A Theory Of Success And Failure

June 01, 1990 14 min read

Castelike minorities, he argues, not only experience discrimination from the dominant white culture, but they also are caught in a web of inferiority and self-defeat that discourages them from living up to their potential.

Ogbu’s work got a lot of ink--not all of it favorable--several years ago, when he and fellow anthropologist Signithia Fordham found that many bright black students at a Washington, D.C., high school did not live up to their academic potential for fear of being accused of “acting white.’'

Floretta McKenzie, D.C. school superintendent at the time, endorsed the study (published in an academic journal called The Urban Review), telling The Washington Post: “As we seek to improve achievement of urban blacks, there’s only so much you can do with more teachers and books and so on. We’re going to have to deal with the value structure, with youngsters who don’t see the reward for achieving.’' Other blacks weren’t so thrilled by Ogbu and Fordham’s analysis. In a letter to the Post, Reginald Wilson, then-director of the Office of Minority Concerns for the American Council on Education, wrote: “It is astonishing that an allegedly responsible educational study can conclude, and the D.C. superintendent reportedly affirm, that the reason black children do not learn is simply because they believe academic achievement means ‘acting white.’ Blaming the victim for his condition is a very old and tiresome game.’'

Ogbu now says the study was blown out of proportion. Fear of “acting white’’ is one reason why some black students fail to achieve, but it isn’t the only reason. “It’s one thing in a complex series of factors,’' he says. Still, the controversy over the “acting white’’ article isn’t surprising, given the raw emotions just beneath the surface of any discussion of race and education.

Long before the “acting white '' controversy, Ogbu was well known for his work in the hybrid field of educational anthropology. Currently holding the title of “distinguished alumni professor’’ at U.C.Berkeley, he has received numerous grants, awards, and honors throughout his career, including the prestigious Margaret Mead Award, given by the Society for Applied Anthropology. His curriculum vitae runs a hefty 40 pages long. If John Ogbu still isn’t a household name among educators and policymakers, at least in the way that James Comer is, it’s probably because Ogbu does not prescribe concrete solutions. “That’s not my job,’' he says. “I want to provide information so that others can design effective programs.’'

Ogbu’s current project, a comparative ethnographic study of four Bay-area minority neighborhoods (low-income black, middle-income black, Hispanic, and Chinese-American) and their schools, could very well put the anthropologist in the national spotlight and give his work wider influence. With more than $500,000 in funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Exxon Education Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the State of California, Ogbu and his team of researchers are trying to pinpoint the factors that influence minority students to be more or less successful in school. Ogbu intends to produce a report on his findings, to be disseminated to policymakers and school officials.

“There are very few people who are asking the questions that he is,’' says Barbara Finberg, executive vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, which contributed $100,000 to the project.

Although the differences have narrowed since the mid-1970’s, black and Hispanic students continue to lag well behind whites in key measures of academic achievement, including SAT scores, reading proficiency, dropout rates, and college enrollment. Many social scientists attribute the persistent gaps to differences in culture and language; minority students, they argue, are “culturally deprived’’ or “disadvantaged’’ compared with white middle-class students. If the term “cultural deprivation’’ is rarely used now because of its negative connotation, the theory still carries weight among educators and policymakers. In particular, it continues to be the basis for most compensatory-education programs designed to help at-risk students.

Ogbu was one of the first social scientists to challenge the cultural deprivation theory. He argues that it doesn’t go far enough because it fails to explain why some minorities do better in school than others. Why, for example, do Asian-Americans produce an average combined SAT score nearly 200 points higher than blacks? Why, in 1982, did a higher percentage of Asian or Pacific Islander high school graduates receive A averages than students from any other racial background, including white?

The answer, Ogbu believes, is that not all minorities are alike. Castelike minorities--blacks, Native Americans, or Mexican-Americans, for example-- don’t see their situation as temporary. “On the contrary, they tend to interpret the discrimination against them as more or less permanent and institutionalized,’' says Ogbu. “Although they ‘wish’ they could get ahead through education and ability like white Americans, they know they ‘can’t.’''

Immigrants, Ogbu says, see education as a golden opportunity to get ahead, and they embrace that opportunity. “Immigrant parents and communities seem to emphasize for their children the importance of acquiring job-related skills, proficiency in the English language, and basic skills in reading, writing, and math,’' he says. “They also emphasize that to succeed in these things children must follow the advice of teachers, school counselors, and other school personnel about rules of behavior and standard practices for academic success.’'

To blacks and other nonimmigrant minorities, the American educational system isn’t such a panacea. “Blacks more or less believe that the public schools cannot be trusted to educate black children in the same way as they educate white children,’' Ogbu says. “We find a similar sense of distrust among American Indians and Mexican-Americans.’'

And there’s good reason for that distrust, Ogbu argues. He points out that blacks in the United States have historically been excluded from the high-quality education received by whites, and this exclusion-- plus ongoing subtle devices of exclusion within schools today--has hampered the academic performance of black children. In addition, minorities-- particularly nonimmigrant minorities--have consistently been denied access to desirable jobs. Ogbu says this has discouraged whole generations of castelike minorities from investing time and effort in education and may have prevented them from developing a strong tradition of striving for academic achievement.

As a result, Ogbu argues, many blacks see education as a “subtractive process,’' one that forces black students who do well in school to give up their minority culture in exchange for the dominant white culture. In short, blacks who achieve in school are considered to be “acting white.’'

In their study of the Washington, D.C., high school (fictitiously called “Capital High School’’), Ogbu and Fordham found that to “act white’’ isn’t merely to do well in school; the concept incorporates a variety of attitudes and behaviors. Among them: speaking standard English; listening to white music and white radio stations; going to the opera or ballet; spending a lot of time in the library studying; working hard to get good grades in school (those who get good grades are labeled “brainiacs’’); going to the Smithsonian Institution; doing volunteer work; going camping, hiking, or mountain climbing; having a cocktail party; being on time; and reading and writing poetry.

Ogbu and Fordham found that students who did get good grades tried to hide their intelligence from their peers. One student told them: “In the 6th grade, it was me and these two girls; we used to hang together all the time. They used to say we was brainiacs, and no one really liked us....It’s not something--well, it’s something that you want to be, but you don’t want your friends to know....Because once they find out you’re a brainiac, then the first thing they’ll say is, ‘Well, she thinks she’s cute, and she thinks she’s smart, she thinks she’s better than anyone else.’ So what most brainiacs do, they sit back and they know an answer, and they won’t answer it.’'

Black students, then, are caught in a bind: If they work hard in school, “they may indeed succeed academically but suffer peer criticism or ostracism as well as suffer from affective dissonance [identity conflict],’' Ogbu says. “The dilemma is that nonimmigrant minority students have to choose between academic success and maintaining their minority and cultural frame of reference.’'

Ogbu argues that immigrant minorities succeed, in part, because they do not equate hard work, good behavior, and success in school with the dominant white culture. Immigrants, Ogbu says, “make a clear distinction between adoption of attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors that enhance academic success for future employment on the one hand and adoption of attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors that lead to loss of cultural identity and to assimilation into white American culture on the other hand.’' He adds: “Maybe if blacks can find a way of thinking in the same mode, they will avoid a number of problems.’'

Is Ogbu, in fact, “blaming the victims for their condition’’? It is true that blacks who blame racism for all their ills will find only partial solace in Ogbu’s work. Yes, he admits, blacks and other minorities encounter racism all the time. Yes, they constantly come up against a “job ceiling’’ that prevents them from entering the economic mainstream. And yes, reforms aimed at eliminating those barriers are vital. “But minorities cannot simply rely on public policies,’' he says. “They have to accept some responsibility if they want to succeed.’'

At the same time, Ogbu does not offer much comfort to conservatives who argue that only by changing black attitudes will black achievement improve. “To change this situation--to eliminate black academic retardation--requires...a total destruction of the caste system, that is, the creation of a new social order in which blacks do not occupy a subordinate position vis--vis whites,’' Ogbu has written. “If we destroy the caste system, both schools and blacks will begin to manifest changes compatible with the new social order, and academic retardation will disappear.’'

Some critics say the distinctions Ogbu draws between castelike and immigrant minorities are oversimplified and unfair. Bart Landry, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and author of The New Black Middle-Class®MDBU¯ (University of California, 1987), points out that, unlike American blacks, immigrants are a self-selected, highly motivated slice of a much larger population. Moreover, he argues, blacks who migrated north in the 40’s and 50’s, to places like Chicago and New York, were just as highly motivated as immigrants to the United States. “In those days,’' he says, “blacks had hopes of bettering themselves.’' But the problems of poverty and low achievement among the black underclass remain and, Landry argues, Ogbu’s approach does not explain why.

When Ogbu began studying the schools in a Stockton neighborhood in 1968, he was, in a sense, turning the tables. After all, countless American anthropologists had gone to Africa to conduct ethnographic research. Why shouldn’t an anthropologist from a small village in Igboland, Nigeria, use the same tools to study an ethnic neighborhood in America?

Ogbu went to Stockton’s Boggs Tract neighborhood (called “Burgherside’’ in his study), where 92 percent of the elementary school students were either black or Mexican-American, as part of a bilingual demonstration project. He interviewed teachers, school board members, counselors, students, parents, and concerned citizens. “As an African, I could not claim to know from the start what American education is or should be nor the appropriate behavior that leads to success in school,’' he wrote in his study, published in 1974 as The Next Generation: An Ethnography of Education in an Urban Neighborhood. Instead, he set out to study education “as a cultural study how the people in Stockton, including Burghersiders, conceptualize their educational system and their place in it, and how these conceptualizations influence the way they behave within the institution.’' One of his goals was to understand why Burghersiders had such a high rate of academic failure.

Ogbu’s work in Stockton led to many of the ideas he now holds about the school performance of minorities. It cast doubt on the theory that minority children are prone to failure simply because they are born into poverty. Poverty is a factor, he concluded, but cultural and historical factors must be taken into account. Because blacks have been denied good education and economic opportunity throughout their history, Ogbu contends, they have “responded, more or less unconsciously, partly by reducing their efforts in school tasks to the level of rewards they expected as future adults of American society.’'

In Stockton, Ogbu found that blacks and MexicanAmericans were caught in a vicious circle of failure. He found a high level of absenteeism among students and a lack of seriousness about their work when they did attend class. He concluded that blacks and Mexican-Americans do not try to perform and compete academically because they believe strongly that they have very “limited opportunity to benefit from their educations. And lack of competitiveness ensures that they will not do well in school, that many of them will fail.’'

Ogbu’s later research helped him to understand the difference between castelike minorities and immigrant minorities. He found that castelike minorities in other cultures also lag behind the dominant culture in school performance. One such group Ogbu writes about in his book Minority Education and Caste are the Burakumin, a pariah caste in Japan who were once called Eta, meaning “full of filth.’' Although racially the Burakumin are no different from the dominant Ippan Japanese, significant differences exist between them in literacy rates, truancy rates, school dropout rates, and performance on standardized tests of scholastic achievement and IQ. Yet studies show that no such differences in achievement exist between members of the Burakumin and the Ippan who have migrated to the United States. The reason? “The outcaste immigrants and their children are no longer overwhelmed by the traditional prejudice and discrimination associated with caste status per se,’' Ogbu says.
Ogbu’s reluctance to provide detailed prescriptions for change and his view that improving black academic performance requires “a total destruction of the caste system’’ have led some educators to label his work as overly pessimistic. In an article critical of Ogbu’s work, Frederick Erickson, director of the Center for Urban Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote: “As an educator, I cannot accept the premise that there is nothing we can do to improve the educational situation of domestic minority students in the United States. I am not simply willing to wait for a revolution in the general society.’'

Yet, neither is Ogbu, it seems. “While I believe that school reforms and the elimination of caste barriers will eventually influence blacks to develop a new set of attitudes, self-conceptions, learning habits, and other skills that promote success in school, I also believe that it is necessary to develop programs that will speed up the process,’' he says.

When it comes to programs, however, Ogbu is short on specifics, and that frustrates some educators and policymakers who--understandably--want answers. But Ogbu offers no apologies. “The current mood in America is to find answers. But, as an anthropologist, I’m interested in knowing why some minorities are able to cross cultural boundaries and others are not. Why in Stockton do the Chinese continue to do well? Why in New Zealand do Polynesians coming from other islands continue to do well while the native Maoris, who come from the same language and cultural background, fail? Why is it that in Britain, West Indians, whose language and culture most resemble the British, do so poorly, whereas East Indians, whose culture is very different, do well? Why is it that the Burakumin do so poorly in Japan, but in this country they are shining students? Those are the questions that interest me. So I am not asking how to solve the problem, and that’s where I get into a lot of arguments with people who don’t like my work.’'

Ogbu wants educators to use his work as a starting point for programs and policies aimed at helping minority students achieve. Principals and teachers, he says, must recognize the strong influence of cultural perceptions on minority students’ academic attitudes and efforts. Programs that encourage racial pride are on the right track, but they should also encourage nonimmigrant minorities to adopt the immigrant minorities’ successful model of “accommodation without assimilation.’'

“I would like to see the time when blacks are not overrepresented among kids who have academic problems,’' says an optimistic-sounding Ogbu. “I don’t think you need to have a group that is so dependent on a remedy to achieve a significant success.’' Is that possible? he is asked. “That’s my hope.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as A Theory Of Success And Failure