Rich, Black, Flunking
The black parents wanted an explanation. Doctors, lawyers, judges, and insurance brokers, many had come to the upscale Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights specifically because of its stellar school district. They expected their children to succeed academically, but most were performing poorly. African-American students were lagging far behind their white classmates in every measure of academic success: grade-point average, standardized test scores, and enrollment in advanced-placement courses. On average, black students earned a 1.9 GPA while their white counterparts held down an average of 3.45. Other indicators were equally dismal. It made no sense.
When these depressing statistics were published in a high school newspaper in mid-1997, black parents were troubled by the news and upset that the newspaper had exposed the problem in such a public way. Seeking guidance, one parent called a prominent authority on minority academic achievement.
UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu had spent decades studying how the members of different ethnic groups perform academically. He’d studied student coping strategies at inner-city schools in Washington, DC. He’d looked at African Americans and Latinos in Oakland and Stockton and examined how they compare to racial and ethnic minorities in India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Britain. His research often focused on why some groups are more successful than others.
But Ogbu couldn’t help his caller. He explained that he was a researcher — not an educator — and that he had no ideas about how to increase the academic performance of students in a district he hadn’t yet studied. A few weeks later, he got his chance. A group of parents hungry for solutions convinced the school district to join with them and formally invite the black anthropologist to visit Shaker Heights. Their discussions prompted Ogbu to propose a research project to figure out just what was happening. The district agreed to finance the study, and parents offered him unlimited access to their children and their homes.
The professor and his research assistant moved to Shaker Heights for nine months in mid-1997. They reviewed data and test scores. The team observed 110 different classes, from kindergarten all the way through high school. They conducted exhaustive interviews with school personnel, black parents, and students. Their project yielded an unexpected conclusion: It wasn’t socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students’ poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.
Ogbu concluded that the average black student in Shaker Heights put little effort into schoolwork and was part of a peer culture that looked down on academic success as “acting white.” Although he noted that other factors also play a role, and doesn’t deny that there may be antiblack sentiment in the district, he concluded that discrimination alone could not explain the gap.
“The black parents feel it is their role to move to Shaker Heights, pay the higher taxes so their kids could graduate from Shaker, and that’s where their role stops,” Ogbu says during an interview at his home in the Oakland hills. “They believe the school system should take care of the rest. They didn’t supervise their children that much. They didn’t make sure their children did their homework. That’s not how other ethnic groups think.”
It took the soft-spoken 63-year-old Nigerian immigrant several years to complete his book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, which he wrote with assistance from his research aide Astrid Davis. Before publication, he gave parents and school officials one year to respond to his research, but no parents ever did. Then Ogbu met with district officials and parents to discuss the book, which was finally published in January.
The gatherings were cordial, but it was clear that his conclusions made some people quite uncomfortable. African-American parents worried that Ogbu’s work would further reinforce the stereotype that blacks are intellectually inadequate and lazy. School district officials, meanwhile, were concerned that it would look as if they were blaming black parents and students for their own academic failures.
But in the weeks following the meetings, it became apparent that the person with the greatest cause for worry may have been Ogbu himself. Soon after he left Ohio and returned to California, a black parent from Shaker Heights went on TV and called him an “academic Clarence Thomas.” The National Urban League condemned him and his work in a press release that scoffed, “The League holds that it is useless to waste time and energy with those who blame the victims of racism.” The criticism eventually made it all the way to The New York Times, where an article published prior to the publication of Ogbu’s book quoted or referred to four separate academics who quarreled with his premise. It quoted a Shaker Heights school official who took issue with the professor’s conclusions, and cited work by the Minority Student Achievement Network that suggested black students care as much about school as white and Asian students. In fact, the reporter failed to locate a single person in Shaker Heights or anywhere else with anything good to say about the book.
Other scholars have since come forward to take a few more swipes at the professor’s premise. “Ogbu is just flat-out wrong about the attitudes about learning by African Americans,” explains Asa Hilliard, an education professor at Georgia State University and one of the authors of Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students. “Education is a very high value in the African-American community and in the African community. The fundamental problem is Dr. Ogbu is unfamiliar with the fact that there are thousands of African-American students who succeed. It doesn’t matter whether the students are in Shaker Heights or an inner city. The achievement depends on what expectations the teacher has of the students.” Hilliard, who is black, believes Shaker Heights teachers must not expect enough from their black students.
To racial theorist Shelby Steele, the response to Ogbu’s work was sad but predictable. Steele, a black research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, has weathered similar criticism for his own provocative theories about the gap between blacks and whites. He believes continued societal deference to the victims of racial discrimination has permitted blacks “the license not to meet the same standards that others must meet,” which has been detrimental to every aspect of African-American life. “To talk about black responsibility is “racist’ and “blaming the victim,'” he says. “They just keep refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the living room — black responsibility. When anybody in this culture today talks about black responsibility for their problems, they are condemned and ignored.”
Ogbu knows that better than anybody. In the months since publication of his book, he’s been called a sellout with no heart for his own people, and dismissed entirely by critics who say his theory is so outrageous it isn’t even worth debating. It is not surprising that Ogbu himself is now a bit uncomfortable discussing his own conclusions, although he has not backed down at all. After all, many scholars are eager to blame everything but black culture for the scholastic woes of African Americans. “I look below the surface,” he says, in response to his many critics. “They don’t like it.”
Parents in Shaker Heights began trying to explain the disquieting gap months before Ogbu arrived. A small group of black and white parents gathered in the mid-1990s to study the issue months before the student newspaper at Shaker Heights High School published its article. Their preliminary explanations were divided into four broad categories: the school system, the community, black parents, and black students. The group concluded that the academic gap was an “unusually complex subject, involving the internal and external synergistic dynamics not only of the school system, but also of the parents and of students, collectively and individually, as well as our community as a whole.”
It was a diplomatic way of saying there was much blame to go around, some of it attributable to black parents or students. Although many black parents would later react negatively to Ogbu’s work, this biracial group had in fact beaten him to some of his conclusions. “Ogbu didn’t find anything new,” recalls Reuben Harris, an African-American parent who served on the subcommittee. “It’s just a community where you wouldn’t think this kind of gap would occur.”
Ogbu agreed. And because he had spent much of his prior career looking at inner-city schools, he was particularly intrigued by the idea of studying a relatively affluent minority group in an academically successful suburban district. This was an opportunity to do a new kind of research. Why were there such stark differences when the socioeconomic playing field was comparably level? How could you explain the achievement discrepancies when they couldn’t be dismissed with the traditional explanations of inadequate teachers or disparities in school funding?
Shaker Heights is an upper-middle-class city whose roughly 28,000 residents live on lovely tree-lined streets that run through neighborhoods of stately homes and manicured lawns. Years ago, both blacks and Jews were prohibited from living in the community by restrictive real-estate covenants, but the civil rights era brought a new attitude to the Cleveland suburb, which voluntarily integrated and actively discouraged white flight. Today, blacks make up about one third of the community, and many of them are academics, professionals, and corporate executives.
Ogbu worked from the 1990 census data, which showed that 32.6 percent of the black households and 58 percent of the white households in Shaker had incomes of $50,000 a year or more — a considerable sum in northeast Ohio. It also was a highly educated community, where 61 percent of the residents graduated from college, about four times the national average. The school district was a model of success, too: Considered one of the best in the nation, it sent 85 percent of its students to college. Today, the district has approximately 5,000 students, of whom 52 percent are African American.
These were the kids of primarily well-educated middle- to upper-class parents, and yet they were not performing on a par with their white classmates in everything from grade-point average to college attendance. Although they did outperform other black students from across Ohio and around the country, neither school officials nor parents were celebrating.
Ogbu’s approach was to use ethnographic methods to study the problems in Shaker Heights. In ethnography, the point is to try and “get inside the heads of the natives,” he says. “You try to see the world as they see, and be with them — as one of my colleagues puts it — in all sorts of moods.” An ethnographer lives in the community, talks to his subjects extensively, observes the environment, reviews data, but then derives his own conclusions about the situation.
Many of Ogbu’s academic critics take issue with his methods, which they say are way too subjective. Most of them are sociologists, who rely on their subjects’ own sense of the situation when studying something. It is the view of those being studied and not the view of the researcher that counts most. “They do surveys,” Ogbu says. “They ask questions. I live in the community and socialize. My research is not confined to schools. I tell you what I observe.”
Ogbu addresses this point in the introduction to his book: “The natives’ own account of their social reality is also a social construction rather than a reality that is out there.” He uses the example of racial attitudes in Shaker Heights to show why he believes this approach fails. Ask people there about race relations in the community and you will get wildly divergent opinions, depending on whom you ask. Whites, he found, say it is a racially harmonious and tolerant place. African Americans, meanwhile, describe the community as racially troubled and filled with tension between blacks and whites.
There are other differences between Ogbu’s approach and that of most other academics who study minorities and education. They focus their scrutiny on the academic system or society at large, pointing to factors such as socioeconomics, inadequate urban schools, or the legacy of racism in the United States. Such theorists often cite the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, which argued that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, as evidence that negative stereotyping of African Americans still exists.
Ogbu, however, trains his eye elsewhere. “I am interested in what kids bring from home to school,” he says. “And it seems to me there are different categories of students and they bring different things. I want to know what are those things.”
The question of what students in Shaker Heights brought to school from their homes turned out to be profound. Black homes and the black community both nurtured failure, he concluded.
When Ogbu asked black students what it took to do well in the Shaker district, they had the right answers. They knew what to say about how to achieve academic success, but that knowledge wasn’t enough. “In spite of the fact that the students knew and asserted that one had to work hard to succeed in Shaker schools, black students did not generally work hard,” he wrote. “In fact, most appeared to be characterized by low-effort syndrome. The amount of time and effort they invested in academic pursuit was neither adequate nor impressive.”
Ogbu found a near-consensus among black students of every grade level that they and their peers did not work hard in school. The effort these students put into their schoolwork also decreased markedly from elementary school to high school. Students gave many reasons for their disinterest. Some said they simply didn’t want to do the work; others told Ogbu “it was not cool to be successful.” Some kids blamed school for their failures and said teachers did not motivate them, while others said they wanted to do well but didn’t know how to study. Some students evidently had internalized the belief that blacks are not as intelligent as whites, which gave rise to self-doubt and resignation. But almost of the students admitted that they simply failed to put academic achievement before other pursuits such as TV, work, playing sports, or talking on the phone.
The anthropologist also looked at peer pressure among black students to determine just what effect that had on school performance. He 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.
The professor says he discovered this sentiment even in middle- and upper-class homes where the parents were college-educated. “Black parents mistrusted the school system as a white institution,” he wrote. They did not supervise their children’s homework, didn’t show up at school events, and failed to motivate their children to engage in their work. This too was a cultural norm, Ogbu concluded. “They thought or believed, that it was the responsibility of teachers and the schools to make their children learn and perform successfully; that is, they held the teachers, rather than themselves, accountable for their children’s academic success or failure,” he wrote.
Why black parents who mistrusted the school district as a white institution would leave it up to that same system to educate their children confounded Ogbu. “I’m still trying to understand it,” he conceded. “It’s a system you don’t trust, and yet you don’t take the education of your own kids into your hands.”
Ogbu’s critics find much to argue with in his Shaker Heights work. They believe his methods were shoddy, his research incomplete, and his assumptions about Shaker Heights outdated or wrong. They say the black community is far less affluent than Ogbu portrayed it and add that many of the black parents are first-generation college graduates with fewer family resources than their white counterparts. By and large, they blame the district and outside forces such as discrimination, stereotyping, and poor job opportunities as the cause of its academic problems. Talk to these critics and you also get a sense that they see Ogbu as a bit heartless.
“I find it useless to argue with people like Ogbu,” says Urban League educational fellow Ronald Ross, himself a former school superintendent. “We know what the major problems in this school system are: racism, lack of funding, and unqualified teachers.” Although Shaker Heights is in fact an integrated, well-funded, and well-staffed school district, Ross is nonetheless convinced that it suffers from other problems that contribute to the achievement disparities between the races.
Ronald Ferguson, a senior research associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who also is studying Shaker Heights, believes the denial of equal educational and socioeconomic opportunities is at the root of the gap. He argues that Ogbu didn’t pay enough attention to these essential differences, which he blames for the achievement disparities. The key to those differences is the amount of preparation students receive for academic challenges. “The differences in homework completion are not necessarily signs of lower-level academic disengagement,” Ferguson says. “Instead, they’re signs of skill differences, and in family-background supports.”
Ferguson notes that even in affluent Shaker Heights, the rates of parental education are lower among African Americans than whites, and half the black students report living with one or no parent. “Ogbu writes as though the differences in family background are not very great, but in fact, they’re substantial,” he says.
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.”
John McWhorter, the author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, says Ogbu’s book roiled the waters of academia, which he believes is too invested in blaming whites for the problems plaguing black America. “There’s a shibboleth in the academic world and that is that the only culture that has any negative traits is the white, middle-class West,” says McWhorter, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics who is currently serving as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank.
McWhorter’s own book, based largely on the author’s experiences as a black man and professor, blames a mentality of victimhood as the primary reason for most of the problems in black communities — including educational underachievement. “There’s an idea in black culture that says Plato and hypotenuses are for other people,” he says. “There is an element of black identity today that sees doing well in school as being outside of the core of black identity. It’s a tacit sentiment, but powerful. As a result of that, some of what we see in the reluctance of many parents, administrators, and black academics to quite confront the ‘acting white’ syndrome is that deep down many of them harbor a feeling that it would be unhealthy for black kids to embrace school culture too wholeheartedly.”
Nor is Steele, who’s also been dismissed as a sellout in his day, surprised by the way the scholarly world has reacted to Ogbu’s latest work. “Academics are a sad case,” Steele says. “They support the politics of white responsibility for black problems. If they were to do research that found blacks responsible they’d be ‘Uncle Toms,’ and that’s how they’ve treated Ogbu.”
Ogbu seems a bit bothered by the avalanche of criticism that’s come his way. He treads carefully when he talks about his work and reiterates repeatedly in his writing and in person that he is not excusing the system. First of all, he concedes there are historic socioeconomic explanations to account for some black academic disengagement. Historically, there has been a weak link between academic success and upward mobility for African Americans. Blacks traditionally saw big leaps in social mobility only during times of national crisis such as war — or during shortages of immigrant labor. “If those are the points where they move, it’s not a kind of experience that allows a group to plan their educational future,” Ogbu says.
In his book, he writes that the school district in Shaker Heights could do more to involve black parents and work at building more trust. He believes school officials should expand their existing Minority Achievement Committee, adopt more cooperative approaches to learning, and educate teachers about how their expectations can affect student performance. “I don’t think it’s one thing,” he says cautiously. “There are a whole lot of things involved. My advice is we should look at each very carefully.”
But Ogbu is adamant in his belief that racism alone does not account for the distressing differences. “Discrimination is not enough to explain the gap,” he says. “There are studies showing that black African immigrants and Caribbean immigrants do better than black Americans even though some of them come with language barriers. It’s just not race.”
Ogbu believes he knows this firsthand. The son of parents who couldn’t read, he grew up in a remote Nigerian village with no roads. His father had three wives and seventeen children with those women. Ogbu has a difficult time explaining his own academic success, which has earned him numerous accolades throughout his career. He did both undergraduate and graduate work at Berkeley and has never left. When pressed, he says he believes his own success primarily stems from being a voluntary immigrant who knew that no matter how many hurdles he had to overcome in the United States, his new life was an improvement over a hut in Nigeria with no running water. Involuntary immigrants don’t think that way, he says. They have no separate homeland to compare things to, yet see the academic demands made of them as robbing them of their culture. Ogbu would like to see involuntary immigrants, such as the black families in Shaker Heights, think more like voluntary immigrants. In doing that, he says, they’d understand that meeting academic challenges does not “displace your identity.”
The parents who invited Ogbu to Shaker Heights are uncertain about what to do with his theory. They know he is one of the preeminent scholars in his field, and yet his premise makes many of them uncomfortable and angry. They insist that they care deeply about education, which many say is the reason they moved to Shaker Heights. They feel betrayed by the very person they turned to for help.
Khalid Samad, the parent who compared Ogbu to Clarence Thomas, believes the professor fails to understand the black experience in America and how that creates problems for African-American students. “The system has de-educated and miseducated African Americans,” he says. “Africans came here having some knowledge of who they were and their history and they had a self-acceptance. For several generations there has been a systematic robbing African Americans of their sociocultural identity and their personal identity. The depth of that kind of experience has created the kinds of problems we’re still grappling with today.”
Meanwhile, Howard Hall, a black Shaker Heights parent who is a child psychologist and professor at Case Western University, believes Ogbu had his mind made up before he even started his research. “It’s scandalous to blame the kids for this,” he says. “It’s a good school system, but there are weaknesses in addressing the racial disparity and it’s not the parents’ fault. Effective schools set up an environment where most kids reach their potential.”
Obgu’s theory did find some support among black parents. Although they are in the minority, these parents believe he’s pointed out a painful but powerful truth, and are happy to see it aired. “I already held his position before he did his research,” says Nancy Jones, who has one child in the district and two who have graduated. “You can’t get African-American parents to get involved and stay involved.”
Jones says she is sick of the finger-pointing and blaming in her community, and was thrilled to see Ogbu highlight why this is detrimental. “We come from this point of view of slavery and victimhood and every problem is due to racist white people,” she says. “That victim mentality is perpetrated by parents and they’re doing their kids a disservice. … My primary objective is not to hold someone accountable but to close the achievement gap.”
Other parents also agree with Ogbu, Jones says, and will admit it privately, but publicly, it’s too politically charged. “When you’re in a public setting people are less apt to speak their mind if they think it’s politically incorrect.”
Sadly, Jones says, harsh criticism of Ogbu’s Shaker Heights work has made any positive change nearly impossible. “Experts are telling the parents, ‘The research wasn’t good,’ and, ‘Disregard him,'” she says. “Besides, the parents’ gut instinct tells them the district is at fault. When you have that many academics trashing him, it’s easy to write off his conclusions. I’m having my doubts his work is going to motivate African-American parents and kids.”