discrimination and educational ambition

I thought this was a crucial moment in the recent debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehesi Coats:

Chait: The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

Coats: What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily “bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”? Chait believes that it’s “bizarre” to think otherwise. I think it’s bizarre that he doesn’t bother to see if his argument is actually true. Oppression might well produce a culture of failure. It might also produce a warrior spirit and a deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you. There is no need for theorizing. The answers are knowable.

Indeed, here is some pertinent evidence, courtesy of Angel L. Harris.* She He analyzes a very large survey of Maryland families, black and white, to investigate the connections among race, discrimination, and commitments to education. The results are important for anyone interested in debates about the (alleged) culture of poverty, cultural determinants of success, and racial achievement gaps.

Harris finds that black parents are more likely than white parents to think that succeeding in school is crucial to their children’s success. Blacks also place more importance than whites do on academics; they report spending slightly more time on educational activities; and they are more likely to seek academic help.

African American parents are more likely to believe that they and their children are subject to racial discrimination, although some white parents also see themselves as discriminated against on the basis of their race. The more that black parents perceive that their families are subject to discrimination, the more they see educational success as crucial for their children. But the more that white parents see themselves as discriminated against, the less they believe in education.

These results support the thesis that for African Americans, a perception of ongoing discrimination is a motivation for struggle and uplift. It is evidence of Coats’ “warrior spirit” and “deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you.” But for some whites, a perception that they are being treated unfairly is a reason not to focus on education. Or perhaps they are not succeeding educationally and need an excuse that blames other people.

Given those findings, you might predict that black students would be achieve more educational success than comparable white students. In fact, when white and black students of similar socioeconomic and family backgrounds are carefully compared, blacks are sometimes found to have higher graduation rates and more years of education. (The bottom line of the second cited study: “African American men and women achieve greater years of education than white men and women, respectively, raised in identical family environments.”) But there remain stark aggregate differences in high school and college graduation rates by race. If those cannot be attributed to differences in educational ambition, then the remaining explanations would seem to include: subtler disconnections between the dominant culture of schools and those of some African American families; unequal resources outside the school (including lower numbers of committed parents and other adults per child); unequal quality of schools; unequal treatment within the same schools; and discrimination in admissions and labor markets. I think all of those factors have been demonstrated.

*Angel L. Harris, “Can Members of Marginalized Groups Remain Invested in Schooling? An Assessment from the United States and the United Kingdom.” In Danielle Allen and Rob Reich (eds.), Education, Justice, and Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp 101-132

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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