Sippin' On Clorox?
Do Black kids really think it's "acting white" to excel in academic/intellectual pursuits? Dr. Edward Rhymes says no. In his article, Acting White? African-American Students and Education, Dr. Rhymes seeks to discredit disingenuous and misled pundits and celebrities who claim that there is some anti-intellectual movement afoot. Citing his personal experience with youngsters, both in and outside of the classroom, he claims that he has never heard any Black student "equivocate scholastic achievement with whiteness." Students at T.C. Williams High School say otherwise. In the article, When The Street And The Classroom Collide, several college-bound Black students report that many of their peers have ridiculed them as sellouts or "acting white" for their devotion to their studies. Something's wrong here. I would never go so far as to question another man's experience, but I will say that the evidence seems to support the kids more than it does Dr. Rhymes. Since Dr. Rhymes' article is published at Black Commentator, I will concede that bias could be a problem in the Washington Post article, since the mainstream press is partially to blame for fueling this stereotype. Or something like that. They're always on the lookout for that type of bias over there, so I'd better acknowledge it up front. I'm less interested in the Washington Post article than I am in Dr. Rhymes' article, but not so much because I think that the focus in the post is "righter" than Dr. Rhymes, but because Rhymes does a provide an interesting framework for analyzing the situation. Instead of placing blame, his stated purpose is to seek an explanation. He cites four elements as having explanatory power in the lack of academic push among Black youngsters: pop culture, curriculum, placement tests and other standardized tests, and the ethnicity of teachers. Okay, except where does any of that give the kids agency? But I'm getting ahead of myself. One thing I will give Dr. Rhymes credit for, he does a good job of pointing out the fact that the majority of the students are actually ambivalent towards academic success. All other things being equal, they would prefer to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counts for far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability. That's true. It's also true that the nerd stereotype did not originate in the Black community, so in that respect I suppose it's fair to question the degree to which people act like Black people are so anti-education vis-a-vis the mainstream society. That's a good piece of fat for some career eggheads to chew, but does it really matter? Whether Black kids don't push hard at school because they don't want to be "white" or they don't want to be "nerds" (and if you take the pop culture angle, there have only been two real Black nerds: the gay dude in the Revenge of the Nerds movies and Steve Urkel, so it's not clear that "nerd" and "white" are mutually exclusive) the issue is that they're not pushing hard at school. Not whether larger society is somehow culpable. I couldn't have cared less why my kids didn't think it was worth their time not to know how to multiply, I just wanted them to learn how to do it. The second element he targets is the curriculum. Let’s say for a moment, that I actually bought into this misconception about African-American youths’ aversion to education; when the curriculum is viewed from our social studies, history and English classes across the country, it’s easy to see how education and “whiteness” becomes inseparable. Ambra has written a good deal about the merits (or the lack thereof) of classical literature, so I'm not about to rehash that. She also has a piece about hip-hop in the classroom that's definitely worth checking out. All that to say that I can co-sign on a critique of the curriculum to a degree-- but only to a degree. Even Furious Styles, in Boyz In The Hood, stressed the importance of mathematics to his son. If the evidence showed Black kids doing well in math but poorly in courses where "Eurocentrism" could be blamed for their lack of interest, I wouldn't have an argument. That's not the case, though. I was a math teacher. I know. An eighth grader who can't immediately spit the answer to 12 X 12 is not the victim of a Eurocentric education system or one that is steeped in Americanity at the expense of facts. More than likely, he's the victim of too much idiot box, but we ain't gon' talk about that. We never do. As for Black students being steered away from AP courses, I'm not sure about the extent to which that has any bearing on this discussion. I think Dr. Rhymes' point is that Black students think high academic achievement is "white" because they don't see themselves reflected in the highest tier of coursework, but that's specious at best. I think the fact that most majority Black schools don't offer many AP courses is something that's worth investigating, but I'm fairly sure that if there were more parental demand (on the schools to provide the courses and on the students to make it worth the schools' while) those problems would be addressed. Still, that's something to keep an eye on. The ethnicity of the teachers...ehhhh. I think it can make a difference, but it doesn't have to. Much more important is the teacher's expectations for the students and the degree of tolerance that ze has for foolishness, both behavioral and academic. Black kids don't need a Black teacher to learn. It doesn't hurt, but it's not a necessity. Kids will respond to whoever cares. True enough that the teacher's worldview is passed to the students along with the curriculum, but I still maintain that that's not a deal breaker. It would be great if there were more Black teachers who could act as mentors and role models, as well as classroom instructors, but come on. Any group of students will show its collective behind to any teacher who will let it, irrespective of race. That's just what kids do. Finally, Dr. Rhymes demonstrates the difference between scholastic performance of voluntary and involuntary immigrants throught the world. Now that's some interesting stuff that I hadn't seen before. I'll definitely be taking a look at the literature on that. But... The most important element is one Rhymes brushes aside on the way to his conclusion: Although Ogbu’s studies offer some compelling reasons for the gap between African-Americans and whites in education, he also cautioned that we should not allow our righteous zeal to fight discrimination (and to break down barriers in education and in the opportunity structure), to cause us to ignore the personal behavior and attitudes that are conducive to academic success. Again, to the extent that I call myself conservative, this is why. All the rest of that stuff may play a role somewhere. Nerds on TV and in the movies or an deadening curriculum or no AP classes or a lily-white teaching corps may have some detrimental effect on Black educational performance, but none of that even comes close to the "personal behavior and attitudes that are conducive to academic success." We used to do much more with much less. There's no reason we shouldn't be doing better now.