Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Acting White? Myths & Realities on Black Anti-Intellectualism

Since we're on Cosby... one of the key tenets of his argument, and those used by the "black apologetics" is the "acting white hypothesis." Chances are, all of us have heard some semblance of it before, which asserts that black school children do poorly because they undervalue education and perceive those who achieve academically as "acting white." Thus the argument is made: black kids equate "intelligence" with being "white." This idea was first floated by two researchers, Fordham and Ogbu, who in their study of black school children claimed to find an "oppositional culture" that emerged as a backlash to white societal oppression. Hence if dominant white society claimed scholastics was positive, black kids would deem it negative. Since the Cosby rant especially, the "acting white hypothesis" put forth by Fordham and Ogbu has been cited repeatedly, becoming a popular American catch-phrase, uttered by conservatives and liberals alike. Media pundits take it matter-of-factly as accurate, and some educators--seeking to cash in--have written entire tropes on it. Even presidential hopeful Barak Obama has joined in the chorus, denouncing "acting white" at the 2004 Democratic National Convention--to much applause, from black and white delegates alike. The problem however is that Fordham and Ogbu's thesis, which came out in 1986, has been deconstructed and critiqued for almost two decades. It turned out that Fordham and Ogbu had wrongly interpreted their data and there were much more complex understandings that numerous other researchers have pointed out. Even their basic facts were wrong, making absolutely false assertions that the oppositional culture had its rise during slavery, in which blacks shunned education. Any historian worth his or her degree will tell you that not only did slaves and freed blacks value education and intellect, but risked their lives--literally--to get it. But you wouldn't know that, given the reckless way in which the "acting white thesis" is bantered about. It's as if merely repeating it over and over again has given it legitimacy it never really earned, even among those who should know better. Fordham and Ogbu's misguided thesis has become an easy "blame-the-victim" route that posits black academic failings not on an under-funded public school system, but back on the children themselves. The following is by a school administrator who for several years has critiqued the "acting white" argument, using prior studies and his own hands-on observations. As he points out, the notion of some distinct culture of anti-intellectualism among black children is more myth than reality.

Acting White? Deconstructing the Myth of Anti-Intellectualism in Black Youth

By Cleo Wadley

Tues. Oct 9th 2007


As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock 9, predictably, a discussion of Black student achievement rises to the surface.

Now, we all have heard the dire statements of how poorly Black children perform on standardized tests or their poor completion rate from high school. The expert and layman alike won’t hesitate to dispense their take on the issue. However, I thought it might be interesting to separate myth from reality in regards to Black student achievement.

One common belief is that Black students are not successful in school because they equate high achievement with being White. This dangerous and insidious thought didn’t just materialize in our consciousness; its roots are deep in American history.

It’s curious to me how we often hear of Black children being labeled as anti-intellectual. I would argue that Black children are no more or no less anti-intellectual than any other segment of American society. In fact, anti-intellectualism is an American characteristic that goes back almost two centuries. Just take a look at the 1828 presidential election in which Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams. Presidential historians often tout this election as one of the first mud slinging elections. Jackson framed the election by setting up Adams as an elitist intellectual with loose morals and values who could not relate to the conservative values of the “common man.” He also instilled a distrust of intellectuals as tricksters who use language and rhetoric to deceive ordinary people. At the same time, Jackson framed himself as “the people’s candidate.”

Jackson’s tactic worked well in 1828, just as it served George Bush well in the 2000 election against Al Gore. Gore was portrayed as a boring, monotonous intellectual who jabbered to such a point that he couldn’t be understood or trusted. He was a classic stereotype of an arrogant intellectual out of touch with the “common man.”

But anti-intellectualism doesn’t stop with politics in American society. Just think of all the icons in popular culture that America adores. Forrest Gump, Homer Simpson, Jessica Simpson, and even the current president typify the stereotype of the dim witted rube with a heart of gold.

Just look at a few of the current television programs in prime time. Such shows as “Beauty and the Geek” and “The Big Bang Theory” display buxom blondes with “common” sense outwitting brainiacs who are dysfunctional in social arenas tinged with sexual tension.

This is no accident. Corporate America has worked diligently to keep us enamored by these classic stereotypes. PBS’s Frontline did a special several years ago titled “Merchants of Cool” detailing how much effort is put in place to create an anti-intellectual, commodity obsessed generation of consumers through advertising.

The average American spends about 50 minutes a day just watching commercials; that is equivalent to 1 ½ years in a lifetime. And of course this has an effect on children, particularly Black children who watch an average of 7 hours a day of television compared to their White counterparts who watch 4 ½ hours a day of television.

So once we accept that anti-intellectualism is not just a problem plaguing Black children, we can delve deeper into this folk theory that Black children equate high academic achievement with whiteness.

This folk theory got a huge push from a much touted 1986 paper by John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham that asserts that Black children function out of an oppositional culture model. That is, after years of oppression in society, Black children have adopted opposition to anything they identify as part of White culture, including education.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous studies to debunk the findings of Ogbu and Fordham. In 2005, Ericka Fisher, the author of “Black Student Achievement and the Oppositional Cultural Model,” concluded that the experience in success or failure of Black students who are high achievers and Black students who are low achievers has nothing to do with the oppositional culture model.

As a matter of fact, high achievers and low achievers function out of different paradigms. According to Fisher, high achievers are successful due to the following factors:

Solid time management skills
High self-concepts
Parental support
A desire to prove negative stereotypes wrong
A sense of personal responsibility
A need to control one’s own destiny

This was different from low achievers who:

See themselves as smart but lazy
Resent treatment and stereotypes by White teachers
Receive little or no individual support or encouragement
Lack support or connection to the school
Experience an acceptance of mediocre grades at home

Many students in this study, which included the high and low achievers, stated, “It’s cool to be Black and smart.”

In another study titled “Beyond Acting White: Reframing the Debate on Black Student Achievement,” researcher and author Erin McNamara Horvat stated that the reiterance of the oppositional culture model “…reifies folk theories about black inferiority and invites discussion about what is fundamentally an absurd question.”

In 1998, educational researchers James Ainsworth-Darnell and Douglas B. Downey lambasted Ogbu and concluded that Black students perceive education as key to getting employment at a higher percentage than Whites. They also condemned Ogbu by saying that it is more of a teacher perception that Black students put forth less effort than White students.

Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey also see a positive correlation between being Black and being a good student. Both high achievers and low achievers in their study reported that education can be an important tool for success.

These powerful studies then beg the question of what is the real cause of a very real and evident achievement gap between Black students and their White counterparts. It is stated and implied by these studies that Black students lack resources due to inequalities, and this in turn hinders their success in school. School districts need to work harder to differentiate instruction and adapt the learning environments to fit the individual needs and interests of students. Many underachieving students in these studies claim that they are motivated in other areas, and that schools don’t cater to their interests. Furthermore, schools need to work more on fostering better relationships between students and teachers, parents and the school, and the school and the community. Finally, Black parents and educators need to stop buying into folk theories about Black inferiority and look deeper into the true causes of low student achievement among Black students, and then we must collaboratively come up with real solutions.

Hopefully, when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Little Rock 9 in 2057, we still won’t be distracted by absurd questions that cloud our minds and keep Black children intellectually segregated. Only then will no child be left behind.

Cleo Wadley is an educator and tireless advocate for urban youth in the southwest Houston area. Cleo is currently an assistant principal at Hastings High School in Alief Independent School District and works as an adjunct instructor of English for Houston Community College.


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