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November 25, 2009

Lecturer addresses cause of racial performance gap

Contrary to popular belief, non-white students’ reluctance to “act white” is not the source of the racial gap in student achievement, according to a national expert in race relations and urban schooling.

Amanda E. Lewis

Amanda E. Lewis

Rather, non-racial school structures are responsible for the gap, according to Amanda E. Lewis, who spoke here Nov. 19 on why racial inequality thrives in good schools.

Lewis, a sociology faculty member at Emory University, spoke as part of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems lecture series. Her areas of expertise include race and ethnic relations, urban schooling, children and youth, gender and urban ethnography.

She is co-author of “Challenging Racism in Higher Education: Promoting Justice.”

Lewis has studied suburban school achievement and under-performing black students in suburban schools.

Her research focuses on how the paths that black and Latino students follow differ from their white counterparts at a school she calls Riverview, the fictitious name of a real Midwest suburban high school of about 3,000 students (45 percent whites, 37 percent African Americans and a small cohort of Latinos).

“This is a self-proclaimed progressive community in which race still shapes educational opportunities and outcomes, and where despite attending the same school, black and Latino students navigate a very different educational plane than their white counterparts,” Lewis said.

Her study was based on about 200 interviews with parents, students, teachers and administrators at the school and comparative data from a national survey of 40,000 suburban high school students.

“Rather than focus on topics of overt racial exclusion, we argue that most racial patterns are supported instead by structural inequalities, institutional practices and racial ideologies that mutually reinforce one another, but are themselves largely non-racial,” Lewis said.

Such practices include the academic tracking system, which ostensibly results from a benign application of merit-based selection criteria, but which, Lewis said, is influenced by parental desires, individual aspirations and perceived expectations that vary greatly between white and minority students and their families, despite being in a similar economic class.

“In some ways we were examining what should be a best-case scenario. Riverview High School has been stably racially integrated for over 40 years; students from all racial groups receive higher test scores than in the nearby large cities, and the majority of graduates in all racial groups attend college,” Lewis noted.

However, the school’s successes belie stark patterns of inequality, she said. “Almost 90 percent of white students met or exceeded standards in both reading and math, while just 30 percent of blacks and less than 15 percent of Latinos did. Similarly, if you look at composite SAT scores, while all students at the school are doing better than national averages [of their racial peers], African Americans and Latinos continue to lag way behind whites,” Lewis said.

“Blacks and Latinos achieve significantly lower grades and test scores than their white counterparts; they’re much less likely to be involved in school activities; they’re far more likely to be suspended or otherwise disciplined; they’re far more likely to attend two- rather than four-year colleges, and they’re inequitably distributed across course levels in all subjects,” she said.

“So we’re grappling with these deep contradictions between patterns of success and disparities in a highly resourced, racially integrated suburban school.”

Why aren’t black and Latino students achieving at higher rates even in the more affluent schools?

One popular explanation is the oppositional culture theory, outlined by author John Ogbu in 1986, Lewis said.

“According to Ogbu, when we try to understand the experience of minorities in the U.S., we need to distinguish between involuntary and voluntary minorities. Involuntary minorities are those who were forcibly incorporated into the United States as a result of slavery. And that forms a different relationship within schools from voluntary minorities who have come to the U.S. of their own free will,” she said.

While voluntary minorities tend to compare their situation in the United States favorably to that in their former homeland, involuntary minorities instead compare their situation to that of the dominant group. They understand through experience that, relatively speaking, their opportunities are constrained along a number of dimensions.

“With that understanding of the many institutional barriers they face when trying to succeed, Ogbu hypothesizes that involuntary minorities essentially disengage from the dominant culture of those institutions and develop an oppositional culture,” Lewis explained.

Ogbu argued that high-achieving black students bear what he called “the burden of acting white,” Lewis said. “That is, African Americans define a whole set of behaviors and styles as ‘white,’ including commitment to school success, and therefore reject schools as a white domain.”

The Ogbu hypothesis now is held up as the gold standard explanation for the racial achievement gap.

“Despite its popularity in the press, there is in fact to date little conclusive evidence that negative peer pressure is prevalent among black students or unique to their peer group,” Lewis said.

Data show that bright students of all races get teased as nerds or brainiacs and lower-achieving students of all races are teased.

“This is very important: If this theory can explain anything about the achievement gap, it has to be a particular black thing that doesn’t go on in any other group. Teasing or peer pressure must be race-specific. It can’t be something that all students are subject to,” she said.

“Peer pressure also has to be pervasive, affecting a large part of the population, and it has to be tied to achievement-related behavior. Under this theory it has to be tied somehow to a commitment to studying or class work,” Lewis said.

“Overall, what we find is that students of all races who reported a high desire for achievement and who understood that school success would be a factor for later success in life, that the data show they along with most of their friends care about grades and encourage their friends to higher educational achievement.”

The suspicion then, she said, is that these students have high aspirations because they don’t see racial discrimination as a barrier and don’t identify with an oppositional culture. “However, this actually isn’t the case with the minority students. They believe that being black would make their efforts to get ahead in life much more difficult,” Lewis said.

“So this runs counter to the idea that recognizing discrimination in the school and in society would lead to lower aspirations.”

Regarding the so-called burden of acting white, Lewis said that most African-American students at Riverview reported that it wasn’t a problem.

Other research data that challenge the oppositional culture theory include:

• Black students want to attend college at the same rate, spend about the same amount of time on homework and have similar rates of absenteeism when compared to whites of the same social class.

• African Americans who do well in school are among the most popular with their peers and possess more pro-school attitudes than whites.

• Few students of any race reported that their friends make fun of people who try to do well in school.

• The survey of 40,000 students in 15 multi-racial affluent suburban districts found that African-American students are more likely than their white peers to report that their friends think it’s very important to study hard and get good grades.

Some recent research has found moderate support for the acting-white hypothesis, she said, “but only in the racially integrated schools with high levels of racial inequality in tracking … not in schools where blacks are well represented in AP and honors classes.”

If oppositional culture is not the cause of the achievement gap, what is?

“In schools like Riverview we find everyday institutionalized discrimination, including such things as racial stereotypes and race-based performance expectations. We find highly racialized school practices and structures like tracking and discipline, and the way that school practices differently respond to and reward the social and culture influences that students bring to school,” Lewis maintained.

“These dynamics don’t receive much attention; partly that’s because they’re harder to document. There are few of these dynamics that take the shape of explicit racist behavior. What we find is institutionalized discrimination in the form of apparently non-racial structures and mechanisms that have very racialized outcomes,” Lewis said.

“By moving away from the traditional social science characterization of discrimination, we find all the subtle ways that racial characterizations shape our thinking and interactions in ways that we often are not even conscious of,” she said.

Lewis said other factors that contribute to the achievement gap include:

• Even in comparable social and economic classes, white families compared to black families tend to have more educational resources, more time flexibility to tend to children’s education.

• Certain kinds of school resources pay off more for whites. For example, school personnel assume that most white students come from upper- or middle-class families and that most black and Latino students do not. “So it doesn’t matter anymore what your economic status really is, when your whiteness becomes the primary signifier that is being acted upon.”

In dealing with white students, school personnel often acted proactively, anticipating that parents most likely would pressure them if they didn’t.

“If a white student is not doing well in a class, the teachers hear about it, the parents follow up. The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” Lewis said.

“But if the parents’ intervention actually pays off in achievement outcomes, that’s a school policy matter. The school has the responsibility to advocate for all students, and that isn’t happening, even though much of this happens outside conscious thought,” she added.

“The general belief that whites are more competent than people of color affects performance expectations formed by everyone — parents, students and teachers.”

Patterns in tracking, for example, reflect different performance expectations. “Blacks are over-represented in the lower tracks. Not only has the distribution in the tracks become racialized, among the most troubling data show that the tracks themselves have become associated with groups.”

There also are curricular consequences to the discrimination in the tracking system. She said the higher-track classes get the best teachers, the most resources, the smallest number of students. The minority students have no opportunities to catch up, she said. “What are we doing with our so-called lower-ability students, except expecting nothing of them?”

Lewis’s research finds that institutional and interpersonal discrimination as well as apparently non-racial and well-intentioned practices contribute to different experiences and cumulatively contribute to outcomes.

Where there are multiple discretionary steps related to teachers’ expectations or where parental desires are at work, more inequality results, Lewis maintained. “Even people with the best intentions have a negative effect,” she said.

“Discussing these dynamics with schools, however, remains very difficult, because often when words like discrimination are used school personnel become defensive. But I emphasize that this doesn’t mean that school staff are racist or any more racist than anyone else in our society, but we need to look at whether school processes equalize or exacerbate racial inequality in economic, social and cultural resources.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 42 Issue 7

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