Black Boys in Crisis: Was Johnathon Ogbu Right?

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

In 2003, educational anthropologist John Ogbu published Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement. The book was based on Ogbu’s research in an Ohio suburb, which examined the reasons African-American students were not achieving the same academic results as their white peers. Ogbu concluded, as he had previously done following research in a Washington, D.C., school district, that part of the reason for the academic disengagement was a disdain for “acting white.” In general, he claimed, African-American students were hampered by a tendency toward anti-intellectualism.

Ogbu’s book and conclusions generated enormous controversy, and are still cited and argued over today. Subsequent researchers have both found evidence in support of Ogbu’s claims (e.g., “An Empirical Analysis of ‘Acting White’” by Fryer and Torelli) and comprehensively debunked them. Among the latter group is Ivory Toldson. In a recent article in The Root, Toldson analyzed data from a CBS News poll of a thousand students across the US. His analysis indicated that there was indeed a bias against academic achievement. For example, less than half of all students said that their friends would be supportive if they chose to study rather than hang out.

Similarly, less than a fifth of all students said that they viewed high academic achievers as “cool.” However, when Toldson looked at how the different racial groups responded, he found that African Americans were, in fact, more inclined to support studying and view good students as “cool.”  In other words, anti-intellectualism is not confined to the black population: it is a nationwide educational problem. There is an inclination among all students to shun the nerd and denigrate those who spend all their free time on academic work.

Though writers have expended a lot of energy debunking Ogbu’s research, what gets lost is that, whether or not it is primarily an African-American problem, anti-intellectualism remains a significant obstacle to a black boy seeking education. I know this from firsthand experience, both as a student and as a teacher: there is a vibe among a certain echelon of young African-American males that disdains academic achievement.

I am not claiming this vibe is absent among white students; the research indicates that white students are possibly more susceptible to anti-intellectualism. What I am saying is that if we are to achieve gains in educating black boys, the anti-intellectual element will have to be counteracted.

A key way anti-intellectualism manifests itself is in the lack of general knowledge that African Americans have on topics outside their immediate needs. In The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby talks about the disturbing trend of record-high numbers of US college graduates coupled with Americans who seem to lack basic, foundational knowledge.

A 2009 study conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and Citizens discovered that most Americans cannot answer basic science questions correctly. Not surprisingly, the study also indicated that African-American students scored even lower than the national average. Despite these dismal results, 80 percent of Americans surveyed insisted that science education is “absolutely essential” for the US economy, healthcare system, and global reputation.

The numbers tell us that the intellectual impoverishment of African Americans starts in childhood. A 2010 survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that while white children spent 31 minutes reading for leisure during the week, and 37 minutes on weekends, black students spent just 17 and 18 minutes, respectively. These numbers may not seem all that troublesome, but a lack of literacy has been found to have a strong correlation to crime: around 70 percent of US inmates rank in the lowest brackets for reading comprehension and ability.

So, was Johnathon Ogbu right? Only time will tell.

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