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"The Norm of Minimum Effort" By: Peter Wood
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb:  A Study of Academic Disengagement
John U. Ogbu
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Mahwah, New Jersey).  2003.

What drives colleges and universities to pursue (legally or otherwise) racial preferences in admissions is academic underachievement by African-American students in American high schools. Indeed, the disparity in high school achievement between Blacks and Whites is what continues to lure so many leaders in business, government, and almost every sector of American life to endorse racial double standards for "access" to jobs, financial opportunities, public contracts, and other social goods. If Blacks and Whites performed equally well in high school, the demands for racial preferences and minority set-asides would very likely vanish.

The existence of this disparity is, of course, well known, as are many of its sociological characteristics: that it has persisted for generations despite massive intervention by the state, and that it appears at virtually every level of analysis that educational investigators have devised. Compare age cohorts (e.g., 10-year-olds or 15-year-olds) across the whole country, and you will find in aggregate that Whites far exceed Blacks in any measure of academic performance you care to name. Compare schools that are all-Black or predominantly Black to schools that are all-White or predominantly White, and you find the disparity in performance. Alternatively, compare Black and White students in racially integrated schools, and the disparity in performance is there, too.

One explanation of this that leaps to mind is poverty: disparities in educational performance must arise from relative wealth or income of Black and White families. And it is indeed true that children, Black or White, who grow up in impoverished households or in impoverished communities generally attain less in school. But, as it happens, poverty does not explain the disparity between Blacks and Whites in secondary school performance. Take poverty out of the picture entirely by examining equally affluent Blacks and Whites living in the same communities and the disparity in academic performance remains.

In social science terms, the disparity is statistically robust. It is not an artifact of one or another way of analyzing the data. It leaps out of the data no matter how one approaches the analysis, and it seems about equally severe in every region of the nation, in every demographic mix, in urban, suburban, and rural schools, and in impoverished, median-income, and affluent communities alike. No serious contributor to the discussion of race and education in the United States disputes the facts. African-American academic performance, in aggregate, substantially lags White performance.

The picture can be elaborated by considering, for example, the relative performance of other ethnic groups, but elaborations for the most part only make the problem stand out in greater relief. Hispanics underperform in high school in similar ways in some settings. But no other ethnic group underperforms so consistently.

Why should this be so? Why do African-American high school students at the beginning of the twenty-first century continue to lag White (and Hispanic, Asian, etc.) students in academic performance? This question is, without exaggeration, central to our common life and national future. Equality of opportunity means much less if whole categories of people are "left behind" before they reach the age of adult participation in the workforce. A greater and greater proportion of jobs depend on expert knowledge, educational achievement, and the kinds of flexible learning, habits of patient inquiry, and sustained intellectual attention that are cultivated by academic engagement and accomplishment. The students who lag in this pursuit in high school will, by and large, lag in every other measure of economic success for the rest of their lives.

The lag in Black students' high school performance has been explained in three ways. Reduced to their essentials, these are low IQ, institutional racism, and Black culture. The claim that Blacks are, on average, less intelligent than Whites and members of other ethnic groups has no place in respectable academic discussion, but it is a widely held opinion, with its own cadre of researchers and its own demimonde of journals. I will not have much to say about this view here except that it fearlessly faces (and may even sometimes take pleasure in facing) some statistical facts. No honest account of the data can deny what researchers such as Murray and Herrnstein reported in The Bell Curve (1994) about the results of standardized tests. The issue is simply whether those statistics are better understood as evidence of native differences or of causes of a different sort. Are the lower average standardized test scores reported for Black students the results of "lower intelligence," or are those scores simply another symptom of academic difficulties arising from some other source?

The other source that comes to mind for those who speak of "institutional racism" is America's history of systematic discrimination against African Americans. According to this view, unequal access to resources, poorer schools, less capable teachers, lower expectations, and implicit stereotypes all contribute to a continuing drag on Black academic performance. Again, I will not have much to say about this view either, except that it fearlessly faces (and may sometimes take solace in facing) some historical facts. No honest account of American schooling can deny what many observers have seen in our inner-city schools. The issue is simply whether the legacy of racism is better understood as a burden that inevitably overwhelms a large percentage of African-American students regardless of their real circumstances or whether it has become a self-perpetuating myth. Is racism really the explanation for lagging Black performance in schools that have been voluntarily integrated for generations? Or are there other factors?

The third kind of explanation for Black underperformance is cultural. It is the argument that the reason Black kids underperform in school is that they are fitting themselves to a view within part of the African-American community that looks down on academic achievement. Perhaps the most notable spokesman for this idea is the University of California Berkeley linguist John McWhorter, who gave it a pungent name in the title of his book, Losing the Race, Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000).

Like the IQ and institutional racism explanations, the cultural explanation is widely known, but it leads a quieter life, perhaps because it doesn't really suit the major political agendas on race in America. If the IQ argument attracts those who are content to believe that the gap in educational achievement is intractable, and if the institutional racism argument attracts those who think that the answer lies in larger public investment and more and more vigorous government intervention, then the Black self-sabotage explanation attracts those who think the solution lies in a transformation of social and cultural attitudes within the Black community. That, in turn, excludes most non-African-Americans from the discussion, since a White person who engages the topic risks the response (from the advocates of the institutional racism explanation) that such claims are another instance of "blaming the victim" style racism. Even an African American sympathetic to Professor McWhorter's views may well see something opportunistic in White critics who embrace the idea that it is contemporary Black culture, not the persistence of inequality and racism, that offers the best explanation of Black underperformance in school.

These might be called the pragmatic and political reasons why McWhorter's analysis remains a little outside the mainstream. We are now, however, confronted with a major social scientific study that enormously increases the standing of McWhorter's points. John U. Ogbu, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has written a thoroughly researched ethnographic study of the public schools in the prosperous Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. In Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, Ogbu gives us a vivid firsthand account of what students say and think, as they negotiate a school system that has reduced barriers to Black student participation to the vanishing point.

To be sure, McWhorter is not so much as mentioned in Professor Ogbu's careful study, and Ogbu goes to great lengths to tamp down the political implications of his research findings. He rightly observes that his study of "community forces" in generating the gap in student performance does not, logically or empirically, negate the possibility of "societal forces" also affecting Black student performance. Moreover, Ogbu was invited to Shaker Heights as the result of the earnest concern of Black parents over the collective poor performance of their children in the Shaker Heights Public Schools. He is sensitive to the people who sought his help and fostered his research and eager not to say anything that would offend them. It is a hard road to travel, since he reports that many of the parents were offended merely by his willingness to speak publicly about the discrepancies in the performance of Black and White students. His (partial) explanation of those discrepancies in terms of what he calls "low effort syndrome" among Black students was bound to be extraordinarily difficult for some parents to hear. Professor Ogbu's courage in publishing this book is not to be underestimated.

Early in the book, Ogbu summarizes what Black students in Shaker Heights have to say about their own performance. The most striking thing is their self-awareness. None of them seem to deny the reality that Black students generally perform more poorly than White students in the schools, and most freely admit that the reason for the gap is that Black students don't work very hard at their studies. But why? Ogbu examines several student explanations. Some espouse what he calls "the norm of minimum effort." When Ogbu interviewed Black students about why other Black students slacked off, he encountered circular explanations, such as "their goal is just to get by" and "they don't want to do like the work." The Black students, in other words, don't invoke any external forces or unusual pathologies. They regard minimum effort as characteristic of themselves.

Ogbu cites some other Black students who think it is "not cool" to work hard or be smart, including a girl who said, "some Black students believed it was cute to be dumb." Other students blamed black underperformance on uninteresting courses, and on the schools' failure to motivate them. Ogbu cites a 12th grader:

I mean like, I know myself, I can do the work if I applied myself. But it's like school is ain't interested. I mean it's ain't interested because you know, it's based on my future, what, [if] I can take that extra step and put more uh energy into my work, I'll probably have all As. But, I mean, [the school] just don't motivate ... the things here don't motivate me. (p. 25)

Ogbu continues with his list of de-motivations: poor study habits (rationalized by some as "Black learning style"); students who lacked concentration, whose attention wandered, and who talked in class, read magazines, or rested their heads on their desks instead of focusing on the class; a tendency to blame teachers for faults such as not saying what exactly would be on a test or repeating material already covered; and a diversion of effort from schoolwork to activities such as watching television and talking on the phone.

None of this would strike any person who has spent time in American classrooms as especially unusual or race-specific. It sounds, rather, like the portrait of any unmotivated student. But considered in the context of the Shaker Heights schools and the disparity there between Black and White student performance, Ogbu's "low effort syndrome" comes to life. This is not some random sample of individual students who happen to be slacking off. These are students who are, in hugely disproportionate numbers, slacking off because they are African American. Most are the children of professional parents. They live in an exceptionally prosperous community that prides itself on its excellent schools. They attend a school system that is completely integrated and that is managed and taught by educators who are committed to their best interests.

Yet, by the beginning of high school and perhaps earlier, these Black students abandon the psychological commitment needed to succeed in their scholastic programs. In overwhelming numbers, they elect the easier courses of study and end up creating a degree of color-stratification in the schools, with the most advanced classes nearly all White and the least-challenging courses disproportionately Black. The parents-Black and White-the teachers, the school administrators, and the community at large don't want this. But it happens.

Ogbu's explanation is, as I said, cultural. He focuses on "collective identity," peer pressure, the family, and some mismatches between the opportunities the schools think they are providing and the opportunities that the students and their parents have in mind. His account is richly detailed and bolted down by the actual words of the participants. From now on, anyone who wants to speak sensibly about the problem of Black underachievement in America will have to devote some hard effort to these chapters. Broadly what Ogbu achieves is a portrait of a (Black) community that expects and encourages Black children to do well in school but simultaneously fosters an attitude that elevates conformity to the Black community itself to a higher value than the pitched individual effort that it takes to succeed in academic study.

It is, of course, possible to attempt a kind of moral exculpation of what the Black community is doing to its young in Shaker Heights by invoking an even more encompassing conception of "institutional racism." Perhaps the insularity of the Black community and its felt need to reinforce group identity at the expense of individual achievement is itself the shadow of long centuries of oppression. John Ogbu doesn't say, and in fact, in a world in which many of the parents of the children are prosperous and thriving, that sort of rationalization wears increasingly thin.

The student who complained that the school failed to "motivate me" speaks volumes in those two words. No school, no person, no "role model," no society can assume the responsibility to "motivate me." The most basic lesson of education is that any worthwhile motivation comes from within. Teachers can sometimes thwart it; sometimes encourage it; and very occasionally plant the seed of longing that grows into motivation. But teachers cannot supply motivation for the resolutely unmotivated, or even for those empty vessels that have shifted the responsibility to others. "Motivate me" is the command of someone who has already abandoned the essential educational project. A community or a culture that fosters that kind of expectation has put itself in opposition to educational achievement.

Clearly this is an unnecessary opposition. Many ethnic groups have found ways to combine pride in group identity with pride in individual academic striving. Moreover, the African-American community was once an outstanding example of just that synthesis of effort. Why has the African-American community succumbed to this particular pathology? McWhorter's answer in Losing the Race is that affirmative action-especially racial preferences in college admissions-are operating as a perverse incentive to value group identity over individual performance. Ogbu is silent on that front, and instead urges us to attend to the many details that constitute the "culture" of Black underachievement.
In fact, Ogbu's picture of African-American culture in Shaker Heights is made up of dozens of little assumptions and practices all aligned in the same direction, like the filaments inside a pitcher-plant that lead the honeybee on a one-way trip to its doom. He starts with the idea that American Blacks are an "involuntary minority" who developed their sense of "collective identity under oppression and in opposition to the collective identity of their White oppressors" (p. 174). Thus Black collective identity is not a neutral phenomenon, but something that thrives in opposition, or what Ogbu calls "affective dissonance." When it comes to schools, that dissonance takes the form of regarding the curriculum as "an imposition" and seeing the schools themselves as an instrument by which Whites makes Blacks feel inferior. The "we feeling" or collective identity of Shaker Heights Blacks turns out to require a certain kind of hostility toward public education.

Ogbu turns this strange-and appalling-idea over and over. "The students said it was inappropriate for a Black person to behave like a White person because it implied renouncing Black identity" (p. 203). He finds relatively little of this attitude in the younger grades but, by high school, for example, "students reported that some highly educated Blacks and successful Black professionals in White establishments and institutions gave up or abandoned their culture and racial identity" (p. 206-207). Black students who took honors and AP classes were vulnerable to just this accusation. Ogbu reports that many Black students "assumed that making good grades was not part of Black culture but an aspect of White culture." In general Black peer pressure operated against Black students having high academic aspirations and equated "good school performance with acting White."

But Black hostility to academic aspiration was not just a matter of peer pressure. Ogbu also traced it to Black families, where he found a peculiar paradox. Most of the Black parents believed it very important to send their children to good schools, and they also had high expectations that their children would work hard and earn good grades. They seemed genuinely baffled when that did not happen. Ogbu, however, observed that Black parents participated in very low numbers in parent-teacher organizations and in other opportunities for parental involvement with schools. Students excused their parents by saying some of them worked extra jobs to afford to live in Shaker Heights, but Ogbu followed through and found the low rates of parental participation applied just as strongly to Black parents who were affluent.

Ogbu follows through with another rationalization as well: the idea that many Black parents were themselves not educated and therefore did not understand either the importance of parental involvement or the opportunities for it. But, as it happens, even the well-educated Black parents seldom involve themselves with the opportunities for participation in their children's schools.

In this fashion, Ogbu gradually narrows the range of possible explanations until he comes to his own: "Observations and interviews in Shaker Heights and elsewhere suggested that Black Americans have what might be called 'a beer mug' model [of] school teaching and learning. In this model, students learn and perform well if the teacher pours knowledge well into students" (p. 235). The parents, in other words, "did not perceive themselves as active agents in the education process" (p. 236).

One result of this "beer mug" assumption is that Black parents paid little attention to whether their children did their homework. Another result was that, although Black parents are keenly interested in the grades their children bring home on report cards, they seldom paid attention to their children's performance in between report cards. '

Ogbu has dozens of other examples of the minutia that make up the larger phenomenon of Black "academic disengagement," and I offer these only to give a flavor of the argument. But Ogbu does step back at the end of the book to give a larger perspective on the reasons for this disengagement. He notes the catchphrase in the Black community that Black employees must work "twice as hard" as Whites to achieve the same benefit; he cites the belief of some Blacks that, given the history of racial discrimination in the United States, educational achievement is not "the key to upward social mobility." The conviction that "unequal opportunity" persists in American society motivated some Shaker Heights Blacks to try harder, but "it made some students skeptical as to the real value of school credentials and discouraged some students from striving to maximize their academic performance" (p. 253).

Those who claimed this kind of discouragement-by-anticipation often spoke of "sports, athletics, entertainment, and drug dealing" as alternative strategies for Black individuals to advance themselves. "On a number of occasions the students reminded the researchers that Black drug dealers were very intelligent people." And "[s]tudents engulfed in sports and entertainment cultures showed little interest in doing schoolwork and making good grades" (p. 255).

Each of Ogbu's specific instances has its own resonance with problems that extend well beyond Shaker Heights, but the central problem he presents remains the Black student who demands, "Motivate me." Ogbu returns to this matter in his last pages:

When Blacks evaluated their teachers and schools, they emphasized the importance of "caring" for students and the inclusion of their experience and perspectives in the curriculum or pedagogy.... [By] caring Blacks mean that they want their teachers and schools to be nourishing, supportive, protective, and encouraging. Furthermore, Blacks hold teachers accountable for students' performance. (p. 257)

Of course, all parents want their children to have good teachers, but an expectation that teachers be, above all else, committed to making students feel good about themselves is destined to lead to disappointment and frustration. The Black parents who hold this attitude are unknowingly laying the groundwork for their children to define themselves as members of a group that stands in opposition to what teachers and schools can actually do. The Black parents are providing a kind of trip wire for the teachers, who, by sticking to the importance of actual learning, demonstrate what the Black parents and their children interpret as a "White" attitude.

The Black parents simultaneously uphold an attitude that educational achievement is important and a contradictory attitude that the locus of responsibility for academic achievement lies outside the students and the family. When this learned helplessness begins to erode their children's commitment to the hard effort need to succeed in high school, both the black parents and their children reach for the well-trod rationalizations that it is somebody else's fault: the teachers that don't "care," the White community that denies real opportunities, or the society that oppresses Black culture.

It lies a little beyond the scope of Ogbu's important book to suggest why African Americans have boxed themselves into this self-defeating set of assumptions-why so many African Americans perpetuate a culture that outwardly celebrates achievement while inwardly diverting many children toward contempt for academic striving. Ogbu has, however, given us an incontestable account of that stark reality.

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