The Achievement Gap: Another Gift From the State?
by Wilton D. Alston
by Wilton D. Alston
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. I do not want to fall
prey to that error. Many ostensible black libertarians who ascribe
to a minarchist point of view – that there exists a just right
amount of government – would assert that certain problems trenchant
in the black community stem from the culture of that very community
anyway. The achievement gap, if it exists, is but one example of
such. As such, they would argue, blaming the State is unnecessary.
a statist would assert that the lion’s share of blame for the achievement
gap, if it actually exists, belongs to the State. Unfortunately,
after doing so he would also likely ask for more help from
that very organization. That doesn’t make much sense.
No matter which
point of view one has, one thing is unquestionably true. Up to this
point, the State has been trying to help. And yet, the performance
of those they claim to be helping is apparently not where it should
be, or in my view, where it otherwise would be. Ergo the State deserves
at least a little blame and maybe more than a little.
than who is at fault for the achievement gap is this. If it still
exists, after all this time – considering all the study done upon
it and all the money thrown at it – we need a new approach. When
I was a boy the "old folk" used to say, "I can do
bad (sic) all by myself!" Indeed. In other words, if you are
effectively helping me fail, I would just as soon not have any more
of the kind of "help" you provide.
Is the Problem
Real or Imagined?
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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."
standpoint, either this achievement gap does not really exist, or
it exists only in concert with and as a result of economics. Either
way, it is not driven by a cultural disdain for education. Certainly,
this seems like valid conclusion as well.
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
Raspberry’s comments particularly telling:
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."
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
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:
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? Okay,
so now I’m confused.
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:
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
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 is the 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 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!
Is the Help
ESPN, let us turn to an example I find rather instructive – sports.
As far as I can tell, no one did an academic 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
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
in the NFL.) Alert the media!
At the risk
of appearing a little crass, 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 suspect
we all prefer being nurtured, 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 admission to elite colleges and universities were not somehow
modified on our behalf is equally ridiculous. I understand – and
for a time embraced – the premise that affirmative action was, in
effect, "payback" for years of overt discrimination, but
I embrace it no longer.
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that a Brookings
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 wish 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 – which
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.
I present a
not-so-unique suggestion to all outside the black community 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 ‘underrepresented
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.
person has a decision to make. Does he want to be treated differently
because of his race or not? If he does, then he has to accept
both the good outcomes and the bad ones. If he does 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.
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.
In an interview
in the July 2006 issue of Essence Magazine the astute and
Akbar, Florida State University psychologist, put it best when
believe the solutions to our problems ultimately fall back on us,
or we’ve had it. The kinds of people who run the government at this
point in time don’t care that we’re in the condition we’re in."
agree more, but I don't think they ever cared all that much.
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.
© 2006 LewRockwell.com