Lisa Delpit on Pervasive Inequities

April 02, 2012 2 min read

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“There is no achievement gap at birth,” MacArthur “genius” award recipient Lisa Delpit affirms at the outset of her new book, “Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. “If we do not recognize the brilliance before us, we cannot help but carry on the stereotypic societal views that these [African-American] children are somehow damaged goods and that they cannot be expected to succeed.”

In this title, Delpit, whose previous book—the acclaimed yet controversial Other People’s Children—was published 16 years ago, delves into the school factors that have contributed to the achievement gap. She makes the case that African-American students do not achieve to their potential because they’re hindered by “society’s deeply ingrained bias of equating blackness with inferiority,” the effects of stereotype threat, and curriculum that is not meaningful to them. More simply, she argues, they are not being taught effectively.

To educate our children, Delpit writes, teachers need a deep understanding of where they come from and what knowledge they bring to class. “We must learn who our children are—their lived cultures; their interests; and their intellectual, political, and historical legacies.” In addition, she writes, teachers must be “warm demanders,” meaning that they need to communicate clear, high expectations and hold students accountable for their performance, but also show care and concern.

Delpit goes on to take education reform efforts to task. The recent focus on test prep and “basic skills,” especially in low-performing urban schools, deprives students of opportunities to exercise their critical thinking, she writes. Charter schools find ways to “counsel out” the most challenging student populations. And, according to Delpit, the proliferation of alternative-certification programs that put high-achieving graduates from competitive universities into low-income schools—Teach for America being the “emblematic” one—has led to the displacement of veteran African-American teachers in favor of young, mostly white teachers. “Whatever else we might do, school reform must include efforts to recruit and sustain local, African-American teachers,” she contends.

Related Resources

• Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children

Q&A with Lisa Delpit on our BookMarks blog

The Nation‘s recent interview with Lisa Delpit

• From Commentary: “How Education Reform Traps Poor Children” and “The Achievement Gap: Am I Part of the Problem?

Through anecdotes based on her many classroom visits and her experiences with her own daughter’s education, Delpit paints a picture of a system with pervasive inequities. She recounts an instance in which an African-American student asked a tutor: “Why you trying to teach me to multiply, Ms. L.? Black people don’t multiply; black people just add and subtract. White people multiply.” Too often, Delpit explains, African-American students respond to the notion that they will not achieve by “‘disidentifying’ with the institutions that think so poorly of them.”

But the outlook is not all bleak. By cultivating genuine relationships with students, individual teachers are making a difference, she says. For these teachers, she writes, “their success is not because their skin color matches their students’ but because they know the lives and culture of their students. Knowing students is a prerequisite for teaching them well.”

—Liana Heitin