Nov 24 2010

Racial lines drawn elsewhere too

Oftentimes people (and this tends to happen more often on the liberal side) will simply wave race away as a phenomenon, saying that it is merely a proxy for wealth. I was of this mindset until not too long ago, when I really started digging deep into the issue. While there is no doubt that race and wealth are strongly linked, money is only one tile in the mosaic of effect that fall under the banner of race. Another friend of mine sent me an article that illustrates this phenomenon fairly well:

The professor [UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu] and his research assistant moved to Shaker Heights [an affluent community in Cleveland] 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.

The parents of the children in the study are all upper middle-class; doctors, lawyers, well-to-do people. These aren’t kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, and whose educated suffers as a result; from an economic standpoint these kids shouldn’t have any barriers to access that would explain the dramatic differences in achievement between white and black students. So, like any scientist would, Dr. Ogbu went looking for other explanations.

I don’t know much about sociology methods, so I’m not going to comment on the way in which these findings were derived. I’d imagine, as a researcher in another field, that the lack of rigorous observation of a control group (white Shaker Heights students) is a major limitation. The conclusions will be fraught with personal biases, and will lack objectivity for that reason. However, nobody else has approached this community to ask these questions, and the vociferous denial of Dr. Ogbu’s conclusions seems a bit hollow:

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.”

“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.

“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.

Far be it from me to suggest that the identified problems of teacher expectations, differential funding, and systemic racism don’t play a role. Indeed, I personally believe that they represent the majority of the problem; however, when those things were controlled for in a natural experiment, they did not explain the differential outcome. As a scientist, I have to go where the evidence points. In Shaker Heights, at least, there is little evidence to support the conclusion that funding, teacher qualifications, or parental income level explains the difference.

The danger in stories like this, however, is when the conclusions are extrapolated beyond the strength of the evidence. As I noted above, without a control group and with only one person interpreting the findings, the evidence found here is not very strong. It would be a mistake, for example, to suggest that it is the attitude of the students and parents that explains the differences we see at a national level. There’s nothing in these findings to suggest that attitude is a bigger predictor of success than the other factors that multiple other studies have found. However, the responses from those on the right tend to be “see? Even the eggheads say that black people are the authors of their own destruction!” Which is not at all what the paper says – it says that there may be some other forces at play that are larger than simple economics can address:

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.’”

This seems to me to be an entirely reasonable conclusion, and a worthwhile avenue of study.

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.

As someone who’s experienced this first-hand, I have no problem understanding how this might play a role.

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?”

And again, a reasonable finding and potential avenue for investigation.

There is a scintilla of truth to the accusation that liberals will refuse to accept any data that conflicts with their (our) narrative of victimhood when it comes to race. I say scintilla, because it (in true conservative fashion) rewrites the past and can’t see past its own nose. The reason why there is that narrative is because it has replaced the flawed doctrine of “personal responsibility” which is simply code for victim blaming. However, reality is absolutely more complicated than entirely victimhood or personal choice; nobody disputes that. Those of us on the left merely point out that one contributes more than the other.

At any rate, as I have been saying all along, race is a complicated machine with a lot of moving pieces. Race is not entirely economic, nor is it entirely personal. It is the intersection of history, psychology, sociology, economics, neurology, education, social policy, and any number of other factors. The more we can discuss it openly, the more we can observe it rigorously, and the less ready we are to shut down arguments we don’t like (or take mindless credit for things that we think support our narrative but don’t), the faster we can make progress.

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  1. 1

    I was hoping you’d comment on Ogbu’s research! I found this article very interesting.

    I do think that racial injustice (and it’s intersection with class due to the systematic impoverishment of black people) is a big piece of the “why don’t black people do as well in schools” pie. How much, I’m not really certain of–I suspect that as you say it is the “majority” or at least 50%. It gets sort of complicated when you’re trying to separate class from race, since racism has caused black people (and other minorities) to become poor which has then caused class problems even in our less (but still) racially prejudiced society.

    (I suppose the best way to find out would be to do a cross-section study comparing poor white people to poor black people in areas of similar population density, and then comparing the success rate of their respective sets of offspring in terms of monetary salaries or education level.)

    I do also think there is an element of what Ogbu found in his research, too, however. After all, people don’t just come up with slurs like “oreo” for funsies.

    I wish there was some way to know with the teachers in Ogbu’s research if they started treating the black kids differently because they didn’t turn in their assignments or if there was a subconscious racism element in there–and if there was a subconscious racism element, if it became more pronounced once the black students began not turning in their work.

  2. 2
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I think that this is an excellent response that you may like:


    In other news: I tutor all sorts of folk (this is Vancouver) from all sorts of backgrounds. I’ve learned how to say ‘thank you’ in several languages, and I like to say the appropriate phrase to the appropriate background. (note: this isn’t me assuming that someone who merely looks Chinese is a 1st generation immigrant, I pay attention to their level of English and guess accordingly)

    The response, while not universal, is quite uniform: “How did you know that I was x?”

    Such a statement belies the sad state of affairs where folk don’t even try to learn the different visual markers that differentiate Chinese from Korean from Japanese, to the point where it’s considered a mark of *skill* to see the difference.

    I think Dr. Yu is right on the money.

  3. 3
    Alexander van Houten

    Always good to see a lively exchange.
    Brian, though I don’t have as frequent interactions across cultural lines as you I have seen the surprise when, a cultural back ground is correctly identified. Ignorance is the assumed default, which is why when I correctly recognized a pair of people as being Russian and Japanese they were both flattered.

    This sadly reenforces the notion that multiculturalism in Canada, might mean encouraging new immigrants to adopt our culture, with little pressure for the incumbents to learn the immigrants ways. Not that I support excepting cultural practices from abroad that infringe on human rights or are other wise immoral.

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