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Opting Out

Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite

Opting Out

Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite

Why has the large income gap between blacks and whites persisted for decades after the passage of civil rights legislation? More specifically, why do African Americans remain substantially underrepresented in the highest-paying professions, such as science, engineering, information technology, and finance? A sophisticated study of racial disparity, Opting Out examines why some talented black undergraduates pursue lower-paying, lower-status careers despite being amply qualified for more prosperous ones.
To explore these issues, Maya A. Beasley conducted in-depth interviews with black and white juniors at two of the nation’s most elite universities, one public and one private. Beasley identifies a set of complex factors behind these students’ career aspirations, including the anticipation of discrimination in particular fields; the racial composition of classes, student groups, and teaching staff; student values; and the availability of opportunities to network. Ironically, Beasley also discovers, campus policies designed to enhance the academic and career potential of black students often reduce the diversity of their choices. Shedding new light on the root causes of racial inequality, Opting Out will be essential reading for parents, educators, students, scholars, and policymakers.

240 pages | 8 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Education: Higher Education

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“This study is field-advancing. The analysis is balanced, powerfully coherent, and original. It brings into public view a poignant dilemma. Partly because of the reality of racism, but also partly because many universities now reinforce the anticipation of racism, young black women and men are making self-limiting occupational choices. The result: deep inequality for better-off as well as worse-off African Americans.”

Paul M. Sniderman, Stanford University

 “Opting Out makes a compelling argument that the continuing presence of racism in US society decisively and negatively affects the careers of some of our most talented black college students. These students form a distinctive pool, facing challenges quite different from both white students and black students who have not reached the same level of academic performance. Through the experiences of these students, Beasley shows that the racism faced by talented blacks of this generation is qualitatively different from previous ones as she weaves together a history of black social mobility that is often misinterpreted and not well known among educators and policymakers.”

Barbara Schneider, Michigan State University and the University of Chicago

Opting Out takes on one of America’s biggest failures, the disaffection from the American dream of a large portion of its best-educated Black young people. Beasley’s analysis of the problem is compelling. She goes well beyond trend analysis and examines the interior life of this population to understand why, with seemingly endless opportunity, talented and highly educated young black people are opting out of the mainstream of our economic life. With Opting Out, Beasley has made the most important contribution to the sociology of race relations in the last decade. This is a must read for parents as well as policymakers, for school superintendents and college presidents. With America’s competitiveness at risk, we can hardly afford to squander this human capital.”

David A. Thomas, author of Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America

“By directing the reader’s gaze toward mobility challenges confronting African American youth with access to the higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, Beasley offers exceptional insights regarding the persistence of racial disparities.”


“This cogent and persuasively argued book should set off a national discussion about the urgent need to diversify the American occupational structure. Writing with force and clarity, Beasley exhibits a breadth of multidisciplinary knowledge in sociology, political science, economics, psychology, and educational research. By the end, I was convinced that the problem Opting Out highlights is a deep and critical one that mandates strong policy and practice innovations. Beasley’s analysis offers insight into how higher education and business officials could act to reduce the growing black-white wealth gap.”

Prudence L. Carter, Stanford University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments

1 Introduction
2 The Significance of History
3 Family Effects: Is It Really Just a Matter of Money?
4 The Role of the University
5 Majority Rules: Apprehension, Racism, and Racial Representation in Occupations
6 Stereotype Threat: Where Have All Our Scientists Gone?
7 The Value of Work: Careers That Matter
8 It’s All about Connections
9 Conclusion

Notes References Index

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