracking, including gifted and magnet programs, contributes to distinct racial patterns in achievement. Through ten years of classroom observations and hundreds of interviews with students, parents, and school personnel in thirty schoools, Tyson found that only in very specific circumstances, when black students were drastically underrrepresented in advanced and gifted classes, did anxieties about "the burden of acting white" emerge. But "acting white" is not the only nor the most important consequence of tracking for black students. Tyson reveals how the practice influences high achieving black students' conceptions of racial identity, achievement, and getting ahead; what courses they enroll in, who their friends are, and how they navigate peer pressure with being studious. In short, they face many of the same challenges as white youths face but with significant additional burdens.
The rich narratives on the lived experience of black students in Integration Interrupted throw light on the complex relationships underlying the academic performance of black students and convincingly demonstrates that the problem lies not with students, but instead with how we organize our schools.