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Dallas Morning News


What's The Real Issue For Black Students?

March 25, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

The Kellogg Foundation is funding a survey of four college campuses to examine how students feel "welcome and unwelcome, respected and disrespected, supported and unsupported, and encouraged and discouraged."

The survey, conducted by Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and the Educational Testing Service, is committed to seeking a cause for the black-white achievement gap.

But will the researchers also be interested in evidence that it 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 "Black Students in an Affluent Suburb," conducted in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the late Berkeley anthropology professor John Ogbu found that black parents often weren't aware of how closely they needed to attend to their children's homework and were less likely to confer with their children's teachers. He also found that black teens had 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 are results of discrimination in the past, of the kind that Richard Thompson Ford described in his book The Race Card. They are internalized unconsciously - if your parents didn't help you with your homework because they were limited to modest education, you may not help your own child even if you went to college.

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

Or on the charter school run by the Harlem Children's Zone, zeroing in on poverty block by block and showing that longer hours spent in school each day is leading to sterling achievement by students growing up in circumstances that we are told condemn all but superstars to failure.

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, black dorms and black 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 his or her experience.

A Stanford survey covered in David Sacks and Peter Thiel's The Diversity Myth illustrates this. Social psychologists are familiar with humans' susceptibility to priming and to "demand characteristics," that is, anticipating what the surveyor is seeking and trying to give the "proper" answer. Asking a black undergrad "Have you experienced racism on campus?" 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 realistically of a kind that would interfere with their schoolwork? The notion that any shards of unpleasant experience related to race hold down black students' GPAs is an infantilization. No society in human history has ever been perfectly blind to differences of color or tribe.

That's why the Kellogg report will be a disappointment if it ends up limning the classic portrait of brown-skinned college students going through variations - "subtle," of course - on what James Meredith endured in 1962 at Ole Miss.

Original Source:



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