Rich, Black, Flunking 

Cal Professor John Ogbu thinks he knows why rich black kids are failing in school. Nobody wants to hear it.

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Ogbu knows that better than anybody. In the months since publication of his book, he's been called a sellout with no heart for his own people, and dismissed entirely by critics who say his theory is so outrageous it isn't even worth debating. It is not surprising that Ogbu himself is now a bit uncomfortable discussing his own conclusions, although he has not backed down at all. After all, many scholars are eager to blame everything but black culture for the scholastic woes of African Americans. "I look below the surface," he says, in response to his many critics. "They don't like it."


Parents in Shaker Heights began trying to explain the disquieting gap months before Ogbu arrived. A small group of black and white parents gathered in the mid-1990s to study the issue months before the student newspaper at Shaker Heights High School published its article. Their preliminary explanations were divided into four broad categories: the school system, the community, black parents, and black students. The group concluded that the academic gap was an "unusually complex subject, involving the internal and external synergistic dynamics not only of the school system, but also of the parents and of students, collectively and individually, as well as our community as a whole."

It was a diplomatic way of saying there was much blame to go around, some of it attributable to black parents or students. Although many black parents would later react negatively to Ogbu's work, this biracial group had in fact beaten him to some of his conclusions. "Ogbu didn't find anything new," recalls Reuben Harris, an African-American parent who served on the subcommittee. "It's just a community where you wouldn't think this kind of gap would occur."

Ogbu agreed. And because he had spent much of his prior career looking at inner-city schools, he was particularly intrigued by the idea of studying a relatively affluent minority group in an academically successful suburban district. This was an opportunity to do a new kind of research. Why were there such stark differences when the socioeconomic playing field was comparably level? How could you explain the achievement discrepancies when they couldn't be dismissed with the traditional explanations of inadequate teachers or disparities in school funding?

Shaker Heights is an upper-middle-class city whose roughly 28,000 residents live on lovely tree-lined streets that run through neighborhoods of stately homes and manicured lawns. Years ago, both blacks and Jews were prohibited from living in the community by restrictive real-estate covenants, but the civil rights era brought a new attitude to the Cleveland suburb, which voluntarily integrated and actively discouraged white flight. Today, blacks make up about one third of the community, and many of them are academics, professionals, and corporate executives.

Ogbu worked from the 1990 census data, which showed that 32.6 percent of the black households and 58 percent of the white households in Shaker had incomes of $50,000 a year or more -- a considerable sum in northeast Ohio. It also was a highly educated community, where 61 percent of the residents graduated from college, about four times the national average. The school district was a model of success, too: Considered one of the best in the nation, it sent 85 percent of its students to college. Today, the district has approximately 5,000 students, of whom 52 percent are African American.

These were the kids of primarily well-educated middle- to upper-class parents, and yet they were not performing on a par with their white classmates in everything from grade-point average to college attendance. Although they did outperform other black students from across Ohio and around the country, neither school officials nor parents were celebrating.

Ogbu's approach was to use ethnographic methods to study the problems in Shaker Heights. In ethnography, the point is to try and "get inside the heads of the natives," he says. "You try to see the world as they see, and be with them -- as one of my colleagues puts it -- in all sorts of moods." An ethnographer lives in the community, talks to his subjects extensively, observes the environment, reviews data, but then derives his own conclusions about the situation.

Many of Ogbu's academic critics take issue with his methods, which they say are way too subjective. Most of them are sociologists, who rely on their subjects' own sense of the situation when studying something. It is the view of those being studied and not the view of the researcher that counts most. "They do surveys," Ogbu says. "They ask questions. I live in the community and socialize. My research is not confined to schools. I tell you what I observe."

Ogbu addresses this point in the introduction to his book: "The natives' own account of their social reality is also a social construction rather than a reality that is out there." He uses the example of racial attitudes in Shaker Heights to show why he believes this approach fails. Ask people there about race relations in the community and you will get wildly divergent opinions, depending on whom you ask. Whites, he found, say it is a racially harmonious and tolerant place. African Americans, meanwhile, describe the community as racially troubled and filled with tension between blacks and whites.

There are other differences between Ogbu's approach and that of most other academics who study minorities and education. They focus their scrutiny on the academic system or society at large, pointing to factors such as socioeconomics, inadequate urban schools, or the legacy of racism in the United States. Such theorists often cite the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, which argued that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, as evidence that negative stereotyping of African Americans still exists.

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