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 rejects this criticism in a way that suggests he's sick of hearing it.

"Nonsense," he says, dismissively. "What about other groups that come from one-parent families, like refugees, and they do better than the blacks? In Shaker Heights, 58 percent of the whites in 1990 made $50,000 to $100,000. Thirty-two percent of the black families made the same amount. The people who invited me are lawyers, real-estate agents; one was elected judge just last year. Over 65 percent of that community had at least four years college education. It's not a poor community."

Ogbu points out that another recent study of fourteen affluent communities around the United States found that the achievement gap between well-heeled whites and blacks is widespread, and not confined to Shaker Heights. "This is not unique," he says.

Although it's perhaps not surprising that Ogbu's theory would be criticized by a competing researcher with his own explanation for what's happening in Shaker Heights, even colleagues who have worked with Ogbu in the past are eager to put some distance between themselves and the anthropologist's latest work. Signithia Fordham is a professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester in New York who did research with Ogbu in the 1980s. It was that research that popularized the concept of "acting white," the notion that black students avoid certain behaviors like doing well in school, or speaking Standard English, because it is considered "white." The two researchers were criticized harshly over that research, which has been attacked in at least ten doctoral dissertations. Ogbu is now writing a book about that work.

Although Fordham did not want to comment on Ogbu's latest work, it is clear that her beliefs are almost exactly opposite from those of her former colleague. She believes school pressure to speak Standard English and "act white" is the very thing that makes black students fail. "What I found, the requirements in school compelled them to act in ways as if they weren't living in black bodies but who were essentially white or mainstream Americans," she says. "Kids found it difficult to deal with that and they found strategies to deal with it. They had to speak a certain variety of English in order to be successful. They had to buy into the ideas that dominate mainstream America. ... Black kids couldn't just be who they were."

In Ogbu's work with other American minority groups, the anthropologist has identified a core distinction that he believes is central to academic success or failure. It is the idea of voluntary, versus involuntary, minorities. People who voluntarily immigrate to the United States always do better than the involuntary immigrants, he believes. "I call Chicanos and Native Americans and blacks 'involuntary minorities,'" he says. "They joined American society against their will. They were enslaved or conquered." Ogbu sees this distinction as critical for long-term success in and out of school.

"Blacks say Standard English is being imposed on them," he says. "That's not what the Chinese say, or the Ibo from Nigeria. You come from the outside and you know you have to learn Standard English, or you won't do well in school. And you don't say whites are imposing on you. The Indians and blacks say, 'Whites took away our language and forced us to learn their language. They caused the problem.'"

Georgia State University's Hilliard brushes all this attitude stuff aside. He is convinced that the way teachers approach students of different races is key to understanding academic disparities. "It doesn't matter whether the students are in Shaker Heights or an inner city," he says. "The achievement depends on what expectations the teacher has of the student. There are savage inequalities in the quality of instruction offered to children. ... Based on other things we do know, many teachers face students who are poor or wealthy and, because of their own background, make an assumption certain students can't make it. I wouldn't be surprised to find that would be the case in Shaker Heights."

Ogbu did, in fact, note that teachers treated black and white students differently in the 110 classes he observed. However, he doesn't believe it was racism that accounted for the differences. "Yes, there was a problem of low teacher expectations of black students," he explains. "But you have to ask why. Week after week the kids don't turn in their homework. What do you expect teachers to do?"

Vincent Roscigno is not convinced by Ogbu's Shaker Heights theory. A sociology professor at Ohio State University who studies race and class disadvantages in achievement, he says Ogbu's latest premise descends from a long line of blame-the-victim research. "A problem in racial research historically has been to vilify the culture of the subordinate group," Roscigno says. "In the 1960s, a popular explanation for poverty was a culture-of-poverty thesis. That thesis argued the problems of urban poor people had to do with their culture and they were being guided the wrong way by their culture. ... At the turn of the century, the culture of white immigrants was blamed for their poverty and all the social conditions they faced."

Roscigno also believes Ogbu's research methods are flawed because he failed to do any comparative research on white families in Shaker Heights, substantially weakening his premise. "He's drawing very big conclusions about black students and black families in a case where he doesn't do much comparison," Roscigno says. "We don't know if white students would say anything different."

Ogbu barks a bit defensively in response: "I was invited by black parents. If I had more money and more time, I could study everybody."

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