Culture Clash

By David Ruenzel — March 01, 1995 34 min read

“Have you heard of Pierre de Vise?’' Donald Offermann, principal of Oak Park and River Forest High School--long considered one of the nation’s most successfully integrated schools in one of the most successfully integrated communities--cheerfully asked me shortly after I had met him at an early morning school assembly. “He said Oak Park would eventually become all black, but he didn’t understand our resolve to make diversity work. We refused to become ‘ghettoized.’ ''

As the assembly began, I took a seat across from a couple whose son, along with perhaps 200 other students, was receiving an award for “best exemplifying the school’s commitment to cultural diversity and human dignity through their interpersonal actions with others regardless of race, ethnic or socioeconomic background, and physical ability.’' The father, upon learning that he was sitting across from a reporter, explained to me that the excellence of this high school had kept the community intact, while at other places whites fell prey to racial fears. Then he added, “Do you know about this guy Pierre de Vise?’'

When de Vise’s name came up yet again later that afternoon, it began to sound a bit like the punch line to a joke, yet his notoriety made perfect sense when understood in the context of community self-esteem. For de Vise had affronted the town’s sense of uniqueness by predicting nearly 30 years ago that Oak Park, Ill., located just nine miles west of downtown Chicago, was about to become part of an inexorable phenomenon--white flight. Blacks had begun crossing Austin Avenue, the borderline separating Chicago and south Oak Park, an area with an abundance of relatively inexpensive rental units. Virtually all-white Oak Park, de Vise forecasted, would “fall’’ at a rate of two blocks per year, becoming 25 percent black by 1980. This figure would place Oak Park well beyond what several studies suggested was the “tipping point’'--the point at which panicked whites would flee as black demand took over. (Oak Park is currently 18 percent black, up from approximately 10.8 percent in 1981 and 12 percent in 1990.)

But as de Vise himself acknowledged in a recent television interview, he did not consider the community’s resolve. This was a place, after all, noted for its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, high liberal-mindedness, literary book clubs, and pristine parks; its high school counted Ernest Hemingway as just one of its many notable graduates. While moving vans in neighboring communities transported whites to ever more distant towns, Oak Parkeans remained, determined to fight it out. The fight, however, was not to be against integration but against the racial anxieties that afflicted blacks and whites alike. Oak Park was to become a model of how blacks and whites could live together in at least relative harmony.

In thinking about how best to establish this model, community leaders realized early on that white flight was most likely to occur when a community became black block by block, section by section, so that whites, sensing an inexorable domino effect, began to panic. The key, then, was to disperse both black and white arrivals throughout the community, so that no one section would become a uni-racial enclave. Enlisting the cooperation of realtors was critical: They were persuaded to show new arrivals all of Oak Park. Equally critical was working closely with landlords to ensure that rental properties--by far the most volatile segment of the housing market--were safe and well-maintained so that whites would continue to lease.

There was also the intangible factor of community pride. University of Illinois education professor Alan Peshkin, a native Chicagoan who has extensively studied integrated schools and communities, believes that Oak Park was simply too good a place to surrender to fear. “There were people in Oak Park who loved Oak Park and refused to see a threat in changing Oak Park from a solidly white place to a place that would no longer be solidly white,’' Peshkin said. “People in other places defined themselves as threatened and got the hell out; people in Oak Park got together and prepared for change.’'

As important as these factors were, most important of all was sustaining the excellence of the schools. Study after study revealed that if whites in integrated communities detected any slippage in the quality of their children’s education, they generally attributed it to the rising numbers of minority students. And, as a result, they were more likely to contemplate a move.

This trend was in fact documented in a May 1994 New York Times Magazine article about Proviso West High School in Hillside, Ill., a mere 10-minute drive up Interstate 290 from Oak Park. As the article portrayed it, Proviso West was a sort of secondary school Johannesburg, seething with racial animosities. Blacks felt victimized by racist attitudes; whites felt blacks were unruly and indifferent to academics, leading one white teacher to declaim: “They won’t shut up.’' In any case, the result was predictable: Whites were fleeing.

If Hillside and its high school were percolating disasters, Oak Park and its high school were seen by many as enduring miracles. Indeed, in the wake of The New York Times Magazine article, an annoyed reader wrote the editor to insist that the successes at Oak Park and not the failures at Hillside were the real story. This perception of Oak Park as a community that works had in part been nurtured by journalists, who in the 1970s and ‘80s trooped through the town and Oak Park and River Forest High School (14 percent of the school’s students come from neighboring River Forest) and then returned home to file their encomiums.

But while Oak Park has undeniably done far more than other communities to promote diversity, more and more residents in recent years have begun to spot cracks in “the model.’' And these cracks, many say, are most apparent at Oak Park and River Forest High School, a venerable institution that for much of the century has been beyond reproach.

No one is suggesting that the cracks are about to become dangerous fault lines. But it is clear to almost everyone in Oak Park that tensions have heightened now that the high school’s African-American population has begun to increase at a rate well beyond that of the community at large. For some students and teachers, these tensions are simply expected aspects of the integration process that will eventually work themselves out. For others, they are a danger signal. But in any case, it is clear that the racial dilemmas that have haunted other American communities and schools are present, even if in a subdued form, at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Some of the problems can be adduced by statistics that are all too common to racially diverse high schools. While African Americans make up 28.6 percent of the 2,500 Oak Park and River Forest High School population (up from 12.1 percent in 1981 and 22 percent in 1991), they account for more than 60 percent of all disciplinary actions. On the California Achievement Tests given in 1990, African-American sophomores scored nearly 20 percentage points below the general student population. And, while African-American students represent only 8.6 percent of students in accelerated and AP classes, they make up 51 percent of all students in the basic track.

These statistics demonstrate that black achievement is lagging at Oak Park and River Forest High School. This has led to social and academic segregation--segregation that is to students as commonplace as, say, the federal deficit. A senior, asked if she thought the high school was successfully integrated, scoffed at the question. “Have you seen the cafeteria, the hallways, the classrooms?’' she asked somewhat incredulously. “How could anyone who has looked around ask if the school is successfully integrated?’'

She was right: In the school cafeteria at lunchtime, in the cavernous lobby before the first bell, and in the hallways between classes, it was easy to see that there were all-white and all-black clusters of students. It was almost as if Austin Avenue--the street that once divided black Chicago from white Oak Park--had wended its way into the school, cordoning off one group of students from the other.

The informal hallway segregation reflected the classroom segregation. Few blacks were in the advanced-level classes; in the basic-level classes, blacks, who constituted a majority, most often sat apart from whites. In one basic class, while the history teacher gave a lesson on the “robber barons,’' four black students grouped together in the back of the room had their heads on the desktops, apparently trying to find a comfortable sleeping position. Sadly, this was not an uncommon sight at the school.

Seeing the racial separation that exists at this high school and others, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the very word “integration’’ has become a somewhat quaint and outmoded term in American school life. Integration simply does not exist on any wide, pervasive scale. Revealingly, the word has almost disappeared from the vocabularies of administrators, teachers, and students in Oak Park. They, like so many politicians, talk not of integration but of diversity, as if the notion of mingling, implicit in the term integration, is no longer attainable given the huge disparities in income levels and academic achievement. No school has an integration code, but Oak Park and River Forest High School, like hundreds of high schools, has a diversity code that has plenty to say about respecting differences--but nothing to say about transcending them.

The new emphasis on diversity may have made students more accepting of their differences, but will it do anything to reverse the low achievement levels that have stranded so many African Americans in basic-level classes? Should the emphasis be less on “affirming diversity’’ and more on providing a top-notch education to all students? These are the questions being played out at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and they have broad ramifications for schools and communities across the country. For if African-American students continue to fail in the classroom, and are hence denied an opportunity for a better future, Oak Park and its high school can’t be considered successful, no matter how often one cites Pierre de Vise.

If you’d expect anyone to be sanguine about Oak Park and its high school, it would be Bobbie Raymond, who is often described as the person most responsible for formulating the policies leading to the successful desegregation of the community. A sociologist and longtime director of the Oak Park Housing Center, Raymond is also a 1955 Oak Park and River Forest graduate. Her portrait hangs in the school’s grand entrance way among those of such famous alumni as Hemingway, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, and prima ballerina Helene Alexopolous. The high school, Raymond told me, changed her life--pushed her in completely new intellectual directions. But it is now the high school about which she has her greatest concerns. Specifically, she is worried about how the school is going to absorb growing percentages of students who do not have the kind of middle-class background that whites are comfortable with. “We’re constantly telling parents, ‘It’s OK, your kids are going to be educated well; your son or daughter will not only not miss something by being here but will also gain,’ '' she said. “But this is something whites are not used to, even as a possibility.’'

Too many African-American kids, she said, are getting away with “a ghetto mentality.’' This is not only discomfiting to whites (and to some blacks) but also destructive to the kids themselves. A frequent visitor to the school, Raymond is appalled at how they use abhorrent language in the hallways and are sometimes permitted to sleep in class. Too many black kids, she said, face peer rejection should they try to learn. The solution is for teachers to take a stand, something too many have been afraid to do.

“Now, you don’t save human beings by letting them get away with mediocrity,’' Raymond said with fierce exasperation. “The school has to draw a line and say, ‘You’re here to learn, and we’re going to change your life for you. You can be what you want to be but not if you don’t respect your life, your teachers, your fellow students.’ The question is this: Are we going to end up with what the Kerner Report called two separate societies? Are we going to end up with every white on the street seeing a black and saying, ‘Oh, a criminal?’ Or are we going to have a school that’s an entree to middle-class existence?’'

Few would argue with the suggestion that the school should be a threshold to middle-class life. But there is a growing nucleus of parents, both black and white, who feels that the desire to affirm culture--to “celebrate’’ diversity--too often sanctions habits and attitudes that make later middle-class life a remote possibility. Too many people, bending over backward to appear liberal-minded, or to avoid conflict, are willfully confusing professed academic indifference and bad behavior with black cultural expression.

Clarence Ward, an African American in his mid-40s with a son in the high school, said the school needs to ask more from parents who have relinquished their parental responsibilities. “I’m the first to admit that some of our children at the school have the most deplorable manners I’ve ever seen,’' he said. “Now, that’s not culture, that’s parenting. When on a given day, security guards have to literally walk up the front steps with African-American students, that’s not culture, that’s parenting. Bad behavior has nothing to do with culture; it just doesn’t.’'

Ward said there is an enormous social and psychological gap between black parents of his age and those 10 years younger, though more and more often both have children of roughly the same age. He had been raised with what he called “good middle-class values’’ that he in turn has passed on to his children; but these values--hard work, respect for others--are not being transmitted to the younger generation. Ward believes, as do many middle-class blacks, that too many of the younger African-American parents presume that getting their children into the Oak Park schools is enough. They do not check homework or encourage good study habits.

As I listened to people like Ward and Raymond talk, it was easy to get the impression that both teachers and parents, blacks and whites, are “enabling’’ some African-American students on a fairly wide scale, using a false notion of culture to excuse certain behaviors and a lack of academic effort.

But what did the students think? In an African-American history class I attended, students claimed that white teachers are much more prone to ask white students if they need help than black students; these teachers, they said, too often see black kids not as learners but as potential sources of trouble. One boy, to the almost unanimous assent of his classmates, said: “A white teacher will say, ‘Shut up, can’t you listen?’ to black kids but not a word to white kids who are talking every bit as much. One peep out of a black kid, and it’s, ‘Be quiet!’ ''

Of course, not all white teachers were characterized this way; many were described as excellent by black and white students alike. Furthermore, generalizations pertaining to race quickly collapsed; the seemingly certifiable statements of one group of students were confidently reversed by the next. One day over lunch, for instance, six student leaders of a group called Blacks Organized for Student Success, or BOSS, told me that the overwhelming majority of white teachers pushed them to excel. Raising one’s academic achievement was mostly a matter of seeking the teacher’s assistance--something too many of their peers hesitated to do.

Since the students were of mixed minds on the enabling question, I raised the matter with the teaching staff. I went to see history teacher Kevin Pobst, one of the white teachers referred to as excellent by both white and black students. As I walked into his classroom, he was sorting out reproductions of course material concerning the “poor laws’’ in 19th-century England. In an animated “teacherly’’ mode, he told me that the very things critics were saying about welfare now--that rather than helping people through temporary setbacks it encourages long-term dependency--were the exact same things people were saying back then.

According to Pobst, pacification is a policy followed, sometimes less than consciously, by all too many white teachers at the high school. “There’s no sustained, hardheaded effort, teacher by teacher, to really uplift the academic performance of black students,’' he said. "[White teachers] allow kids not to succeed--kids who for whatever reason are taking the path of least resistance. A lot of teachers feel professionally justified in saying, ‘This is what I expect you to do, but if you don’t succeed, you’ve made that choice.’ Teachers who are really honest with themselves know that they’re more likely to let black kids make that decision than white kids, whom they’ll try to shake up. They won’t admit to doing that, but it happens a lot.’'

Pobst wanted to make teachers directly accountable for improving the results of their black students. Perhaps, he said, there has to be some sort of tangible standard, such as improving test scores by, say, 5 percent a year over a 10-year period. What if, he asked, all teachers in the history department were measured according to the achievement of their black students? Answering his own question, he said teachers would quickly get a lot better at doing just that.

I told Pobst that some teachers had expressed confusion as to just how they should teach African-American students--particularly those who do not come from middle-class backgrounds. They had heard, in multicultural seminars and the like, of a “black learning style,’' which their own teaching methods could not easily accommodate.

For perhaps a half-minute Pobst said nothing. He must have been fuming, for he finally snapped: “That stuff is crap. People are selling racist stuff at seminars. If you say, for instance, that black kids are more boisterous, all you’re doing is enabling the white teacher’s stereotype. In my classes, I’ve got some black kids who are apathetic and some who are rigorous, some who are talkative and some who are quiet. So I say, ‘Why bother with all that crap?’ Your job as a teacher is to deal with the individual.’'

Deal with the individual. To say that this should be part of a teacher’s task seems self-evident, even platitudinous. Yet the emphasis upon diversity, many students and teachers seem to feel, erodes concern for the individual. They see the diversity movement as being primarily concerned with group affirmation; carried to the extreme, the unaffiliated “lone wolf’’ could be perceived as a turncoat, a traitor to his or her group. Even now, students who hang out with those of a different race are often called “crossovers.’'

White students, in particular, expressed deep skepticism about the whole notion of “affirming difference.’' Their perception is that black students tend to separate themselves from “mainstream’’ school culture and that the diversity movement is at least partially responsible. One white senior, approaching me after the assembly at which he received an award for “exemplifying the school’s commitment to cultural diversity,’' said he is frustrated with what he called the rampant misbehavior of black students. “The black parents call it prejudice because their kids are disciplined so much more than white kids,’' he said. “But that’s not the case; black kids just do a lot more to get in trouble. Like in a stairway, you’ll see them running around, playing tag, cursing. It’s a joke. I don’t know what draws them to congregate the way they do. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that they think it’s uncool to act smart. The most popular ones are the rowdiest ones.’'

Other white students spoke of “walking on eggshells’’ for fear of being called racist. The problem, as one white girl put it, “is that it’s considered so cool to be into your own culture--one moment no one knew who Malcolm X was and the next black kids are wearing Malcolm X hats.’'

These white attitudes were most apparent in an AP English Literature class I sat in on. The students--all of them white, except one--sounded a bit like exasperated callers to a radio talk show who can’t understand why everyone has so little common sense. “Sure, we have something to gain from other cultures,’' one student said, “but it’s all American culture if you really think about it. Just because people dress differently or listen to different music doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.’' Amplifying this theme, another student said: “There’s so much stress on differences, on celebrating diversity and preserving culture, that it tends to cause xenophobia. As a result, things that are multicultural don’t really seem to work. One thing that would work is the melting pot.’'

The melting pot concept, once mentioned, had the sudden appeal of a once-grand idea in want of popular revival. The students discussed this metaphor enthusiastically, or at least with relative enthusiasm. But the conversation took a cynical turn when a more contemporary metaphor was mentioned. “Isn’t the salad bowl now the politically correct term,’' one student asked, “where everything retains its original flavor?’'

“Yeah, we’re America’s salad dressing,’' another student said. “I’ve heard that one.’'

“It’s hard to be interested in things that have little relevance to you,’' the first student continued. “I’d be fairly bored in a class all about Muslim history. I respond to this English literature class because I have a European background and therefore feel some connection with the material.’'

The exchange revealed an interesting flip-flop. The students had begun the class period by speaking critically of “diversity,’' and yet they ended up using the diversity argument to explain their own interests in “European’’ things. This was a long way from the “human family’’ coziness of the melting pot, and it sounded even further away when several students griped that if they did what black students had done and formed their own associations--such as an American-European group--they’d be branded as racists.

At this point, a note of resentment slowly crept into the conversation, a note struck most harshly when a boy scornfully related a discussion he had heard in an African-American history class about the issue of reparations for the past wrongs of slavery. “A lot of the black kids were saying, ‘Yeah, we should get paid,’ '' he said. “They didn’t care about the difficulties their parents, their grandparents went through. They just wanted a free ride. Well, I never wronged anyone, and we shouldn’t have to take this reverse discrimination.’'

But this viewpoint did not go uncontested. Several students who had been silent up to this point rallied, arguing that minorities must be given careful consideration in a culture where they, the white majority, ruled. And, at the close of the conversation, one girl made an empathetic leap when she angrily said: “No one’s talking about how black kids are discriminated against, how, for example, they’re followed by clerks when they walk into stores. I know for a fact these things happen because it’s happened to some of my friends.’'

The girl was right: It is all too easy for middle-class white kids born and raised in Oak Park to forget that they experience a daily comfort level that not all others can take for granted. While many black students said Oak Park was “a good place to live,’' they also spoke of being scrutinized by wary homeowners as they walked through neighborhoods, or of seeing drivers click door locks into place as they crossed intersections, or of being followed home by police. They simply could not have the same innate sense of belonging in the community--or in the school. While white students in accelerated classes take part in rigorous round-table discussions, black kids in basic classes fill out work sheets. While white kids said they appreciate the classical music that is piped around the school between classes, black kids wondered if there couldn’t, at least some of the time, be an alternative.

Still, one had to guard against the temptation of polarizing the black and white experience--a point painstakingly made by the only black student in the AP English Literature class. A senior who looked like a young college professor in his wire-rimmed glasses, he walked up to me after class and quietly asked to talk.

He said his biggest problems with race are outside of school, having on occasion been trailed home by a police car because he is a black male teenager. In school, he feels few tensions, though he sees himself as an outsider. He is black and comfortably middle-class. He speaks standard English and prefers classical music. Because he is in all accelerated classes, he has closer ties with whites than with blacks, though he feels respected by everyone. All in all, he believes that blacks in accelerated classes integrate “fairly well’'; only widespread academic success could foster substantial integration.

“The trouble,’' he said softly, “is that we have subtle differences we make into big issues. Now, it may be true that a black person can’t put himself into a white person’s shoes or that a white person can’t put himself into a black person’s shoes. Just like a man can’t really imagine the experience of childbirth. But you can try to understand, you can make the differences less important. It’s true, for instance, that a majority of black kids express themselves in a louder, more open way. But they have the same ideas, the same feelings. The way we dress, the music we listen to--it’s superficial.’'

If students are tired of hearing about diversity, so are many adults--both black and white. They wonder if it isn’t time to start emphasizing similarities instead of harping upon differences. After all, accepting differences could mean accepting black academic failure as normal.

But for other blacks, “emphasizing similarities’’ means that they are supposed to surrender their African-American identities in favor of what is white and middle-class. It is the melting pot all over again, and the pot is invariably white.

One black teacher, asking not to be named, said there is a “silence code’’ at the school and that black teachers who dare criticize the administration are perceived as “uppity.’' “We know we’re paid well, and so it’s risky for us to speak out,’' the teacher said. “But the administration wants black teachers to toe the line, so they can say, ‘Oh, that’s a good Negro.’ ''

It is this teacher’s experience that white parents will navigate around black teachers if their children are having problems in a class, seeking out instead an administrator or the department head. Even worse, they often try to keep their children out of black teachers’ classes. “What it comes down to,’' he said, “is that they think their children are better off being taught by a white guy.’' Parents, he continued, aren’t the only ones harboring insidious racial attitudes; white colleagues have them, too. “Check out the 1991 Achievement Report’'--an interschool document outlining some of the problems black students face in the school--"and you’ll see the devastating remarks white teachers made about black kids,’' he said. “Well, if they feel that way about black kids, just imagine how they feel about the black teachers.’'

The report contained more than a smattering of comments about African-American students “not wanting to learn,’' “wanting to have the last word,’' and “thinking they should get to do anything at any time.’' While these remarks sounded more discouraging than “devastating,’' a small number of teachers did say things for which “devastating’’ seems the right label. They spoke of how the school is “overlooking white kids at the expense of African-American students’’ and putting “far too much emphasis on doing things for the minority at the expense of the majority.’' Particularly disturbing was a comment that seemed almost a plea for the institutionalization of low standards: “The administration,’' one teacher said, “should not force students to perform at a higher level and create frustrated minority students.’'

Yet, the overall attitude expressed by white teachers was one of colorblindness: They tried to see not color but kids, all of whom they treated the same way. But here again, “treating all kids the same way’’ was construed by some as applying uniformly “white’’ standards. “Oak Park,’' said first-year African-American teacher Torey Wilson, “likes to say, ‘We have these standards, and it is your responsibility to meet them.’ But this makes a lot of African-American students, particularly those who have recently moved in from the inner city, extremely uneasy. We have to allow these students some way to express their standards while still keeping ours--that is, the school’s. Some kind of compromise is needed.’'

Some white teachers shared this perspective. Theater arts teacher Ellen Boyer said that in some ways, Oak Park and River Forest High School wasn’t all that different from nearby Proviso West High School, the one portrayed in The New York Times Magazine story. Before arriving at Oak Park, Boyer had taught there. As far as she was concerned, whites were like fish in a stream, unable to comprehend how it feels to be out of water, gasping upon the shore. “As a white teacher, I swam in the mainstream, and I didn’t see what my black kids were going through,’' she said. “Only when I went through [multicultural awareness] training did I begin to realize that I was stepping on black kids’ toes in countless ways. The veil was removed, and I became understanding of behavior of which I was intolerant.’'

Boyer, who is heading up a new committee to address the issue of lagging black achievement, said it is important to understand that whites at the high school are not villains but “culturalists.’' They need intensified training so they can better understand cultural differences. And teachers need to move toward a more interactive mode of teaching--simply telling black kids what to do is ineffective.

I told Boyer that my own discussions with teachers at the school indicate that they would take great issue with her recommendations. “I know,’' she said. “That’s why I get so frustrated. But at least I’m working in a school where people really do look for answers, even if they don’t always find them.’'

Discussions about race and culture at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and at other American schools, invariably lead to questions more often implied than boldly stated. For example, is inner-city, African-American culture, with its many ills, really one that should be “affirmed’’? Or does it represent what some call a “ghettoization’’ of authentic culture, a ghettoization that teachers and parents must ruthlessly countermand if black achievement is ever to be raised?

Questions like these are asked not only by whites but also by middle-class blacks, for the tensions at schools like Oak Park and River Forest High have as much to do with class as with race. And some middle-class blacks are becoming increasingly outspoken. In a recent letter to the local newspaper, Joanne Jenkins stated that she was so concerned about the destructive peer pressure of “lower-class African Americans’’ that she and her husband were about to send their sons to private schools or move out of Oak Park altogether. “Unless Oak Park can stop the influx of lower-class African Americans,’' she wrote, “the schools will become similar to those of Chicago.’'

“Do some blacks in Oak Park have trouble with ghetto blacks?’' asked Gerald Clay, leader of a local African-American parent group. “You’d better believe it. Upper-class blacks have stayed away from our organization, whispering to me, ‘Why do you have to keep talking about all this African-American stuff? We left Chicago so we wouldn’t have to worry about that any more.’ So the class division is real. You have it within your own race. Kids are segregated according to whether or not their parents drive a Mercedes. Some blacks don’t rock the boat because their boat is OK. I constantly cajole these African Americans on account of their lethargy.’'

Clay was adamant in his support of mandatory sensitivity training: Too many Oak Parkeans, he said, can accept “only a certain kind of middle-class African American.’' Yet while Clay insisted that Oak Park needs to become far more tolerant, he himself did not hesitate to criticize black parents. “I go into the library and see maybe a handful of blacks,’' he said. “ ‘Why aren’t you in there?’ I ask black parents. ‘All your kids see you do is turn on the black station and listen to black music. Never do they see you reading a book.’ ''

If middle-class blacks, like whites, blame the “ghetto culture’’ for the underachievement of so many African-American students, assistant principal Al Sye also blames the long legacy of racial oppression, though he most emphatically insisted it should not be used as an excuse. Unable for so many decades to express justified anger, Sye said, blacks turned upon themselves and each other; hated without reason, they internalized self-doubt. Powerless to control their environment, they developed a “what’s the use’’ attitude.

Although some argue that this all happened a long time ago, Sye cited a recent case in which a black man got 30 days in jail for shooting another black man but 12 years for robbing a McDonald’s. The message, he said, is that it is more important to protect a white establishment than a black life.

A middle-aged black man whose massive shoulders are indicative of his collegiate wrestling past, Sye said blacks had historically internalized an attitude that could be paraphrased as something like, “I’ve got no choice but to take stuff from ‘the man,’ but I’m sure not going to take it from you, another nigger.’' Respect, then, was essential, and if a black kid felt “diss’d,’' he might very well fight. This, in part, accounted for the higher suspension rates among blacks in the school. “A black parent will say, ‘If a kid hits my kid, I give my kid permission to fight back,’ '' Sye said. “That’s a problem because we suspend both.’'

Sye pointed to a book on his desk, Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, and said it almost perfectly captures the difficulties all black students face, but males in particular. As Sye saw it, the “cool pose,’' which includes a flagrant disregard for academic achievement, has little to do with school and grades; it has to do with displaced anger and psychic insecurities. When one has no self-confidence, the appearance of confidence is everything. “Unfortunately,’' Sye said, “we have some kids who come here merely for protection--not to have to dodge a bullet.’'

But Sye wanted to sound optimistic. He said his school was light years ahead of others in addressing issues of race and black underachievement. There is, in fact, an ongoing dialogue between parents, teachers, and school officials. “But you know,’' Sye suddenly remarked, “we never ask the kids. Why don’t we ask the kids what we can do?’'

Asked outside of the glare of the classroom what their daily school life is like, the kids used words that harkened back to ones novelist Richard Wright wrote in his famous memoir Black Boy some 55 years ago: “We spoke boastfully in bass voices; we used the word ‘nigger’ to prove the tough fiber of our feelings; we spouted excessive profanity as a sign of our coming manhood....Yet we frantically concealed how dependent we were upon each other.’'

This is the “cool pose’’ Sye had spoken of: machismo that perceives academic effort as “selling out.’' Time and time again, black kids talked of the relentless peer pressure to steer clear of academic success. To do well in school is to risk being called an “Oreo’’ or “crossover.’' These are the same terms applied to blacks who seek associations with whites, the message being that there is something about academic achievement that is essentially white and hence prohibited.

The student leaders of BOSS had talked of how hard it is to overcome racial stereotypes in a predominantly white society. Whites think that blacks are lazy and violence-prone, destined to play basketball or sell drugs. One student provided an example, saying he had been window-shopping in a virtually all-white suburban shopping mall when a small boy walked up to him with a basketball and said, “Can you show me some moves?’'

I asked the students whether flaunting a disregard for academics encourages one of the very stereotypes they wanted to overturn.

A disdain for academics “is schoolyard law,’' one student said. “The older kids live by the stereotypes so younger kids will look up to them.’' The group then swapped stories about intellectually gifted friends who had chosen to enroll in basic classes to retain their popularity.

But why worry about what the crowd thinks, I asked. Why such a destructive concern with peer acceptance?

They looked at each other and then lapsed into pensive silence. A few times, one looked as if he or she were about to speak, but no one did.

If so many students and teachers are dubious about the value of multicultural education and the ability of traditional instruction to raise achievement levels, then what should be done? Interestingly, even those teachers who disagreed with one another on most issues could usually agree on one thing: the power of good teaching. This, they said, could transcend racial division. Good teaching, they pointed out, is, by its very nature, calibrated to the individual and hence could reclaim disaffected students. It aims to develop a connection with students rather than a relationship with the material. And, most obviously, it raises academic achievement and therefore narrows the gap between blacks and whites that is the source of so much tension.

A statement in the 1991 report on African-American achievement at Oak Park and River Forest High School stands out: “Generally, African-American students seem to covet more personalized interaction than rules.’' The statement is both true and absurd. After all, what student wouldn’t prefer a teacher who sought cooperation rather than commanded it? Who couldn’t learn better in an atmosphere of relaxed exchange as opposed to one of formalized rules?

Like many other teachers, Kevin Pobst claimed that “good teaching is where the rubber meets the road’’ in terms of raising the achievement of African-American students. He said too many predominantly black, basic-level classes are taught in a “dunderhead fashion.’' Seat time is confused with education; while “advanced’’ kids are invited into stimulating conversations, “basic’’ kids are too often killing time.

“We need to individualize things much more than we do now,’' Pobst said. “I should be able to address the different skill needs and deficits of different kids with differentiated assignments. I should continually adapt assignments so that they are useful to different kids. I should think and rethink what I’m doing in the classroom every single day.’'

Another history teacher, Richard Mertz--cited by a couple of the BOSS students as a “great teacher’'--said the kids in the basic track typically come into his classroom having accepted failure. They simply do not respond to a drill-and-test regime. “So what I do is teach them to read and write using history as opposed to having a traditional class that only touches on skills,’' he said. “I spend time in class working with them on writing a paragraph, on getting them to analyze, to make a case. But there’s a lot more I should be doing.’'

Pobst and Mertz talked of what they “should’’ be doing, for as they and others acknowledged, good teaching cannot thrive in an atmosphere of institutionalized anonymity. Many teachers feel the school needs substantial restructuring. It could, for example, be broken up into smaller schools of four to five hundred students so that a sense of true community can be established. Or teachers could acquire expanded roles as counselors so that students can’t just “disappear.’' Or class periods could be lengthened so that teachers can experiment with more open-ended classroom approaches. But whatever is done, these teachers said, it has to be something that will enhance learning opportunities for all students, but for African Americans in particular. With few exceptions, they are much more interested in tackling black underachievement with improved classroom teaching than with, say, multicultural-awareness training.

When Mertz finished talking about teaching his basic-level classes, another teacher, Steven Goldberg, spoke up, his message that of so many Oak Park and River Forest High School teachers: “You can talk all you want about social engineering and stuff, but the fact is we’re teachers. So what could we really do to make things better for all kids? Well, we could teach them better. Yes, make the necessary institutional changes, but realize that they just won’t work as well as teachers getting together and doing a better job of teaching.’'

When I asked Bobbie Raymond, director of the Oak Park Housing Center, if the fear of white flight was now over in Oak Park, she said the question was laughable. It was just starting, she said, intensifying if anything.

By themselves, teachers cannot reverse that fear or the frightening trend of black underachievement, but they have a unique if onerous opportunity to stem the tide.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Culture Clash