TCS Daily

Acting Bright

By Joanne Jacobs - June 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Jamal Black lives in a tree-lined suburb with his college-educated parents, who've chosen to pay a premium for a house in a "good" school district. Lily White, also the child of educated, middle-class parents, lives next door.

Although they go to the same well-funded schools, the odds are that Lily has higher grades and test scores than Jamal; she's more likely to take honors courses, graduate from high school and go on to college.

White students outperform black students by wide margins: According to the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average white eighth grader scores as well or better than the average black 12th grader in reading and math. Not all of that can be explained by poverty, uneducated single mothers and bad inner-city schools. Even when middle-class whites and blacks attend the same suburban schools, "The Gap" persists.

While most blame white racism, a few renegade black writers such as John McWhorter and Shelby Steele point to black culture for what McWhorter calls the "self-sabotage" of black aspirations.

Now a Berkeley anthropologist, John Ogbu, has published Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement. It's the result of a nine-month ethnographic study in Shaker Heights, an affluent Cleveland suburb where one third of the population and half the public school students are black. Black parents invited Ogbu to explain why whites average a 3.45 Grade Point Average; blacks average a 1.9.

Ogbu, who grew up in Nigeria, says suburban black kids aren't working very hard. He discussed Low Effort Syndrome with the East Bay Express:

[Ogbu] concluded that there was a culture among black students to reject behaviors perceived to be "white," which included making good grades, speaking Standard English, being overly involved in class, and enrolling in honors or advanced-placement courses. The students told Ogbu that engaging in these behaviors suggested one was renouncing his or her black identity. Ogbu concluded that the African-American peer culture, by and large, put pressure on students not to do well in school, as if it were an affront to blackness.

Middle-class and upper-class black parents didn't combat this culture, Ogbu found. Parents had an odd doublethink about their children's success: They saw the schools as white institutions that can't be trusted to respect black students. Yet black parents delegated responsibility for their children's success to the schools, assuming that they'd fulfilled their role by moving to Shaker Heights.

Black parents care about their children's grades, but are less likely than others to keep track of their children's homework or participate in school activities, Ogbu found. In their view, if Jamal goofs off, it's his teacher's fault for not nurturing him and motivating him to work harder.

Ogbu found Shaker Heights teachers expect less of black students. But he told the Express that was natural. "Week after week the kids don't turn in their homework. What do you expect teachers to do?"

Naturally, the survey has been savaged by critics. The most cogent critique is that Ogbu didn't control for differences in black and white families. Though most black families in Shaker Heights are middle-class, blacks aren't as affluent and educated as whites, and they're less likely to be raising children in two-parent families.

But controlling for differences doesn't erase the gap. Ronald F. Ferguson, a senior research associate at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and an Ogbu critic, surveyed 34,000 seventh to eleventh graders in 15 racially mixed suburbs. In the New York Times, Michael Winerip writes:

Everywhere, he finds the achievement gap, with whites averaging B+ and blacks C+. Professor Ferguson calculates about half the Gap can be explained by economic differences.

That leaves half that isn't explained.

Ferguson points to the legacy of slavery and segregation. Yet Ferguson, like Ogbu, finds that blacks are more likely to place responsibility for their success outside the family.

While 31 percent of whites say that a teacher's encouragement motivates them to work hard, 47 percent of blacks cite teacher encouragement as crucial. Professor Ferguson believes this may reflect the black children's insecurity.

To Winerip, the gap proves the need for race-based affirmative action. Among other things, the gap makes it impossible to achieve racial balance in college admissions without explicit racial preferences which often advantage middle-class blacks over lower-income Asians and whites. A Century Foundation analysis of Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions, looks at this dilemma.

But the research can be used to argue the opposite case: If middle-class blacks want to qualify for Ivy League schools, they can work harder in school, take tougher classes and earn better grades. They don't need to rely on the kindness of admissions officers. They need to act bright, if not white. (If a race label is essential, "acting Asian" would make the most sense.)

Middle-class blacks may be ready to tackle the culture issue. Shaker Heights blacks, who had to know Ogbu was the popularizer of the "acting white" concept, invited him to study their schools and students. That suggests they believed the answer would be found, at least in part, in black culture not in white racism.

Joanne Jacobs, who blogs at, is writing a book titled Ride the Carrot Salad: How Two Grumpy Optimists Built a Charter School.

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