The Next City
March 21, 1997
The Next City Discussion Group, Reading, writing and racism. Black ideology is the black child’s most debilitating burden
- Staci Hirsch, Chicago, responds: May 13, 1997
- Jim Torczyner , Director, Montreal Consortium for Human Right Advocacy Training/McGill Consortium for Ethnicity and Strategic Social Planning, responds: May 27, 1997
- Mendelson Joe Toronto, responds: July 9 1997
- Professors Scott Davies, Cyril Levitt, and Neil McLaughlin , Hamilton, Ontario, responds: July 22, 1997.
- Don Vernon , Calgary, responds: September 2, 1997.
- Okey Chigbo replies
- Drs. George Dei and Patrick Solomon Toronto, respond: December 16, 1997
- Okey Chigbo replies ,
- Jane Lucas Westinghouse Career Academy, Chicago, responds: July 7, 1999
Staci Hirsch, Chicago, responds: May 13, 1997
I am not one of those blacks who will shun you at dinner parties. As a matter of fact, you would be the headliner guest at my next one . . .
Your interview on CBC’s Sunday Morning (May 11) and article in The NEXT CITY were right on target. You and I both know that you are only stating and “scientifically” verifying what many blacks often say, albeit quietly, among each other every day. It is a shame that we have done so little about it short of marches around the White House. Often, when such comments are made, they are done so by well-off blacks in a why-can’t-those-people-stop-embarrassing-
us tone. This is especially true of those who pepper the social service positions (i.e., social workers, case managers, psychologists, etc.) who are supposed to help but all to often hurt. The underlining attitude is: “I made it, why can’t you, fool?” without recognizing that many of us who did make it came from families who invested, heavily, in us — from cradle through college/graduate school. So much for empathy.
Jim Torczyner, Director, Montreal Consortium for Human Right Advocacy Training/McGill Consortium for Ethnicity and Strategic Social Planning, responds: May 27, 1997
Okey Chigbo’s “Reading, writing and racism” (Spring 1997) is a cogent, eloquent, and passionate statement regarding the causes of and solutions to black underachievement in school. Mr. Chigbo seeks to counter a prevailing attitude among many black thinkers and among policy makers generally which blames a racist system for black underachievement. Mr. Chigbo argues that not only have antiracist policies and programs proven to be ineffective in raising levels of black educational performance, but they run the risk of internalizing a message to young blacks that they need not bother because the system is so loaded against them, that even their best efforts will not succeed. Blaming the system, according to Mr. Chigbo, avoids naming the problem, which, in his view and those of other researchers he cites, is that of insufficient motivation and support in black families for education which is intensified by the alarmingly high percentage of single parent families. “School reforms will yield few benefits. Altering self-defeating behaviors will yield far more.”
Mr. Chigbo’s argument joins a growing list of black activists, who while disagreeing profoundly with Mr. Chigbo about racism and its importance, exhort blacks to take greater responsibility for social problems in their community. The Reverend Jessie Jackson’s recent pronouncements about “black on black violence” and Minister Farakhan’s Million Man March directed black men to assume greater social and family responsibility. These illustrate that self-help, motivation, and determination are the necessary tools of emancipation, and greater emphasis must be placed on community building, strengthening families, and empowering young blacks with the values and tools of education and personal responsibility.
Mr. Chigbo goes one important step farther. He argues that while racism exists and schools and curriculum do require improvement, the racism card is a crutch. “By holding schools accountable for the grades of racial minority students, minority groups cannot be responsible for their poor performance, leaving little room for individual and group responsibility for success or failure.” As such, (this) “black ideology is the black child’s most debilitating burden.”
Although Mr. Chigbo’s article provides a welcome if provocative balance to the current debate about educational performance of blacks in Canada, it runs the risks of artificially dichotomizing this complex problem, of drawing conclusions based on inaccurate inferences from the American experience, and of not taking into consideration the unique demographic experience of blacks in Canada which shapes support for educational achievement.
Causes of underachievement are complex and include a variety of personal, family, socioeconomic, and institutional factors. Natural ability, personal motivation, family stability, and the value placed on education by parents, peers, and the community at large of course influence educational performance. There are both ample research findings and common sense understandings that children who grow up in two parent families which are stable, with university educated parents who wish the same for their children, and are surrounded by peers who come from similar backgrounds are more likely to succeed in school.
Equally important are socioeconomic conditions such as poverty, unemployment, and underemployment which create poor learning environments for children. Overcrowded conditions, financial pressures, combined often with the possibility of eviction and homelessness do not bode well for concentration on academic work. Indeed, research and common sense suggest that children who grow up in middle class families, who have their own room to study in equipped with Internet technology, who are well-fed and well-nourished and face none of the precariousness associated with poverty are more likely to succeed in school than children who live in poverty.
It is also abundantly clear that the structure and quality of educational institutions influence children’s performance. Better financed schools with up-to-date facilities, equipment, and texts, smaller classrooms offering individual attention, and quality experienced teachers, and the degree to which teachers and course content resonate the cultural backgrounds of students all impact on children’s capacity to learn. Children of the poor do not have access to many of these resources. It is also not unreasonable to assume that if there is a paucity of minority teachers in schools with large minority student populations, and, if these teachers have little experience outside of their work environment with minority populations, they might not choose the most appropriate teaching tools and texts and may not have the same expectations for black children and their potential for success as they do for students from the “majority” culture.
Notwithstanding, more kids succeed in school than fail from whatever their particular background and some schools are better than others. Some poor kids do well in school and some rich kids fail. Rather, the point which needs to be underscored is that an almost exclusive focus on parental attitudes as the main cause of underachievement which does not take into account demographic and institutional factors may balance a debate, but does not effectively advance policy and practice.
Furthermore, there is often a tendency to transfer the American experience to the Canadian scene and to, therefore, assume that American findings have relevance to the black experience in Canada. Obviously, blacks constitute a much smaller percentage of the population in Canada than they do in the United States. Nor did blacks in Canada experience the brutality of American slavery, or the viciousness of segregation. This is not to say that Canada has been a model of civility. Slavery did exist, racist and discriminatory policies were carried out, and acts of violence against blacks continue to this day. The point is, however, that the magnitude of these issues pales compared to the American experience.
Moreover, in our recently released preliminary demographic profile of blacks in Canada (Diversity, Mobility and Change: The Dynamics of Black Communities in Canada, 1997) we found that almost half of all blacks in Canada immigrated here in the past 20 years (45 per cent), the majority of whom came from independent black countries in the Caribbean and Africa. Another 45 per cent of blacks in Canada were under the age of 25 in 1991. Only 2 per cent of blacks in Canada were born in the United States. Taken together, there is little empirical evidence to suggest similarities between the American and Canadian experience or to assume that the persistent racism of the American experience played itself out in Canada in the same way or to the same degree.
Not surprisingly, Canadian demographic data about blacks reveal a different image than the American scene and paint a picture different than what is generally reported. According to our study, blacks have approximately the same levels of educational attainment as the entire population. Black men are somewhat better educated than Canadian men generally.
These findings are preliminary and they must be examined in greater detail because they seem to contradict other studies which are cited by Mr. Chigbo. Our demographic study does not tell us anything about the quality of these educational experiences or how well black students do compared with Canadians generally. The study only identifies the level of education achieved. It does not compare at the present time levels of education in particular cities or neighborhoods, but these studies should be completed over the next two years. The data also indicates that a smaller percentage of blacks were dependent on public assistance than Canadians generally, and a higher percentage work. Such findings are in sharp contrast to the American figures.
Notwithstanding, there are large-scale demographic forces which shape the experience of blacks in Canada and which could contribute to underachievement. First, there are disproportionately more black women of marriage age than black men in Canada. This is exclusively accounted for by black women who were born in the Caribbean as past Canadian policy encouraged their immigration to Canada as “domestics” and in various service occupations. These same policies did not facilitate the immigration of Caribbean men.
Second, there is a substantially higher percentage of younger persons and children in the black community when compared to the Canadian population generally. Fifty-five per cent of the black population was under the age of 30 in 1991, compared with 44 per cent of Canadians generally. Conversely less than 10 per cent of blacks and almost 20 per cent of Canadians generally were aged 55 or over.
It is, therefore, not surprising to find substantially higher percentages of single parent families in the black community than among Canadians generally. Of black families, 8.1 per cent were headed by a single parent compared with 3.6 per cent of Canadian families generally. Among blacks, more than 3 out of 10 children (36 per cent) under the age of 14 lived in a single parent family, compared with about 1 in 7 Canadian children generally (13.8 per cent). Given these demographic data, child poverty is twice as high among blacks than among all Canadian children. Four out of 10 black children lived in poverty in 1991.
Blacks earn less than Canadians generally, and poverty is much higher among blacks. Although we found a higher percentage of blacks work, we also found a higher percentage unemployed. Blacks are overrepresented in service and clerical occupations and manual work, and underrepresented in more secure and higher paying senior and middle management positions, supervisors, and in skilled crafts and trades. Blacks are less likely to be self employed or live off of investments.
The extent to which these data mirror the immigrant experience of most groups or are a reflection of particular issues in the black communities or of racism is open to debate and certainly requires more detailed study. Notwithstanding, these demographic data point to the same general conclusions to which both “exhortationists” of personal motivation and behavior as well as the “denouncers” of pervasive institutional racism have arrived.
That is, black families in Canada are experiencing considerable stress and require support. Black community organizations do not have sufficient resources to establish the network of support systems necessary to deal with the combined effect of widespread, recent, immigration, high levels of single parent families and child poverty, the absence of grandparents and the lack of accumulated wealth in the black community. An understanding of these demographic realities might sharpen policy direction, tone down ideological pronouncements, and outline effective strategies for intervention.
Mendelson Joe, Toronto, responds: July 9, 1997
I write to praise the work of Okey Chigbo and his calm analysis and reason on the question and performance (by blacks).
Professors Scott Davies, Cyril Levitt, and Neil McLaughlin, Hamilton, Ontario, respond: July 22, 1997
Congratulations on an excellent article.
The ongoing dispute about “political correctness” has given rise to heated political debates, numerous books and countless articles, and has become a prominent part of popular culture. Yet far too much of the discussion has been polarized by extreme positions and simplified by media coverage of such complicated issues as race and gender relations, speech codes and censorship, school curriculum, affirmative action, critical legal theory, and sexual harassment. Conservative critics of social change as well as simplistic cultural radicals have had their say, but their near monopoly on public discussion has made it difficult to address contemporary cultural politics on campuses with complexity and nuance. The debate has been presented to the broader public as a clash between the left and the right in the political arena. We believe that this is an error.
Liberal and democratic leftist critics of extreme versions of antiracism, feminism, multiculturalism, and post-modernism need not be considered part of some “right-wing backlash.” Like you, we refuse to use the extreme positions of some on the cultural left to attack basic liberal principles and the politics of the democratic left.
Don Vernon, Calgary, responds: September, 1997
First, let me thank you for researching and writing this article. Hopefully it may influence the views of those black parents who for too long have allowed themselves and their children to become victims of circumstances.
I agree with the basic thrust of the article, i.e., black parents must take responsibility for their lives and in particular for their role as parents. Too often parents do not involve themselves in the education of their children, choosing rather, deliberately or inadvertently, to have the school system take on that responsibility. No doubt the school system has a responsibility to provide an environment in which our children are able to learn. However, the responsibility of the school system does not abrogate the equal responsibility of parents (or single parents) to monitor the progress and learning of their child(ren). The time is well overdue for all black parents (not only the enlightened few) to reclaim the responsibility of parenting and to make schooling a top priority with their children.
Once again, thank you.
I agree with a lot of what Professor Torczyner has written. Nevertheless, a few things I must challenge.
First of all, it is not news to say that the black problem is complex. Everything is complex, from the seemingly simple unicellular organism to our vast universe, which we are now told may actually be one of many. However, that the universe is complex does not prevent scientists from focusing on the essentials that yield greater understanding.
No one with even the faintest understanding of the problem would argue that socioeconomic conditions are unimportant. Socioeconomic conditions can indeed begin to tell us why blacks do poorly. But they can’t give us a finer reading on why poor Asians outperform both poor whites and poor blacks in the same circumstance, or why some poor blacks from some parts of the world outperform poor blacks from other parts; or as has been found in one U.S. study, why poor Asians outperform some middle-class whites and significant numbers of middle-class blacks. Are the parents of these poor Asians sacrificing all to give their children “their own rooms to study in equipped with Internet technology?” If so, such a ferocious desire for education should be instructive for the other groups. Or are the Asian parents, as Stanford researcher Sanford Dornbusch found, instilling in their children the cultural belief that anyone can do well in school if he works bloody hard enough and burns the midnight oil? After all, Internet technology can be found in most public libraries these days.
I am surprised that Professor Torczyner finds in my essay an “almost exclusive focus on parental attitudes as the main cause of underachievement.” Did he read it carefully? Did he read all of it? I thought I also discussed at length the harmful beliefs and attitudes of the black intelligentsia, and the growth of an anti-school culture among the youth.
Black Canadian and U.S. demographics do indeed differ, as do Canadian black and American black experiences. But does this criticism apply to my article? I looked at areas with proven similarities (and even Professor Torczyner cannot deny that these exist). For instance, I selected two major surveys from either side of the border that basically revealed the same things about black academic performance. In other areas such as parental involvement in education and the consequences of single parenthood, again, the studies done by the Toronto Board of Education and Statistics Canada mirror studies done in the U.S. (even the peer group work of Ogbu and Fordham in the U.S. is in some ways echoed by the “resistance” work of Solomon in Canada). Professor Torczyner’s criticism would be valid if these studies and surveys reveal significantly different results between Canada and the U.S.: they do not.
We must also ask, are black Canadian and black American behaviors and ways of viewing the world that different? The problem with Professor Torczyner’s demographic argument is that it ignores the powerful influence of culture. Canada, after all, isn’t a thousand miles away from the U.S.; we are inundated with the lifestyle, ideas and worldview of the big ugly guy next door. Perhaps Professor Torczyner is unaware of the extent to which some young black males in Toronto embrace hip-hop style and gangsta rap, or pursue basketball as a viable career option. But he must know the extent to which the Canadian black intelligentsia borrows its ideas from the U.S., whether it is antiracist theory or Afrocentricism; the works of African-American intellectuals Cornel West, bell hooks, and Molefi Kete Asante are very popular among Toronto’s black readership. The truth is that U.S. thinking about race thoroughly permeates black Canadian ideas on the subject, and these ideas strongly influence black Canadians. That’s why the L.A. riots sparked a mini-riot in Toronto, and why we also had our own “Hundred Man March” here.
Professor Torczyner also minimizes the shared history of slavery, and to some extent racism, of black Caribbeans and black Americans, a history that has engendered in both populations a deep resentment toward white society and culture. It is this shared resentment that makes black Canadians so hungry for the race ideas produced south of the border. I once attended a Toronto lecture given by African-American crank race theorist Frances Cress Welsing; the lecture hall was jammed with young blacks who wildly cheered every bizarre and utterly mad thing she said simply because it denigrated whites. If Professor Torczyner were to interview black high school students in Toronto, as I have done, he would discover that they hold many Afrocentric ideas that originate in the American race crucible.
Finally, the study headed by Professor Torczyner, which claims that blacks have the same or higher educational attainments than the general populace, does not necessarily contradict the surveys of high school performance I cited. Because many blacks in Canada are immigrants who require high educational attainments to qualify for immigrant status, black immigrants may raise the black average.
Drs. George Dei and Patrick Solomon, Toronto, respond: December 16, 1997
Okey Chigbo’s article has raised some troublesome questions about black underachievement in school: a continuing problem in search of a solution. We would like to make the following contribution to this perpetual debate and more specifically, offer a critique of Chigbo’s perspectives in this debate.
Our overall impression is that this article is filled with contradictions and extreme rhetoric against those who see and identify racist policies and practices in schools and society. The writer criticizes antiracist workers, academics, and professionals for only focusing on race. This is an inaccurate reading of those positions by the way. But more disturbingly, in a very exaggerated way, he proceeds to critique the views of the antiracism authors in a limited and one dimensional way, basically dismissing the existence of systemic racism. His very limited understanding of the issue of race and schooling leads him to argue that an assertion of racism in schools means all educators/teachers are racists.
In fact, his critique of antiracist workers comes across as filled with anger rather than contributing a different view that may in some way contribute to a dialogue on different perspectives to the problems schools and students are facing. While his rhetoric often angrily dismisses academic positions, he then goes into the North American historical view of the “inferiority of blacks” and must quote academics that have worked to dismantle that view. Within this context perhaps he should respect the needs for the dialogue among educational theorists and practitioners grappling with social justice issues. We must all continually search and work for an understanding of why certain groups perform more poorly than others. Rather than argue or rationalize causes as “natural law,” we must identify problems and seek solutions. Of course this dialogue must be respected and entered into as a discourse of mutually common goals with perhaps different perspectives. Perhaps, the only view that deserves the degree of anger Mr. Chigbo demonstrates are views such as those of Rushton, that is, views that seek to justify oppression.
There is really little rigor and discipline to the ideas and arguments put forward in Chigbo’s article. He refers to us as academics that take on an “antiracist approach.” But then he uses a definition of “antiracism” that is not ours. This may be excused if we have not defined “antiracism” in our writings. To criticize a position and then use a different definition for the argument is to blatantly deceive the reader. For to criticize, the author must read and fully comprehend our work. If he had done so, Chigbo would have come across our working definitions of how we understand and operationalize antiracism.
“Antiracists either ignore or dismiss the state of black families as a ‘pathological explanation.'” This provocative statement of Chigbo’s invites the negative labelling and blaming the victim. He goes on to catalogue the numerous ways in which the black/Caribbean family has become socially dysfunctional in Canadian society, and how such pathology negatively impacts school achievement. He unwittingly draws on the thesis of “evolutionary scientists” in explaining parental and paternal investment in child rearing practices, an argument dangerously similar to that of Phillipe Rushton, a researcher with links to genetics and “scientific racism” movement. Antiracist educators would rather invest their energies creating equitable, racism-free environments for black children than getting caught up in Chigbo’s labelling game.
We are truly puzzled by Chigbo’s preoccupation with the genetics issue while stating that he will just “quickly dispatch a mischievous idea that rears up every so often in North America.” It is interesting that he uses words like “mischievous idea that rears up every so often.” Yet on pages 35 and 36, he uses very extreme negative language to describe how antiracists view racism (“tremendous,” “religious power,” malignant,” “pervasive,” “satan,” “contaminate,” “virulent racism”).
Along these same lines, he quotes and supports John Ogbu’s position. While Professor Ogbu shys away from using race as the issue, he indeed does not shy away from identifying the problem of a people that perceive themselves as colonized and the mainstream society which they resist as the colonizer. Furthermore, Dr. Ogbu does not shy away from identifying discrimination in a society that does not reward blacks or other marginalized groups in the market economy to the degree as it does certain dominant groups. While using what he likes of Ogbu, Chigbo conveniently does not include what is important. Indeed, he must read Ogbu thoroughly if he expects some of us to take his interpretations seriously.
Research on race is an unsettling issue for many Canadians. Throughout Chigbo’s works (both in The NEXT CITY and Canadian Living) he discounted any non-quantitative research that utilizes student narratives. He often marginalized such works as “anecdote dependent” and “dependence on testimony,” and implies that student voice in illegitimate and unreliable. On the other hand, he projects tremendous confidence in quantitative data and utilized them selectively in his articles.
Increasingly, researchers are finding survey data to be unreliable in portraying accurate attitudes and perspectives on race, racism, and antiracism in society. In survey data, for example, respondents have become adept at providing politically correct responses that are misleading and deceptive. In a recent national survey teachers indicate overwhelming commitment (94 per cent) to antiracist education. However, when follow-up interviews probed for their individual beliefs, perspectives, ideologies, and classroom practices, there emerged an obvious contradiction between survey and interview data. So when researching issues of race, critics must be cautious in dismissing an inquiry approach as illegitimate.
Chigbo’s simplistic notions of racism in Canadian society made him question how people could abhor racism, act against it, and the system would still be blamed if minorities do poorly. What is the impact then of antiracism education (ARE), a policy developed by provincial governments and progressive school boards? The answer rests with the way teachers conceptualize, practice, or resist ARE. Many educators develop attitudes and behaviors that make ARE impossible to implement. It is therefore premature for critics to marginalize ARE as ineffective when some educators, for pedagogical and ideological reasons, have not endorsed or implemented it.
Chigbo’s understanding of antiracist theory and its impact on educational inequality of minority groups needs scrutiny. He argues that ARE advocates want equality of outcome even when minorities don’t deserve it. What we argue for is a system that provides equitably, not equally, for all students depending on their needs. There are many factors such as social class, disability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race that may require schools to provide the quality and quantity education students need to maximize their potential.
Yet Chigbo raises the divisive argument about race/ethnic groups in society and reduces difference in their school performance to interest, skill, and ability. Does he mean that Japanese students do well at computers because they are interested, South Asians excel at maths because of their skill, and blacks at athletics because of their ability? Students of any ethno-racial group will develop interest, skill, and ability in any area of their choice given the proper learning environment, teacher expectation, and equitable resources. Factors such as socio-economic status often create bigger intra-group than inter-group differences in school performance and achievement. These are variables Chigbo failed to factor in when expounding his inter-group comparisons. He readily condemns the West Indian child for doing poorly in Britain and Canada but overlooks the research in the U.S. (by Thomas Sewell and others) that shows West Indians to be performing exceptionally well in the school and the workplace. Why is this so? Comparative studies are often suspect when they ignore or deliberately overlook critical intervening variables.
Chigbo’s naive assumptions about racism, “something working away in ‘the system,’ even when nobody wants it,” seem to suggest that racism is still an individual act of bigotry carried out by the anti-social on the fringes of society. If this was the case, antiracist educators could easily target these “undesirables” and disempower them. But institutional and structural racism are much more difficult to eradicate. These have evolved historically in the life of this nation; it is evident in what counts as knowledge in our curriculum and how it is disseminated in our schools (pedagogy), who is in positions of responsibility and power, and how resources are allocated. From a study of these patterns over time, it becomes evident which racial/ethnic groups benefit and which are marginalized, and even disenfranchised by the differential distribution of resources. For Chigbo to suggest that nobody wants racism is an unfortunate oversight.
Chigbo’s call for universal middle class education sounds like REAL women stating that women have embraced white-middle-class-patriarchal education that taught women of the privileged classes well, or the Parents for Quality Education’s return for an education system that taught the basics and privileged a class and culture.
The solutions and problems are complex, but unfortunately this article does not contribute to a critical engagement of ideas. It basically raises the rhetoric and dismisses issues such as institutional/systemic racism, classism, and sexism, etc. We have at no point in our work argued that the problem and solution to youth education lies within schools alone. The report, Drop Out or Push Out?, makes it abundantly clear that some students leave school prematurely for pragmatic reasons (e.g., early parenthood or employment needs). Others leave school, or become disengaged from school, because of the complex dynamics of the culture, environment, and organizational lives of schools. Disengaged students and “dropouts” are usually very critical of the structures of public schooling, articulating their concerns around differential [negative] treatment by race and the challenge of having to deal with an exclusive curriculum. Furthermore, these students are dissatisfied with communicative and pedagogic practices of school that fail to adequately explore the complexities of experiences that have shaped, and continue to shape, human growth and social development. The students, cited in the report, also complain of the paucity of black and minority teachers in the school system. Such concerns are pervasive in students’ voices to the extent that they emerge in response to seemingly unrelated questions or descriptions. Students also hold their parents accountable. In fact, many of the students desire that their families take a more proactive role in youth education. It beats my understanding why someone would argue that our study traces all school problems to race and racism.
Disturbingly, Chigbo writes that the foremost issue is single parenthood, and “that poor black performance does not stem from the school environment. It does stem from the state of some black families. . . . The survey notes that those with both parents at home tend to perform better than those living with single or no parents, a relationship that holds across all racial groups.” The problem with such statements is that it does not account for socio-economic status, nor does it examine other groups that may not be defined as a racial group. Therefore the statistics for such groups go unnoticed in this category. In the Toronto school board survey it is important to note that at the time the Portuguese were noted as having one of the highest rates of two parent families. (Today, this may be changing perception). The point though is that the academic performance of Portuguese youth is not reflective of that but rather more reflective of the blacks, First nations, class, and single parent status. What does that say to such a general statement on single or two parent families?
Black resistance in schooling is historically rooted and predates the contribution of Chigbo’s so-called “black intelligentsia.” Since slavery blacks have developed a culture of resistance as a response to the racism and oppression to which they were subjected in their daily lives. Robin Wink’s authoritative work: Blacks in Canada, A History, documents quite explicitly blacks’ oppositional response to institutional racism that subordinated and marginalized them in every aspect of their daily lives (in schools, communities, the armed forces, the workplace, law enforcement). Black students as Canadian students and their parents in the workplace are informed by their living experiences in a racialized society, not by the “black intelligentsia.” They develop their own response styles, utilizing their cultural resources in the most creative and strategic ways.
Black Resistance in High School, a book from which Chigbo quoted extensively in his article, is an ethnography of black boys’ lived experiences in a Canadian school. They engaged in acts of resistance, that is, a political response to school curriculum and pedagogy they perceived to be counterproductive to their advancement in Canadian society. “Unsanitized” ethnography, of course, documents elements of subcultural activities on which Chigbo chose to focus, neglecting to mention that in the analysis, the author of Black Resistance denounced delinquent, sexist, and counterproductive behaviors.
The issue of black teachers as role models is one of continuing debate. Those arguing against the role model hypothesis appear to do so primarily on methodological and/or ideological grounds. They claim that the research literature available is almost exclusively qualitative in its methodology. This usually means that student, teacher, and parent narratives espousing the importance of minority teachers as role models predominate. For quantitative researchers whose work relies exclusively on surveys and statistical data to tell their stories, narratives of lived experiences are regarded as less reliable. For ideologues, the thought to adequate role modelling and representation for the rapidly expanding number of racial minority students would be daunting. The pedagogical advantages of having black teachers as role models is well documented in the research.
It is hard to understand why Professors Dei and Solomon describe my views as simplistic given that they are based on the work of important U.S. scholars like Thomas Sowell and Laurence Steinberg. Nothing written by Canada’s antiracist and “resistance” professors matches Thomas Sowell’s magisterial trilogy — Preferential Policies, Race and Culture, and Migrations and Culture — an extensive historical and sociological survey of diverse cultures around the world. Sowell’s work demonstrates that while other factors may be at play in determining group success at work and in school, what is truly decisive is group culture, and the skills, behavior, and performances derived from it. Also, in terms of quantitative or qualitative work, nothing I have seen from the Canadian side even approximates the vast and detailed investigations of high school students done by Stanford’s Professor Steinberg and his colleagues. Working in a country that we must assume has a far more virulent and thoroughgoing racism than Canada, Steinberg presented convincing evidence that what really counts today is student investment, home environment, peer group and student attitude to life. Are these eminent scholars naive and simplistic? I think not.
Professors Dei and Solomon’s criticism of my use of the work of evolutionary scientists is also truly incomprehensible. Is it really “dangerously similar . . . [to the arguments] . . . of Phillipe Rushton” to say that there are certain inherited behaviors that characterize all groups in our species? Am I really agreeing with Rushton if I say that we humans are a pair-bonding species, that we pair-bond to raise our offspring, and that this is largely inherited behavior? That it may be possible to raise a large number of children outside the two-parent family, but only at tremendous social cost? Many evolutionary biologists and psychologists say as much, and at the same time provide damaging arguments against the racist ideas of Rushton. Surely our good professors do not think that every argument from inheritance is a racist one? Now that would be truly naive.
Professors Dei and Solomon are mistaken when they say I only accept quantitative studies. I have only questioned the reliability of research that is almost completely dependent on testimony. This, obviously, is because one person’s testimony is just as good as another’s. How do we know what to believe? For instance, in Professor Dei’s study, he finds that some teachers and some students give diametrically opposed testimony. Whom to believe? Professor Dei simply accepts testimony according to his preconceptions: If a student says he dropped out because there are no black teachers, this proves to Professor Dei that antiracist theories have empirical support; if on the other hand, a teacher or student says that many students drop out because school is difficult and the students won’t apply themselves, Professor Dei accuses the teacher or student of being brainwashed by the ruling ideology. This sort of stuff only satisfies the converted; a more skeptical person wants more.
I am also surprised at how Professors Dei and Solomon seem to challenge their own work in their letter. First they say that quantitative surveys are not very useful, then they say it is because “respondents have become adept at providing politically correct responses.” But that is precisely what I found troubling about their work. They (Dei more than Solomon) uncritically accepted the ideologically correct statements that the students and some teachers made to them. I will quote one particularly egregious example (there are many) from Dei’s 1995 study, Push Out or Drop Out:
The following quote shows how, in one instance, racial discrimination and isolation laid the groundwork for dropping out: “It was in grade 4, . . . I had a teacher, she blatantly did not want to teach me anything. And I was the only black kid there in the school, in the neighborhood, in the whole area . . . yeah, she was something else.” This comment also makes connections to the broader impact of the local community and social relations, and the alienation which permeated this student’s experiences. . . “by the time I got to high school, I didn’t think I was smart for anything so university was never, ever, ever in my dreams. . .” This shows how low expectations and the negative stigma associated with dropping out are internalized and can place limits on self-esteem and ultimately life chances.
I leave the reader to judge this highly creative interpretation of some very vague comments.
In the essay I wrote, I quoted extensively from the study done by Steinberg, et al., because it was both quantitative and qualitative, that is, it drew its conclusions from a massive sample of 20,000 students studied over ten years; the authors then strengthened that work with in-depth interviews of students, teachers, and parents. And the authors did not just naively accept statements at face value, they checked and cross-checked them against the quantitative data.
It is also ironic that Dei and Solomon cite Thomas Sowell’s work to support their position, given that Sowell uses the performance of West Indians in the U.S. to show that “institutional” or “systemic” racism as a causal factor in black failure is largely a myth. I am well aware that when blacks are separated into their various ethnic groups, we find that some of these groups perform just as well as anybody. There are ethnic groups among both West Indians and Africans that are noted for academic achievement, and I believe I said so in the essay I wrote. I pointed out that Africans perform very well in England not to “condemn” the West Indian child, but to show that some black ethnic groups perform as if this pervasive and systemic racism does not exist.
Professor Dei himself seems to recognize the fact of differences in black group performance, and the need to examine it. He admitted as much in a taped conversation I had with him in his OISE office on January 13, 1997, and I quote verbatim from it:
Chigbo: You are aware that Africans in England perform just as well as Asians if not better?
Professor Dei: Yes indeed. We need to look at those who are successful. If we disaggregate according to geographical areas, we are all going to see differences, there is no doubt about it.
One is hard pressed to find this sort of “divisive” comment in the reams of articles Professor Dei has written on “structural” and “institutional” racism. Why? Is it because the fact of intra-race differences suggests that there may be another factor at play here, that geographical and therefore cultural differences may account for a large part of the variation in performance?
Faced with such difficult questions, Dei and Solomon resort to obfuscation and evasions. For instance, in their letter they claim that “the pedagogical advantages of having black teachers . . . is well documented in the research.” That is not quite how Professor Dei responded when I questioned him during our taped conversation:
Chigbo: Is there research that shows that African-centred schools [i.e., schools with primarily black teachers, and a curriculum that reflects the black experience] work?
Dei: I think in the States, there are studies that show that when kids are educated in an environment which they can identify with, they are able to relate to the school, and they draw a sense of connectedness.
Chigbo: Do they perform better?
Dei: We have to define what you mean by perform better. To us, when we talk of performing better it is not simply in terms of scores. It’s in terms of how they are able to relate to each other — the social connections, how they are able to meet their responsibilities to the wider society. To us that is very important. And just because we don’t have any concrete evidence about it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it.
Perhaps this disingenuous meandering encapsulates the complexity that Professor Dei claims my arguments lack; in my naivete, of course, I merely concluded that such waffling is typical of people who know they cannot back up their claims.
Dei and Solomon’s attempt to challenge the single-parent and failure thesis with the Portuguese example is confused and misguided: the fact that the Portuguese have a high percentage of two-parent families and still fail only shows that two-parent homes do not guarantee success. I could not agree more. To give a clarifying example, you can say that in a team sport like soccer, those who play with the normal complement of 11 players tend to do better than those who play with 9. If you show me a team that does poorly with 11 players, does that refute this basic thesis? To really challenge the single-parent and failure thesis, Dei and Solomon would have to show us a group that does exceptionally well with a high percentage of single-parents. In the Portuguese case, we are allowed to state categorically that single-parenting is not a contributing factor to Portuguese failure; we don’t have that luxury with the black community.
To conclude, I will “contradict” myself, and say, yes, Professors Dei and Solomon are right — the problem is indeed complex; I will even add that no matter which way you look at it, it will be difficult to solve. I would be happier however if Dei and Solomon spent more time investigating the other side of the question; as it is, 95 per cent of their ink is expended on blaming “the system.” If they are truly concerned with complexity and with advancing the debate, perhaps after they have shown how an insensitive school system could weaken the confidence of a people who have been battered by history, they could also show in just as much detail how the same people might have developed behaviors that are not helpful, behaviors that now seem to have a pernicious life of their own. Such an honest approach would be the first step toward solving this most difficult of social problems.
Jane Lucas, Westinghouse Career Academy, Chicago, responds: July 7, 1999
I teach English at an inner-city school in Chicago. Our student population is 100 per cent black, and the majority are from poor one-parent families. I am a white teacher in a school system that is trying to improve student performance.
Your assessment of the reason for underachievement seems to be the best answer I have heard. Students must take responsibility for their own achievement and put school first, and they need support from their parents in these efforts.
This behavior is what I see in our best students. Last year our basketball team almost won the city championship, losing by one game. They are a team of great team players, but not very many super tall-athletes. They lost to a team that has players who are 6′ 8″, 6′ 10″, etc. Many of these boys are A students in my English class. They are always ready for class, have their homework done, and try for excellence. Clearly they can achieve.
Our principal feels that we should not spend time on traditional literature, especially Shakespeare. Yet most of the students really like it once we break through the language barrier. I want my students to have, in addition to their grounding in excellent black writers, an acquaintance with those work that make up our shared culture.
The real question is how to engage the others who use the excuses of racism, poverty, peer pressure, teen parenthood, etc.