Overcoming the Black-White Achievement Gap
Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement
By John U. Ogbu
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., 2003
352 pp., $69.95 cloth, ISBN 0-8058-4515-1, $32.50 paper, ISBN 0-8058-4516-X
By Ronald Roach
The affirmative action debate brought on by the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of the reverse discrimination lawsuits filed against the University of Michigan provides a timely context for the publication of Dr. John Ogbu’s Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement
Readers who have followed the affirmative action debate closely know that the fight has centered around access to the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities. Because Ogbu, an anthropology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, has tackled the tricky subject of Black student academic performance in the integrated Cleveland suburb Shaker Heights, he has provided a valuable case study on developing a framework for understanding the Black-White achievement gap.
By focusing on children from educated, middle-class, native-born Black families, Ogbu’s subjects represent the very students whose academic performance and standardized test scores are being closely scrutinized in comparison to the White and Asian American students seeking admission to elite institutions. Essentially, the affirmative action debate singles out the competitiveness of the best-prepared Black American students, and it’s logical to assume that children from Shaker Heights are among the Black community’s best-prepared students.
The subject of Black middle-class student performance has for some time been a topic of controversy. Evidence of Black student performance in affluent communities, such as majority-Black Prince George’s County in Maryland and other mixed suburbs like Shaker Heights, have shown Blacks lagging in comparison to Whites. Yet Blacks remain defensive to entertain a deep examination of cultural attitudes and family practices around education.
Ogbu makes a convincing case that such an examination is necessary because of the unique history and experience of native-born Black Americans. And while many may disagree with his methodology and conclusions, he is careful to describe the historical context of Black attitudes towards academics given that discrimination had for a long time severely limited the opportunities that rewarded Blacks for intellectual accomplishment.
Early in the book, Ogbu crystallizes a central dilemma after being hired by a group of Black parents in Shaker Heights to study why their children are lagging academically in comparison to White students. In a transcript of a discussion between an unnamed Black community representative and an unnamed White school administrator, the community representative dismisses the teacher’s belief that economic and social gaps explain the academic achievement gap between Blacks and Whites. The community representative instead wonders about the role of racism, saying, “If Black children from high-income families do not do as well as White children from high-income families, what are other reasons for their lower performance? Does race have anything to do with it?”
The interviews with Black students provide answers that point beyond racism. While they are keenly aware of racial biases in their schools, the students acknowledge that they don’t see Blacks working as hard as their White counterparts. They express racialized ideas about what’s appropriate behavior for Blacks and Whites, and studying hard fails to rank among the highest priorities.
What is also telling are Black parental practices with regard to their children’s intellectual development. While Black parents are to be commended for seeking outside expertise to help them understand what was happening to their children, Ogbu uncovers evidence that these same parents are failing to attend parent-teacher meetings, supervise their children’s homework, and not taking an aggressive role in their child’s learning. He concludes from interviews that Black parents “did not perceive themselves as active agents in the education process.”
“They did not think they needed to be involved in the teaching process for their children to learn. The role of parents is apparently limited to putting pressure on teachers to do their job of teaching well; that is, limited to pushing teachers and other school personnel to educate their children,” according to Ogbu’s description of Black parent beliefs.
No matter the outcome of the Supreme Court’s Michigan affirmative action case, the dilemma facing the Black community, at all economic levels, on education ought to motivate individual families to take a harder look at the intellectual development of their children. While recommending school reforms where necessary, Ogbu clearly advocates that individuals and communities grapple with “community forces,” or attitudes and practices, outside the schools to enhance their children’s learning. While his book is sure to spark debate, the notion of families taking more responsibility for their children’s learning should never be considered controversial.
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