The middle-class black gap

Why do middle-class black students fall behind their white and Asian-American classmates? Time Magazine looks at the gap.

For example, Ann Arbor spends $9,234 per student; “the vast majority of students come from homes in which at least one parent is college educated.” Yet “the grade average for black kids is a C, a whole grade below the B for whites. And African-Americans are almost four times as likely to fail a class.”

Nationally, black students in the class of 2004 scored 104 points lower than whites on the math SAT and 98 points lower on the verbal section. In the past, the academic-achievement gap has been attributed to the economic and social disparities between black kids attending inner-city schools and white kids going to those in the suburbs.

But differences in achievement persist in well-funded, well-integrated districts where most black students come from middle-class families.

After studying the difficulties of black students in middle-class Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1997, John Ogbu, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, posited that academic achievement for those black students was hindered by cultural attitudes, most notably the fear of being labeled as “acting white” if they performed well or studied too much in school.

Even in the affluent suburbs, black students tend to come from families that are less securely middle-class, observes Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard government professor.

Academically, there were few differences between the races in terms of time kids spent on homework, their desire to do well, their interest in their studies or their perceptions of how their peers valued achievement. Yet black students completed less of their assignments than did their white classmates.

Ferguson encourages teachers to keep expectations high for black students, and keep pushing them to stick with difficult classes. He also wants black parents to push their children harder, provide more books, computers and other educational resources and be more involved in their children’s schools.

Few black students earn above-average SAT scores writes American Thinker, quoting a Washington Post story on the decline in freshmen black enrollment at elite colleges.

According to the College Board, 1,877 African American students nationwide scored higher than 1300 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT last year, compared with nearly 150,000 students overall who achieved that score. Minority students with higher SAT scores have become the target of frenzied competition between state and private colleges.

So much of the affirmative action debate is about where the top 5 percent of black and Hispanic students should go to college. I worry about those kids with a C or D average. Nearly all have the ability to succeed — if they get their act together.

About Joanne


  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice to know – with knowledge gathered without having to massage every datum to remove any trace of “racism”.

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at Berkeley has written extensively on this subject. See, for example, his book “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America”. McWhorter, who is black, blames black underachievement in education on black culture that equates doing well in the classroom with acting white.

  3. I wrote some about this on my blog, because as an Ann Arborite I’ve seen this up close.

    I can’t emphasize enough how No Child Left Behind has put a spotlight on the achievement gap here. True, Ann Arbor has known that there was a gap, but it became glaringly apparent to everyone when the district was forced to disaggregate data by race in accordance with NCLB.

    Before that, the annual school reports that came home with kids showed the school average test scores. Now they show scores for the whole school, and by race. I was surprised at the size of the gap. I’ve got to again say that there are some very good aspects of NCLB, even though it has some problems too. Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good. This law is an improvement, although not a perfect one.

    I think the Time article gets it right, at least as it is Ann Arbor.

  4. Does John McWhorter consider himself an “underachiever?” Does John McWhorter feel that he is not part of the “black culture” although he is black himself? Who defines “black culture?”


  5. superdestroyer says:


    Is there something that they teach in Black Studies that prevents people from understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and statistic? The children of black college educated white collar parents have, on average, lower SAT scores and lower high school grades than the children of white high school educated blue collar parents. Too many black leaders blame this difference on racism. John McWhorter blames it on anti-intellectualism, vicitimization, and black culture.

    Based on my personal experiences, I (and many others) believe that Dr McWhorter is closer to the truth than the Mfume’s of the world.

  6. Superdestroyer,

    Please cite your evidence for a frame of reference. Are you a student of “black culture?”
    What is YOUR definition of “black culture” as opposed to “white culture?” It’s easy to scapegoat and make sound bite solutions for any problem. I want you to make your point by SPECIFIC EXAMPLE.
    That’s a challenge to all of you, especially in light of the re-election of an admittedly anti-intellectual white President.


  7. As pretty an example of a left-wing, racial orthodoxy diatribe as I’ve seen in a while. Thanks Cobra.

    You struck just the right note of semi-coherent rage, made unsatisfiable demands, and the final touch, intellectual belittlement that simultaneously disdains the result of the last election and the habitues of this blog. I’m sure you’ve got a Che t-shirt.

    Now back to our topic, which is already in progress.

    I’d be interested in knowing how the achievement gap looks over a longer time period. Say, back into the forties.

    My suspicion is that the gap either came into being or opened up in the sixties with the dominance of social policies and ideas that were erosive of the values that drive achievement.

  8. Allen writes:
    >>>As pretty an example of a left-wing, racial orthodoxy diatribe as I’ve seen in a while. Thanks Cobra.

    You struck just the right note of semi-coherent rage, made unsatisfiable demands, and the final touch, intellectual belittlement that simultaneously disdains the result of the last election and the habitues of this blog. I’m sure you’ve got a Che t-shirt.”

    I’m partial to “X” t-shirts myself, but you also didn’t refute one of my points, or answer any of my questions. Obfuscation is the last resort of any right-winged zealot.
    It is also enlightening that you would blame the gap on the sixties, which coincidentally, saw the rise of the civil rights movement, integration and the first serious challenge to the white male power structure in America. That would lead a thinking person to believe that you would endorse a return to what existed BEFORE the sixties…maybe a repeal of Brown vs Board of Ed. Separate and Unequal schools?
    Please elaborate on your musings.


  9. Cobra: The piece itself mentions the work of John Ogbu, as has been mentioned.

    My definition of black culture with regard to education comes from the scholars of black culture. For example, Vanessa Siddle Walker, in her book Their Highest Potential, traces how black culture led to the creation of high-achieving segregated schools prior to the Civil Rights era. She writes that desegregation may have, in fact, been detrimental to black students who were forced into a majority white schools, were looked down on by white teachers and students, and adopted an “anti-white” atttitude toward schools. Ms. Walker is a professor at Emory.

    Another place to look is in the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals. She was one of the Little Rock Seven, and her autobiography of that time stresses the difficulty of her attending the all-white high school. She was rejected by the white students and by some of her black peers as well.

    Finally, Daryl Michael Scott, a professor at Columbia, writes in Contempt and Pity, that the idea of the damaged black psyche that was the basis for the decision in Brown v. Board has led to the thinking both by liberals and conservatives that blacks are not well-equipped to find their way through education and other institutions without special help. It’s a theory that no one likes because everyone comes out looking bad (liberals and conservatives) but it does offer a cogent explanation for the achievement gap.

  10. superdestroyer says:


    The dominates black culture is easy to define. Just visit any high school in Prince Georges County Maryland (the county is the largest populations of white collar blacks).

    One of the easist way to define black culture is that all black high schools do not have the variety of cliques that white and asian high schools have.

    One of the easist way to define black culture is that it is the culture of 12 year old boys (self centered, mysoganistic, vain, and shallow) just like very black rapper, athlete, and politician.

  11. If you seek a cultural explanation you would do well to examine linguistics and attitude toward language, as well as attitudes toward authority and regimentation.

    Before making any judgements myself, I should like to be apprised of the academic performance of African-African-Americans (real ones,not Theresa Heinz-Kerry ones), as compared to that of American-African-Americans.

    For those who are unwilling to accept the cultural explanation, there is always Galton’s Law of Filial Regression, which most handily accounts for the observed data.

  12. What points? You make a couple of inarticulate demands which you top off with an insult.

    Oh, and crack a history book sometime. The “rise of the civil rights movement, integration and the first serious challenge to the white male power structure in America” all got their start well before the sixties. What got started in the sixties was the steady erosion of means-testing for welfare recipients in favor of viewing welfare as a life-long entitlement.

    The sixties also saw the laying of the foundation for the oh-so-delicately named “affirmative action”. What every good little Klansman wouldn’t have dreamed of since Woodrow Wilson left office – racism instituted at the federal level – was accomplished. And we all know what a rousing success affirmative action has been.

    That would lead a thinking person to believe

    With whom you have what in common?

    that you would endorse a return to what existed BEFORE the sixties…maybe a repeal of Brown vs Board of Ed. Separate and Unequal schools?

    Is that what I’d do you presumptuous bug? And I’d do that because I have to have a viewpoint diametrically opposed to that held by that intellectual giant, that moral exemplar, Cobra.

    Get over yourself.

    Nothing you’ve posted so far would lead anyone to suspect that you were anything other then a garden-variety lefty who extrudes predigested, self-congradulatory opinions on cue. Compared to you the average evangelical Christian is a laff-riot and a suprise a minute.

  13. It’s amazing what you can learn about people by just asking a few pointed questions.

    I learned from Allen that some posters who can’t answer questions can resort to ad-hominem attacks.

    I learned from Superdestroyer that he needs to visit a few more predominantly black high schools, and maybe visit a black church one Sunday.

    I learned from JennyD that there are some other African American authors I should research, though I have a slightly different point of view.

    I learned from Lou Gots that there are posters out there who won’t make sweeping generalizations before reviewing all the facts at hand.


  14. Yakima Belle says:

    Well, I live in an integrated neighborhood, and I see it everyday, with the Latinos and not just the African-Americans. Our neighborhood is heavily immigrant as well as heavily non-Caucasian. The African-American kids get razzed if they are good in classes; the social rewards are for sports. The Latino kids get razzed if they speak English; the rewards are for speaking Spanish and not gaining competency in English. Razzing here includes physical violence – bullying and abuse.

    The new immigration Asians send their kids to “cram schools” after hours, as do some of the middle class African-Americans and most of the Caucasians.

    Any improvement in African-American and Latino educational prospects is the responsibility of the parents and they need to put pressure on the schools to quit pandering to the worst students in the classes; which they do around here. Current efforts to pander to the worst students include a proposed grading system where a “1” means you’re more than 3 years below grade level; a 2 means 1-3 years behind grade level; and a 3 means you are less than one year behind grade level, all they way to above grade level. This strikes me as further pandering to social mores that preclude achievement.

  15. Yakima Belle says:

    It’s like this. There are choices here. People can complain about discrimination and accuse those who point out the problems that are major contributors to the current crisis of being racists or wishing to go back before the Brown decision.

    Or they can grow up and try to find ways to solve the problem. The first approach may feel warmer and fuzzier to someone, but it simply sacrifices more children to prisons, jails, and gangs.

  16. Yakima Belle says:

    African-American culture around here centers on obscene music, dressing like street thugs, and about a third of young black men winding up in prison. And if someone doesn’t find some way to make achievement acceptable in African-American culture, then it is just going to go on and on and on. No matter how many people feed pablum about poverty and discrimination, the scary fact is that the children of the middle class are going to prison right alongside the children of the poor.

    Case in point, my best friend’s family. Husband an engineer. One son an engineer; daughter a manager; and one son in prison for a very long time. Religious family; hardworking family; moral family. The one son rejected all those values for street culture and media promoted bull waste.


  1. Middle Class Black Achievement Gap

    Joanne Jacobs has a very good post on this issue. I was going to comment on the articles she links but now don’t need to….