Explaining the Black education gap

Explaining the Black education gap

How to explain the black education performance and attainment gap that persists even in highly-educated, high-income, high-IQ, highly privileged, professionally-employed, two-parent black households? John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, tackles this question in Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America (2000: The Free Press). Writes McWhorter:

Why do black students often continue to perform below standards even in affluent, enlightened settings where all efforts are made to help them? The chief cause is not racism, inadequate school funding, class status, parental education level, or any other commonly cited factor, but a variety of anti-intellectualism that plagues the black community. This attitude permeates black culture, on both a conscious and subconscious level, all the way up to the upper class.

There are three manifestations of this phenomenon, according to McWhorter:

the cult of victimology, which leads blacks to treat victimhood not as a problem to be solved but as an identity to be nurtured;

the cult of separatism, which allows blacks to consider themselves exempt from the rules and laws that other Americans are expected to follow; and

the cult of anti-intellectualism, which simultaneously downplays and excuses the low level of black academic performance.

Using empirical data and years of personal experience as a black educator of black and white students, McWhorter debunks the litany of factors usually cited as responsible for the black education gap. For example, he reviews psychologist Claude Steele’s findings that black students perform better on tests when they are not required to indicate their race or when the test is not presented as a measure of racial ability. But the “stereotype threat” affects everyone, notes McWhorter – Steele himself shows that women and even white males get lower scores when told the results are to be measured against those of Asian Americans. Considering that students are never required to indicate their race on their schoolwork anyway, asks McWhorter, are Steele’s findings really that meaningful?

The author offers several recommendations for improving black academic performance, some race specific (black study groups), some race blind (university admission policies). He believes affirmative action programs should be eliminated both because they devalue the achievements of all blacks, and because they obstruct African Americans from showing they are as capable as all other people. Concludes McWhorter:

It is not pleasant to think that blacks are held down by black culture itself. But it is absolutely vital that we address anti-intellectualism in black American culture honestly. To deny its pivotal significance is cultural self-sabotage.

We have arrived at a point where closing the black-white education gap will be possible only by allowing black students to spread their wings and compete freely with their peers of other races. More than 30 years of affirmative action have shown conclusively that programs that let black kids in through the back door will not solve the problem. Youngsters coming of age in a culture that does not value educational achievement are not helped by a system that only reduces the incentives to excel.

The black-white scholastic gap will close only when black students are required to compete under the same standards of excellence as whites.

Copyright FutureScan Sep 11, 2000

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