Oppositional Culture Thesis Statement

“Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn.They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”
—Barack Obama, Keynote Address, Democratic National Convention, 2004

Acting white was once a label used by scholars, writing in obscure journals, to characterize academically inclined, but allegedly snobbish, minority students who were shunned by their peers.

Now that it has entered the national consciousness—perhaps even its conscience—the term has become a slippery, contentious phrase that is used to refer to a variety of unsavory social practices and attitudes and whose meaning is open to many interpretations, especially as to who is the perpetrator, who the victim.

I cannot, in the research presented here, disentangle all the elements in the dispute, but I can sort out some of its thicker threads. I can also be precise about what I mean by acting white: a set of social interactions in which minority adolescents who get good grades in school enjoy less social popularity than white students who do well academically.

My analysis confirms that acting white is a vexing reality within a subset of American schools. It does not allow me to say whose fault this is, the studious youngster or others in his peer group. But I do find that the way schools are structured affects the incidence of the acting-white phenomenon. The evidence indicates that the social disease, whatever its cause, is most prevalent in racially integrated public schools. It’s less of a problem in the private sector and in predominantly black public schools.

With findings as potentially controversial as these, one wants to be sure that they rest on a solid base. In this regard, I am fortunate that the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Adhealth) provides information on the friendship patterns of a nationally representative sample of more than 90,000 students, from 175 schools in 80 communities, who entered grades 7 through 12 in the 1994 school year. With this database, it is possible to move beyond both the more narrowly focused ethnographic studies and the potentially misleading national studies based on self-reported indicators of popularity that have so far guided the discussion of acting white.

The Meaning of the Phrase

Though not all scholars define acting white in precisely the same way, most definitions include a reference to situations where some minority adolescents ridicule their minority peers for engaging in behaviors perceived to be characteristic of whites. For example, when psychologist Angela Neal-Barnett in 1999 asked some focus-group students to identify acting-white behavior, they listed actions that ranged from speaking standard English and enrolling in an Advanced Placement or honors class to wearing clothes from the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch (instead of Tommy Hilfiger or FUBU) and wearing shorts in winter!

Only some of these behaviors have a direct connection to academic engagement. However, as the remarks of Barack Obama, who would later win a seat in the United States Senate, suggest, it is the fact that reading a book or getting good grades might be perceived as acting white that makes the topic a matter of national concern. Indeed, negative peer-group pressure has emerged as a common explanation for the black-white achievement gap, a gap that cannot be explained away by differences in demographic characteristics alone. If minority students today deliberately underachieve in order to avoid social sanctions, that by itself could explain why the aca­demic performance of 17-year-old African Americans, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has deteriorated since the late 1980s, even while that of nine-year-olds has been improving. It may also help us understand the shortage of minority students in most elite colleges and universities.

Ethnography vs. Statistics

But is this well-publicized aspect of African American peer-culture reality or urban legend? Most ethnographers who examine school life in specific locations present acting white as a pervasive fact of high-school life for black adolescents. But the only two quantitative studies that analyze data from nationally representative samples of high-school students dismiss it altogether as cultural lore. My findings confirm the existence of acting white among blacks as well as among Hispanics, but offer important qualifications about its pervasiveness.

Although they did not coin the term (its origins are obscure), it was an ethnographic study by anthropologists Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, published in the Urban Journal in 1986, that did the most to bring it to the attention of their fellow academics. Their “Capitol High,” a pseudonym for a predominantly black high school in a low-income area of Washington, D.C., had what the researchers said was an “oppositional culture” in which black youth dismissed academically oriented behavior as “white.”

In the late 1990s, Harvard University economist, Ron Ferguson, found much the same thing in quite another setting, an upper-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, called Shaker Heights. Although that city had been integrated for generations, large racial disparities in achievement persisted. When Ferguson detected an anti-intellectual culture among blacks in the local high school, Shaker Heights became virtually synonymous with the problem of acting white.

Fordham and Ogbu traced the roots of the “oppositional culture” to institutionalized racism within American society, which they contend led blacks to define academic achievement as the prerogative of whites and to invest themselves instead in alternative pursuits. Other observers, however, place the blame for acting white squarely on the shoulders of blacks. The Manhattan Institute’s John McWhorter, for example, contrasts African American youth culture with that of immigrants (including blacks from the Caribbean and Africa) who “haven’t sabotaged themselves through victimology.” These two theories, the former blaming acting white on a racist society, the latter on self-imposed cultural sabotage, have emerged as the predominant explanations for acting white among American blacks.

In fact, however, shunning the academic is hardly the exclusive prerogative of contemporary African American culture. James Coleman’s classic work The Adolescent Society, published in 1955, identified members of the sports teams and cheerleaders, not those on the honor role, as the most popular students in public schools. (See an excerpt from Coleman’s original Harvard Education Review article.) The former bring honor to the entire school, reasoned the University of Chicago sociologist; the latter, only to themselves. Since Coleman, ethnographers have found similar tensions between self-advancement and community integration. Indeed, variants on acting white have been spotted by ethnographers among the Buraku outcasts of Japan, Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and the British working class, among others.

Even so, the question remains whether the tension that Coleman identified is more severe in some cultural contexts than others. On this topic, two sets of scholars weighed in with quantitative studies based on nationally representative surveys. Writing in 1998 in the American Sociological Review, James Ainsworth-Darnell of Georgia State University and Douglas Downey of Ohio State University reported that anti-intellectualism is no more severe a problem among black or Hispanic adolescents than it is among whites. Meanwhile, in a 1997 study, economists Phillip Cook of Duke and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown found that high-achieving black students are, if anything, even more popular relative to low-achieving peers than are high-achieving whites.

Of course, it is possible that the social rewards for achievement do not vary among ethnic groups in the United States. But both studies, each of which is based on data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), have a common shortcoming in that they depend solely on a self-reported measure of personal popularity. The NELS contains a question that asks if the student “thinks others see him/her as popular.” The answer choices are: very, somewhat, or not at all. Unfortunately, when students are asked to judge their own popularity, they can be expected to provide a rosier scenario than is warranted.

New Data and Methods

Fortunately, the Adhealth data I used in this study allow me to measure popularity in a more subtle way. All the students surveyed were asked to list their closest male and female friends, up to five of each sex. I first counted how often each student’s name appeared on peers’ lists. I then adjusted these raw counts to reflect the fact that some friends count more than others. The more frequently a peer is listed by others, the more weight I assign to showing up on his or her list.

The advantage of this research strategy is that one never has to ask a student about his or her own popularity. Students’ natural tendency to brag, in this case by listing popular students as their friends, only gives us a more accurate picture of the school’s most desirable friends. Students listed as a friend by many peers who are themselves popular, rise to the top of the social hierarchy. Those who are listed by only a few peers, who in turn have few admitted friends, stand out as the marginal members of the community.

Armed with an objective measure of social status, I could examine more systematically whether or not the ethnographers were correct in identifying a distinctive acting-white phenomenon within African American communities. Do high-achieving minority students have fewer, less-popular friends than lower-achieving peers? How does this compare with the experience of white students?

I first report my findings using a measure of each student’s popularity within his or her own ethnic group, as that is the most direct test of the acting-white hypothesis. But as I explain below, I obtain the same set of results when I analyze the data without regard to the friends’ ethnicity.

I measure student achievement with a composite of grade-point average (GPA) based on student self-reports of their most recent grades in English, math, history/social studies, and science. When comparing the popularity of high- and low-achieving students, I compare students only with students who attend the same school, ensuring that the results are not skewed by unmeasured characteristics of specific schools. Even then, I take into account a number of factors, measured by the survey, that could affect popularity differently for students from different ethnic backgrounds. These factors include parental education and occupation and participation in various school activities, such as varsity sports, student government, and cheerleading.

Finally, to subject my findings to the strongest possible test, I adjust students’ popularity to reflect variation in self-reported effort in school. Recall that some types of acting-white theory say that students are penalized only for trying hard, not for achievement per se. The bright kid who can’t help but get good grades is not subjected to scorn. It’s the plodding rate busters with books constantly in their faces who are annoying. By adjusting for the effort students are putting into their studies, I do my best to separate the social consequences of achievement from those of effort to achieve.

New Evidence of Acting White

Even after taking into account many factors that affect student popularity, evidence remains strong that acting white is a genuine issue and worthy of Senator Obama’s attention. Figure 1, which plots the underlying relationship between popularity and achievement, shows large differences among whites, blacks, and Hispanics. At low GPAs, there is little difference among ethnic groups in the relationship between grades and popularity, and high-achieving blacks are actually more popular within their ethnic group than high-achieving whites are within theirs.  But when a student achieves a 2.5 GPA (an even mix of Bs and Cs), clear differences start to emerge.

As grades improve beyond this level, Hispanic students lose popularity at an alarming rate. Although African Americans with GPAs as high as 3.5 continue to have more friends than those with lower grades, the rate of increase is no longer as great as among white students.

The experience of black and white students diverges as GPAs climb above 3.5. As the GPAs of black students increase beyond this level, they tend to have fewer and fewer friends. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer friends of the same ethnicity than a white student with the same GPA. Put differently, a black student with straight As is no more popular than a black student with a 2.9 GPA, but high-achieving whites are at the top of the popularity pyramid.

My findings with respect to Hispanics are even more discouraging. A Hispanic student with a 4.0 GPA is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and Hispanic-white differences among high achievers are the most extreme.

The social costs of a high GPA are most pronounced for adolescent males. Popularity begins to decrease at lower GPAs for young black men than young black women (3.25 GPA compared with a 3.5), and the rate at which males lose friends after this point is far greater. As a result, black male high achievers have notably fewer friends than do female ones. I observe a similar pattern among Hispanics, with males beginning to lose friends at lower GPAs and at a faster clip, though the male-female differences are not statistically significant.

Potential Objections

Could high-achieving minority students be more socially isolated simply because there are so few of them? The number of high-achieving minority students in the average school is fewer than the number of high-achieving white students. To see whether this disparity could explain my findings, I adjusted the data to eliminate the effect of differences in the number of students at each school with similar GPAs. This adjustment, however, did little to temper the effect of acting white.

It might also be hypothesized that high-achieving minority students are able to cultivate friendships with students of other ethnic groups. If so, I should obtain quite different results when I examine popularity among students of all ethnic groups. While one finds some evidence that high-achieving students are more popular among students of other ethnicities, the increment is not enough to offset the decline in popularity within their own ethnic group—a predictable finding, given that black and white students have only, on average, one friend of another ethnicity, and Hispanics just one and a half.

Indeed, when minority students reach the very highest levels of academic performance, even the number of cross-ethnic friendships declines. Black and Hispanic students with a GPA above 3.5 actually have fewer cross-ethnic friendships than those with lower grades, a finding that seems particularly troubling.

Finally, I examined whether high-achieving blacks and Hispanics can shield themselves from the costs of acting white by taking up extracurricular activities. There are many opportunities in schools for students to self-select into activities, including organized sports, cheerleading, student government, band, and the National Honor Society, that should put them in contact with students with similar interests.

Unfortunately, when I look separately at minority students who participate in each of these activities, I find only one within which ethnic differences are eliminated: the National Honor Society. Among students involved in every other activity, new friends made outside the classroom do not make up for the social penalties imposed for acting white.

A Private-School Edge

The patterns described thus far essentially characterize social dynamics of public-school students, who constitute 94 percent of the students in the Adhealth sample. For the small percentage of black and Hispanic students who attend private school, however, I find no evidence of a trade-off between popularity and achievement (see Figure 2). Surprisingly, white private-school students with the highest grades are not as popular as their lower-achieving peers. The most-popular white students in private schools have a GPA of roughly 2.0, a C average.

These data may help to explain one of the more puzzling findings in the research on the relative advantages of public and private schools. Most studies of academic achievement find little or no benefit of attending a private school for white students, but quite large benefits for African Americans. It may be that blacks attending private schools have quite a different peer group.

The Segregated School: Is It an Advantage?

I also find that acting white is unique to those schools where black students comprise less than 80 percent of the student population. In predominantly black schools, I find no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity.

But perhaps this changes when school desegregation leads to cross-ethnic friendships within the school. To see how the degree of internal integration within a school affects acting-white patterns, I calculated the difference from what I would expect in the total number of cross-ethnic friends in a school based on the ethnic make-up of the student body. Schools with a greater percentage of cross-ethnic friendships than expected are considered to be internally integrated. I divide schools into two groups of equal size: those with higher and lower degrees of internal integration.

Unfortunately, internal integration only aggravates the problem. Blacks in less-integrated schools (places with fewer than expected cross-ethnic friendships) encounter less of a trade-off between popularity and achievement. In fact, the effect of acting white on popularity appears to be twice as large in the more-integrated (racially mixed) schools as in the less-integrated ones. Among the highest achievers (3.5 GPA or higher), the differences are even more stark, with the effect of acting white almost five times as great in settings with more cross-ethnic friendships than expected. Black males in such schools fare the worst, penalized seven times as harshly as my estimate of the average effect of acting white on all black students!

This finding, along with the fact that I find no evidence of acting white in predominantly black schools, adds to the evidence of a “Shaker Heights” syndrome, in which racially integrated settings only reinforce pressures to toe the ethnic line.

In Search of an Answer

That acting white is more prevalent in schools with more interethnic contact hardly passes the test of political correctness. It nonetheless provides a clue to what is going on. Anthropologists have long observed that social groups seek to preserve their identity, an activity that accelerates when threats to internal cohesion intensify. Within a group, the more successful individuals can be expected to enhance the power and cohesion of the group as long as their loyalty is not in question. But if the group risks losing its most successful members to outsiders, then the group will seek to prevent the outflow. Cohesive yet threatened groups—the Amish, for example—are known for limiting their children’s education for fear that too much contact with the outside world risks the community’s survival.

In an achievement-based society where two groups, for historical reasons, achieve at noticeably different levels, the group with lower achievement levels is at risk of losing its most successful members, especially in situations where successful individuals have opportunities to establish contacts with outsiders. Over the long run, the group faces the danger that its most successful members will no longer identify with its interests, and group identity will itself erode. To forestall such erosion, groups may try to reinforce their identity by penalizing members for differentiating themselves from the group. The penalties are likely to increase whenever the threats to group cohesion intensify.

Applying this model of behavior to minority and white students yields two important predictions: A positive relationship between academic achievement and peer-group acceptance (popularity) will erode and turn negative, whenever the group as a whole has lower levels of achievement. And that erosion will be exacerbated in contexts that foster more interethnic contact. This, of course, is exactly what I found with regard to acting white.

Understanding acting white in this way places the concept within a broader conceptual framework that transcends specific cultural contexts and lifts the topic beyond pointless ideological exchanges. There is necessarily a trade-off between doing well and rejection by your peers when you come from a traditionally low-achieving group, especially when that group comes into contact with more outsiders.

Alternative Explanations

Such a conceptualization is preferable to both of the two theories that have so far dominated discussions of acting white: the notion of oppositional culture and the allegation of cultural self-sabotage.

The oppositional culture theory, developed by Fordham and Ogbu in the wake of their experiences at “Capitol High,” accounts for the observed differences between blacks and whites as follows: (1) white people provide blacks with inferior schooling and treat them differently in school; (2) by imposing a job ceiling, white people fail to reward blacks adequately for their academic achievement in adult life; and (3) black Americans develop coping devices which, in turn, further limit their striving for academic success. Fordham and Ogbu suggest the problem arose partly because white Americans traditionally refused to acknowledge that black Americans were capable of intellectual achievement and partly because black Americans subsequently began to doubt their own intellectual ability, began to define academic success as white people’s prerogative, and began to discourage their peers, perhaps unconsciously, from emulating white people in striving for academic success.

However plausible it sounds, the oppositional culture theory cannot explain why the acting-white problem is greatest in integrated settings. If Fordham and Ogbu were correct, the social sanctions for acting white should be most severe in places like the segregated school, where opportunities are most limited. The results of my studies, of course, point in precisely the opposite direction.

The notion that acting white is simply attributable to self-sabotage is even less persuasive. According to its proponents, black and Hispanic cultures are dysfunctional, punishing successful members of their group rather than rewarding their success. That theory is more a judgment than an explanation. A universal, it cannot explain the kinds of variations from one school setting to another that are so apparent in the data I have explored.

The Need for New Identities

How important are these social pressures? Although that story has yet to be fully told, in my view, the prevalence of acting white in schools with racially mixed student bodies suggests that social pressures could go a long way toward explaining the large racial and ethnic gaps in SAT scores, the underperformance of minorities in suburban schools, and the lack of adequate representation of blacks and Hispanics in elite colleges and universities.

Minority communities in the United States have yet to generate a large cadre of high achievers, a situation as discouraging as the high incarceration rates among minorities who never finish high school. In fact, the two patterns may be linked. As long as distressed communities provide minorities with their identities, the social costs of breaking free will remain high. To increase the likelihood that more can do so, society must find ways for these high achievers to thrive in settings where adverse social pressures are less intense. The integrated school, by itself, apparently cannot achieve that end.

Roland G. Fryer is assistant professor of economics, Harvard University and a faculty research fellow, the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hofstra University, Department of Sociology, 202B Davison Hall, Hempstead, NY 11549, USA

Copyright © 2013 William Mangino. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

This paper offers a sociological critique of the perceived Black-White gap in education and of the theory of “opposition” that underpins it. The literature extending back a century discusses how oppressed and segregated groups adopt attitudes opposed to those who oppress and contain them. Failure to situate the current oppositional culture in this larger body of literature makes opposition seem specific to Black Americans; it is not. Further, among people with similar economic resources, Black Americans have higher educational aspirations and go to college more than comparable Whites. The continued framing of a “race gap” without reference to economic circumstances reifies race and lays the blame for educational failure on schools, teachers, families, and students, when the real culprits are social and economic issues like jobs, wages, and residential segregation. But because politically we are unwilling to deal with these larger socioeconomic issues, educational professionals are compelled to practice as if economic inequality and poverty do not matter, but in fact they do. Because Black Americans are disproportionately represented in lower economic strata, a spurious correlation exists in professional and popular discourse that mistakenly identifies Black people as “opposed” to education. Net of socioeconomic status, Black Americans are no more opposed than anyone else.

1. Introduction

When people tell you…it’s poverty, that’s baloney.

(Former New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein [1])

In the United States, a cottage industry has propagated around African Americans’ seeming “opposition” to education. The scholarly impetus grew from Ogbu’s [2, 3] influential thesis, which asserts that Black students feel pressure from peers and community to not “act White.’’ Equating effort in school with siding with the oppressor, Black people, the argument goes, outwardly eschew academics in order to fit in with “being Black.’’ Sociological critics dispute Ogbu (e.g., [4–7]). They rebut that oppositional culture does not hold up when considering Blacks’ attitudes toward schooling. Study after study finds that Black Americans have high educational aspirations and proschool attitudes—in many cases higher than their White counterparts [4, 5, 8, 9]. Ogbu [3, page 446] dismisses such pro-school attitudes as simply “wishful thinking” because Black students “do not match their aspirations with effort.”

The finding of high educational aspirations among Blacks combined with their low test scores and grades gave rise to what is called the “attitude-achievement paradox” [10]. Despite pro-school pronouncements, minority achievement still lags behind White achievement. A standard way to deal with the paradox has been to doubt the credibility of Blacks’ proschool self-reports ([11], for a review, see [12]). I argue that the attitude-achievement paradox is, at least in part, an artifact of how race and education are framed and of the outcomes chosen to measure educational success. This line of reasoning is inspired by Critical Race Theory [13] that implores us to question not only the standards by which evaluation is gauged but also the epistemological frameworks that organize thought and inquiry [14]. Like much critical theory, this paper strives to be reflexive and to turn the tools of analysis and criticism upon our own professional practices [15].

2. Oppositional Culture Is Not “a Race Thing”

One of the main elements of oppositional culture theory is to show how Black Americans contribute to their own disadvantage. Manipulation by an elite is not the whole story; oppressed individuals have agency, and arising from resistance to caste-like oppression, they choose to take actions that reproduce their own subordination. The oppressed group eschews much of what the dominant society specifically esteems in order to define a unique identity. The argument is intriguing, but not new. First, it is a reworking of classic culture of poverty theorizing [16], except rage and agency have replaced apathy and resignation. Further, Ogbu’s argument is quite similar to Willis’ [17] famous book Learning to Labor that showed how “working class lads” ended up in working class jobs. Thanks to their own opposition to education and its snobbish culture, the lads “disqualified themselves.” Perhaps even more formative for the idea of this type of opposition was Coleman’s Adolescent Society [18]. Coleman observed that modern age-segregated schooling created an oppositional culture among high school students. Teenagers develop their own status system which, much to the chagrin of their parents and teachers, is largely antiacademic. Going back more than a century, there is a large body of sociological literature that, while often ignoring African American voices and conditions (c.f. [19]), explores cross-group antagonisms as central mechanisms in identity formation and social stratification [20–25]. In the face of oppression, and especially when segregated, oppressed categories of people unite and adopt attitudes that run counter to those who oppress, stigmatize, and contain them ([26, 27] especially pages 165–181). Whether anti-academics, the working class, the adolescent subculture, or urban gangsters, Ogbu, Willis, Coleman, E. Anderson, and others are all studying the same mechanism: opposition. The failure to situate the current incarnation of opposition in this larger body of literature mistakenly makes opposition seem like “a Black thing.’’ It is not [28].

It is important to note that the preceding argument does not nullify oppositional culture per se. Oppositional culture is indeed a mechanism of disqualification; it is just not specific to Black Americans. This does not deny the urgency of the African American experience, which especially for men in cities is more likely to lead to prison or death than to college and jobs [29, 30]. Theirs is a particularly unjust expression of a more general phenomenon. The same criticisms applied in the past to culture of poverty theories and to functionalism apply here. Sometimes describing how a social mechanism works (e.g., opposition) distracts from why it is the way it is (resources and power).

3. The Mismeasure of Culture

Much of the demonstration of, and debate about, oppositional culture in education uses dependent variables that are less than ideal for reflecting the outcomes of a respondent’s culture. Test scores, grades, and teacher reports are the most often used measures of academic performance. Despite the recent resurgence of cultural sociology (e.g., [31, 32]) and reworked cultures of poverty ([33], see [34] for a multiauthor debate about the “new” culture of poverty), my position implores us to return to some foundational conceptions of “culture.” In an influential article in sociology’s premiere journal, Swidler [35] defines culture not only as “skills, habits, and styles” but also as a tool box filled with strategies for action. Culture manifests in the individual as the repertoires that are available when faced with a behavioral choice. Earlier, Merton [23] too defined culture as normative frames that guide behavior. At the individual level, then, cultural outcomes should be measured as the actions that actors actually take, given the opportunities and constraints presented to them. “Pure” measures of individual agency—what people actually choose to do—would be most appropriate. Of course, a “pure” measure of agency does not exist, but it is still useful to consider how some outcomes are more or less pure than others. For example, test scores, grades, and teacher reports reflect a student’s academic effort (agency), plus a judgment of that effort. In this sense, an evaluation potentially contains two cultures, the student’s and the evaluator’s, and those cultures can clash. If an evaluator is not sensitized to the actor’s repertoires or codes, then intentions can go misrecognized. Concretely, such mechanisms are commonly studied as testing bias and teacher bias [36, 37]. Further, what are deemed to be “legitimate” knowledge and modes of expression are themselves not neutral. They are products of the dominant culture and, whether latent or manifest, serve to protect the interests of those who defined the standard—the incumbents get to decide what counts and what is invalid. “Equality of opportunity,” in this context, is only the right to be judged by the same standard, while the standard itself often goes unchallenged.

While no measure of academic achievement can escape the evaluative constraint, there are indicators where judgment is less proximate. Such indicators are, therefore, closer estimates of action. The choice to invest in education is one such measure. The individual’s choice kicks in in late adolescence, when a person is no longer compelled by law to attend school. Thus, the choice can be measured by years of education completed [38], educational transitions including high school graduation [39], the decision to go to college [40], and the accumulation of credentials [12]. These items are less filtered by judgment because they reflect an actor’s status attainment strategy, given the constraints perceived by the actor.

There is an important caveat. In order to understand one’s educational choice, other mechanisms of disqualification must first be controlled. Most obviously, to assess educational decision making, one’s socioeconomic status (SES) must be considered, as financial resources are perhaps the prime barrier to education beyond the compulsory levels. After controlling for SES and other relevant external obstacles, what is left is the individual’s strategy for action; the actor must put her/his culture into practice and decide whether to proceed in education, or to turn away. A test score or grade does not measure such agency—they are not strategies of action, although they certainly might constrain or enliven certain paths of action. Much of the industry surrounding oppositional culture is based on the existence of a “race gap”, but when measured as action rather than judgment, the attitude-achievement paradox evaporates. As we have known for years, Black Americans have higher proschool attitudes [4, 5, 8, 9], and now an emergent body of literature shows that, when economic resources are present, Black people translate those attitudes into action by investing in education at disproportionately high rates. In sum “oppositional culture” should be defined as the aversion to education that remains after economic barriers are considered.

4. The Disappearing Gap

“[S]ome students may resist school success, [but] this behavior may be the result of differences in social class and material conditions, rather than being the racialized reaction Ogbu proposed” ([41] page 160). Indeed, there is a large body of research that disaggregates by race the choice to invest in education. Once socioeconomic controls are added, the widespread finding is that any initial aversion to education by non-Whites can be accounted for by other mechanisms, like family and neighborhood income, family wealth, household structure, and urbanicity [38, 39, 42]. Knowing only these most basic socioeconomic indicators not only eliminates the stereotypic race gap but also reverses it and shows superior educational attainment among Blacks. Supporting research includes Charles et al. ([43] page 347), who use the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS). They find that “when differences in family background, parental investments, and prior achievements/attainment are controlled, black students are nearly three times more likely than their white peers to attend college.” Also using NELS, Bennett and Xie ([44] page 578) “indicate that the net black advantage is real: …black high school graduates [are] more likely than their white counterparts to enroll in…college,” once SES is considered. Combined, Charles et al. [43] and Bennett and Xie [44] cite nine other studies that also find a Black “net advantage” in college attendance. A review by Kao and Thompson [45] documents even more. Additional support is provided by Conley [39], who uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Once family wealth is controlled, Black children graduate high school and go to college at higher rates than Whites. Using the Current Population Survey, Hauser [46] too found a Black advantage in college attendance in the 1970s once family income was considered, although in that data the effect diminished through the 1980s. Even Herrnstein and Murray [47] in their controversial book The Bell Curve find that among people with equal Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) scores, Blacks go to college more than Whites. Finally, superior educational attainment among Blacks is also present in economic literature. Mason [38], in particular, uses the PSID to show that compared to White men, African American men more efficiently translate economic resources into years of education. This finding is so widespread and robust that after marshaling supportive evidence with the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Mangino ([42] page 165) argues “that blacks’ superior educational attainment should be considered an `empirical generalization’—an agreed upon, yet always tentative, `fact’ to be integrated into established conceptualizations of a topic.” The current paper hopes to move us down that path.

5. The Injustice of Oppositional Culture

The United States has vast educational gaps, but calling them “race gaps” distract us from the major issue. Despite that “it is unclear whether a large black/white gap exists independent of contemporary material conditions” ([6] page 114), as a research and practice and popular community we operate as if one does—as if the Black-White gap is “common sense.” In a hegemonic way, academicians, policy makers, and educational practitioners forget, or do not realize, that the small [37] Black-White gap that remains after environmental controls are considered is a test score gap and does not generalize to education en toto. Given our identification of this seemingly real race gap, we (educationalists) then make careers out of elaborating “the gap”, its mechanisms, and designing programs to ameliorate it; the educational community has an objective interest in the existence of “the gap”, and we perpetuate it in public consciousness. Yet, the evidence outlined above overwhelmingly supports that insofar as strategies of action are concerned, Black Americans are motivated to invest in education at least as much as Whites, and probably more.

Black or White, the key to implementing a strategy of educational investment is having the economic resources to do so. Because Black Americans are disproportionately represented in lower economic strata (to understand why this is the case, see [39, 48, 49]), and because low SES is the prime barrier, a spurious correlation exists in professional and popular discourse that mistakenly identifies Black people as “opposed” to education. Net of socioeconomic status, Americans of color are no more opposed than anyone else.

The continued framing of a “race gap” without constant reference to economic circumstances reifies race and lays the blame for educational failure on schools, teachers, families, and students, when the real culprit is political economy [50, 51]. It seems that James S. Coleman [52] was basically right all those years ago: in the aggregate schools are a dependent variable produced by the demographics of the communities in which they are embedded [53, 54]. If we were politically willing to address social and economic issues like jobs, wages, and residential segregation by class and race, then the seemingly systemic failures of the US educational system would be vastly abated. Traditional inputs like per pupil spending, high quality teachers and infrastructure, and the latest pedagogical innovations certainly are necessary and effective (for a review see [55]) but they will have their full effect only when the larger socioeconomic environment is addressed. Because politically we are unwilling to address these larger issues, educational practice is forced to act as if economic inequality and poverty do not matter, but in fact they do. Perhaps former New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, captured the idea best in the quote that prefaces this paper. In an interview discussing the etiology of the city’s Black-White educational gaps, he summarily dismissed poverty as a potential cause: “When people tell you…it’s poverty, that’s baloney” [1]. With no attempt to situate the gap in its economic context, we are left with an incorrect story. Perhaps family and neighborhood poverty are beyond a Chancellor’s (or a teacher’s or an administrator’s or a researcher’s) control, but surely they are not “baloney.”


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