The Achievement Gap: Another Gift From the State?


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.

Conversely, 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.

More important 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?

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.

Which source 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.

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. Either way, it is not driven by a cultural disdain for education. Certainly, this seems like valid conclusion as well.

Frankly though, 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? 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:

"Professor Ogbu is no stranger to controversy. His theory of u2018acting 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 u2018white' 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 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 Really Needed?

Speaking of 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 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 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.

Recently The 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 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.

Every black 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 provocative Na'im Akbar, Florida State University psychologist, put it best when he said:

"I 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."

I couldn't agree more, but I don’t think they ever cared all that much.

October 11, 2006