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Those Wacky American Blacks and that Crazy Achievement Gap April 21, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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This past weekend I stole a few moments to catch up on some of my favorite blogs. The March 18 post on the New York Times Freakonomics blog made me pause in my tracks. The entry, titled “How Can the Achievement Gap Be Closed? A Freakonomics Quorum,” was posted by Freakonomics co-author, Stephen Dubner.

The blogpost iteself was benign enough, though decidedly slanted toward a social sciences analysis of a problem that I believe requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Through the miracle of online communication, Dubner assembled a diverse group of economists, policy analysts, and education administrators and posed this single question: “How can the U.S. black-white achievement gap be closed?”

The assembled respondents — Caroline Hoxby, Daniel Hurley, Richard J. Murnane, and Andrew Rotherham — offered compelling, thoughtful, and earnest solutions, mostly based in the notion that a combination of school transformation and community investment and family support could effect great enough change in the U.S. education system to at least begin to close the racial achievement gap between Black and white students. Click HERE for a link to the blogpost in quesiton.

The reactions that followed, however, were a completely different story. I remember a Vibe Magazine interview with Black feminist scholar bell hooks in which she made a truly thought-provoking observation about how in the U.S. the white majority uses the highly publicized foibles, errors, and crimes of the most troubled and vulnerable members of the Black community as a vehicle for confronting and exploring its own challenges and issues. Hooks gave the examples of O.J. and Mike Tyson, each of whose highly publicized arrest and trial served as a launchpad for white America’s discussion of domestic violence and acquaintance rape, respectively and including the impact of this crimes in majority communities.

The curious collection of readers’ reactions to Dubner’s assembled experts (which range from the measured and constructive to the bizarre to the patently racist) can be explained in no other way than as the phenomenon that bell hooks describes, as a bizarre ritual of objectification, honing in on issues facing all young people in crisis (failing schools in impoverished areas, lack of parental involvement, inadequate education funding), but filtering it through the experiences of Black youth who are, throughout, characterized as always already underachieving and underprepared.

Many readers’ reactions to this post were engaging, creative, thoughtful, and provocative. The excerpts below, however, represent two of the most disturbing trends I noted among the responses. They are 1) the pathologization of U.S. Black culture as degraded and degenerate compared to those of other American minority groups, including the culture and values of Caribbean and African immigrants and 2) the assertion that the problem of Black student underachievement is rooted in their generally lower I.Q. scores, and issue whose only apparent solution would be the removal of African American children from their families of origin. Here are a few choice excerpts from the reader responses to Dubner’s March 18th post: 

  • “Achievement is something that is earned by the student through work, not something that can be given by the state. Only opportunity and help can be given. If a student does not want to learn, or has other factors in their lives that make it difficult for them to learn, then there is very little that the state can do for that person.”
  • “I agree that Richard J. Mundane ignored the elephant in the room by blaming it on “poverty” when in fact all the empirical evidence shows that Asian and white kids do better in poor areas than Latin and Black kids, and ditto in wealthy areas – on AVERAGE. We also know from international testing that kids in poor countries often score much higher than American kids. Finally, we know that Black kids in American schools who have at least one grandparent who is Caribbean or African score much better than other African Americans. All of which points to the fact that its largely a family/social expectation thing. And I should know – I am half Mexican, half black, went to Berkeley undergrad and Stern for MBA (so I did well academically) but ALWAYS heard from my black and brown peers that I was “acting white” or “thought I was too good for them” because I took AP classes, etc. The fact is, we know from looking at the scores of Black and brown kids in wealthy school districts that until their is more social and parental pressure to do well, White, the Indian and Chinese (and even Caribbean Black) kids will do better.”
  • “My family is black. My sister attends Columbia, and I went to Stanford… We both did very well on our SAT’s (exact same scores although I did better on the math 730, and she did better on the verbal). Why have we had relatively successful academic careers?

    “I attribute much of it to our parents who are immigrants from Nigeria. Our parents view education as the ONLY means of social mobility. Better to become a doctor or professor where you are judged more on your schooling, than go in business or ‘wing it’ without a degree, where white people can more easily discriminate against you. Most of my Asian friends had parents who felt the same way.

    “Black Americans will have to make a cultural shift and begin placing more importance on education. They have to do this even in the formative years, otherwise not even a good school can close the gap. Ebonics doesn’t help either…but that’s another issue”

  • “What about corporal punishment and discipline? Doesn’t the army have a good track record of improving achievement and straightening out youth from all races? And isn’t part of that success due to tough discipline and what is effectively legal corporal punishment?”
  • “In order to increase student engagement in school, it needs to be a privilege instead of a right. Why do classrooms in China with sixty students brim with excitement for learning while classrooms in the U.S. with fewer than half that teem with boredom and disinterest? Simple, in China if your not in school, then you are at work in the fields or factories.”
  • “Now that we have black history month, the poles are agitating for polish history month and the Mexicans want a Mexican history month. There are only so many hours in the school day and school year available for instruction. No wonder American university students don’t know what century the American civil war occurred in. No political constituency exists for teaching American history. In foreign schools which outperform ours, the curriculum is narrow and deep, by that I mean that communication and quantitation skills are developed in depth. It is not diluted with mandates for broad superficial coverage of topics of slight educational importance. This has led to a curriculum here that is overbroad and superficial as a whole. Many schools here are doing something called character education, emphasizing a character trait each week or month of the school term. My parents would have regarded that as presumptuous nonsense. Today we generally think it’s a good idea because we have no confidence in the parents’ ability to teach such things. The same lack of confidence in parents gives cover to the sex,drugs,alcohol, and tobacco ed and perhaps also the the various ethnic history curricula.”
  • “I am amazed that there has been only one mention of one of the most controversial aspects of this problem. Mental ability has been consistently shown to differ amongst different racial groups, just as athletic ability, height, and facial features differ amongst different racial groups. Mental ability as measured by the SAT, LSAT, GMAT, or even by IQ tests, have a very strong correlation with educational achievement. The only know persistent method of increasing IQ lifelong is adoption, regardless of what race the child or the parents are. This means that all the effort and special programs and money thrown at the issue will all fail miserably because they don’t address the underlying issue of IQ differences in different racial groups.”
  • “Anyone who seriously delves into the matter will quickly conclude that of course the real reason that lower IQ ethnic groups (blacks and Hispanics) have lower academic achievement is because on average they tend to be less intelligent. Any honest teacher will tell you that the three main factors that predict academic achievement in a student are 1. IQ, 2. IQ, and 3. IQ; beyond this raw intelligence factor then more minor things like effort and discipline can also be significant…All this talk about how blacks and Hispanics would perform far better academically if only they could attend better schools is ridiculous nonsense! There are countless examples of affluent blacks who attend the same schools as middle class and upper class whites and asians, yet the upscale blacks and Hispanics still show much lower academic achievement compared with their white and Asian classmates. In fact the late U Cal Berkeley sociologist John Ogbu wrote a book about how black students from affluent homes in a suburb of Cleveland (Shaker Heights) still performed much worse than their fellow white students. In most cities if you switched the student body from all black inner city ghetto schools with the student body from the most affluent suburbs and left the teachers in place, I am certain that suddenly all the upscale parents would be talking about bad the suburban schools are and how excellent the inner city schools are. It is all about how smart the students are, not how fancy the building is or how “good” the teachers are. This is really nothing new, the Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman proved this during the 1960s in his famous “Coleman Report”.
  • “The problem is not the education gap, it’s the IQ gap. Unfortunately, no amount of social engineering or politically correct doublespeak is going to make that go away.”
  • “To Veritas:

    “There IS one consistent, measurable way to permanently raise IQ: adoption. Adopted children score 5-7 points higher than their racial average on IQ tests.”

Posted by Ajuan Mance



1. Achievement Gap Action at More About Education - April 22, 2008

[…] The blog Black on Campus revisits the Freakomonics discussion of the achievement gap. […]

2. BenjaminL - April 23, 2008

You question the negative comparison of U.S. black culture to “other American minority groups, including the culture and values of Caribbean and African immigrants” and claim that the issues facing black youth are the same as those “facing all young people in crisis.”

But if you think these comparisons are wrong, how do you explain the huge differences in crime rates, illegitimacy rates, graduation rates, etc., among these groups?

3. twilightandreason - April 23, 2008

I find the critiques of African American culture that I quote in the post above problematic because they are based on only a narrow vision of what U.S. Black culture and values truly are. In other words, the comments that I cite in my post seek to judge the culture and values of U.S. Blacks by the achievements of its most vulnerable, most disadvantaged youth.

The comments of those who see U.S. Black culture and values as somehow inferior to those of Caribbean and African immigrants to the U.S. paint all U.S. Black people with the same broad and irresponsible brush, while at the same time ignoring those U.S. and non-U.S.-based Caribbean and African communities that are in crisis.

It is easy to say that Black people in the U.S. are underachievers if you limit your focus to the distorted and oversimplified portrait of American Black people offered up in broad statistics.

With this in mind, I challenge critics of U.S. Black culture and values to complicate their understanding of U.S. Black achievement. Compare Black graduation rates in well-funded suburban high schools and similarly well-funded urban magnet schools (like Bronx Science and Benjamin Cardozo) with that of U.S. Black students in underfunded inner-city schools; and then compare the achievements of those U.S. Blacks attending well-funded schools with that of their Afro-Caribbean and African classmates, as well as with the achievements of their white counterparts. The “huge differences” that you perceive will shrink before your eyes.

Also, compare the graduation rates among U.S. Black students from two-parent homes with that of Afro-Caribbean and African students from two-parent homes. Do the same with U.S. Black students whose parents are college graduates. Then and only then will you truly be comparing apples with apples.

To return to an earlier point, the practice of assessing the culture and values of an entire ethnic group by the achievement of those who are most marginalized within that ethnic group is high problematic. Consider this example: In 2001, the Black high school graduation rate in New Mexico, West Virginia, Arkansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Massachussetts was higher than the white high school graduation rate in Hawaii, Georgia, and Florida. (Source: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_03.htm)

Based on the seemingly higher number of white who failure to graduate in the latter states than of Black who fail to graduate in the 5 states with the highest Black graduation rates, should we conclude that Black culture and values in New Mexico, West Virginia, Arkansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Massachussetts are better than white culture and values in Hawaii, Georgia, and Florida?

In 2006 there were 24, 416, 000 white Americans (people who identified as white alone) living below the poverty line (roughly 10%), and there were 9,048,000 Black people (people who identified as black alone) in the U.S. living below the poverty line (roughly 24%). Does this mean that 75% of Black people in the U.S. have a superior culture and better values to those of the poorest 10% of U.S. whites?

I ask these questions to problematize the perspectives that a culture and its values can be judged by the academic and economic failures and successes of a few.

As a teacher and lifelong student of U.S. Black literature and culture, and as the beneficiary of my slave ancestors’ values passed down to me over several generations, I can say that there is great beauty, talent, and profundity expressed in U.S. Black culture, and that Black values esteem high achievement, forgiveness, self-determination, and generosity.

Those of us U.S. Blacks who have had the benefit and privilege of growing up in a loving and supportive household have succeeded in our lives, families, and careers — not inspite of the culture and values of our people — but because of it.

x-posted to the 4/24/08 blogpost

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