Issue 100 - July 22, 2004


Cover Story

“Acting White?”

African-American Students and Education

by Edward Rhymes Ph.D.

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I have heard a lot of static concerning African Americans and their supposed disregard for education. “Our black kids look down on education” say many of the black pundits, “they tease the black kids who are doing well school and say they are acting white.” I’ve heard this repeated over and over again by African-American personalities and celebrities (none of which, by the way, have any extensive, classroom teaching experience). Let me also add, that in all my years as an educator and youth program specialist, I have never heard any student equating scholastic achievement with whiteness. Nevertheless, this assertion is usually made without challenge, rebuttal or explanation. This is yet another sign of the reactionary times that we now live in, here in America – with a pit bull-like tenacity we lock on to what is being said without examining why it’s being said.  I, in the course of this writing, will endeavor to unmask this widely-held misconception.

I would like to outline, briefly, my experience in education and youth development:

1. I have taught high school social studies, history, sociology and special needs.

2. I have taught college sociology, philosophy and history.

3. I have taught graduate courses in education (my students were k-12 teachers & guidance counselors – in other words I’ve taught teachers).

4. I have served on the Board of Directors of a teachers’ union.

5. I create and develop educational curriculum and programs.

6. I have worked for a number of years, in fields of education and social youth development programs.

I’m not flaunting or bragging about my qualifications, but I am merely pointing out that I do have a basis (rooted in experience) for forming my views on this particular subject. There are four areas that I will be focusing on: 1. Popular Culture, 2. Curriculum, 3. Honors/Advance Placement classes and 4. Ethnicity of Teachers.

Popular Culture

I know there are some who may question the place popular culture has in this dialogue concerning education. However, popular culture does have an impact on our perceptions; and perceptions have been front and center in these erroneous beliefs regarding African Americans and education. Nerds, geeks, brainiacs, eggheads etc.; these words have come to define the socially-challenged, yet academically-gifted populations in our schools. Taped glasses, high-water pants, pocket-protectors, socially-inept and high IQs; these are just a few of the characteristics that symbolize the stereotypical (or traditional) nerd or geek.

To be viewed as a nerd or geek meant (and still means in some circles) certain social death to the vast majority of high school students. Students by and large tried to distance themselves from any behavior (i.e. overachieving academically) that would cause them to be tagged with the nerd or geek label – they also distanced themselves from those who had already been labeled as such. The vast majority of teen movies in the 1980’s had three major themes:

1. The ridiculing of social misfits (nerds, geeks etc.),

2. The transformation of the socially-inept into acceptably cool characters (i.e. Can’t Buy Me Love, Just One of the Guys, Heavenly Kid), and

3. Movies such as Revenge of the Nerds where the nerds and geeks triumph over their social oppressors.

Somehow many African Americans (usually the affluent, disconnected ones) have swallowed this misconception about African-American youth being anti-intellectual and anti-education. This ideology concerning nerds and geeks did not originate in the African-American community, but in predominantly white, middle-class, suburban communities. In our schools, being smart just doesn’t matter much. Kids don’t admire it or despise it. 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. Think about it, high school athletes get more press and recognition than those on the debate teams. As a matter of fact, how many academic competitions do we have in our public schools? It seems like sheer hypocrisy, to me, for anyone to suggest that African Americans place less value on education than the rest of the population.


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. No, I do not believe that education in and of itself should be viewed as white, but I am saying that I can understand why it may be viewed that way by some.

For example, most of the history classes (World & U.S.) focus mostly on people of European descent. Curriculum in our public schools continues to be either opposed to or indifferent about a more multi-cultural emphasis. Only a handful of our public school students know more than the customary African-American figures (Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman etc.) displayed in our curriculum. The study of world history usually begins with the Roman Empire (untouched is the study of the ancient Egyptian, Nubian or Ethiopian civilizations) and ends with modern Europe. Secondary U.S. History curriculum similarly omits any significant study of the institution of slavery or Reconstruction and their role in this country's history. These omissions become even more glaring when classes such as African-American studies are not required courses. English Literature courses may devote a few weeks a year (usually around February) to authors such as Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, James Baldwin or Toni Morrison; hardly enough time for the average student to become familiar with African-American history or culture.

Honors and Advanced Placement Classes

According to Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, African-American students are only half as likely as whites to be placed in Honors or AP English or math classes, and 2.4 times more likely than whites to be placed in remedial classes. Even when African American demonstrate equal ability with their white counterparts, they are less likely to be placed in accelerated classes. Students who take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school are eligible to take the corresponding AP examination and may earn college credit for scores above a minimum threshold. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that the number of African-American students taking the AP examinations increased from 9 to 53 per 1,000 12th graders between 1984 and 2000. However, the number of African-American students who took AP examinations in 2000 was still considerably lower than Whites (180 per 1,000). This is due, in part, to the fact that on average, schools serving mostly black and Latino students offer only a third as many AP and honors courses as schools serving mostly whites. Another little discussed actuality is that quite a few African Americans are inconspicuously steered away from Honors and AP classes and into basic and general courses. As a result, the classes that represent our best and brightest minds become decidedly white.

Ethnicity of Teachers

Without debating the reasons for these realities, let’s take a look at the ethnic makeup of the faculties of our educational institutions. Data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (2003), showed that approximately 3 million of the nation’s estimated 3.5 million k-12 teachers (public and private) are white – that translates to about 85%. Post-secondary education is slightly different; 75% (2,148,845 of a total 2,883,175) of America’s college and university educators is white. A 2002 Independent Postsecondary Education Data System’s report on the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities further emphasizes these discrepancies. In collecting data from the 105 CCCU member colleges and universities, they found that there were only sixty-two African-American male faculty members – and of these sixty-two, 37 were part-timers. Only 7 African-American males held Executive, Administrative or Managerial positions. As I stated before, we don’t have to debate the reasons why these discrepancies exist; but the fact of the matter is they do exist.

As we step outside of the tangible statistics of our country’s teaching population; let us take a look at intangible aspects of teaching. When an educator stands before a classroom and teaches, they are not just transmitting facts, figures and data about English, math, history etc. They are also conveying their worldview, ideas and values – either consciously or unconsciously (as a teacher I understand this all too well). Too many times people like doctors, policeman and teachers are treated as if they are separate from (or above) our society, rather than reflections of it. The high expectations we place upon these individuals, somehow causes us to lose sight of their humanity. The same ideas and prejudices that Joe and Jane Q. Public struggle with, are the same ones our teachers struggle with as well. Unspoken and unconscious prejudices are no less real than vocal or conscious ones. Our thoughts carry attitudes; our attitudes carry vibes; and once that undeclared, discriminatory vibe is felt by that student of color, it can create very real barriers to their desire to learn and that teacher’s ability to teach them.

In light of the information found in these four categories, can you at least see why an African-American student might view education (even if you don’t agree with the assertion) as being white? Since the vast majority of whites in this country have never had to cope with these realities, they either doubt their existence or are totally ignorant of them altogether.

The issue of African American performance in education received increased national attention after the publication of noted anthropologist John Ogbu’s book Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb. Middle-class and affluent African-American parents in Shaker Heights, Ohio, wanted to know why their children lagged so far behind their white classmates in what is considered the best school district in the state. Clearly, the achievement gap wasn't the function of poverty or an inferior education, reasons often put forth to explain the gap between black and white students across the country. The Shaker Heights parents, with funding and support from the school system, called in UC Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu, a noted figure in the field of minority education, to find the answer. What Ogbu found in Shaker Heights mirrored what he has found in every country he has studied in his 30 years of research.

The under-achieving minorities in these countries, including blacks in the United States, all had one factor in common: They are what Ogbu calls “involuntary minorities.”

Involuntary minorities are those who did not immigrate to a country by choice. They became minorities through enslavement, colonization or conquest, a status that continues to shape how they are treated by the dominant group and how they perceive and respond to that treatment. Involuntary minorities developed their identity in opposition to the majority group that had oppressed them. As a result, they are often suspicious of societal institutions run by the dominant group, including the schools, believing that the curriculum threatens and denigrates their heritage.

Voluntary minorities, on the other hand, are those who have chosen to immigrate in hopes of a better future. These minorities see education as a path to success in their new country. They are willing to embrace the new language and new ways, no matter how dissimilar to their own, in order to reap the benefits of an American education.

Ogbu points to the Buraku people of Japan as a comparison. They are ethnically identical to other Japanese. During Japan's feudal ages, the emperor designated the Buraku to be the laborers, the lowest class. They were freed from this designation in 1871; a few years after American blacks were freed from slavery.

To this day, the Buraku lag behind their Japanese counterparts in academic achievement. Yet when they immigrate to other countries, where they are seen simply as Japanese and not Buraku, the gap gradually disappears. Their school achievement rises.

Similarly, third-generation descendants of Koreans who had been forced into labor in Japan in the last century are among the poorest-performing students in Japan. But Koreans who immigrated to China in search of a better life are the highest-achieving minority group in China. 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.

In this writing I do not propose any excuses, but rather explanations. I suppose that is my chief criticism of the black pundits and personalities who disseminate this fallacious notion of African-American students’ disregard of education. They are so afraid that they will be viewed as excusing these educational issues and concerns, that they haven’t bothered trying to rightly explain them either. This too, goes to the heart of how we have failed many of our children of color. We have appropriately expended a great amount of time and effort trying to instill in them a respect for education, but we have failed at the equally important task of making sure that the powers-that-be in education values and respects them.

Dr. Edward Rhymes, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a consultant in the areas racism, equity & diversity, education and adolescent development. He is also a Visiting Asst. Professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Be sure to check out the Rhymes Reasons page on his website,

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