Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2003 / 12 Elul 5763
Lessons from an anthropologist
He was one of the people who gave us "Ebonics" in the 1990s. But don't hold that against him.
John U. Ogbu also helped bring attention to the self-destructive tendency that drives some black students to reject standard English and academic excellence as "acting white," as if ignorance were supposed to be a black thing.
The distinguished University of California at Berkeley anthropologist most recently made news when a group of black middle-class parents hired him to examine why their teenagers were not succeeding academically as well as their white counterparts. After careful study, Ogbu concluded that the black parents were a big part of the problem. (See Black parents must
teach their kids to succeed )
When some scholars and civil rights organizers accused him of "blaming the victim" for problems caused by racism and its legacy, he shrugged off the backlash. "If things get too rough," he joked, "I'll have to charter a plane and go back to my village in Nigeria."
Alas, Ogbu's body has returned to that village, but for the last time. He died Aug. 20 in an Oakland hospital. Doctors say his heart stopped after a lengthy back operation. He was 64.
Whether you liked what Ogbu had to say or not, he was like the starship Enterprise, boldly going where nobody had gone before, into today's touchiest questions on student achievement.
Why, he asked, do some minority groups lag behind whites, while others do as well or better?
The answer, Ogbu offered, depends a lot on how you--or your family--got here.
The 10 to 15 percent gap between black and white IQ scores in America is about the same as the test-score gap between the privileged and deprived groups in other countries, he noted.
Children of Japan's minority Burakumi ethnic group, for example, tend to score an average 10 to 15 points below the children in their country's dominant group. But when you move Burakumi children to America, at least one study shows they do as well on IQ tests and in school as other Japanese pupils here do.
Similarly, the children of black immigrants from Africa or the West Indies tend to perform well above the average of native-born black American students.
Ogbu distinguished between the "voluntary immigrants," those who came to America with their identity intact because they chose to come here, and "involuntary immigrants" or "castelike" minorities, like U.S.-born blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, who were descended from American slavery or military conquests.
Ogbu found the latter group to be more likely to adopt an "oppositional identity" to the mainstream culture, a defensive posture that often works to doom them and their offspring to a lower-caste social position.
One consequence, Ogbu found in the mid-1980s with Signithia Fordham, now a professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester, can be a rejection of academic achievement as a "white" behavior. Black students also can fail to comprehend or care enough about the connection between good grades and finding a good job.
Ogbu was trying to help bridge that gap as a member of the African-American Task Force in Oakland during the 1990s when he theorized that black vernacular English or Ebonics should be taught to help African-American students make the transition to traditional English.
That revelation quickly sparked a backlash of national ridicule, much of it from old-fashioned black parents like me, who prefer full immersion in the Queen's English.
But Ogbu found repeatedly that parents were the key to academic success, not only in pushing kids to do their homework but also in instilling the optimism that encourages kids to prepare themselves academically for a prosperous future.
He also showed, through the example of non-white voluntary immigrants, how the burdens of history could be turned into a platform from which African-Americans can launch their children into a brighter future of limitless achievements.
First, as an old saying goes, we must believe in order to achieve. We have to teach our kids that success does not have to be a black thing or a white thing. It's an American thing.
Professor Ogbu helped to show us how well American opportunities can work for newcomers to this land. Our challenge now is to make them work for everybody.
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