Does it have to be about race?

Categorizing by race and focusing on the racial achievement gap is perilous, writes William Saletan on Slate.

“Lower-performing 9- and 13-year-olds make gains,” says one section of the NAEP report.”No significant change for 17-year-olds at any performance level,” says another. “Reading scores improve for 9-year-old public and private school students over long term,” says a third. “Score increases for 17-year-olds whose parents did not finish high school,” says a fourth. These tables organize the data by factors that can help us target and adjust educational policy: kids with low scores, kids in public school, kids in high school, kids whose parents didn’t graduate. I’d like to see tables for income and spending per pupil, too. But race? Does that category really help? And what message does it send to kids when headlines assert a persistent “racial gap”?

Socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education and income, don’t explain racial and ethnic differences. For example, middle-class blacks score lower than average, while low-income Asian-American students earn above-average scores. I’d like to see schools work harder at creating a culture of learning within the school and explaining to parents how they can support this culture at home.

About Joanne


  1. Of all the several hundred blogs I read on the topic of education, it is this blog that returns most consistently to race. So much so that I have long wondered about the author’s preoccupation with the subject.

    My best bet is that the author believes that educational attainment really does vary by race. How else does one explain a tendentious characterization as follows: “Socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education and income, don’t explain racial and ethnic differences.”

    Unless these differences are explained by race, the only explanation, then, is that these differences are explained by racism. But does this author call for measures opposing systemic racism in the educational system? No, I haven’t seen any such reports. So she doesn’t believe that the differences are caused by racism, then? Then what are we to conclude?

  2. This post my get me banned, but I have to just say it.

    Stephen, You’re an ass.

  3. Jeez, what a chain of logic. Stephen, your posts would make a good classroom exercise in learning to identify the various informal fallacies. It must be interesting to have a mind that works that way– there’s no limit to the interesting “facts” one could discover.

  4. Dick Eagleson says:

    Somebody here may have a “preoccupation” with race, but I fail to see evidence that it is our host. Race is a recurrent theme of education discussions because the current U.S. education establishment is overwhelmingly designed and run by political liberals and race is a liberal obsession.

    As witness the poverty of imagination on display in Mr. Downes’s comment. Unable to refute the thesis that socioeconomic factors do not explain differences, he raises a false dichotomy between race – i.e., genetic heritage – as an explanation, which he implicitly also rejects, and racism, which he implicitly favors. Racism is sort of the universal medicine show tonic of liberalism. Just as Doctor Josephus’s Patent ELixir was said to be a cure for everything from cancer to male pattern baldness, the modern liberal can explain virtually any disparity across statistically distinguishable populations by resort to the explanatory elixir of racism. Unless these differences are explained by race, the only explanation, then, is that these differences are explained by racism shouts Dr. Downes from the back of his extravagantly painted wagon.

    Really? Is there no room at all for explanations involving, say, culture? Culture is nearly as obsessed about by liberals, including those in the education establishment, as is race. We are ceaselesly lectured by such people about the crucial importance of cultural sensitivity. How odd that culture, as an explanatory factor, doesn’t seem to cross Mr. Downes’s mind as an alternative to the more venerable liberal explanatory of racism.

    The case of black performance vs. culture, as opposed to race, is an interesting one because, as Dr. Thomas Sowell has pointed out in several of his books and innumerable articles and columns, black Americans do not all share a common cultural background. There is, to be sure, what one can call a mainstream black American culture, but there are also large numbers of blacks in America who are relatively recent arrivals from the West Indies and Africa. The educational, and even socioeconomic, achievements of these latter are on a par with those of white Americans. This despite the fact that the individuals comprising these sub-categories are often darker complected than American blacks with antebellum Southern roots as the former come from all-black or nearly all-black populations and have less cross-racial genetic heritage than their lighter-skinned “born-in-the-USA” cousins.

    Thus does Mr. Downes’s cramped and reductive thesis go down in flames. There are more things in heaven and earth, Stephen, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  5. Culture is just as unlikely as racism. I mean, come on. Asians aren’t uniform–Pacific Islander Asians have much lower scores than Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. You want to argue that they have a bad “culture”, too? The culture explanation is insulting, too. “You could learn more, but you’re just uncouth baggage who need to adopt middle class norms.” It’s garbage. Plus, there’s a decent amount of research that demonstrates that hard work gets good grades, but not necessarily better understanding.

    Using recent immigrants from West Indies and Africa won’t help–selection bias is a huge factor in their higher performance. African IQs are lower than African American IQs, so it’s simply not possible that “culture” explains West Africans better performance.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t other possible explanations. But racism and culture are both equally moronic.

    The most likely explanation includes genetics, but people always interpret that statement incorrectly. They think it means “[people of race X] are less intelligent” by virtue of being of that race. In fact, the statement means rather that low IQs are more frequent among certain racial categories, but can be found in all races–as can high IQs.

  6. Dick Eagleson says:


    I don’t think we really disagree as much as you seem to think. I stated that American blacks are not a monoculture and that their educational and socioeconomic outcomes vary in a way that is much more closely correlated with culture than with race. Pointing out that the same is true of Asians is reinforcement of my point, not a refutation of it.

    Nor do I deny that there is a genetic component to outcomes that is not evenly distributed across racial populations. It is fairly well established, for example, that Ashkenazic Jews are a full standard deviation brighter, on average, than European/American whites, having, as they do, a median IQ of 115 vs. 100. North Asians, such as Koreans, Japanese and Chinese, come in a few points higher than whites as well. Despite these advantages, modernity and most material progress these past five centuries have been products of social orders – cultures – peopled by only the, at best, third brightest average group of humans on the planet. I feel this constitutes an adequate existence proof that culture can trump raw mental horsepower where educational and socioeconomic outcomes are concerned. Thus, American blacks can succeed, as their genetic close cousins from their ancestral homelands and other former colonial societies demonstrate. What I am saying is that they will not, in fact, succeed without dumping those aspects of their culture that are toxic to their efforts to advance.

    The culture explanation is only “insulting” if one’s self-identity is heavily tied up with one’s cultural background and/or if one shares the modern liberal multiculturalism conceit that all cultures are equal. If you are among those who hew to this particular canard, then we have identified a genuine point of disagreement.

    The all-cultures-are-equally-worthy multiculturalist kumbaya viewpoint is obviously and flagrantly wrong on a simple factual level, but has become an adamantine pillar of modern liberal thought and action. Thus, any policy predicated on the objectively verifiable, but politically incorrect, premise that all cultures are not equally worthy – that some are, in fact, quite a bit superior to others – is going to be opposed by liberals with scorched-earth fury.

    This is not going to benefit blacks, or any other racial or ethnic sub-group whose ancestral culture now holds them back, no matter how screechily liberal activists – of all races – attempt to insist otherwise. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of native-born American blacks because the “culture” that is killing and blighting so many of them is not, in fact, ancestral in any meaningful sense. Modern inner-city black underclass culture is of fairly recent origin and was, in large measure, defined and promulgated by the same liberal activist mentality that now insists its obvious toxicity is all in the minds of evil racist white people who just want to keep the black man down.

    So it goes.

  7. I realize there are strong reasons why we can not turn into a color blind society immediately, but shouldn’t we be aiming in that direction?

    I’ve never watched much TV, but I think it was in the 80’s when I would see crime or police shows occasionally, and I would wonder about something that struck me as odd. In an emergency situation the police would radio for an ambulance with a phrase something like “We have a black male victim, about 25, with bleeding from . . . . .” Or it might be “A white female, about 35 . . . .” Why was race mentioned when calling for help? Is there any medical reason to do so, or is it just our race obsessed culture? I was assured by a few people who ought to know that there were legitimate medical reasons to mention race. I never quite believed it however. Have we gotten away from that? I hope so, but I don’t know, since my TV watching has gone from scant to zero in recent decades. If we have, I consider it progress.

    At about this same time, a few decades ago I began to think about why race is asked on the census. Isn’t that harmful? I always thought it was. Indeed I still think it is. Again when I ask people why this is done, they claim there are good reasons. Maybe, but I continue to think it is psychologically harmful. If race doesn’t matter, why must we report it?

    I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to NCLB when it became law. In fact it is only recently that I realized that the “achievement gap” seems to be a code word for race. Presumably by focusing on race and race relations we can make things better. I remain unconvinced.

  8. Weird. So, we can only talk about race when it can be used as a bludgeon against assumed conservative issues, like vouchers, NCLB, or school choice. But we can’t talk about race when it might be used to point out the failings of the public school system. And whatever happened to the idea of an open dialog on race?

  9. Brian

    “We have a black male victim, about 25, with bleeding from . . . . .” Or it might be “A white female, about 35 . . . .” ”

    The persona are identified so that when the car shows up they know who’s who in the zoo. Identifying people by hair color, skin color, sex and seems to pin-point the appropriate person. Oddly enough, at crime scenes, more than one person might be bleeding.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    John McWhorter, in “Losing The Race” addressed this, referring in part to growing up in Shaker Heights.
    An educator named Ogbu did a study in Shaker Heights where the income level rates as both affluent and relatively homogeneous. Black kids don’t do as well, despite monitoring and aggressive intervention.
    Ogbu found that black kids watch far more television–taking time from homework–than white or Asian kids.
    But it was, in a sense, homework, since their status in school depended on knowing who was what on the various shows. American Idol, and so forth, I imagine.
    A study in CA found that the kids had an idea of what grade was the minimum acceptable to their parents. It differed between ethnic groups with Asians’ being the highest and black kids’ view of what they could get away with being the lowest.
    As Thomas Sowell said, cultures vary and differences have consequences. Except if the consequences are substandard performance or outcomes for Accredited Victim Groups, in which case you’re a racist for mentioning it. See S. Downes for an example.

  11. Is politics part of determining education policy? Yes.

  12. Margo/Mom says:


    Ferguson has done extensive follow-up and refutation of many of Ogbu’s claims with regard to Shaker Heights. It’s not so simple. There are many nuanced factors to the interaction between students and teachers. African-American kids in that setting are actually putting more time into homework, although less likely to finish. They felt less connection to, or possibility of help from their teachers, were less likely to ask question. Racism is not simply a matter of Jim Crow-like bans from goods, services and locations–or even overt sets of individual beliefs to justify denial of such things.

    But, for many African American kids, we are not talking about Shaker Heights. We are talking about districts far more likely to be heavily imbued with poverty, to have greater difficulties in maintaining a quality teaching force (having less experienced, less qualified, more mobile and more frequently absent teachers), to have a diminished sense of safety and security. We know that African American kids are more likely to experience longer periods of suspension–even when severity of infractions are the same, and to be more frequently disciplined. They are more likely to be disproportionately represented in any class of disability for which there is a high level of subjectivity in diagnosis. And for all kids in the low-income categories, that is in schools where there are high levels of low-income students, such things as parent involvement are insufficient to close the gap between their students and others in more advantaged school situations.

    I personally don’t know if Joanne has more postings about race than others, or why that might be if true. I do know that many of her readers are always quick to jump in and quash anything that might take a “liberal” point of view towards examination of such issues.

  13. “Culture is just as unlikely as racism. I mean, come on. Asians aren’t uniform–Pacific Islander Asians have much lower scores than Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. You want to argue that they have a bad “culture”, too?”

    Asians are not equal from the standpoint of achievement in the United States. Their cultures differ too, sometimes tremendously. If Asians are racially homogeneous, as you seem to imply, then you’re only further supporting the argument that their cultural backgrounds makes a substantial difference when it comes to their degree of personal success. And yes, some cultures do place a much higher value on formal education than do others.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    “asians” aren’t uniform”
    Of course not. Calling Tongans and Aleuts and Chinese “asians” doesn’t make them the same in race or culture.
    So differences between those groups do not invalidate the fact that Chinese/Japanese/Koreans do extremely well in US schools, and on intelligence tests.
    Had an exchange student from Malaysia in town some years back. She was ethnic Chinese and had to come back to the States after her senior HS year here. Problem is, ethnic Chinese make up about 10% of the Malaysian population and if matriculating on merit, would crowd ethnic Malaysians out of college. So they have quotas.
    She had to come here to get a BS in Chem Eng from U-Mich and her MS in same from Wisconsin.

    Margo. If the Shaker Heights kids felt less prospect of help from the teacher–SH was taken as a lesson due to its racially mixed and affluent characteristics–is it because the teachers gave that impression or their own subculture taught them that? Should be some way of figuring that out. And why not finish homework?
    Not all black kids are in SH. But we use SH because the other variables–poverty, poor schools, low per-pupil expenditure, high crime–do not apply. It’s a cleaner place to study issues such as culture and educational outcomes.
    You can always look at, say, Detroit. Their school system has been taken over for the second time in the last twenty years by an outside controller.
    Half the schools are at half-capacity for attendance. Several hundred individuals have been drawing paychecks for no discernible effort–they don’t show up–and corruption in maintenance and supplying is astonishing. There was a recent shooting in a high school over a dice game. The comforting thing was that no students were injured. The perp and the vic were both non-students who had decided to get out of the weather to gamble.
    The system is the pits and no whiteys have been around to exercise their baleful influence in decades.
    A philanthropist offered a huge amount of money several years ago to start charter schools. Teachers union told him to get lost.
    From time to time, we hear of text books requested by teachers still in the warehouses at Thanksgiving. We don’t hear a lot of that because the admin tries to find out those who complain in order to punish them.
    The Catholic system had to give back a huge number of textbooks they thought they were buying from the city as surplus. Turns out they weren’t surplus. But there are too many guys with keys to the warehouses.
    It would be tough to learn in that environment. But it can’t well be called a matter of racism, there being few to no whites involved.

  15. momof4 says:

    Same in DC, also in lots of urban districts. One of my kids has a very close (black) friend from Shaker Heights, but she was sent to private school because her family did not want her to be exposed to the anti-education attitudes of the black kids in the public schools. We have discussed the issue and she told me that Ogbu was right; academic success and social acceptance within the black community were incompatible. I have been told that it is the same in Chicago. The academically successful black kids have mostly white and Asian friends, with the exception of other highly successful black and Hispanic students.

    That is likely to persist in college, also. High-performing black and Hispanic kids at elite colleges are often shunned by their larger ethnic groups and often by whites and Asians, who assume they are less qualified and were admitted only because of affirmative action. I know of such a student, who scored in the mid-700s (old scale) on both the math and verbal SAT I AS AN 8TH GRADER and went on to equal success at a highly-competitive magnet high school. He was so miserable his first semester at an Ivy school that he almost transferred. Fortunately, in his second semester he met enough others in his situation to make it bearable and it also became glaringly obvious to everyone that his admission was absolutely justified on merit.

  16. grusin says:

    The fact that lower income Asians of Chinese/Japanese/Korean ancestry tend to do better than average (especially on math tests) is testimony to how powerful culture is. These kids (who are in the lower half of the Asian IQ curve) do much better than would be predicted by the small difference in average IQ’s of East Asians and whites.

    The other post on this blog about people reacting to the increase in study over play in Kindergarten is also a testimony to culture. After all, most East Asian schoolwork makes the standard US grade school look like all play all the time.

  17. Richard Aubrey says:


    McWhorter tells of the same thing while he was doing well in Shaker Heights. Where, of all places, that sort of thing should be, one would expect, absent.

  18. Margo/Mom says:

    See here for a decent discussion of Ogbu, vs other researcher who both agree and disagree.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    We moved from a middle class city in So Cal to a blue collar/Navy area in Washington State. The Blue Collar school my DD went to for a month until I pulled her out was close to 100% white. It had a white trash culture (distain for learning, high proportion of out of wedlock births, tattoed females, etc)not a whole lot of difference between that and the inner city.

  20. Elizabeth is right. Whether ‘redneck’, ‘ghetto’, (or whatever designation has been given to similar subcultures of other races), a culture that admires ignorance and lack of class is, well, a culture that admires ignorance and lack of class.

    And unfortunately, in the U.S., examples abound of subcultures, both racial and non-racial, that fall into this category.

  21. “And unfortunately, in the U.S., examples abound of subcultures, both racial and non-racial, that fall into this category.”

    Yep, and if we could just stop pretending that these cultures are “equal”, we might actually promote educational standards that prepare kids adequately for work or college and don’t promote ignorance as culture.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    We can’t pretend. Cultures are equal. They just ARE! Except for the standard US culture which is perfectly vile.
    And some cultures can be associated with race. That redneck/white trash and inner-city hood cultures are similar means nothing. Discredit that culture and you’re a racist, unless you take ostentatious pains to make it clear you’re not talking about the ‘hood. Even then, you might be. Depends on what others need to make of what you say.

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    Interesting article. I like the frequent use of the passive.

    “are seen as….” By whom? Doesn’t say. Evidence? May be in the studies but not even hinted at by the article. The article makes it all seem like the quoted individual’s opinion. Maybe there’s evidence….

  24. Margo/Mom says:

    “By whom? Doesn’t say. Evidence? May be in the studies but not even hinted at by the article. The article makes it all seem like the quoted individual’s opinion. Maybe there’s evidence….”

    Richard–don’t know what article you were reading. I counted citations of at least seven researchers, including Ogbu. It came from the New York Times–where journalistic style does not call for a bibliography. It is easier for me here to post a link to the NYTimes, however, than to try to point people to a number of publications that are not so publicly available (refereed journals, published books). BTW–I think Ogbu leaped to some conclusions in Shaker Heights, but I have read other works of his with which I had far fewer concerns.

    It seemed to me as though the article’s author was presenting a fairly balanced report of what researchers are saying–rather than editorializing.

  25. Dick Eagleson says:


    Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction to the piece too. Anyone interested in a piece of actual research on this subject that’s full of like, you know, numbers and stuff can try this.

  26. “Unless these differences are explained by race, the only explanation, then, is that these differences are explained by racism.”

    Stephen, funny that this racist system results in East Asians outperforming whites. Why, assuming you believe in evolution, would you assume complete group equality?

    For instance, in 2007 it was found that 7% of the genome had undergone recent selection (see ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’ for a discussion of this). For example, you see new versions of SLC6A4, a serotonin transporter, in Europeans and Asians. There’s a new version of a gene (DBA1) that shapes the development of the layers of the cerebral cortex in east Asia.