Not-so-Little White Lies: Education and the Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism

Published as a ZNet Commentary,, November 28, 2002

Cherished myths die hard, especially when those myths serve the interests of the more powerful members of a society at the expense of the less powerful.

For generations, slave owners ignored their chattels’ humanity, to say nothing of their desire for freedom, even coming up with a name for the presumed mental illness that “explained” the urge on the part of their property to run away. Drapetomania, it was called: a powerful disorder that afflicted the brains of slaves, rendering them incapable of recognizing how good they had it.

The subordination of persons of color has regularly been rationalized with absurd racist stereotypes, even when evidence flatly contradicted the illogic of those assumptions. So, for example, segregation was needed to allow blacks to develop to the “limit of their capacities.” Japanese Americans had to be interned for “national security” because they were disloyal to America. Filipinos were incapable of self-government; Hawaiians were heathens in need of Christian discipline, and so on and so forth.

It mattered little that persons of color were actually quite loyal to the U.S. (more so than probably justified); or that non-white nations had long exercised self-government before being “discovered” by Europeans. And the myths would linger even after social movements forced changes in the society that had nurtured them. Although the more extreme versions of these beliefs are less often heard than in years past, newer variations are common: so instead of claims that blacks are a separate species or genetically inferior (which of course are still articulated, as with best-selling books like The Bell Curve), new and more palatable claims of cultural inferiority have come to predominate.

According to this analysis, it’s not that blacks and other people of color have defective DNA, but rather, that their families are dysfunctional, their values counterproductive and their behaviors pathological. Starting with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 treatise on the “crisis” of the black family, which he characterized as a metastasizing matriarchal mass of antisocial tendencies, and extending through Dinesh D’Souza’s argument that blacks suffer a “civilizational deficit” relative to whites and Asians, dissing black culture and families has become a favorite pastime, impervious to logic or hard data.

Take, for instance, the oft-repeated claim that lower black achievement in schools reflects the lower value placed on education by the black community, compared to whites or Asians. Eschewing the idea that racial discrimination, past or present, might be implicated in differential educational outcomes between African Americans and others, such commentators insist that educational success is not held in high enough regard by blacks, and that this difference in cultural values explains why whites and Asians score higher on achievement tests, tend to get higher grades, and are more likely to go to college than their black counterparts. Many critics claim that blacks have adopted the attitude that doing well in school is “acting white,” and thus have sabotaged their own futures by downgrading intellectual pursuits. Black families come in for special condemnation under such an analysis, criticized for not reinforcing the work done in the classroom, and thereby undercutting whatever success teachers might otherwise have in educating their children.

But although the right would have us believe that black underperformance in school is due to cultural value differences, the evidence suggests that such an excuse is flimsy at best. While D’Souza insists that black students do worse in school because they do less homework on average than whites and Asians, existing data points to a different conclusion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 percent of black fourth-graders do one hour or more of homework per night, as do 45 percent of whites and 47 percent of Hispanics. In fact, black and Hispanic fourth-graders are both more likely than whites that age to do more than one hour of homework, with 18 percent of Hispanics, 17 percent of blacks, but only 15 percent of whites putting in this amount of study time daily. Although Asians demonstrate more study time at this level, the differences between them and other students of color are not substantial: about 21 percent of Asian students in fourth grade study more than one hour.

There is also no evidence that black parents take less interest in their children’s education, or fail to reinforce the learning that takes place in the classroom once their children are home. Once again, NCES statistics indicate that black children are more likely than whites to often spend time with their parents on homework. Black students are twice as likely as white students to get help from their parents on homework every day of the school week (twenty percent compared to ten percent), and while roughly half of black students get help from parents on homework at least three times each week, approximately two-thirds of whites get such help two times or less, with whites a third more likely than blacks to work with parents rarely if ever on their homework.

Countering the notion that low-income families don’t value education or reinforce learning in the home, data also contradicts commonly held class biases. The poorest students, from families with less than $5,000 in annual income are actually the most likely to get substantial homework help from their parents, while those from families with incomes of $75,000 or more are least likely to do so. Half of the poorest students work with their parents on lessons three or more times weekly, while only a third of the wealthiest students do. Likewise, evidence indicates there is no substantial difference between white and black students in terms of whether their parents attend parent-teacher conferences or school meetings. Black parents and their children are also equally likely as their white counterparts to visit a library, art gallery, zoo, aquarium, museum or historic site, as well as a community or religious event: further countering the notion that black parents take less interest in providing educational opportunities for their kids. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, three of four black children are read to by their parents when they are young, and black youth are equally or more likely than whites to be taught letters, numbers and words by their parents between the ages of three and five.

Of all the evidence disproving the notion that blacks place less value on education than whites, nothing makes the point more clearly than attendance information. Black twelfth graders are more than twice as likely as whites to have perfect attendance (16 percent versus 7.4 percent), and are even more likely than Asians to have perfect attendance. Whites are more likely than blacks to have missed seven or more days during the last semester, while blacks are the least likely to have missed that many days of school. There is also no significant difference between whites, Asians and blacks in terms of their likelihood to skip classes.

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to recite any of these statistics to make the point that blacks value education as much as anyone else. The entire history of African Americans has been one of constant struggle to obtain scholarly credentials: from learning to read English even when it was illegal to do so, to establishing their own colleges and universities when white schools blocked their access, to setting up freedom schools in places like Mississippi, with the intention of providing the comprehensive learning opportunities that the state routinely denied to blacks.

Since that time, there have been any number of studies on black youth attitudes towards education, and while there are surely some such youth who sadly de-emphasize scholarly pursuits, there is little or no evidence that this phenomenon is unique to the black community. A recent opinion poll of black youth, ages 11-17, found that the biggest hope for these youth was to go to college, and additional studies have found that black youth value academic success every bit as much as white students and often place an even higher priority on educational achievement than whites.

Despite claims by many on the right that blacks (especially youth) lack a connection to “mainstream values,” evidence contradicts this notion. One mid-1990s questionnaire of black high school seniors found that black seniors were just as likely as white seniors to say that a good marriage and family life were “extremely important” life goals; 32 percent more likely than whites to say that professional success and accomplishment were “extremely important” life goals; 26 percent more likely than whites to say “making a contribution to society” was extremely important; and 75 percent more likely than whites to say “being a leader in their community” was an extremely important life goal. Black seniors were also 21 percent more likely than whites to attend weekly religious services and almost twice as likely as whites to say that religion played a “very important role in their lives.” Considering the right’s call for more religiosity in American life, such figures seem to indicate that blacks are well ahead of others in this regard, and by the standards of conservative moralists, should be considered paragons of virtue.

But in spite of having a comparable base of values, blacks continue to lag behind whites in terms of income, educational accomplishment, and professional success. Even black students from families with $70,000 or more in annual income score lower, on average, on the SAT, than whites from families earning less than $20,000 annually; and blacks from families with $50,000 or more in annual income score lower than whites from families with $6,000 or less in annual earnings. Since the families from which these black students come are successful under the typical standards of evaluation, they cannot be scoring lower than whites for either genetic or cultural reasons: after all, their parents are “making it,” and are not likely to be the kind of folks claimed to exhibit “pathological underclass” values.

So what’s left? Unfortunately for those who would prefer not to admit the salience of institutionalized racism in the U.S., the answer is clear: substantially unequal outcomes are the result of substantially unequal opportunities. Black students are only half as likely as whites to be placed in high-tracked English or math classes, and 2.4 times more likely than whites to be placed in remedial classes. Even when blacks demonstrate equal ability with their white counterparts, they are less likely to be placed in accelerated classes. When kids from lower-income families, disproportionately of color, correctly answer all math questions on a standardized test, they are no more likely to be placed in advanced or college tracks than children from upper-income families who missed a fourth of the questions, and they are 26 percent less likely to be placed in advanced tracks than upper-income persons with comparably perfect scores. Even the President of the College Board has acknowledged that black 8th graders with test scores comparable to whites are disproportionately placed in remedial high school classes.

The impact of being tracked low in school has been shown to be profound. One of the nation’s leading experts on tracking, Jeannie Oakes, reports that according to her own studies and those of others, being tracked low fosters reductions in student feelings of their own abilities and helps depress aspirations for the future among low-tracked students.

It is this context that must be considered when evaluating the tendency for some blacks to claim that getting good grades is “acting white.” If one’s schools have repeatedly given the impression that indeed education is a white thing; that the white kids are the bright kids; that everything worth knowing about sprang out of the forehead of white Europe, and that one’s own aspirations are unrealistic, it ought not be surprising that some children exposed to such racist mentalities-and teachers who assume from the outset that not all groups are equally capable of learning-might develop a bad attitude about school.

But as with most things, blaming the victims of this process will neither improve their opportunities nor alter the mechanisms by which their disempowerment is perpetuated. It will, however, continue to offer a pseudo-intellectual lifeline to right-wing pundits whose careers have been built on bashing society’s have-nots.

Leave a Reply