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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John McWhorter, the author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, says Ogbu's book roiled the waters of academia, which he believes is too invested in blaming whites for the problems plaguing black America. "There's a shibboleth in the academic world and that is that the only culture that has any negative traits is the white, middle-class West," says McWhorter, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics who is currently serving as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank.

McWhorter's own book, based largely on the author's experiences as a black man and professor, blames a mentality of victimhood as the primary reason for most of the problems in black communities -- including educational underachievement. "There's an idea in black culture that says Plato and hypotenuses are for other people," he says. "There is an element of black identity today that sees doing well in school as being outside of the core of black identity. It's a tacit sentiment, but powerful. As a result of that, some of what we see in the reluctance of many parents, administrators, and black academics to quite confront the 'acting white' syndrome is that deep down many of them harbor a feeling that it would be unhealthy for black kids to embrace school culture too wholeheartedly."

Nor is Steele, who's also been dismissed as a sellout in his day, surprised by the way the scholarly world has reacted to Ogbu's latest work. "Academics are a sad case," Steele says. "They support the politics of white responsibility for black problems. If they were to do research that found blacks responsible they'd be 'Uncle Toms,' and that's how they've treated Ogbu."

Ogbu seems a bit bothered by the avalanche of criticism that's come his way. He treads carefully when he talks about his work and reiterates repeatedly in his writing and in person that he is not excusing the system. First of all, he concedes there are historic socioeconomic explanations to account for some black academic disengagement. Historically, there has been a weak link between academic success and upward mobility for African Americans. Blacks traditionally saw big leaps in social mobility only during times of national crisis such as war -- or during shortages of immigrant labor. "If those are the points where they move, it's not a kind of experience that allows a group to plan their educational future," Ogbu says.

In his book, he writes that the school district in Shaker Heights could do more to involve black parents and work at building more trust. He believes school officials should expand their existing Minority Achievement Committee, adopt more cooperative approaches to learning, and educate teachers about how their expectations can affect student performance. "I don't think it's one thing," he says cautiously. "There are a whole lot of things involved. My advice is we should look at each very carefully."

But Ogbu is adamant in his belief that racism alone does not account for the distressing differences. "Discrimination is not enough to explain the gap," he says. "There are studies showing that black African immigrants and Caribbean immigrants do better than black Americans even though some of them come with language barriers. It's just not race."

Ogbu believes he knows this firsthand. The son of parents who couldn't read, he grew up in a remote Nigerian village with no roads. His father had three wives and seventeen children with those women. Ogbu has a difficult time explaining his own academic success, which has earned him numerous accolades throughout his career. He did both undergraduate and graduate work at Berkeley and has never left. When pressed, he says he believes his own success primarily stems from being a voluntary immigrant who knew that no matter how many hurdles he had to overcome in the United States, his new life was an improvement over a hut in Nigeria with no running water. Involuntary immigrants don't think that way, he says. They have no separate homeland to compare things to, yet see the academic demands made of them as robbing them of their culture. Ogbu would like to see involuntary immigrants, such as the black families in Shaker Heights, think more like voluntary immigrants. In doing that, he says, they'd understand that meeting academic challenges does not "displace your identity."


The parents who invited Ogbu to Shaker Heights are uncertain about what to do with his theory. They know he is one of the preeminent scholars in his field, and yet his premise makes many of them uncomfortable and angry. They insist that they care deeply about education, which many say is the reason they moved to Shaker Heights. They feel betrayed by the very person they turned to for help.

Khalid Samad, the parent who compared Ogbu to Clarence Thomas, believes the professor fails to understand the black experience in America and how that creates problems for African-American students. "The system has de-educated and miseducated African Americans," he says. "Africans came here having some knowledge of who they were and their history and they had a self-acceptance. For several generations there has been a systematic robbing African Americans of their sociocultural identity and their personal identity. The depth of that kind of experience has created the kinds of problems we're still grappling with today."

Meanwhile, Howard Hall, a black Shaker Heights parent who is a child psychologist and professor at Case Western University, believes Ogbu had his mind made up before he even started his research. "It's scandalous to blame the kids for this," he says. "It's a good school system, but there are weaknesses in addressing the racial disparity and it's not the parents' fault. Effective schools set up an environment where most kids reach their potential."

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