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BOOK REVIEW: Explaining the achievement gap
Generations of black Americans have viewed education as the best way to get ahead economically and to overcome racial discrimination. It is a “weapon of advancement and shield of self-esteem,” writes University of Arkansas scholar Stuart Buck. But for some black Americans beginning in the 1960s, educational achievement began to look like an act of cultural and racial betrayal. Doing well in school was considered “white.” This remarkable shift in black mores is the subject of Mr. Buck’s new book, “Acting White.”
Mr. Buck says a black reaction against white racism did not provoke this hostility to education. Rather, he identifies an unexpected cause. After combing the history of black attitudes toward education, Mr. Buck puts his finger on a counterintuitive culprit: school desegregation.
During the era of Jim Crow, before school desegregation in the South, most blacks went to all-black public schools. That meant black schools became a focal point for black communities during the 90 years of legally enforced racial segregation in public facilities. “The black school,” Mr. Buck observes, “was the most important institution in the black community, next to the church.” With black teachers and principals, blacks felt ownership over their schools, and students had pride in them.
Despite persistent material deprivations, black schools “encouraged black children to pursue education with a passion.” Tellingly, the historical record during segregation is “remarkably unanimous” on one point: If they did well in school, blacks didn’t call out one another for “acting white.”
This began to change when schools were formally desegregated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and when integration began in earnest 10 years later. Integration brought a cascade of unintended consequences that included widespread “white flight” leading to calamitous drops in white public school enrollment. White enrollments fell in America’s 40 largest cities between 1968 and 1988 and vanished almost completely in some cities such as Washington, D.C.
But the most important consequence, in Mr. Buck’s view, was the widespread closings of black schools and the firings of black principals. Tasked by court rulings and federal injunctions to integrate their school systems, white-controlled school boards closed black schools while keeping white schools open, and they put white principals in charge. Mr. Buck has done the research and gives us the numbers state by state.
For instance, a mere eight years after desegregation, the doors to all but 13 of North Carolina’s 226 black high schools were shuttered. And black principals lost their jobs. In nine Southern states, their number fell from 1,424 to 225 within a decade. Said a black man of his Alabama hometown: “The Supreme Court decision of 1954 didn’t give us school integration in Tuscumbia. It gave us school elimination.” The new integrated schools, observes Mr. Buck, were “more unfriendly to black students, and less likely to feature black role models of academic success.”
The upshot of this was that school began to look like a white institution. With white teachers and principals, and the seats in advanced classes filled mostly with white students, it’s no surprise that many blacks saw success in school as an attempt to seek approval from whites. Centuries of forced subservience had created a “deep and historic antagonism,” Mr. Buck writes, “toward those blacks who sought to advance their own privilege by associating with oppressive whites.” So it became ingrained in black culture that doing well in school meant betraying black identity.
Mr. Buck points to survey research showing that on average smart black students have fewer friends, while smart white students have more friends. What’s more, this is true only in racially mixed schools. In overwhelmingly black schools, high-achieving black students aren’t accused of acting white and don’t experience a popularity drop-off.
Of course, school resegregation is no answer. To excel in learning, neither white nor black students need to be surrounded by classmates of the same race or taught by teachers of the same race. Mr. Buck isn’t emphasizing the importance of race. His book recognizes the power of culture. In school, culture is created largely by classmates and teachers; outside of school, culture is created by families and neighborhoods. How they feel about school matters immensely.
Consider school busing for racial integration. At one time, judges and professional educators thought busing black students to white schools would improve their schooling because they would be surrounded by higher achieving students from middle-class families. But whatever truth there is in improving student achievement by changing the culture of schooling is lost if a child is torn from his own community and forced to confront hostile or sullen strangers.
“Acting White” is short on specific solutions. Though Mr. Buck emphasizes that we “should be tolerant of educational experimentation,” he doesn’t mean the standardized curricula and tests imposed by educators and state officials. Instead, he wants families and communities to explore such schooling options as black charter schools, single-sex schools and city voucher programs. Though not explicit on this point, Mr. Buck’s support of school choice doesn’t appear to preclude support for local neighborhood public schools. What’s important is that schools give parents and students a real sense of ownership.
Mr. Buck’s emphasis on the role of unintended consequences highlights a certain form of conservatism that has been absent from recent debates on education reform. He reminds us that we should remember that everything is composed of light and shadow. Before we attempt to improve schools, we need to understand the impact of change on culture, on deeply ingrained habits and ways of thinking.
Phil Brand is author of “The Neighbor’s Kid: A Cross-Country Journey in Search of What Education Means to Americans,” forthcoming from the Capital Research Center, fall 2010.
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