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In Appreciation
Anthropology Professor John Ogbu Dies at Age 64

Dr. John Uzo Ogbu, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a path-breaking scholar in the fields of minority education and identity, died of a heart attack after undergoing back surgery on Aug. 20. He was 64.

Ogbu is known for his work that attempted to understand how race and ethnic differences played out in educational and economic achievement. He stirred controversy in 1986 when he co-authored a study that concluded African American students in a Washington, D.C., high school didn’t live up to their academic potential because of the fear of being accused of “acting White.”

His most recent book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 2003) also drew widespread attention (see Black Issues, April 24). Concerned parents and other members of the middle-class Black community in Shaker Heights, Ohio, invited Ogbu there to help them understand why some Black students in their highly regarded suburban school system were “disengaged” from academic work and did not perform as well as their White counterparts. He concluded that the Black students’ own cultural attitudes hindered academic achievement and that these attitudes are too often neglected.

“He devoted his life to the study of a very difficult problem — differential educational achievement among minority populations in the United States,” said Dr. Stanley H. Brandes, one of Ogbu’s colleagues in the UC Berkeley anthropology department. “He pursued this issue from a wide variety of standpoints, despite the fact that it presented no easy solutions.”

In 1997, Ogbu was elected to the International Academy of Education and was appointed a Chancellor’s Professor at UC Berkeley. Also in 1997, a special issue of Anthropology and Education Quarterly was devoted to “Ogbu’s Theory,” with contributions by an international group of scholars.

He received the American Educational Research Association’s Research Contribution to Education Award, and the Margaret Mead Award given by the Society for Applied Anthropology.

An avid researcher, Ogbu published several books, numerous articles and chapters in books, with his writings translated into French, German, Japanese, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish and Croatian.

“John Ogbu’s humanity and warmth informed all of his intellectual work. He didn’t avoid the controversial questions but always brought a fresh comparative perspective to the answers he sought. He will be missed as a scholar, but also as a mentor and a friend,” says former Ogbu student, Angela C. Davies, now a visiting instructor in the UC Berkeley anthropology department.

Ogbu was born in 1939 in the small village of Umudomi in the Onicha Government Area in Nigeria. He will be buried in Nigeria later this month.

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