Probing The Black-White Achievement Gap

The Kellogg Foundation is funding a survey of four college campuses by Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and the Educational Testing Service to examine how students of color’s experiences on college campuses impact the notorious black-white achievement gap.

Namely, it will examine how the students feel “welcome and unwelcome, respected and disrespected, supported and unsupported, and encouraged and discouraged.”

However, will the researchers be interested in evidence that the black-white achievement gap is connected to aspects of parenting and peer identification that begin long before college? That is, will there be room in their assessment for, as it is put these days, culture over structure?

In his detailed survey of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Black Students in an Affluent Suburb, the late Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu found that black parents often aren’t aware of how closely they need to attend to their children’s homework and are less likely to confer with their children’s teachers, and that black teens have a tendency to disidentify from school as “white.” Subsequent studies have shown that black students are likely to spend less time on homework than white or Asian students and are less likely to be popular if they achieve in school.

There is, to wit, a culture issue – and not just parenthetically. To mention these things is not “black bashing.” All of them are latter-day results of discrimination in the past, of the kind that Richard Thompson Ford of late described in his The Race Card. They are traits internalized unconsciously – if your parents didn’t help you with your homework because they had modest education and were working two jobs, why would you spontaneously attend to your own child’s, even if you went to college and work just one job?

However, dramatic conversations about “white privilege” and “legacies” leave these problems unresolved. Our attention must be focused on efforts such as that of the Minority Student Action Network mentoring middle-class black students long before college. Or on replicating as widely as possible the methods of the Knowledge is Power Program academies and other programs that distract black kids from thinking of braininess as racially inauthentic.

Or looking at how in the charter school run by the Harlem Children’s Zone, zeroing in on poverty block by block, study by heavyweights such as Harvard’s star Wunderkind economist Roland Fryer is showing that longer hours spent in school each day are leading to sterling achievement by students growing up in circumstances that we are told condemn all but superstars to failure. Even among eighth graders, considered the toughest nuts to crack intervention-wise.

I learned the latter attending a bookstore talk recently by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson on his new book More Than Just Race. The talk, however, was Exhibit A of the kind of unconscious bias that could mar the Kellogg study – a bias that runs throughout academic address of race issues. Wilson’s book argues that culture is key in addressing inner city blacks’ concerns. But throughout the talk, Wilson stressed that structural factors – i.e. “institutional racism” – matter more. He couches the cultural point in gingerly hedging and hair-splitting, e.g. “Parents in segregated communities who have had experiences [with discrimination and disrespect] may transmit to children, through the process of socialization, a set of beliefs about what to expect from life and how one should respond to circumstances.”

Will the Kellogg study be mediated by a like take on the cultural argument, i.e. that it is immoral to address culture when black people are concerned (except parenthetically)? Will the researchers be able to face finding that the black-white achievement gap is not related in any significant way to what happens on campus?

Of course, there will be students attesting that they “experience racism” on campus. However, with protests every couple of years on how “racist” the campus is despite the diversity counseling and black dorms, departments and event budgets, group identification lends the typical student of color a sense of duty to stand up for the idea that racism is part of their experience, even if highly “subtle” (useful: a Stanford survey covered in David Sacks and Peter Thiel’s The Diversity Myth).

To pretend this isn’t true is to exempt people of color from yet another universal human trait, the tendency known to social psychologists as humans’ susceptibility to priming in surveys. Another term is people’s susceptibility to demand characteristics, referring to subjects’ anticipating what the surveyor is seeking and trying to give the “proper” answer. Asking a black undergrad “Have you experienced racism on campus?” in today’s typical campus atmosphere is like asking a white one whether he thinks black people are of lesser intelligence. A certain answer is to be expected.

The real issue: is the amount of racism such students have experienced – and most will attest to something or other – realistically of a kind that would interfere with their schoolwork? This question applies equally to Claude Steele’s famous “stereotype threat” thesis that black students are thrown by private worry that they are not thought of as intelligent. That is, do the students describe experiences that would reinforce this worry specifically?

After all, the notion that any shards of socially unpleasant experience unquestionably hold down black students’ GPAs is an infantilization – given that we assume that Asian students experience unpleasant experierences (and amply attest to such) and yet it does not impact their campus performance. Why are black students supposedly less resilient than Korean ones? And where is the benefit to society in pretending that they aren’t?

Of course, the Kellogg project might actually reveal racism as a serious culprit on campus. I am open to that result if it’s what the data truly reveal. However, the researchers, if their intentions are sincerely to help, face a challenge to be similarly open-minded.

After all, a conclusion that subtle aspects of racism are the deciding factor in our problems is inherently a dead end. It is the last result we should want to find, because no society in human history has ever been perfectly blind to differences of color or tribe. We can’t make America that perfect.

That’s why the Kellogg report will be such a disappointment if it ends up limning the classic portrait of brown-skinned college students going through variations – although “subtle,” of course – on what James Meredith endured in 1962 at Ole Miss. One wonders whether the researchers, however, would be at all disappointed to find this result. If they would instead feel accomplished, vindicated, enlightened to find it, then won’t it color the questions they ask and how they interpret the answers?

Culture matters, and not just parenthetically. Pretend otherwise and certain people feel good, while the ones we purport to be concerned about tread water.

John McWhorter

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

One thought on “Probing The Black-White Achievement Gap”

  1. I’m very happy to read this. This is the kind of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that’s at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this best doc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.