Is it ever appropriate to blame the victim? As harsh as it sounds, yes, it is appropriate when the very perception of victimization has become a core problem in and of itself.
The NY Times reports on the surprising and disturbing results of a study conducted right here in the Cleveland area:
- The persistent academic gap between white and black students has touched off difficult and often ugly debates over the question why. Are racist stereotypes to blame? Substandard schools? Cultural attitudes?
This long-running argument may bubble up again next year with the arrival of a book that argues minority communities themselves contribute to student failure.
The book, “Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement” (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), is by John U. Ogbu, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a well-known figure in the field of student achievement for more than three decades. Indeed, it was Mr. Ogbu’s research that popularized the phrase “acting white” in the mid-1980’s to help explain why black students might disdain behaviors associated with high achievement, like speaking standard grammatical English.
Now Mr. Ogbu is back, arguing with renewed fervor that his most recent research shows that African-Americans’ own cultural attitudes are a serious problem that is too often neglected.
“No matter how you reform schools, it’s not going to solve the problem,” he said in an interview. “There are two parts of the problem, society and schools on one hand and the black community on the other hand.”
Professor Ogbu’s latest conclusions are highlighted in a study of blacks in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent Cleveland suburb whose school district is equally divided between blacks and whites. As in many racially integrated school districts, the black students have lagged behind whites in grade-point averages, test scores and placement in high-level classes. Professor Ogbu was invited by black parents in 1997 to examine the district’s 5,000 students to figure out why.
“What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents; they don’t know how their parents made it,” Professor Ogbu said in an interview. “They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children.”
And these are relatively affluent black families. Unfortunately, you have never “made it”: making it is an ongoing struggle for every family and every generation. It takes effort to keep the attention focused upon intellectual and academic achievement from generation to generation, especially when significant aspects of the culture act to undermine that value.
- 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.
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.
And there are those who feel the attitudes are class rather than race-based:
- “It’s difficult to determine what’s going on,” said Vincent J. Roscigno, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University who has studied racial differences in achievement. “‘I’m sort of split on Ogbu. It’s hard to compare a case analysis to a nationally representative statistical analysis. I do have a hunch that rural white poor kids are doing the same thing as poor black kids. I’m tentative about saying it’s race-based.”
Indeed, Professor Mickelson of the University of North Carolina found that working class whites as well as middle-class blacks were more apt to believe that doing well in school compromised their identity.
I am certain that this is at least partially true, having seen some of that attitude in plenty of white kids myself. But, coming full circle back to the Shaker study: why would the black kids in affluent, racially mixed Shaker Heights demonstrate different patterns than their economically similar white peers? There is something going on here, and I believe it comes back to the concept of victimization. It’s always easier to fall back on generalities – especially broad historical generalities – that explain underachievement than to take responsibility for ones own destiny and shun the easy alibis. The more readily available the alibis, the more readily individuals will take the easy way out – even subconsciously – and underachieve.
Therefore, it may be time to literally blame the victims, at least for their internalization of victimhood, which justifies underachievement – even making it some kind of noble statement in the most extreme form. With an ethos of victimhood present, even in relatively affluent blacks, no amount of affirmative action is going to right the ship and even the scores as affirmative action can only deal with symptoms, not the underlying malady.
Regarding affirmative action, the Supreme Court has returned to the fray:
- The court will decide by next June if race can be used in college admissions, an issue that the justices have dealt with only once before, in a cloudy 1978 ruling that led to more confusion.
The justices will consider whether white applicants to the University of Michigan and its law school were unconstitutionally turned down because of their race.
Justices took the unusual step of taking the case anyway, without awaiting a ruling.
The high court has passed up other well-known cases that presented similar questions about the role of race in higher education.
There was pressure from both sides of the debate for the court to intervene now.
“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the court’s decision in these cases will directly affect the lives not only of this generation of students but of generations of students to follow,” Theodore Shaw, counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told justices in a filing on behalf of black and Hispanic students.
….The last college higher education case at the Supreme Court involved Allan Bakke, a white man rejected for admission to a California medical school while minorities with lower test scores got in through a special program. The court on a 5-4 vote outlawed racial quotas. Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote separately that schools could still consider race, so long as they did not use quotas. Courts around the country have set contradictory rules.
….Maureen E. Mahoney, a lawyer for the university, told the court in a filing that if the 1978 ruling is overturned, it “would produce the immediate resegregation of many — and perhaps most — of this nation’s finest and most selective institutions.”
She said colleges are trying to improve learning with a diverse environment.
About 15 percent of the first year Michigan law students are minorities. The Supreme Court was told that without diversity considerations, the number of minorities in a freshman class could plunge to less than .04 percent. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
This would clearly be a bad outcome, but at what point do you say “enough special treatment, it is time for individuals to stand on their own”? This is a very, very difficult issue.