May 21, 2003

Why Anthropology Matters

Rich, Black, and Flunking tells the story of UC Berkeley anthropology professor John Ogbu's research into why upper-middle class black students were performing so much worse than other upper-middle class students.

While acknowledging that there were external societal factors that seemed to contribute (i.e., racism), he concluded that, essentially, the problem came from within the culture of the black students, who considered excelling in academia as "acting white." Also, he saw that, generally, the parents assumed that educating the children was the job of the schools, and were pretty hands-off. (This lead to perhaps the greatest oxymoron, because the parents also were quite distrusting of the school as a white institution. "'I'm still trying to understand it,' [Ogbu] conceded. 'It's a system you don't trust, and yet you don't take the education of your own kids into your hands.'"

Needless to say, this caused a stir, particularly among those who favor pointing the finger of blame at factors beyond their control. It's shocking and saddening that some of the parents accused Ogbu of simple knee-jerk "blaming the victim" stances, labelling him an "academic Clarence Thomas"... As a graduate of Cal's anthropology program, I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that any professor of cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley is *exceedingly* aware of all manner of cultural sensitivity, be it race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class etc. etc.

In talking about this article with a friend, he mentioned that he'd recently read Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On," about the spread of AIDS in the homosexual community in SF, and how the gays similarly were unwilling to accept any responsibility for the situation. Yes, the behavior of the Reagan administration was contemptible, but so is egregious denial.

Another element of Ogbu's research is a distinction between involuntary and voluntary immigrants. Involuntary immigrants (slave-descended African-Americans, native Americans, Chicanos) don't perform as well academically as voluntary immigrants. This mitigates some of the blaming of racism -- recent African immigrants perform better than African-Americans, though one supposes they're subject to the same societal racism.

Anyway, read the piece and see what thoughts it spurs.

Posted by peterme at 01:48 PM | Comments (21) | TrackBack


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