Bad Boys

Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity
First Edition
Ann Arnett Ferguson
How do schools identify African American males as "bad boys"?


Statistics show that black males are disproportionately getting in trouble and being suspended from the nation's school systems. Based on three years of participant observation research at an elementary school, Bad Boys offers a richly textured account of daily interactions between teachers and students to understand this serious problem. Ann Arnett Ferguson demonstrates how a group of eleven- and twelve-year-old males are identified by school personnel as "bound for jail" and how the youth construct a sense of self under such adverse circumstances. The author focuses on the perspective and voices of pre-adolescent African American boys. How does it feel to be labeled "unsalvageable" by your teacher? How does one endure school when the educators predict one's future as "a jail cell with your name on it?" Through interviews and participation with these youth in classrooms, playgrounds, movie theaters, and video arcades, the author explores what "getting into trouble" means for the boys themselves. She argues that rather than simply internalizing these labels, the boys look critically at schooling as they dispute and evaluate the meaning and motivation behind the labels that have been attached to them. Supplementing the perspectives of the boys with interviews with teachers, principals, truant officers, and relatives of the students, the author constructs a disturbing picture of how educators' beliefs in a "natural difference" of black children and the "criminal inclination" of black males shapes decisions that disproportionately single out black males as being "at risk" for failure and punishment.

Bad Boys is a powerful challenge to prevailing views on the problem of black males in our schools today. It will be of interest to educators, parents, and youth, and to all professionals and students in the fields of African-American studies, childhood studies, gender studies, juvenile studies, social work, and sociology, as well as anyone who is concerned about the way our schools are shaping the next generation of African American boys.

Ann Arnett Ferguson is Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies and Women's Studies, Smith College.

Praise / Awards

  • "The author takes us into the world of a single, urban elementary school populated by students who have already been labeled as troublemakers and future prison inmates. . . . Teachers and future teachers should read Ferguson's book, and so should all of those who are still unconvinced that our schools treat children differently when they are black."
    —Percy Bates, Anthropology & Education Quarterly

  • ". . . examines the beliefs, relationships, and the everyday practices that reveal a pattern of disrespect and discriminatory behavior toward African-American males in an effort to force them into conforming behavior. . . It reviews the interaction between rule breaking and racial and gender identification and explains why many African American children, especially boys, refuse to learn from people who reject them and their families."
    —N. L. Arnez, Howard University, Choice, March 2001

  • "It is a well-written, informative, and provocative book and provides a new perspective on the experiences of black boys in school. It is also easy to read, well organized, and friendly to the reader."
    —Janice Joseph, Contemporary Sociology, September 2001

  • "Drawing heavily upon radical schooling theory, Ferguson echoes the concerns of Albert Cohen and others who have argued that schools are designed to imprint children with white middle-class values. . . . Students who resist or otherwise fail to conform to these expectations are branded troublemakers and tracked into remedial education, purportedly for their own good. . . . Bad Boys is an incisive critique of the ways in which public schools help to create and shape perceptions black masculinity. Beyond its rich ethnographic details, Ann Ferguson has crafted a compelling and insightful piece of scholarship. Rather than emulate others who have linked the demise of urban schools to the troubles of inner-city minority youth, Ferguson turns this issue on its head by highlighting how urban school practices can have a devastating impact on African-American children."
    —David Mueller, Boise State University, Criminal Justice Review, Autumn 2002

  • "Ann Arnett Ferguson draws on a complex set of radical schooling theories to frame her observations of Black male fifth and sixth graders. Her elementary school fieldwork gives us thick observations of school factors that shape images of Black masculinity and glimpses of that meaning for Black students' gender and race peers. . . . She leaves no doubt about the structural sources of schooling tensions and contradictions as she analyzes the complexity of Black masculinity in schools. These are racialized and gendered lessons for educational policy makers, classroom teachers, school disciplinary enforcers, and community members who want to make sense of the early school experiences of Black males."
    —Helen A. Moore, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Gender & Society, October 2002

  • "Educators, administrators, and parents interested in finding an alternative to the pattern of placing disproportionate numbers of black males in school discipline rooms and 'jailhouses' should critically read this persuasively written and thought-provoking work."
    —Linda F. Rhone, University of Wyoming, MultiCultural Review, March 2001

  • "Bad Boys is a book with something very important to say. It should be read by educators who wish to understand better how schools and society-at-large treat African-American males. In addition, this book will give educators a glimpse at how schools, through adult perceptions, may be shaping lives forever in ways that may not be to the student's or even society's advantage."
    —John Dougherty, The Educational Forum, Volume 66 (Fall 2001)

  • Winner: Sex and Gender Section of the American Sociological Association's 2001 Distinguished Book Award

  • Winner: Gustavus Myers Center for The Study of Human Rights in the United States' 2001 Outstanding Book Award

Look Inside


acknowledgments     ix

Chapter One:   don't believe the hype     1
Field Note:   A FIELD TRIP     24

Chapter Two:   the punishing room     29
Field Note:   FIRST IMPRESSIONS     45

Chapter Three:   school rules     49
Field Note:   SELF-DESCRIPTION     74

Chapter Four:   naughty by nature     77
a shift in perspective     97

Chapter Five:   the real world     101
Field Note:   MOTHERING     134

Chapter Six:   getting in trouble     163
Field Note:   ODD SYMPTOMS     195

Chapter Seven:   unreasonable circumstances     197
Field Note:   PROMOTION EXERCISES     225

Chapter Eight:   dreams     227

works cited     237
index     243

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 272pp.
Available for sale worldwide

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  • Paper
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08849-2

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  • $24.95 U.S.



  • African-American studies, law, anthropology, ethnic studies, black culture, masculinity, gender studies, education, violence, social problems, social work, childhood studies, juvenile studies