Culture clash in the classroom

Lisa Delpit’s Multiplication Is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children argues that “low performance begins with American racism,” writes Mark Bauerlein in Ed Next.

Black males perform poorly because “our young men have internalized all of the negative stereotypes.” Sometimes black students are invisible, unnoticed, and disrespected, and sometimes they are “hypervisible,” their normal youth behaviors magnified into pathologies. They end up estranged from school culture (“disidentification”), mistrusting their own capacities and fulfilling belittling expectations.

. . . The classroom is a white, middle-class space often hostile to African American norms. It downplays collaboration, she notes, even though these students need it to “feel more secure and less vulnerable.” It ignores past contributions to learning and science by African Americans. It neglects spirituality, whereas “traditional African education” incorporates “education for the spirit” into everyday lessons.

The demoralization is demonstrated by a middle schooler who announces, “Black people don’t multiply; black people just add and subtract. White people multiply.”

“The clash of school culture with African American out-of-school culture” is a significant problem, Bauerlein writes, but he’s not persuaded that cultural sensitivity is sufficient to produce high performance.

Delpit lauds a math lesson based on racial profiling. A student says, “Now I realize that you could use math to defend your rights and realize the injustices around you.”

Bauerlein is skeptical:

But what about the math scores those students attain in 12th grade? What grades do they get in first-year college calculus? Delpit claims that schools impart the message that “you must give up identifiably African American norms in order to succeed,” but she never shows that embracing those norms produces higher college enrollment or workplace readiness.

The “no excuses” schools explicitly teach school culture — aim high, work hard, show respect, don’t quit– to low-income black and Hispanic students. Inner-city Catholic schools often do the same, writes Patrick McCloskey in The Street Stops Here. Students may embrace street culture when they walk out the door — they may need to — but not in school.

Here’s an Ed Week interview with Delpit.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Lisa Delpit is a sharp cookie. I’ve read a lot of her work, and I think of her as sort of the “thinking man’s” CRT scholar.

    I’ve not read this latest book yet — but it sounds like it’s of a piece with her other work, and if that’s so, then it doesn’t seem like Bauerlein is really giving her a fair shake.

    This comment isn’t meant to be a substantive response to Bauerlein, because I haven’t read the book yet. I’m just mentioning this so that those who come to Joanne’s site and read about this review don’t automatically think that Delpit’s work is just more of the same CRT pablum that fills so much of the academy.

    • While I admit I haven’t read the rest of her book…

      If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…

      The idea that learning must be adapted to different racial cultures is, well, racist. Yes, African American culture has traditionally relied on other methods to teach their children. So did Western European and Asian cultures before the advent of mass (some might say industrialized) education, and there’s a reason that they abandoned older educational methods – “white middle-class” education is much more effective.

      And doesn’t the fact that Delpit and others need to qualify “white middle-class” culture, indicating that there’s white upper and lower-class cultures, kinda conflict with CRT? And shouldn’t they recognize upper-, middle-, and lower-class African American cultures?

      • If it’s not racist to expect Asians, Caribbeans, poor and blue-collar whites, and new Eastern European immigrants to learn to read and write standard English, academic content across the disciplines and white middle class culture (which she does admit is the culture of success), why is it racist to expect blacks to do the same? If they are to be successful outside of their community, knowledge of the wider culture is pretty important. I’m assuming that she is referring primarily to urban black culture (and other areas which have adopted it), but she should realize that that culture really didn’t exist until the 60s. I am absolutely certain that the all-black, segregated Dunbar HS, in DC, which had a deservedly high reputation and many illustrious grads demanded appropriate behavior and work ethic – I know grads from that era- and the Dunbar standards were no different from those of successful white schools.

        I haven’t read the book but I have read some of her other writings and there’s a good bit of resentment there. I get the flavor that she doesn’t want equal opportunity or even equal outcomes, but subjugation of the white/Asian middle/upper-middle class culture in favor of the black culture. Payback, essentially. Considering what has happened to the black community since the 60s, I hope we’re not going there.

  2. Oh, Critical Race Theory i.e. the left’s attempt to slip between the Charybdis of blaming blacks kids for being too stupid to learn and the Scylla of saddling the public education system with some degree of responsibility for the racial divide.

  3. Somehow Chinese and Indian kids usually do well in the “white, middle-class space”.

    • So do Asians, even the new arrivals who may not speak English at all and probably don’t speak English at home, New immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa also do much better than native-born blacks whose forbears have likely been here for 200 years. Poor white kids, let alone poor Asian kids, are also likely to outperform black kids from affluent, upper-middle class families who attend top suburban schools. Of course, that group of kids knows that AA means that they don’t have to meet the same standards as their white and Asian classmates; my kids’ friends were perfectly willing to admit it – and the reality that they didn’t have to take the APs (let alone get the AP scores) their friends and classmates did.

      The elephant in the room is culture; family and community. In the cities, black kids aren’t likely to have an intact, married family and may have never known one. A study done in DC back in the mid-80s on grandmothers acting as primary caretakers of their grandkid(s); average age was 34 and there were several who were 28. They were also likely to have kids the same age as their grandkids. No involvement of any of the sperm donors (they certainly weren’t fathers) was the norm. Also the norm was the pattern of very young, poorly educated single mothers and multiple sperm donors (ditto, likely criminal) and a multi-generational history of dysfunctional habits and behaviors, community tolerance of same and not making academic success a priority. Almost all parents say they value education, but far fewer actually demand the habits and behaviors that make it possible. Self-control, work ethic and delayed gratification are essential and trying to make that happen is far more difficult without family and community support – although the right school climate can help (it worked for generations of kids). Ridicule of academically successful kids as sellouts or oreos also exists – I’ve seen it in action.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    What really makes me scratch my head was the recent study (small) that showed the recent African immigrants outscored African Americans on standardized tests. Was that in Portland?

    It certainly gives credibility to the culture or nuture argument.

    • I don’t know if it was the same study referenced in several places, or different studies, but I have read a number of reports with the same conclusion – also true of recent immigrants from various Caribbean countries.

      This dichotomy was also discussed quite extensively in City on a Hill (book), which I think was written in the 90s, about City College of NY. The recent immigrants, (from Europe, Asia, Africa or Caribbean) particularly if educated elsewhere (as opposed to NYC) were vastly over-represented in the academic classes, especially in STEM, while the indigeneous blacks were rarely found outside of remedial classes (mostly very low level).

  5. H. Torrance Griffin says:

    While the proper comparison for poor performing inner city black populations are equally dirt poor native born whites rather than self-selecting immigrants, I have noted that the meme of ‘X is for White People’ is the most dangerous form of self-sabotage.

    • Of course it is, but there’s a lot of it going around. A friend of my son’s, along with the other upper middle class blacks at a good suburban HS, was targeted as an oreo and sellout by the small group of urban blacks from the subsidized housing project in the district (three cheers for socioeconomic integration). The explicit message was that behaving appropriately and doing well in school was a betrayal of black identity. It was such a toxic message that the kid’s parents moved him to a private school, where the climate demanded appropriate behavior and academics for students of all colors and flavors.

      The fact that black immigrants do so much better than indigenous blacks contradicts the “can’t succeed because of racism” meme, which – of course – affirms the victim mentality, which says that nothing is ever the fault of the individual’s behavior or life choices.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      It was Seattle, not Portland.

      For this group, the argument that they come from a richer socio-economic backgound isn’t applicable. These are primarily refugees from war-torn areas:

      From the article:

      Many of the Somalis, after all, did not follow a normal pattern of immigration. Their families came to the U.S. to escape their war-torn country, many by way of refugee camps. But they still did better than English-speaking African Americans on the tests.

      Again, an indication that home culture among Africans/African Americans plays a role.

      • North of 49th says:

        Another indication of culture as a significant variable is that consistently the lowest-performing group in the UK are working-class whites. They do worse than blacks of all origins.

        Canadian blacks, who are not part of U.S. “black culture,” also achieve at much higher levels on both IQ and achievement tests than American blacks. Many of these blacks are immigrants and refugees from Darfur, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia. Their success cannot be attributed to a family history of education. Despite many language and cultural obstacles, many of these students do well in school and outperform native-born Canadian white students, as well as several other European white immigrant groups.

        A study my district’s research department did found that culture was a bigger predictor than SES for achievement in grades 3, 6 and 9.

  6. While the proper comparison for poor performing inner city black populations are equally dirt poor native born whites rather than self-selecting immigrants,

    Dirt poor native born whites outperform middle and high income blacks, much less inner city black populations.

    • Source, please.

      • Everywhere. SAT, NAEP, state tests. Pick any test that allows you to sort by parental ihncome and race. CSTs, for starters. SAT, just google “low income whites” and “high income blacks” with “sat scores”. This is a well-established statistic. It would be news if high income blacks outscored low income whites.