The 'Achievement Gap': Another Gift to Black Folks Courtesy of the State?

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One of the
traps into which so many who seek to point out societal problems
often fall is relatively common, or so I am told, in the black community.
That trap is blaming others for our plight. Certainly, I do not
want to fall prey to that error.

However, I
find it ironic that people on opposite sides of a debate
such as this one often seem to take actions that lead to the same
result. For example, the statists would accept that the lion's share
of blame belongs to the state. After doing so they would likely
make the mistake of asking for more help from that very organization.

Conversely,
those erstwhile black libertarians who ascribe to a minarchist point
of view — that there exists a just right amount of government
— would caution us to the distinct likelihood that the problems
supposedly so trenchant in the black community have a nexus in the
very culture of that community. So while they would not ask for
help, they would also suggest that blaming the state is unnecessary.

In my view
whether the problems are the sole fault of the state or whether
they have gained a foothold due to flawed beliefs and practices
of black folk themselves, or whether it is some combination of both,
is beside the point. I do not offer these musings in an effort to
lay blame and thereby extract apology, admission of guilt, help,
lowered standards, tax credits, or even retribution.

If, as I believe,
the solution lies in allowing the good to flourish and the bad to
die on the vine, the same medicine would I prescribe. Get the heavy-handed,
negative-incentive-laden, poorly-conceived, and unwelcome grip of
the heinous bureaucracy of the state out of the mix. Let the market
reward those who embrace the logic of personal responsibility and
let the chasm of life swallow whole those who do not.

What Is
the Problem and Is It Real or Imagined?

The "achievement
gap" as I have heard it defined, speaks to a difference in
standardized test scores specifically, and overall academic performance
generally, when one examines the available data with respect to
race. Depending upon to whom we listen, the problem is either larger
or smaller. And not surprisingly, it is generally perceived to stem
from one of two sources, depending upon your political persuasion.
The liberal camp usually thinks the gap comes from the infrastructure
used to deliver the education — the location of the school,
the size of the classroom, the pay of the teachers, the quality
of the library, the attitude of the administration, etc. The conservative
camp usually thinks the gap is a result of the culture of those
who receive the education — the lack of attention to homework,
the acceptance of laxity, the fondness for "bling," the
disinterest of the parents, the ubiquity of loose pants and visible
underwear, etc.

While I would
contend that the state and its well-intentioned minions hold the
lion's share of the blame almost any way we slice it, assigning
blame is not my intent in this article per se. There are
two (2) ways the state could reasonably be blamed for causing, or
at very least exacerbating the achievement gap:

  1. The legacy
    of slavery, and lessons thereby carried through into the black
    family;
  2. The pathology
    of affirmative action, and unintended consequences thereof.

Which way appeals
to you is simply a matter of when you think the damage occurred.
If you ask fellow LRC contributor Rob
Wicks
, he would tend, I think, to highlight the cultural impact
of slavery. In fact, he said recently, "I feel that the cultural
adaptations blacks made to accommodate slavery made welfare especially
devastating." This logic is certainly hard to deny. Conversely,
if you ask Thomas
Sowell
, he would tend, I think, to decry the slavery explanation.
In fact, he said recently, in an e-mail wherein he directly addressed
the point Wicks makes above, "I am afraid the slavery explanation
of the disintegration of the black family will not explain why blacks
a generation out of slavery had intact families far more often than
those a hundred years later." Wicks' opinion not withstanding,
Sowell's logic and the facts that support it are also powerful.
(Please note that this "debate" between Sowell and Wicks
did not really happen. I juxtapose these two views only for illustration
purposes.) So, who is correct?

Still others
would say that any so-called "achievement gap" between
black and white students is largely a figment of the imagination
of those who seek to blame the victim. Quoting Tim Wise, an antiracism
activist and essayist from a recent piece in The
Black Commentator
:

"…high
school graduation rates for blacks and whites are today roughly
equal to one another. In fact, as sociologist Dalton Conley demonstrates
in his 1999 book, Being
Black, Living in the Red
, once family economic background
is controlled for, blacks are actually more likely to finish high
school than whites, and equally likely to complete college. In
other words, whatever differences exist in black and white educational
attainment are completely the result of blacks, on average, coming
from lower-income families. Comparing whites and blacks of truly
similar class status reveals greater or equal educational attainment
for blacks."

Wise continues:

"Although
it should hardly have been necessary — after all, the entire history
of black America has been the history of attempting to access
education even against great odds and laws prohibiting it — there
have been a number of recent studies, all of which prove conclusively
that blacks value education every bit as much as their white counterparts."

From Wise's
standpoint, either this achievement gap does not really exist, or
it exists only in concert with and as a result of economics. Again
that is a valid conclusion. And again one might ask who is correct.
With all due respect to these fine men, who are all studied and
sincere, my answer remains unchanged — I still don't care.

Determining
the nexus of what Peter Wood calls, "The
Norm of Minimum Effort
," while anthropologically interesting,
is not my goal. Certainly, the findings
of the late John
U. Ogbu
, speak to some hard truths and some cultural questions
that might be helpful to address. Still, I find Bill
Raspberry's comments
particularly telling:

"But
what we need, if our children are going to make it in this highly
competitive world, is not so much explanation as change. We can
wait for white America to change its attitude toward blacks. Or
we can change the way we respond to what we believe that attitude
to be. Given the fact that white America is doing OK the way things
are, the choice seems obvious."

Indeed. Explanation
is great, but change is better! In fact, John Ogbu was not the only
researcher to study this phenomenon or the only one to publish such
ostensibly negative findings widely. According to the Ferguson
study
:

"By
these measures [Academic Behavior and Homework Completion Rates]
whites and Asians appear more academically engaged and leave a
greater impression of working harder and being more interested
in their studies than their African-American and Hispanic peers."

So black students
are less engaged? But the Ferguson study goes on:

"However,
the students in all the population groups differed very little
in time spent studying and doing homework, except Asians, and
no group of students – including Asians – expressed a great deal
of interest in schoolwork."

Wait, so the
black students don't care as much but they work just as hard? And
of course, Ogbu's findings have their share of critics, such as
Felicia R. Lee, who states as much in her 2002 article "Why
Are Black Students Lagging?
" that:

"Professor
Ogbu is no stranger to controversy. His theory of “acting white”
has been the subject of intense study since he first wrote about
it in the mid-80’s with Signithia Fordham, then a graduate student
and now a professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester.
They studied an inner-city Washington high school where students
listed doing well in school among the “white” behaviors they rejected,
like visiting the Smithsonian and dancing to lyrics rather than
a beat."

Lee continues:

"The
two anthropologists theorized that a long history of discrimination
helped foster what is known in sociological lingo as an oppositional
peer culture. Not only were students resisting the notion that
white behavior was superior to their own, but they also saw no
connection between good grades and finding a job."

So it would
still seem that not only is the existence of the gap suspect, but
the cause is extremely difficult to determine. That a major problem
with using the argument from effect. Each person who looks
at the data can draw a different conclusion. Luckily, given that
I would really prefer to leave it to others to determine the root
causes — and publish them in academic journals — this difficulty
poses no problem for me. Instead, I propose another approach, based
upon my belief that people are all the same — the argument from
morality. Let those who have the desire and the drive to succeed
do so. Let those who are satisfied with less enjoy having it. And
for the love of SportsCenter get out of everybody's way while
we find out who is who!

But Can
You Blame a Guy for Trying to Help?

Now, let us
examine, using simple-minded logic (the only kind I have) both the
folly of digging for reasons at the expense of embracing change
and the lunacy of accepting any state solution for the achievement
gap, assuming for the time being that it really exists. If I were
in a dingy, supposedly paddling for shore and someone from the state
jumped into my boat, claiming to be there to help me, while I would
certainly be surprised, I would likely also be thankful. That is
just human nature.

If however,
the shore began to get farther away versus closer — that would concern
me. If on top of that, my little boat began to sink — that would
really concern me. If this representative of the state —
ostensibly trying to help me — caused my boat to sink even faster
the more he "helped," I just might have to toss his bureaucratic
rear-end overboard! At the very least I can assure you that I would
rather strongly suggest that he stop helping me. There might also
be a little creative use of the oars, but that is probably best
saved for another article and/or website.

Note that even
if I was heading in the "wrong direction" initially, it
is still likely better for me to be left alone to find my own way,
for one simple reason. Unless our bureaucrat-turned-wannabe-hero
knows exactly why I was headed in the direction I was, he
has no clue how to help me. (And even if he does know why,
he still has no idea if his help will result in the outcome I desired,
since he may not know what I was after in the first place!) And
as we already discovered, my boat is now sinking. It does not take
Vasco Da Gama to ascertain that things are just a little
off track.

This nautical
example parallels the plight and performance of black students stuck
in that bastion of ineptitude and bureaucracy, the public school
system. As a matter of fact, this example parallels the plight and
performance of the poor in general and black folk in particular
since the inception of the "Great Society" programs in
the 1960s. When I was a boy the "old folk" used to say,
"I can do bad (sic) all by myself!" In other words, if
you are effectively helping me fail, I would just as soon not have
any help.

Second Verse
Same as the First

Let us now
turn to an example I find rather instructive — sports. As far as
I can tell, no one did a study on why there were so few black quarterbacks
in the NFL up to only a few years back. (At least, no one seriously
wondered why. Truly, was that ever a mystery?) And, not surprisingly,
no one suggested that the rules needed to be changed, or the ball
shaped differently, or the incentives modified to appeal to black
sensibilities. Why not?

Yet now, one
would have to have been under a rock to miss the fact that black
quarterbacks are not even all that "special" anymore.
For example, during the 2006 preseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars
had three quarterbacks on the roster and all of them were
black! (Clearly, white quarterbacks have become victims of discrimination.)
Alert the media.

At the risk
of sounding overly prideful and maybe a little crass as well, let
me put it this way. My people come from sterner stock than to need
any special treatment. From my reading of history, the descendents
of slaves are here because their ancestors withstood the withering
inhumanity of the Middle
Passage
. As best I can determine, the descendants of slaves
are here because their ancestors survived the ghastly practice of
chattel slavery. The descendants of slaves are here because their
ancestors were able to endure even as the women were routinely raped
by the slave owners and even as the sons were routinely sold "down
the river" away from the family.

As such, the
idea that we cannot compete in higher education because we need
more nurturing is downright insulting! (Given the choice, I think
we all like nurturing, but I will never be convinced that black
folk need it more, or less, than anyone else needs it.) The very
thought that we somehow would not succeed in life if the requirements
for elite colleges and universities were not somehow modified on
our behalf is equally ridiculous.

Recently The
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education
reported that a Brookins
Institute study shows that blacks have "narrowed the I.Q. gap
with whites over the last 30 years." I guess this is good news,
particularly for those who chose to argue against racist theories
like those apparently proposed in books like "the Bell Curve,"
but to me is it largely irrelevant. Regardless of any rubric — that
may or may not be predictive — we do not need special help, and
if the system, and those so interested in providing help, would
just get out of the way, we could all find out once and for all
and sooner rather than later.

Conclusion

I present a
not-so-unique suggestion to all who might be concerned that black
students — in places like Shaker Heights, Ohio — do not perform
at the level their socio-economic status would otherwise indicate,
and that suggestion is: "Thanks, but you've helped quite
enough." To the bleeding-heart liberals who (no doubt) genuinely
care about decreasing the number of u2018underrepresented minorities'
in science majors I have but one simple request: "Can you let
us handle this one alone just this once?" I know your
hearts are in the right place but you are nonetheless excused.

One word of
caution for any who suspect that because I suggest no state help
is needed, they are safe to enjoy the fruits of success without
any competition forever. Just remember, there was also a time when
all the point guards in the NBA and all the quarterbacks in the
NFL were NOT black either. Hey, I'm just sayin'!

Every person
has a decision to make. Does he want to be treated differently because
of his race or not? If so, then he has to accept both the
good outcomes and the bad ones. If not, then the State can get the
heck out of the equation. Certainly black folks, among others, have
been discriminated against in overt and covert ways for about as
long as there has been a United States of America. But by the same
token, we have also embraced the theology of affirmative action
well beyond its expiration date. (By the way, when is that?) If
race is only
an illusion
, then we are using a proxy that is of little value.
Otherwise, the steps being taken are simply not working well enough
to be continued.

Looking
at the performance and success of Jesse Owens, Tiger Woods, the
Williams sisters, Donavan McNabb and Allen Iverson — not to mention
John Hope Franklin, Dr. Charles Drew, Reginald Lewis, and the Tuskegee
Airmen, among many others — I feel pretty good about our chances!

September
26, 2006

Wilt
Alston [send him
mail
] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three
children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his
part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal
research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily
on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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