Rich, Black, Flunking

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Well-to-do black parents in Shaker Heights invited Nigerian-born UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu to study why their children were dramatically underperforming in school — and they did not like what he found:

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.

Ogbu concluded that the average black student in Shaker Heights put little effort into schoolwork and was part of a peer culture that looked down on academic success as “acting white.” Although he noted that other factors also play a role, and doesn’t deny that there may be antiblack sentiment in the district, he concluded that discrimination alone could not explain the gap.

“The black parents feel it is their role to move to Shaker Heights, pay the higher taxes so their kids could graduate from Shaker, and that’s where their role stops,” Ogbu says during an interview at his home in the Oakland hills. “They believe the school system should take care of the rest. They didn’t supervise their children that much. They didn’t make sure their children did their homework. That’s not how other ethnic groups think.”

Ogbu sees a tremendous difference between voluntary and involuntary immigrants:

“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.’”

Ogbu’s own experience underlines this distinction:

The son of parents who couldn’t read, he grew up in a remote Nigerian village with no roads. His father had three wives and seventeen children with those women. Ogbu has a difficult time explaining his own academic success, which has earned him numerous accolades throughout his career. He did both undergraduate and graduate work at Berkeley and has never left. When pressed, he says he believes his own success primarily stems from being a voluntary immigrant who knew that no matter how many hurdles he had to overcome in the United States, his new life was an improvement over a hut in Nigeria with no running water. Involuntary immigrants don’t think that way, he says. They have no separate homeland to compare things to, yet see the academic demands made of them as robbing them of their culture. Ogbu would like to see involuntary immigrants, such as the black families in Shaker Heights, think more like voluntary immigrants. In doing that, he says, they’d understand that meeting academic challenges does not “displace your identity.”


  1. Ages ago when interning in the California Governor’s office, I attended a legislative hearing of some sort at which an Assemblyman or Senator (name of House, IIRC) made an aside about a constituent who’d called up his office demanding that they help her son, who’d been convicted of a felony axe murder of an old lady down the street whose stereo he wanted to steal. The mother’s complaint was that the high school had failed to teach him that it was wrong to do that.

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