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In the United States, disparities remain in the educational achievement gap between

African Americans and white youth. This historical trend can be explained through a number of
different theories; however, in this paper, I will examine this issue through the lens of John
Ogbus controversial 2003 study, Black American Students In an Affluent Suburb: A Study of
Academic Disengagement, conducted in Shaker Heights, Cleveland. This study found that the
grade point average of African American high school students lingered a full point and a half
behind that of white students. The academic achievement gap between white and black students
brings up a controversial debate over why this gap persists.
John Uzo Ogbu was an anthropology professor at the University of California-Berkeley
and renowned researcher who had theories on race, intelligence, and how the two interacted to
affect education and economic achievement. His latest work, published in 2003, the year of his
death, studied African American youth in upscale Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shaker Heights has a
deep history. It is one of Clevelands first suburbs. The neighborhood is racially mixed now, but
before the Civil Rights Movement it was considered a "sundown town", meaning residents were
all white on purpose, driving away prospective African American residents, thus forbidding
integration in the neighborhood (Loewen, 2006). These towns kept African Americans excluded
through agreements with real estate agents, local legislation supporting racial discrimination, and
in some cases they even went as far as lynching (Loewen, 2006). To understand the study, just
like the past, it is important to explain the situation going on in Shaker Heights more recently. In
2008, the high school produced twice as many National Merit Scholarship winners than any
other public school in the state. According to a 2009 survey of the school, Shaker Heights High
School "is really two schools one school with students in an outstanding Advanced Placement
program and one school with students with academic needs (Griffith, 2009).

In 1997, this affluent suburbs school district population was made up of one-third
African Americans. It is close to half black, half white today. However, African Americans still
lag behind in important academic facets such as homework completion, test scores, and AP
placement. Prior to Ogbus study, on average, black students earned a 1.9 GPA while their white
counterparts held an average of 3.45.
In 1997, when this data went public after being published in the high school newspaper,
parents were concerned and outraged. How could there be such drastic differences when the
socioeconomic playing fielding was so level? How could there be such drastic differences where
school funding and unqualified teachers could not be held accountable? They wanted to know
where to place the blame. Some suspected causes were discriminatory educational and social
opportunities and lowered teacher expectations for black students (Lee, 2002). To find answers,
the parents sought out John Ogbu, a scholar who had long studied how members of different
ethnic groups perform academically, to investigate the causes behind this issue. Unfortunately,
Ogbu provided an answer that would dishearten the parents and upset many researchers. His
explanation concluded that African Americans own cultural attitudes were to blame and that the
neglect parents, educators and lawmakers showed these attitudes played a major role in the
students poor academic success (Ogbu, 2003). Ogbu recognized the complexity of the problem
and attributed some cause for the disparity to other factors such as discrimination, teacher bias,
and school culture; but he emphasized that on average the African American students in Shaker
Heights did not apply themselves in school due to a peer culture that ridiculed academic success
as acting white (Ogbu, 2003).
In addition to a lack of effort on the part of the student, in his findings, Ogbu concluded
that another major cause of the low academic engagement of blacks and the gap between the

white and black students in school performance was the role black parents were playing, or
failing to play, in the students lives. During an interview with the New York Times, Ogbu said
that What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not
thinking like their parents; they dont know how their parents made it. They are looking at
rappers in ghettos as their role models (Page, 2003). Moreover, the parents work two jobs, three
jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children (Page, 2003).
Ogbu even argued that the academic disparity persisted because African American students were
lazy, which outraged parents and academia throughout the nation (Downey, 2008).

Professor Ogbus research has long been linked to controversy. In Black American
Students In an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, Ogbu states, Black
American students perform less well than white and immigrant minority students at every social
class level" (Ogbu, 2003). His ideas are not new, in 1986, Ogbu, along with Signithia Fordham,
coined the term acting white. They concluded that African Americans who achieved
academically were perceived by African American youth as selling out by holding white
stereotypes (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). However, according to data from the National Education
Longitudinal Study, those who self-reported high popularity with peers were also the most
academically successful students of their racial group (Ainsworth-Darne; & Downey, 1998).
Plus, Ogbu and Fordham believed that one major reason African Americans do worse in school
is due to the coexistence of opposing attitudes toward academic effort and success. They
attributed the disparity to historical trends that refused to acknowledge that African Americans
were capable of scholastic achievement, and partly because blacks began to doubt their own
ability as defined by the white persons privilege (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). Ogbu, a Nigerian
immigrant, believes this type of oppositional attitude can be attributed to the African Americans

suffering from past oppression and thwarted opportunities at the hands of white people. He
asserted that African Americans that did well in school compromised their identity, and this
ultimately led to African Americans blaming peers who achieved as acting white or selling out
by emulating white people (Ogbu, 2003).

However, even before the publication of Black American Students In an Affluent Suburb:
A Study of Academic Disengagement in 2003, researchers began to challenge Professor Ogbus
findings. According to Ronald Ferguson, a researcher at the Kennedy School of Government at
Harvard, who analyzed 40,000 middle and high school students in 15 middle class school
districts, including Shaker Heights, evidence shows African Americans do not ridicule those who
do well in school more than other minority groups (Lee, 2002). Plus, the study, which was
conducted by the Minority Student Achievement Network, found that African Americans work
as hard and care as much about school as other races (Lee, 2002). Finally, Ferguson challenges
Ogbus study on Ogbus claim that family background differences in Shaker Heights were
neither immense nor significant. Ferguson reports that parental education was in fact lower
among African Americans than whites, and that fifty percent of the African American students in
the Shaker Heights study reported living with one or no parent (Lee, 2002). Parental education
and growing up in a single-parent home correlate with educational success. Those growing up in
a single-parent home are more likely to not finish school (Ogbu, 1997), and Ogbu fails to
acknowledge the importance of family structure on the positive educational development of
African American children. Likewise to his misleading comparisons of educational levels and
backgrounds, income levels of black and white families in Shaker Heights are distorted. African
Americans in Shaker Heights are portrayed as being more well off than may actually be true. As
stated, many of the parents that participated in the study were first-generation college graduates.

Therefore, many of the parents had less access to family resources than their white counterparts.
For example, in the black community, incomes may be made up from two-career families
holding several jobs compared to a single breadwinner in many of the white households (Lee,
2002). The skewed numbers mean that more African Americans have parents that work and are
away more while earning less, limiting their time to help with homework or the ability to hire a
tutor, sign child up for a sport, or organization.

In addition to this evidence, according to Karolyn Tyson, a sociologist at the University


of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke, who also
conducted an 18-month ethnographic study of 11 schools in North Carolina, Ogbus research is
false. These researchers found that black students share the same attitude toward achievement as
other races: They want to succeed academically and they understand that succeeding
academically is necessary to get ahead later in life (Tyson & Darity Jr., 2005). They note that
while theories such as Ogbu's attributed the cultural attitudes of adolescents towards schooling as
the major factor behind low academic performance of African Americans, students of all cultures
exhibit oppositional attitudes. According to Ogbus cultural-ecological theory, African
Americans who adopt this oppositional attitude may reject academic achievement in order not to
threaten their African American identity. Unlike the results of Ogubus study, their research
suggests that black children perceive school as achievement-oriented and are engaged with the
process of schooling, against Ogbus theory of academic disengagement. This comprehensive
study showed that academic achievement is considered an important part of African Americans
identity. Furthermore, Tyson and Darity go on to disprove the acting white hypothesis by
explaining that this form of peer pressure is not racialized as it prevalent among all other races.
Those who reach high academic achievements, regardless of race, are to a certain degree labeled

as geeks or nerds, just as the athlete is labeled the jock. This pressure is produced not from
culture or race, but rather from school structures in which kids label each other as they join
cliques beginning in adolescence. (Tyson & Darity Jr., 2005). They conclude that it is wrong to
stigmatize African Americans. They believe that the acting white hypothesis wrongfully
targets African Americans' lack of effort and cultural identity as the scapegoat behind the
discrimination in a Eurocentric school system. They conclude that the main reason behind
achievement gap is not children themselves, but rather cultural aspects of the school system. In
addition, data shows that the burden of acting white is not prevalent among African Americans
surveyed (Tyson & Darity Jr., 2005).

In conclusion, I disagree with the basic findings in Ogbus controversial study, which
seems to, as some of his critics point out, embrace a blame-the-victim mentality. It is misguided
to fully place the blame for a critical gap in academic achievement on the disengagement of
adolescent students and to assert that African American culture is primarily responsible for the
disparity in academic achievement existing between white and African American high school
students. If African American students are disengaged, as Ogbu claimed, what brought about the
disengagement? It is possible that the exclusion of African American students from challenging
courses, as cited by Tyson and Darity, may play a role. It may be that it is difficult for African
American students to engage and fully achieve in those school systems where opportunities are
not extended to them in an equal manner. Teacher bias may play a role, their messages may be
subtle but are powerful for students expectations. I believe the roots of these gaps lie in how
pervasive racism is in American society. Though different legislation, resources available, and
the disparity in opportunities offered, African Americans are at a disadvantage. Importantly,
there is no simple solution or answer to what causes the achievement gap. My blame extends far

from teacher effectiveness and funding, to parental involvement, and charter schools. There are
an abundance of factors that impact a child education, but ultimately, it is not the kids raciallybased behavior or expectations that the primary cause. It is the system and society that is not
attempting to adapt to them??

Works Cited:
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Review 63:536-53.
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Griffith, M. (2009). Quality assurance review report-Shaker Heights schools. Retrieved from
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