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Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite

reviewed by Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur - February 02, 2012

coverTitle: Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite
Author(s): Maya A. Beasley
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226040143, Pages: 240, Year: 2011
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Despite the fact that Blacks have made considerable inroads into the student bodies of elite colleges and universities, and despite the fact that Blacks are now earning college degrees at much higher rates than in the past, Blacks remain much less likely than Whites to earn advanced degrees or to gain employment in the upper reaches of the occupational structure. Maya Beasley’s study is motivated by the desire to explain the persistence of this disparity, and she is unsatisfied with explanations that continue to lay the blame on discrimination, economic inequality, or any of the other frequently-cited factors. Instead, she argues, student choice—some of it for good reason, some based on lack of information—motivates the differences in outcomes between Blacks and Whites among the educational elite.

Beasley interviewed 60 college juniors, half men and half women, half from Stanford University and half from the University of California at Berkeley, during the 2002-2003 academic year. These students told her about their experiences with discrimination, their family histories, their educational paths, and their occupational plans, and she explored with them the reasons behind the decisions they were making. The interviews demonstrate that Blacks are more likely to choose what Beasley calls “racialized” careers, as well as careers employing large numbers of Black workers; that Blacks have less information about career possibilities and career trajectories; that experiences with and expectations of discrimination shape Blacks’ career plans; and that having a “segregated” educational experience even in a minority-Black institution may further increase Blacks’ fears of discrimination and decrease their access to “mainstream” careers.

Drawing on the idea—from financial planning—that a diversified portfolio of investments enables investors to better weather the vicissitudes of the market, Beasley argues that Blacks’ disproportionate concentration in jobs that serve the Black community or which already employ a disproportionate number of Blacks is one leading explanation for the stagnation of Black economic gains. She claims, therefore, that the Black community should emphasize the importance of diverse occupational choices for its young people.

Beasley’s short book is well-written, clearly argued, and based on sound research. The claims are provocative, the policy suggestions useful, and the book as a whole likely to generate considerable and important discussion. Yet while I think Beasley may be on to something here, I remain unconvinced by her particular conceptualization of the problem. My concerns fall into two primary areas: first, the fact that Beasley’s analysis is limited to Blacks and to middle- and upper-class Whites, and second, the normative judgments underlying Beasley’s claims.

The limitations of the sample from which interview data was collected may be understandable—this book began as a doctoral dissertation, after all—but these limitations do cast some doubt on the broader generalizability of Beasley’s findings. The Black students Beasley interviewed represent students from across the socioeconomic spectrum, despite their enrollment at elite and highly-selective institutions. Yet the White students she interviews do not. The median family income of the Black participants in the study was close to the median family income of all college students nationwide, while the median family income of the White participants was $50,000 higher. This disparity reflects differences in elite college enrollment by class for White students—those from economically disadvantaged families are significantly less likely to gain admission to elite institutions (Espenshade and Radford 2009). Furthermore, as Beasley herself demonstrates, poor and working-class Black families are likely to value education and educational prestige to a greater extent than poor and working-class White families do.

While it is not surprising that Beasley’s participants included little representation of poor and working-class White students, their absence constrains Beasley’s ability to draw an accurate comparison between Whites and Blacks. Perhaps poor and working-class Whites experience some of the same constrains as poor and working-class Blacks. Or perhaps, given the lower degree of family support for their educational pursuits, they experience even more constraints. It would similarly have been illuminating to include students from other backgrounds, especially Asian Americans (who today make up roughly half of the Berkeley student body). Asian American students are likely to experience some circumstances that make them more like the Blacks Beasley interviewed, such as expectations of discrimination on the job and constrained and limiting parental expectations, but they differ in their access to social capital and in their experiences on campus.

Few would deny that increasing Blacks’ access to educational and occupational success is a laudable goal. But in seeking a new way to reach this goal, Beasley assumes that diversified and economically remunerative employment is the best way to achieve it. Her book presents little evidence to support this claim, nor does it seriously consider the substantial personal cost that individuals may pay along this path. Indeed, if Black students started flocking to investment banking, corporate law, and petroleum engineering in droves—even if they did so with strong mentoring as to how to succeed in these career paths—it is not clear that the inequalities Beasley discusses would be much alleviated. Employment discrimination remains a considerable barrier, especially at the upper reaches of professions in which self-replication by hiring managers is a central goal. Workers in prestigious and high-paying fields face considerable demands to conform to the social expectations of the workplace, expectations that may make little room for Black identities, just as Granfield found in his study of working-class law students (Granfield 1991). The demanding hours of such careers make little room for commitment to social change or community service, and philanthropy may not be a satisfying or even feasible alternative for those who need to support extended families. And many highly remunerative positions not only leave little time for making the world a better place—they arguably make it worse.

Of course Black students—and all college students—should have the opportunity to learn about and to pursue whatever careers interest them. But many professions have a long way to go before they will be truly welcoming to Beasley’s Black interviewees. And maybe the central problem lies more with the White men who populate those jobs today than with the Black students who spurn them. I for one would rather live in a world (and teach classes) populated with Beasley’s Black interviewees, who value their communities and want to make the world a better place, than with her White male interviewees, who value money above all else.


Espenshade, T. J. & Radford, A. W. (2009). No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Granfield, R. (1991). Making It by Faking It: Working-Class Students in an Elite Academic Environment. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 20(3), 331-51.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16680, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:30:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Mikaila Lemonik Arthur
    Rhode Island College
    E-mail Author
    MIKAILA MARIEL LEMONIK ARTHUR is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rhode Island College, where she teaches courses on research methods, the sociology of law, and race and ethnicity. Her book Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education was published by Ashgate in 2011. She is currently working on a project evaluating neoinstitutional explanations for curricular change in higher education.
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