Black Parents Must do now ...
by Clarence Page, Houston Chronicle, August 5, 2003
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As the black parent of a teenager, I share the recently
publicized pain of some black high school parents in Shaker
Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland.
Distressed that their teen-aged children's grades were lagging
behind those of their white counterparts, despite having similar
socioeconomic advantages in the racially mixed school district,
the black parents organized their own investigation.
They invited anthropology Prof. John U. Ogbu, a well-known
figure in the field of student achievement for the past 30
years, all the way from the University of California at Berkeley
to examine the district's 5,000 students and figure out why the
black-white performance gap persists.
Six years later, Ogbu has published his findings in a book,
Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of
Academic Disengagement (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates publishers).
Not all of the parents are pleased with his conclusions. That's
because he found part of the problem to be the parents.
As Ogbu told a New York Times reporter, there were two parts to
the problem, "society and schools on one hand and the black
community on the other."
"What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of
doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents," he
said. "They don't know how their parents made it. They are
looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are
looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs,
to give their children everything but they are not guiding their
Needless to say, Ogbu has received a wild mix of praise and
criticism, including from his fellow scholars. Some denounce his
methods as too anecdotal, but in Ogbu's field that's not
necessarily a defect. Anecdotes carefully collected and reported
often can reveal truths that broader statistical studies
I've been following Ogbu's work since the 1980s, when he and
fellow anthropologist Signithia Fordham, ) now at the University
of Rochester, stirred up a national hornets nest by finding
significant numbers of black students rejected rigorous pursuit
of academics as "acting white."
Other scholars have studied Shaker Heights and other similar
districts and found little difference in the tendency of the
kids to make fun of friends who do well in school, except that
lower-income kids tend to do it more. Since black students tend
more often to come from lower-income families, they probably
feel more of such peer pressure.
And other experts find that we unintentionally hand
self-defeating messages down to our children in many ways.
Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychologist, for example,
has more than a dozen years of research that shows black
students, among others, tend to perform 10 to 15 points lower
than whites out of anxiety that they might confirm the low
expectations others have of their race.
With those findings and many others in mind, we should never
make too much of the impact that teen culture may have on
achievement. But we certainly shouldn't make too little of it,
Your attitude, in large measure, determines your altitude, as I
once heard Jesse Jackson say. Your first step in achieving is to
believe that you can achieve.
There is no shame in the mere fact that some groups show
different levels of interest and performance in education and
other skills. It is only a shame if the low performers don't do
something to improve.
Asian-Americans outperform whites academically, for example, yet
no one blames racism for white "underachievement." Similarly,
the rest of us should not reject useful insights about our
children, either, even when it is a little painful to hear.
By facing obvious realities openly and honestly, we can begin to
encourage a self-image among black youths that will help them to
value their brains as much as their basketballs or the "bling-bling"
and "ching-ching" of rap stars on MTV and BET.
Unfortunately, we parents tend too often to believe our kids are
going to pick up these important messages on auto-pilot. Or we
take too much comfort in hearing our children tell us how much
they value good grades, as most of the black teens told Ogbu
As Ronald Reagan told the old Soviets: Trust, but verify.
Parents of teens fight a never-ending battle against the
negative influences of their teens' peers. But it must be fought
relentlessly, as well as affectionately.
"We're doing this because we love you," my folks used to say
when they put me on lock-down until my homework was done. Ha, I
scoffed, how could such cruelty possibly be linked to love?
Lately I am realizing what they meant. Thanks, folks, wherever
you are. I'll try to share the wealth.
Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist
specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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