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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.


  1. Your comment “recent African immigrants perform better than African-Americans, though one supposes they’re subject to the same societal racism” reminds me of this story: While I was in the Army a million years ago, one of our platoon members was from Jamaica (yes, foreign nationals do serve in the U.S. Army). His skin color was deep, almost purple-black. yet he decried what he called the “American Negroes.” His stance echoed what you write–that as a recent, voluntary immigrant, he felt that too much “it’s not my fault” ran within the African-American community.

    Not to say there isn’t institutional racism, yet the issue is simply…complex.

  2. Interesting that you brought this up. I just finished reading _Darker Shade of Crimson_ and it’s also happening to Chicanos(Mexican-Americans)

    Navarrette, Jr., Ruben. A Darker Shade of Crimson. Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

    The book revolves around his time before, during, and just after his life at Harvard. I recommend it.

  3. Hmm…Prof. Ogbu is related to one of my high school friends; I remember the first time I met her father the first thing he asked me what colleges I was applying for. (I was in 10th grade at the time, I think.)

    I thought the article was interesting. Although I don’t know if I agree with his conclusions, his assessment of voluntary immigrants seem to be spot on. As an immigrant myself, college was just expected. My parents believe that a college education leads to better jobs and a better life overall, and that was ingrained in me even though my parents never checked my homework.

  4. we only hear the parents/adults’s criticism of ogbu. it would be interesting to hear what the kids have to say of ogbu’s conclusions, or even the teachers for that matter. we all know that adolescents are hyper aware of what they say to which audience. the parents might be out of touch w/ their children’s struggles.

  5. It seems if this were the case then the people who are black and their parents came to this country sould have more sucess than those not. and people whith disabilities who experince discremination should be highly employed instead of very unemployed. Many people who are white had ancestry that was forced to this country and success is an indivedual thang

  6. Nothing like getting criticized for an aside — but your comment that “the gays similarly were unwilling to accept any responsibility” for AIDS in the early 80s is nonsense. Gays & lesbians were at the forefront of educating their own community about the risks, pressing for research, forming support groups, clinics, etc. In fact (to stir the fire a little more), it’s interesting to compare the early response of gay leaders to AIDS with that of the African-American community…

    This isn’t to say that a lot of dodging and denial did not also occur (and still does) — only that your remark as stated is misleading.

  7. I have a friend who taught high school in California. He had many parent/teacher conferences with parents concerned about why Johnny, and Jane couldn’t read. He’d always ask two questions: How much did the parent read? And if they read to their children. Inevitably, the parents of the children who read poorly, would answer no to both. Is there a connection between that and the educational results that Ogbu’s research found?

  8. I am anxious to read this study but I am even more anxious to read the critique. Race and racism are complex subjects and it is only after a study or an academic work has been carefully studied, critiqued, and deconstructed can its real validity be determined.

    There was a similar buzz around the work of William Julius Wilson and many of his conclusions were rejected by other academics.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


    Dave (an IA and an Anthropologist)

  9. Wow. Just because someone is an anthropologist doesn’t mean they’re an unbiased observer. My first thought in reading Ogbu’s comments is that he had to jump through a lot of hoops to get where he is, Berkeley or not, and he can’t help but think that others should make the same efforts to be successful. Again the parameters of this discussion are based on western culture. Some impoverished and/or discriminated against sub-cultures use cooperation rather than personal achievement as a day-to-day survival tactic (I’m not talking about just cultural-identity survival). The kids in this study may not be poverty-stricken, but that doesn’t mean they’re not getting beaten up or (in the case of single-parent families) have extra family or work responsibilities after school that make a cooperative culture essential. This cooperative cultural style which preserves families unfortunately doesn’t work well in most schools – as part of American culture at large, schools value personal achievement much more highly than cooperation. Wouldn’t it be great if schools taught kids in a non-competitive style – where tests were open book and open to help from peers? Many students learn much more in this type of a cooperative learning environment. Exactly what would we lose as a culture if everyone learned in a style that helped them achieve an “A”?
    The current American testing system is also VERY biased so who knows what the academic level of the students at that school was – I took the gre and got a great score – part of it was ability, but the rest was that when in doubt, I picked the answer that was the most traditionally white and male (sorry guys) and guess what – it was always the right one.
    My field of study in college by the way was cultural anthropology.

  10. As an African-American, an Information Architect and a cultural ethnographer (prior to my life as an IA) I feel compelled to address the original article and the comments that followed.

    For starters, I agree with Ogbu. I think he’s onto something crucial and something that many people within the Black community have been trying to combat for years. The author/editor’s claim that “Nobody wants to hear it” lacks substantiation.

    The article is horribly imbalanced and highlights all the ‘nuts’ who critique Ogbu’s findings. Where’s the support for Ogbu? The sole support comes from Steele, McWhorter and an involved parent who wraps up the article with a note of futility. I’m truly stunned that the author couldn’t find any significant strain of grass-roots support for such findings. It’s absolutely something that Black people talk about. Maybe *that’s* what “Nobody wants to hear.”

    Who the hell was this article written to inspire? Who was it written to support? What ‘information’ was to be shared? This article stands out as yet another missed opportunity to explore facets of the Black community that don’t fit neatly into the accepted packages. Packages fabricated from within and without the Black community.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading Ogbu’s research and discussing it with my associates (who don’t always agree with me/each other). Ogbu strikes me as a rather intelligent man and I regret not interacting with him while I was in the Bay Area. I trust that I would have gained a lot from speaking with him. I hope his ideas gain some traction and succeed in contributing an important piece to our cultural puzzle.

  11. What other research has Ogbu done since then to support his theories?

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  13. I just read this quote today and I think it’s awesome:

    It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.

    Charles Baudelaire

    Just thought I’d share.


  14. I just read this quote today and I think it’s awesome:

    It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.

    Charles Baudelaire

    Just thought I’d share.


  15. I just read this quote today and I think it’s awesome:

    It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.

    Charles Baudelaire

    Just thought I’d share.


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