Racist talk about education

In a debate about lagging Hispanic and Black achievement scores, people are getting an inkling that culture is an issue, but they’re still getting confused by trying to phrase the problem as one of race, not culture — a way of categorizing the issue that’s always going to make it a target for easy arguments about “racism.” Anyway, here’s the beginning of the article that triggered the preceding assessment:

Every time state schools chief Jack O’Connell thought he was doing something to close the achievement gap, a new round of test scores showed that black and Latino students had gained no ground on their white and Asian American peers.

Like many educators, O’Connell assumed the culprit was poverty. Then he noticed an even wider ethnic disparity among students who were not poor.

The realization was a jolt: Being black or Latino – not poor – was what the low-scorers had in common. And it changed everything.

O’Connell now believes that widespread cultural ignorance within the California school system is responsible for the poor academic performance of many black and Latino students in school.

He offered the example of black children who learn at church that it’s good to clap, speak loudly and be a bit raucous. But doing the same thing at school, where 72 percent of teachers are white and may be unfamiliar with such customs, will get them in trouble, he said.

The achievement gap is “absolutely, positively not genetic,” O’Connell said. “All kids can learn. I’m saying it’s racial.”

I think O’Connell is almost right. Where’s he’s wrong, though, he’s wrong in big ways that obscure his message. First, he’s wrong when he says the issue is “racial.” While he gets that messages in the home may well contribute to school problems, these messages are cultural, not racial. Race is a biological classification; culture is how we’re raised. Framing the problem in terms of “race” not “culture,” is a disastrous way to get your message across, because people start hearing with their emotions, not their brains, when they hear the word “race.”

Now, once you start talking culture, you’re really talking. I happening to be a huge believer in the culture of education. I think race has a minimum contribution to academic success, despite the fact that Jews do seem to test out higher on the IQ scores, regardless of their ultimate academic achievement. I’m also dubious about poverty as a factor, since I think culture can override a lot of the poverty issues. My examples for this would be the Jewish emergence from the ghettos 100 years ago, and the ongoing success of Asian immigrants who leap in a single generation from slums to suburbs.

The Jewish and Asian cultures place a premium on education, while other cultures do not. Very wealthy Hispanic friends of ours many years ago started an organization aimed at combating the work-oriented culture of recent Hispanic immigrants. Our friends complained that the Hispanic parents, many of whom came from agrarian communities, fail to recognize education as the fast track to economic success in America. Instead of pushing their children to stay in school, they actively encourage them to drop out of school and get low level jobs as gardeners or field hands — effectively short-circuiting the American dream and creating a poverty, instead of a success, cycle.

O’Connell’s second error is that, at least in the quotations included in the article, he focuses on behavior, not values. Children can easily be taught to behave one way in one venue, and another way in another venue. This means that, just because African-American kids are lively participants in church does not mean that they cannot quickly master sitting quietly in class. What you can’t easily teach them, however, if they’re not already getting the message at home, is to value education, as opposed to looking at it as something forced on you by government or by a hostile white society. Still, I don’t want to denigrate the fact that O’Connell is on to something, which is that the home messages matter, and that home and community values will affect academic performance.

O’Connell’s going to have a tough road to hoe with his message, since nanny state representatives are already lining up their arguments saying that everything is the school’s fault and responsibility:

Also on center stage will be Glenn Singleton, the coach O’Connell hired for the Education Department’s racial sensitivity classes. Singleton runs a San Francisco consulting firm called Pacific Educational Group and is the author of “Courageous Conversations about Race: a Strategy for Achieving Equity in Schools.”

Contrary to widely held views that parents play a strong role in whether their children do well academically, Singleton believes the schools, not parents, are the biggest influence.

“If we were to say that black or brown kids don’t perform as well because of their parents, we’re saying black and brown parents aren’t as effective as white parents,” Singleton told The Chronicle. “That’s pretty much a racist statement.”

At schools with large numbers of black and Latino students, white teachers are not only culturally unfamiliar with their students, they are often the “least seasoned and skilled” at teaching, he said.

Curriculum and achievement tests are also Eurocentric, Singleton said, despite the state’s efforts to purge all bias.

By the way, anyone who wants a quick lesson in home matters should watch Everybody Hates Chris, a show that’s mostly funny, and that is one of the best vehicles for conveying the responsibility parents have to their children when it comes to doing well in school and living a moral life, regardless of surrounding circumstances.

UPDATESelwyn Duke has a great companion piece to this post, an article in which he discusses the fact that we now shy away from any information about different group characteristics.

By the way, I’ve noticed that discussions about differences in racial or cultural groups can be discussed if they come from sensitivity trainers.  Although I grew up with a bazillion Asians (my high school class was about 60%) Asian, it wasn’t until I was forced at one of my law firms to go through a mandatory sensitivity training class that I learned that Asian women are retiring and cannot be criticized in public.  I hadn’t noticed that in my friends, many of whom were wild women who made me look like a quiet, blushing flower.  I gather that we’re allowed to reach race based conclusions if it will force us to change the dominant culture ‘sbehavior, but not if those conclusions try to examine the group’s characteristics to explain vexing cultural problems.


16 Responses

  1. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article Hispanic, Black, “racism    Sphere: Related Content Trackback URL […]

  2. Since schools place only a modest value on merit, especially public schools at the lower levels….our meta-message is that merit is minor or secondary.

    Only the children who come to school with merit as a significant value are likely to apply the necessary effort. Even then, the public schools often suppress the meritorious students. I speak from experience. I had many teachers who were incapable of recognizing academic merit.

    For any child to understand the value of academic merit, it is necessary to promote and accelerate the meritorious students, regardless of ethnic origins.

  3. We also have to teach kids that superior talent in others does not diminish their own worth as human beings and that happiness comes from recognizing, developing, and using their own talents. We have all benefitted from the talent of Thomas Edison, but those benefits have been spread to us by linemen, electricians, and truckers who deliver our lightbulbs to local stores. I have have the feeeling that the opposite message is often given: everyone gets As, but my kid got into Harvard.

  4. All great points. But it’s racists of you all, anyway. I’ve been told meritocracy is a white institution. And expat, you need to learn that there is no such thing as superior talent (which is why we need to do away with competition- people could reach misleading conclusions). We don’t need anymore Edison’s, anyway.

  5. oops – racist, not racistS of you.

  6. I often work with upper grade level students in the Los Angeles area. The student body at their schools is 95% Hispanic. The community is plagued by gangs, a high drop-out rate, teen pregnancy,substance abuse,and so on.

    A majority of the kids have no future plans or goals. They live life in the moment, are aimless and drift. Things happen to them- they get pregnant, thy drop-out, they get in a fight, etc., but I rarely see a kid with goals and direction.

    Studying and succeeding in school is not considered cool.

    Parents are often not involved in their children’s education. They love their kids, but they do not know what is happening at school. They don’t know how to create for their children a climate that promotes study, reading, or an exposure to the world of the arts, science, or even to the world beyond their block. Kids are taught to sit quietly, not to inquire and thirst for knowledge.

    Many of the parents are very unsophisticated. Quite a few are unable to read or write at all. Others have a very meager education. They are insecure and ashamed about this. Education is unfamiliar to them.

    Many of the children’s parents do not speak English though they may have lived in the United States for a decade or more. This models for the children that it is appropriate to give up when it is difficult to learn something.

    No one is at home to help with homework, and schools have no tutorial programs to help kids catch up with unmastered basics, like times tables. With no mentor, no guidance, and no support, kids quit.

    Schools no longer have vocational programs to teach a decent trade to kids who will not be sscholars. This leads to a higher drop-out rate.

    Kids are not attached to America. Allegience is either socially based, as in the gang identity, or ethnically based.

    One day I happened to see a list of the straight A students at one of the schools in the community I mentioned. Though 95% of the students at this school are Latino, well fewer than 10% of the high achieving students on this list had Spanish surnames. In fact, based on the names on the list, the vast majority of the top students were immigrants, but they were immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.

    If the cause for this isn’t cultural, then the great liberal experts are saying that the 95% majority Hispanic kids in the school are being discriminated against, yet how does this explain how the equally brown Arab kids, Indian kids, and Asian kids succeed in spite of the discrimination?

    If the cause isn’t cultural or discrimination,are the experts saying that Hispanic kids are less biologically able to learn than Asian or white kids? Now, if that isn’t racist I don’t know what is.

  7. Lulu,

    Thanks for a great description of facts on the ground. I wonder whether something could be done with popular culture to change attitudes. I remember the 70s when many of our cultural leaders went radical chic and played up the black radicals who said that learning to read is acting white. Blacks and hispanics have been trapped by our own cultural masochism since then. It is really time for the cultural elite to confess its sins and provide something better for our society.

  8. Book’s article has this quote:
    “If we were to say that black or brown kids don’t perform as well because of their parents, we’re saying black and brown parents aren’t as effective as white parents,” Singleton told The Chronicle. “That’s pretty much a racist statement.”

    What you have here is the “leaders of color” are unable to separate race from culture. You could argue that that makes them racist.

    I know quite a few highly talented and highly motivated people who happen to be Black or Hispanic (or if you will, of African-American or Mexican lineage). In every case, the family culture AND their neighborhood culture were different from the usual apathetic norm.

    Bill Cosby is right. He’s been talking about the need to change attitudes and behaviors within many African-American communities, and he’s right. He will hopefully continue his lone protest.

  9. Studying and succeeding in school is not considered cool.

    Studying western ideas and principles of government is not cool either. Nor is allying with the United States. Such is the common parochialism that binds disparate human barbarian tribes across oceans.

    Studying knowledge in order to apply it for destructive use, now that is looked well upon.

  10. […] sense to deal with poorly performing students Posted on November 14, 2007 by Bookworm I blogged the other day about a brave educator’s claim that cultural differences (which he mistakenly described as […]

  11. The argument that the lack of sensitivity of the teachers, O’Connell’s thesis, is the basis for differences in ethnic academic performance is totally destroyed by one fact: Black and Latino kids who have only Black and Latino teachers don’t perform any better on academic tests.

    They also don’t do any better at staying in school just because their teachers have the same ethnic background.

    Of course we are ignoring the fact that we are talking about Black and Latino male students and there are virtually no male teachers of ANY sort.

  12. […] Bookworm Room, “Racist Talk About Education” […]

  13. […] illegal aliens on drug charges. Sigh. The other half of second place went to yours truly for Racist Talk About Education.  There, I applauded an educator for tackling head-on the fact that African Americans and […]

  14. …black and brown parents aren’t as effective as white parents,” Singleton told The Chronicle. “That’s pretty much a racist statement.”

    At schools with large numbers of black and Latino students, white teachers are not only culturally unfamiliar with their students, they are often the “least seasoned and skilled” at teaching, he said.”

    Is it ironic to anybody else that he labels the first idea as racist, then accuses white teachers of the same thing? I’ve noticed that tendency among race baiters and multiculti idiots.

    And, if it is true, it isn’t racist at all to point out that fact.

  15. […] The Law” by Rhymes With Right 3. “Racist Talk About Education” by Bookworm Room 4. “Behind the Anger” by Done With Mirrors 4. “Hollywood’s KoolAid Fest […]

  16. Sorry, I don’t have a lot time to say why trigger I’m in a hurry and happen to read your put up, nonetheless i really feel I have to put in writing you that I strongly disagree with you. I’ll come again and clarify myself higher later. Cheers

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