Not-So-Little White Lies
brogers at cet.com
Wed Nov 27 08:18:30 MST 2002
Not-So-Little White Lies: Education and the Myth of Black
Anti-Intellectualism November 26, 2002
By Tim Wise
Cherished myths die hard, especially when those myths serve the interests
of the more powerful members of a society at the expense of the less
powerful. For generations, slaveowners ignored their chattels humanity, to
say nothing of their desire for freedom, even coming up with a name for the
presumed mental illness that "explained" the urge on the part of their
property to run away. Drapetomania, it was called: a powerful disorder that
afflicted the brains of slaves, rendering them incapable of recognizing how
good they had it.
The subordination of persons of color has regularly been rationalized with
absurd racist stereotypes, even when evidence flatly contradicted the
illogic of those assumptions. So, for example, segregation was needed to
allow blacks to develop to the "limit of their capacities," and to hear
some tell it, blacks actually preferred separate schools, housing, water
fountains, and lunch counters. Japanese Americans had to be interned for
"national security" purposes because they were disloyal to America.
Filipinos were incapable of self-government; Hawaiians were heathens in
need of Christian discipline, and so on and so forth.
It mattered little, of course, that persons of color were actually quite
loyal to the U.S. (indeed, more so than probably justified); or that
non-white nations had long exercised self-government before being
"discovered" by Europeans. And the myths would linger even after social
movements forced changes in the society that had nurtured them. Although
the more extreme versions of these beliefs are less often heard than in
years past, newer variations are common: so instead of claims that blacks
are a separate species or genetically inferior (which of course are still
articulated, as with best-selling books like The Bell Curve), new and more
palatable claims of cultural inferiority have come to predominate.
According to those pushing this type of analysis, it is not that blacks and
other people of color have defective DNA, but rather, that their families
are dysfunctional, their values counterproductive and their behaviors
Starting with Daniel Patrick Moynihans 1965 treatise on the "crisis" of
the black family--which he characterized as a metastasizing matriarchal
mass of antisocial tendencies--and extending through Dinesh DSouzas
argument that blacks suffer a "civilizational deficit" relative to whites
and Asians, dissing black culture and families has become a favorite
political pastime. And as with genetic theories of racial superiority, the
cultural theories hang on, impervious to logic or hard data.
Take, for instance, the oft-repeated claim by conservatives that lower
black achievement in schools reflects the lower value placed on education
by the black community, compared to whites or Asians.
Denying that racial discrimination might be implicated in different
educational outcomes between African Americans and others, such
commentators insist that different cultural attachments to education
explain why whites and Asians score higher on achievement tests, tend to
get higher grades, and are more likely to go on to college than their black
counterparts. Some claim that blacks have adopted the attitude that doing
well in school is "acting white," and have sabotaged their own futures by
way of downgrading intellectual pursuits.
Black families come in for special condemnation under such an analysis,
criticized for not reinforcing the educational work done in the classroom,
and thereby undercutting whatever success teachers might otherwise have in
educating their children.
But although the right would have us believe that black underperformance in
school is due to cultural value differences, the evidence suggests that
such an excuse is flimsy at best. While DSouza insists that black students
do worse in school because they do less homework on average than whites and
Asians, existing data points to a different conclusion.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43% of black
fourth-graders do one hour or more of homework per night, as do 45% of
whites and 47% of Hispanics. Although Asian fourth-graders are more likely
than any other group to study one or more hours per night (56% do so), the
differences between whites, blacks and Hispanics are too small to explain
performance differences, and certainly contradict the notion that blacks or
Latinos devalue education relative to whites.
In fact, black and Hispanic fourth-graders are both more likely than whites
that age to do more than one hour of homework, with 18% of Hispanics, 17%
of blacks, but only 15% of whites putting in this amount of study time
daily. Although Asians demonstrate more study time at this level, the
differences between them and other students of color are not substantial:
about 21% of Asian students in fourth grade study more than one hour.
There is also no evidence that black parents take less interest in their
childrens education, or fail to reinforce the learning that takes place in
the classroom once their children are home. Once again, NCES statistics
indicate that black children are more likely than whites to often spend
time with their parents on homework.
Black students are twice as likely as white students to get help from their
parents on homework every day of the school week (twenty percent compared
to ten percent), and while roughly half of black students get help from
parents on homework at least three times each week, approximately
two-thirds of whites get such help two times or less, with whites a third
more likely than blacks to work with parents rarely if ever on their
Likewise, and counteringcommonly held class biases, the poorest students
(those from families with less than $5,000 in annual income) are actually
the most likely to get substantial homework help from their parents, while
those from families with incomes of $75,000 or more annually are the least
likely to do so. Half of the poorest students work with their parents on
lessons three or more times weekly, while only a third of the wealthiest
Likewise, evidence indicates there is no substantial difference between
white and black students in terms of whether their parents attend
parent-teacher conferences or school meetings. Black parents and their
children are also equally likely as their white counterparts to visit a
library, art gallery, zoo, aquarium, museum or historic site, as well as a
community or religious event--further countering the notion that black
parents take less interest in providing educational opportunities for their
Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, three of four black children
are read to by their parents when they are young, and black youth are
equally or more likely than whites to be taught letters, numbers and words
by their parents between the ages of three and five.
Of all the evidence rebutting the notion that blacks place less value on
education than whites, nothing makes the point more clearly than attendance
information. Black twelfth graders are more than twice as likely as whites
to have perfect attendance (16% versus 7.4%), and are even more likely than
Asians to have perfect attendance.
Whites are more likely than blacks to have missed seven or more days during
the last semester, while blacks are less likely than members of any racial
group to have missed that many days of school. There is also no significant
difference between whites, Asians and blacks in terms of their likelihood
to skip classes.
Of course, it shouldnt be necessary to recite any of these statistics to
make the point that blacks value education as much as anyone else. The
entire history of African Americans has been one of constant struggle to
obtain scholarly credentials: from learning to read English even when it
was illegal to do so, to establishing their own colleges and universities
when white schools blocked their access, to setting up freedom schools in
places like Mississippi, with the intention of providing the comprehensive
learning opportunities that the state routinely denied to blacks.
Since that time, there have been any number of studies on black youth
attitudes towards education, and while there are surely some such youth who
sadly de-emphasize scholarly pursuits, there is little or no evidence that
this phenomenon is unique to the black community. A recent opinion poll of
black youth, ages 11-17, found that the biggest hope for these youth was to
go to college, and additional studies have found that black youth value
academic success every bit as much as white students and often place an
even higher priority on educational achievement than whites.
Despite claims by many on the right that blacks--especially youth--lack a
connection to "mainstream values," evidence contradicts this notion. One
mid-1990s questionnaire of black high school seniors found that black
seniors were just as likely as white seniors to say that a good marriage
and family life were "extremely important" life goals; 32% more likely than
whites to say that professional success and accomplishment were "extremely
important" life goals; 26% more likely than whites to say "making a
contribution to society" was extremely important; and 75% more likely than
whites to say "being a leader in their community" was an extremely
important life goal.
Black seniors were also 21% more likely than whites to attend weekly
religious services and almost twice as likely as whites to say that
religion played a "very important role in their lives." Considering the
rights call for more religiosity in American life, such figures seem to
indicate that blacks are well ahead of others in this regard, and by the
standards of conservative moralists, should be considered paragons of virtue.
But in spite of having a comparable base of values, blacks continue to lag
behind whites in terms of income, educational accomplishment, and
professional success. Even black students from families with $70,000 or
more in annual income score lower, on average, on the SAT, than whites from
families earning less than $20,000 annually; and blacks from families with
$50,000 or more in annual income score lower than whites from families with
$6,000 or less in annual earnings.
Since the families from which these black students come are successful
under the typical standards of evaluation, they cannot be scoring lower
than whites for either genetic or cultural reasons: after all, their
parents are "making it," and are not likely to be the kind of folks claimed
to exhibit "pathological underclass" values.
So what is left? Unfortunately for those who would prefer not to admit the
salience of institutionalized racism in the U.S., the answer is clear:
substantially unequal outcomes are the result of substantially unequal
Black students are only half as likely as whites to be placed in
high-tracked English or math classes, and 2.4 times more likely than whites
to be placed in remedial classes. Even when blacks demonstrate equal
ability with their white counterparts, they are less likely to be placed in
When kids from lower-income families--who are disproportionately of
color--correctly answer all math questions on a standardized test, they are
no more likely to be placed in advanced or college tracks than children
from upper-income families who missed a fourth of the questions, and they
are 26% less likely to be placed in advanced tracks than upper-income
persons with comparably perfect scores. Even the President of the College
Board has acknowledged that black 8th graders with test scores comparable
to whites are disproportionately placed in remedial high school classes.
The impact of being tracked low in school has been shown to be profound.
One of the nations leading experts on tracking, Jeannie Oakes, reports
that according to her own studies and those of others, being tracked low
fosters reductions in student feelings of their own abilities and helps
depress aspirations for the future among low-tracked students.
It is this context that must be considered when evaluating the tendency for
some blacks to claim that getting good grades is "acting white." If ones
schools have repeatedly given the impression that indeed education is a
white thing; that the white kids are the bright kids; that everything worth
knowing about sprang out of the forehead of white Europe, and that ones
own aspirations are unrealistic, it ought not be surprising that some
children exposed to such racist mentalities--and teachers who assume from
the outset that not all groups are equally capable of learning--might
develop a bad attitude about school. But as with most things, blaming the
victims of this process will neither improve their opportunities nor alter
the mechanisms by which their disempowerment is perpetuated.
It will, however, continue to offer a pseudo-intellectual lifeline to
right-wing pundits whose careers have been built on bashing societys
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, lecturer and activist. He can be
reached (and footnotes can be obtained from) timjwise at msn.com
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