The black parents wanted an explanation. Doctors, lawyers, judges, and insurance brokers, many had come to the upscale Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights specifically because of its stellar school district. They expected their children to succeed academically, but most were performing poorly. African-American students were lagging far behind their white classmates in every measure of academic success: grade-point average, standardized test scores, and enrollment in advanced-placement courses. On average, black students earned a 1.9 GPA while their white counterparts held down an average of 3.45. Other indicators were equally dismal. It made no sense.
When these depressing statistics were published in a high school newspaper in mid-1997, black parents were troubled by the news and upset that the newspaper had exposed the problem in such a public way. Seeking guidance, one parent called a prominent authority on minority academic achievement.
UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu had spent decades studying how the members of different ethnic groups perform academically. He'd studied student coping strategies at inner-city schools in Washington, DC. He'd looked at African Americans and Latinos in Oakland and Stockton and examined how they compare to racial and ethnic minorities in India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Britain. His research often focused on why some groups are more successful than others.
But Ogbu couldn't help his caller. He explained that he was a researcher -- not an educator -- and that he had no ideas about how to increase the academic performance of students in a district he hadn't yet studied. A few weeks later, he got his chance. A group of parents hungry for solutions convinced the school district to join with them and formally invite the black anthropologist to visit Shaker Heights. Their discussions prompted Ogbu to propose a research project to figure out just what was happening. The district agreed to finance the study, and parents offered him unlimited access to their children and their homes.
The professor and his research assistant moved to Shaker Heights for nine months in mid-1997. They reviewed data and test scores. The team observed 110 different classes, from kindergarten all the way through high school. They conducted exhaustive interviews with school personnel, black parents, and students. Their project yielded an unexpected conclusion: It wasn't socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students' poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.
Ogbu concluded that the average black student in Shaker Heights put little effort into schoolwork and was part of a peer culture that looked down on academic success as "acting white." Although he noted that other factors also play a role, and doesn't deny that there may be antiblack sentiment in the district, he concluded that discrimination alone could not explain the gap.
"The black parents feel it is their role to move to Shaker Heights, pay the higher taxes so their kids could graduate from Shaker, and that's where their role stops," Ogbu says during an interview at his home in the Oakland hills. "They believe the school system should take care of the rest. They didn't supervise their children that much. They didn't make sure their children did their homework. That's not how other ethnic groups think."
It took the soft-spoken 63-year-old Nigerian immigrant several years to complete his book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, which he wrote with assistance from his research aide Astrid Davis. Before publication, he gave parents and school officials one year to respond to his research, but no parents ever did. Then Ogbu met with district officials and parents to discuss the book, which was finally published in January.
The gatherings were cordial, but it was clear that his conclusions made some people quite uncomfortable. African-American parents worried that Ogbu's work would further reinforce the stereotype that blacks are intellectually inadequate and lazy. School district officials, meanwhile, were concerned that it would look as if they were blaming black parents and students for their own academic failures.
But in the weeks following the meetings, it became apparent that the person with the greatest cause for worry may have been Ogbu himself. Soon after he left Ohio and returned to California, a black parent from Shaker Heights went on TV and called him an "academic Clarence Thomas." The National Urban League condemned him and his work in a press release that scoffed, "The League holds that it is useless to waste time and energy with those who blame the victims of racism." The criticism eventually made it all the way to The New York Times, where an article published prior to the publication of Ogbu's book quoted or referred to four separate academics who quarreled with his premise. It quoted a Shaker Heights school official who took issue with the professor's conclusions, and cited work by the Minority Student Achievement Network that suggested black students care as much about school as white and Asian students. In fact, the reporter failed to locate a single person in Shaker Heights or anywhere else with anything good to say about the book.
Other scholars have since come forward to take a few more swipes at the professor's premise. "Ogbu is just flat-out wrong about the attitudes about learning by African Americans," explains Asa Hilliard, an education professor at Georgia State University and one of the authors of Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students. "Education is a very high value in the African-American community and in the African community. The fundamental problem is Dr. Ogbu is unfamiliar with the fact that there are thousands of African-American students who succeed. It doesn't matter whether the students are in Shaker Heights or an inner city. The achievement depends on what expectations the teacher has of the students." Hilliard, who is black, believes Shaker Heights teachers must not expect enough from their black students.
To racial theorist Shelby Steele, the response to Ogbu's work was sad but predictable. Steele, a black research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, has weathered similar criticism for his own provocative theories about the gap between blacks and whites. He believes continued societal deference to the victims of racial discrimination has permitted blacks "the license not to meet the same standards that others must meet," which has been detrimental to every aspect of African-American life. "To talk about black responsibility is "racist' and "blaming the victim,'" he says. "They just keep refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the living room -- black responsibility. When anybody in this culture today talks about black responsibility for their problems, they are condemned and ignored."
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