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The Color of Success: Race and High-Achieving Urban Youth

reviewed by Brad Porfilio - November 02, 2006

coverTitle: The Color of Success: Race and High-Achieving Urban Youth
Author(s): Gilberto Q. Conchas & Pedro A. Noguera
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746606 , Pages: 147, Year: 2006
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Over the past three decades, scholars across the globe have produced a “voluminous” set of literature in relation to detecting what social, economic, and psychological factors merge with unjust practices at the nexus of urban classrooms to perpetuate the social and academic marginalization of low-income “minoritized”1 (Solomon et al, 2005, p. 166) students in North America (p. 8). Although this body of knowledge has made schoolteachers, teacher-educators, educational policymakers, and school administrators more aware of the constitutive forces and lived practices that position many youth to fail in urban education circles, it has, arguably, failed to take inventory of what school structures and policies have positioned many minoritized students to succeed in urban schools. This is why Gilberto Conchas, a son of a Mexican immigrant farm worker and a Chicano social scientist, sets out to examine the experiences of black, Latino/a and Vietnamese high school students—individuals who overcame systemic barriers inside and outside of classrooms and performed well in school (p. 9). In The Color of Success: Race and High-Achieving Urban Youth, Conchas and Noguera document their findings from case studies launched in a diverse urban California comprehensive high school during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 academic years with the aforementioned groups of students. The authors employed both quantitative and qualitative methods to highlight how the sociocultural processes and institutional practices embedded within this school structure worked collectively to engender pathways of success for the participants.

In Chapter 1, the authors lay out the conceptual framework for capturing what cultural-ecological and institutional factors “explain social mobility of urban student populations” (p. 19). They argue that the work of cultural-ecologists has created a black and white dichotomy of schooling, which fails to account for the wide range of school experiences between and amongst minoritized urban students and also ignores the lived practices of schooling that position some students to find academic success amid the inequitable status quo. Conchas and Noguera claim that a comparative racial and ethnic approach to examining race and ethnic inequality in education not only gets us beyond creating reified caricatures of minoritized students—who are characterized by cultural-ecologists as placidly holding an oppositional identity towards schooling—but also allows scholars, policymakers, and concerned citizens to unearth “the factors and influences that positively impact social inequity in education” (p. 16).

In Chapter 2, Conchas and Noguera provide an overview of how the structure and culture of Baldwin High School not only fuel academic stratification between and amongst their participants, but also provide them the “opportunity to pursue higher education rather than simply joining the work force after high school” (p. 34). Despite most students in this setting feeling isolated due to threats of violence, inattentive teachers, and racial tensions, the authors detail how three “school-within-a-school” academies provided students with a challenging college-preparatory curriculum, instilled a sense of optimism and motivation, and created caring social relationships “among students, among teachers, and between students and teachers” (p. 36).

In Chapters 3-5, the authors look at specific factors that account for the high achievement levels for each group of students (p. 40). The students’ voices make it clear that the small-learning academies were integral to their success. Yet, their narratives also reveal how their academic success produced other challenges for these youth. For instance, some low-income African males were not cognizant of the larger social structure functions, so they were (mis)led to believe their success in high school would seamlessly catapult them to “athletic fame” and fortune (p. 53). For some Latino participants, academic success wrought “alienation and depression,” as they felt compelled to shed their language and culture to succeed in the highly competitive academic programs (p. 66). Finally, many high-achieving Asian students were perceived by black youth as nerds and weak (p. 81). They had to struggle with being “picked on,” while trying to live up to the “model minority images of high academic achievers” (p. 85). Consequently, some students reported that these types of physical assaults, along with the pressure applied by teachers, parents, and students to excel, caused them to be depressed, alienated, and anxious.

Based on this study, Conchas and Noguera put forth several policy recommendations and key policy and practice limitations for the purpose of promoting academic success in urban schools. For instance, they feel small learning communities have the potential to foster academic achievement amongst urban youth, but acknowledge some institutional structures are better equipped at “creating a supportive cross-ethnic community of learners” (p. 118). They point to how one small learning community within their study—Medical Academy—allowed students to grow socially and academically, without producing conflict and competition amongst students. As a result, students and teachers created a supportive academic culture, one that transcended race, gender, and class lines (p. 120). The authors also note, correctly, that urban schooling cannot be vastly improved unless educators and researchers attempt to eradicate racism and classism at the macro-level while also addressing other social polices, such as heath care, housing, and nutrition, which shape life inside and outside urban school settings (p. 122).

Overall, teacher-educators, schoolteachers, and other concerned citizens, who would like to gain a holistic understanding of urban school achievement “among diverse groups of students,” will find Conchas and Noguera’s work insightful (p. 9). However, since most data in this book was generated almost a decade ago, one must question whether small supportive learning communities would help minoritized students overcome the many unjust practices and policies that are currently in place in most urban schools and communities. As Kozol (2005) shows, urban schooling in the United States is now equated to “apartheid” schooling, where impoverished Latino(a) and black students frequently attend underfunded, unsanitary, dilapidated schools. These students are educated by unqualified teachers, controlled by scripted curricula and standardized testing, and forced out of school by draconian zero-tolerance policies. They also live in racially isolated communities, marred by crime, violence, and poverty.  As a result, Conchas and Noguera’s policy recommendations of dismantling social relations of oppression at the macro-level, as well as eliminating social stratification in urban communities, must be implemented before small academic learning communities become viable scaffolds for supporting the academic success of low-income minoritized youth.


1 The term minoritized is borrowed from Solomon et al. (2005:166) to document that whites “are a member of a racial group; however, their racialization affords them benefits that are seldom available to minority groups.”


Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. NY: Three Rivers Press.

Solomon, P.R., Portelli, J., Daniel, B.J., & Campbell, A. (2005). The discourse of denial: How White teacher candidates construct race, racism, and “White privilege.” Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(2), 147-169.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12823, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:47:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Brad Porfilio
    Richard Stockton College
    E-mail Author
    BRAD J. PORFILIO is an Assistant Professor of Education at The Richard Stockton College of NJ. His research interests include urban education, gender and technology, and globalization. Recent publications include “The Possibilities of Transformation: Critical Research and Peter McLaren,” in The International Journal of Progressive Education 2(3) and “Student as Consumers:” A Critical Narrative of the Commercialization of Teacher Education,” in The Journal for Critical Educational Policy Studies 4(1).
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