Educational Differences

Now a Berkeley anthropologist, John Ogbu, has published Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement. It’s the result of a nine-month ethnographic study in Shaker Heights, an affluent Cleveland suburb where one third of the population and half the public school students are black. Black parents invited Ogbu to explain why whites average a 3.45 Grade Point Average; blacks average a 1.9.

Ogbu, who grew up in Nigeria, says suburban black kids aren’t working very hard. He discussed Low Effort Syndrome with the East Bay Express: [Ogbu] concluded that there was a culture among black students to reject behaviors perceived to be "white," which included making good grades, speaking Standard English, being overly involved in class, and enrolling in honors or advanced-placement courses.

The students told Ogbu that engaging in these behaviors suggested one was renouncing his or her black identity. Ogbu concluded that the African-American peer culture, by and large, put pressure on students not to do well in school, as if it were an affront to blackness.

Middle-class and upper-class black parents didn’t combat this culture, Ogbu found. Parents had an odd doublethink about their children’s success: They saw the schools as white institutions that can’t be trusted to respect black students. Yet black parents delegated responsibility for their children’s success to the schools, assuming that they’d fulfilled their role by moving to Shaker Heights. Black parents care about their children’s grades, but are less likely than others to keep track of their children’s homework or participate in school activities, Ogbu found. In their view, if Jamal goofs off, it’s his teacher’s fault for not nurturing him and motivating him to work harder. Ogbu found Shaker Heights teachers expect less of black students. But he told the Express that was natural. "Week after week the kids don’t turn in their homework. What do you expect teachers to do?"