In The Press

September 25, 1985 6 min read

Stereotypes about their mental capacity have caused blacks to avoid intellectual competition and have created “real problems” in their academic performance, according to a black social psychologist and a black physician writing in the Sept. 9 issue of The New Republic.

Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond argue in “Rumors of Inferiority: The Hidden Obstacles to Black Success” that blacks have “internalized” years of discussion linking their intellectual performance to genetic inferiority.

The authors say they are confident that genetic explanations for black intellectual performance are “absolutely incorrect.” They acknowledge, however, that discussions of this issue have generated fear and expectations of failure, which have caused many blacks to place a “strong negative value” on intellectual competition and to consider such competition “inappropriate.”

Black youths, for example, may concentrate on athletics and socializing instead of on academic skills.

“Black Americans are understandably sensitive about discussions of the data on our performance,” the two men write. “Nevertheless, the importance of this issue demands that black people and all others interested in social justice overcome our sensitivities, analyze the problem, and search for solutions.”

Mr. Howard and Dr. Hammond claim that “intellectual underdevelopment"--as evidenced in high dropout rates and low sat scores--is one of the most “pernicious effects of racism” because it limits blacks’ ability to solve their own problems.

They contend that “intellectual inferiority, like segregation, is a destructive idea whose time has passed.” They urge the black community to address mental barriers to competition and performance by raising expectations for black children, instilling positive attitudes toward intellectual pursuits among black people, and encouraging black young people to attribute success to ability and failure to lack of effort.

The Sept. 9 issue of New York magazine contains an article about a New York City program that is already putting such ideas into practice. Known as Prep for Prep, the program takes gifted minority students from public elementary schools and prepares them for the rigors and pressures of private preparatory schools.

In a cover story, “The Best Prep School in Town,” Julie Baumgold argues that the program has been successful in helping gifted minority students realize their potential6precisely because it is so rigorous. Admission is highly competitive, and the instruction takes place after regular school hours.

Prep for Prep, which is financed primarily by foundation grants, was begun in 1978 with 25 students. Today it accepts about 100 students, who attend the 14-month program while still enrolled in public schools. Prep’s classes are taught by private- and public-school teachers on Wednesday afternoons and on Saturdays, and in all-day sessions during the summers before and after the 6th grade.

Courses are offered in basic subject areas, and students learn research, homework, and test-taking skills as well. “But beyond this,” Ms. Baumgold writes, “Prep tries to build self-confidence and discipline, to develop a private-school mentality. ... The Prep staff tries to prepare a child for the time ... when he gets called ‘Oreo’ or ‘white boy’ back home, or gets invited to a new friend’s beach house that is bigger than his apartment building.”

More than 30 independent high schools, many of which are among New York’s most respected, offer scholarships to Prep’s graduates. Ms. Baumgold found that these students normally enter the private schools in the middle or near the top of their class. They fail at a lower rate than their upper-middle-class counterparts.

This year for the first time, Prep graduates are making their way into top universities, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia.

The parental frenzy sometimes produced by programs for the gifted and talented is the object of a satirical short story in the July 1985 issue of Commentary.

Tova Reich, who holds a creative-writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, writes of a mother’s concern over her 4-year-old son’s progress through the gifted-and-talented hierarchy, from the “Academy for the Gifted and Talented” nursery school to the K-12 “Summa Cum Laude Enrichment Institute” and, finally, into an experimental program called “HGT-130.”

As the narrator explains: “I sensed instinctively that whether or not Jeremy got into HGT-130 would be tantamount to a statement about his destiny.”

Some critics have called Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “racist trash,” and others have hailed it as “one of the most devastating attacks on racism ever written.” On the 100th anniversary of its publication, Leo Marx addresses the question of whether this American classic should be taught in today’s public schools.

In the Aug. 31 issue of The Nation, Mr. Marx, who has edited an annotated edition of Huckleberry Finn, says the novel is indeed an indictment of slavery. Because Huck acknowledges the humanity of the slave Jim only by violating the moral code of a racist society, Mr. Marx writes, readers should recognize that Twain’s “satirical thrust is directed against slavery and racial bigotry.”

But Mr. Marx also admits that, while this point may be evident to most adult readers, Twain’s purpose may not be apparent to high-school students, especially black youths “whose special experience might very well hinder their responsiveness to the ironic treatment of racial oppression.”

Educators could “take a large step toward resolving the current controversy,” Mr. Marx suggests, simply by taking Huckleberry Finn off the required reading lists in high-school classes.

Instead, he recommends, each teacher should be allowed to decide whether his or her students should be asked to read the novel. Teachers, he writes, are best qualified to make such a decision, based on “their confidence in their own ability to convey, and their students’ ability to grasp, the irony that informs every word of this matchless comic novel.”

Another censorship debate centers on the references to sex, violence, drugs, and Satanism in rock lyrics. Numerous magazines in recent weeks--including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and People--have carried articles on the campaign against auditory smut.

In the Aug. 12 issue of Rolling Stone, Robert Love details the activities of the Washington-based “Parents Music Resource Center,” whose founding members include Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Albert Gore Jr., Democrat of Tennessee, and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker.

Disturbed by the explicit song lyrics of such rock acts as AC/DC, Judas Priest, Prince, Madonna, and Twisted Sister, the pmrc at first urged the recording industry to adopt standardized ratings--similar to those used for motion pictures--that would provide a “consumer tool” for parents. The pmrc’s proposed system, according to Rolling Stone, would have applied an X rating to albums containing sexually explicit or profane material, a D/A to songs advocating the use of drugs or alcohol, an O to those dealing with “the occult,” and a V to music deemed to promote violence.

Although the pmrc has dropped its ratings proposal, the recent articles report that the group has caught the ears of representatives from both the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Association of Broadcasters, who have acknowledged that the organization’s “well-connected” Washington membership makes it a force not safe to ignore.

Last week, a Senate Commerce subcommittee was scheduled to hold hearings on the issue. The rock musician Frank Zappa (without the Mothers of Invention) was among the scheduled panelists.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1985 edition of Education Week as In The Press