Black parents must teach their kids to succeed
August 3, 2003
WASHINGTON -- 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 teenaged 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 got together and invited anthropology professor 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."
He said, "What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents. 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 children."
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 conceal.
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 academic pursuits as "acting white."
Other scholars have studied Shaker Heights and other similar school 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 pressures than white children do.
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 showing that 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, either.
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 autopilot. 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 they do.
My 14-year-old son tells me the same thing. But I do not believe him until I see the results show up in his grades or in the time he devotes to his homework.
As Ronald Reagan told the leaders of the old Soviet Union: Trust, but verify.
Parents of teens fight a never-ending battle against the negative influences of their teens' peers. But it is a battle that 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 lockdown 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.
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune