The Culture Trap: Ethnic Expectations and Unequal Schooling for Black Youth

In The Culture Trap, Derron Wallace argues that the overreliance on culture to explain Black students’ achievement and behavior in schools is a trap that undermines the historical factors and institutional processes that shape how Black students experience schooling. This trap is consequential for a host of racial and ethnic minority youth in schools, including Black Caribbean young people in London and New York City.

Since the 1920s, Black Caribbeans in New York have been considered a high-achieving Black model minority. Conversely, since the 1950s, Black Caribbeans in London have been regarded as a chronically underachieving minority. In both contexts, however, it is often suggested that Caribbean culture informs their status, whether as a celebrated minority in the US or as a demoted minority in Britain.

Drawing on rich observations, interviews and archives in London and New York City schools, Wallace suggests that the use of culture to justify Black Caribbean students’ achievement obscures the very real ways that school structures, institutional processes, and colonial conditions influence the racial, gender and class inequalities Black youth experience in schools. Wallace reveals how culture is at times used as an alibi for racism in schools, and points out what educators, parents and students can do to change the beliefs and practices that reinforce racism.

Derron Wallace is the Jacob S. Potofsky Chair in Sociology and Associate Professor of Sociology and Education at Brandeis University in Boston, USA. He is also a Research Fellow at the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester. From 2022 to 2023, Wallace was a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Durham University. A sociologist of race, ethnicity and education, Wallace’s research focuses on structural and cultural inequalities in urban schools and neighbourhoods as experienced by Black youth. In 2023, Wallace received the American Educational Research Association’s Early Career Award for research on the social context of education. He also received the Doris Entwisle Early Career Award from the American Sociological Association for research on the sociology of education.

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