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October 13, 2003

Thernstrom Again

The Thernstroms are stirring up muck again. This time they argue, according to William Raspberry, that black attitudes towards education are poor and that they flunk out because of that, basically. Whites love education, blacks hate it. Whites are smart, blacks are stupid. Clear? Good.

I find it difficult to believe that the Thernstroms have any black friends of substance or have stopped to wonder how in the world there got to be so many black colleges in this country. But I am always puzzled about such claims about blacks hating education. I suppose I've just been hanging around the wrong blacks all my life. Abigail reminds me of those whitefolks who always complain about the unfairness of black people being able to say nigger, but whitefolks can't. If she's so smart, why does she pick those blackfolks who call each other niggers for her examples about blackfolks? Maybe she wants to be a nigger. If so, fine. I'll ignore her and her niggas.

Of course Abigail Thernstrom (shades of Glenn Close) will not be ignored. She's got a fatal attraction to the underachievers. I wonder if she has any solutions. Not if Raspberry's interpretation is to be trusted. So what is the point of her book? Evidently it's to point out that racism is not to be blamed. OK. If racism is not to be blamed, why should we listen to Thernstrom about education? I thought she was an expert on race. Hmm. This is just too complicated.

If somebody leaves her new book at a Starbucks, maybe I'll skim it. But since Abagail gets almost as much press as Jesse, I suspect I'll hear some nice partisan reviews in no time.

So what do I think? I think it's very simple. We all know that we had two societies separate and unequal in the middle of the 20th century. We also know that 'inner city' and otherwise ghetto / barrio schools were strikingly inferior. We also know that we had white flight and a huge boom in private schools after the Brown decision. We also know that lots of people fought bussing tooth and nail, and still do. So the poor black neighborhoods are in the same places they always were, and the mainstream white suburban neighborhoods are in the same places they were. But we got some Affirmative Action and the some integration and a good 20-35% of African America got mainstreamed, which is damned incredible for a population as large as ours. But by and large the remaining 65-80% of black America is lower-middle class and lower (although within African America class is read a little differently than it is for the Joneses). So you can still say 'black' and speak about the majority of blackfolks and say educationally inferior results on standardized tests without breaking a mental sweat.

If you slave over a hot calculator for a couple years, you could probably cook up some statistics which could show an underproduction of educational results among the black demographic. It would take a bit more doing to show the cultural intentionality of aversion to educational achievement. That's probably the miracle Abagail is trying to pull off. Maybe she has.

But it strikes me as odd to think that 'stay in school' is not the message of the black Christian Church. So I wonder if dear Mrs. T. included that in her research. After all we are talking culture. I also wonder if she talked to many black educators. I'm also curious to find out what music she sees as representative of black culture. (There's a cliffhanger).

I think if Thernstrom has qualified her black American sample appropriately she might be talking about a fraction for whom anyone with common sense might guess would have educationally poor results and backgrounds. And if what she says about the culture of those people is correct, then it suggests that a better culture can be learned and once learned those people can be helped. Then she'll scratch her head and wonder why her ideas are not taken to heart by those poor people. And the blistering answers she'll hear from those who have dedicated their lives to actually teaching those poor folks will shake the walls.

Thernstrom has earned her reputation for disrespecting the best of black culture and condescending to the rest, and she has done it with the kindest language and the best intentions. One is reminded of no one so much as Dolores Umbridge of the latest Harry Potter book. Unless I miss my guess, there won't be anything striking she has to offer in her newest treatise.

You cannot look at the life of MLK and suggest that his life was defined by anything other than black culture. Yet Thernstrom and others like her claim to be the kind of colorblind people who have learned best from King's example. How is it then that she is able to completely ignore that black culture when she speaks about it now? She must be misguided into believing that the values of black culture are only those values of the underachieving blacks. If hiphop music is purchased more by white kids than by black kids, how does such a perscription not apply to whites as well? How can her analysis which says race and racism are not substantial in this not apply to white losers?

Perhaps it is not her point to improve the educational potential of black and white losers alike. So why are we even listening?

UPDATE: Dr. Spence reviews 'No Excuses'

Posted by mbowen at October 13, 2003 09:43 PM

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I would have said something productive, but from Prometheus 6
My boy Cobb wrote up something on the Thernstroms a little while back. I ain't say nothing at that point other than giving a high-five to a brother I hadn't heard from in long years, because I know Cobb handles... [Read More]

Tracked on December 3, 2003 11:25 AM


Rasberry's column of October 6th is also interesting with respect to this subject. He describes a second book on the subject -- this time focussing on black kids in affluent suburbs. Still the test gap and an apparent blase attitude about education. Author claims that the black kids acknowledge that the white kids worked harder and they chose not to.

Problem is a serious problem that I personally don't think our black institutions have taken on effectively.


Posted by: Ward Bell at October 13, 2003 10:37 PM

Thomas Sowell has a couple of things to say about the book: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/thomassowell/ts20030926.shtml

It seems that there is some questions about one of our sacred cows: the Head Start program.


Posted by: Ward Bell at October 13, 2003 10:58 PM

Sowell is making some sense, but since he didn't come with the citations on the studies, you can only take his claim so seriously.

My position is the one that Sowell left hanging in his harangue which is that if you bussed highly qualified teachers to black neighborhoods instead of black kids to white neighborhoods, the situation would improve markedly. There is clearly a management problem with regards to the distribution of excellent teachers in public school districts. This is where I'd start.

My prejudice about the middle class black parents in the Ogbu study, if that's what Thernstrom is citing, may very well be first generation college graduates themselves, as well as first generation homeowners. Wealth, in my book, is much more important than income as a guarantor of college success. There are any number of reasons for that, but I doubt the Thernstroms would refer to inherited wealth in their research because it would throw a big racial wrench into their findings.

You see if the entire point of a college education is to get into the middle class, then what difference does it make whether or not you study calculus? None. So what is the point of denegrating 'black culture' of blackfolks in the middle class, by dogging those who have no intention of getting masters degrees? I don't get it.

Posted by: Cobb at October 13, 2003 11:17 PM

First generation or not, it remains disturbing that many black kids apparently do not value education as it was drummed into many of us a generation or two back.

I might just have to break down and buy the books to really know how the cases are constructed.

(BTW, are not the Thernstroms "moderate" Republicans and closer to you ideologically?)

Posted by: Ward Bell at October 14, 2003 01:31 AM

Is it that black kids don't value education or is it that they aren't doing quite as well as their white peers? This is the question about whether you are gratuitously dissing black culture or noticing an educational problem. Furthermore, what is this 'black culture' that one generation of losers gets to be the definers of? The black culture of hiphop? Of UPN? Of the Southern Baptist Church?

The Thernstroms live in their own private colorblind Idaho, and they've royally pissed off Christopher Edley, Jr., who was Clinton's Asst US Atty for Civil Rights. It was Edley and Stephanopoulous who wrote 'Mend it, Don't End It', Clinton's policy on Affirmative Action which was one of the most reasonable and clearly articulated positions on the matter that I've ever seen. In that regard, the Thernstroms remind me of noone so much as Connerly, except they are not quite as thick.

Posted by: Cobb at October 14, 2003 07:34 AM

Ward Bell? A ghost from the past!

Posted by: Earl Dunovant at October 14, 2003 08:10 AM

Damn! Been a long time Earl! I think of you everytime I see an ad for one of those big NYC Banks. How is the world treating you?

Back to the discussion:

I think I'll back off until I have a chance to read the books referenced. It is probably better to respond to what is actually contained -- rather than speculation about what *might* be in the books.

Still wondering if they are not in the same branch of the 'publicans as you? I figure that there is the conservative branch and the moderate branch and I think that they are moderates. Where are you?

Finally, I wonder how Edley treats them on the Civil Rights Commission? Think that they break bread?

Posted by: Ward Bell at October 14, 2003 12:01 PM

Yeah I'm with the moderates as far as I can tell. For example, Senator Lugar has always had my respect and admiration. I agree with Krugman that the Republican party has been radicalized towards the right by successive waves of ideologues. I'd like the Old School to participate one of these years.

Look back to what the Republican Party was under Gerald Ford and I think what you'd find is not so bad. Reagan's enormous popularity pulled everyone to the right, but that wasn't so bad considering how he changed the tone of the nation. Every time I see an old 70s movie with feral gangs on motorcycles or think of the films like 'The Warriors' or 'Escape From NY' I reflect on what pessimistic attitudes we had before Reagan. I never particularly liked Reagan, especially for his voodoo economics, Grenada and especially Iran-Contra, but I did come to appreciate being an American under his presidency.

But my point is to look at what opportunists came to change the RNC party politics and the role of think tanks, PACs & outsized individuals like the Heritage Foundation, Sciafe, Focus on the Family, Tipper Gore's thing, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Richard Viguerie, Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich. These people have all performed their drive-bys on the Republican party, and overproduced. They're all activists but they don't do the work of government.

I think democrats have ridden on the coattails of the revolving door government without doing any similar grass roots ideological organizing. The Democrats want to rule through patronage, and the Republicans want to rule through ideology. Ideology has won, even though it has been inconsistantly populist and pandering. The Right is more consistent in message and spin. The Left has been debating itself into seven different corners.

Anyway, I'm somewhat interested to see where the T's are on integration, which is probably like my flavor. I know they butt heads on the Civil Rights Commission, which is actually deadlocked and losing money these days.

I've always been a 'fiscal conservative' but that is a distinction without a difference looking left and right. My interest is reforming the Republican party from the Old School perspective, which as defaulted while people like Newt Gingrich made changes. I refuse to believe there aren't blacks as capable as he, but they refuse to deal with politics as politics rather than as Democratic patronage. Black democratic mayors have been there and done that. It's time for the next step.

Posted by: Cobb at October 14, 2003 01:03 PM

Statistical dirt on blacks & education, thanks to Negrophile.

Posted by: Cobb at October 15, 2003 04:21 PM

Hey Cobb. Welcome to the Bear Flag League!

I don't know that I trust William Raspberry to accurately summarize what Thernstrom has said. I find him unreliable when writing about race. For example, I remember back when the Jayson Blair scandal hit, Raspberry wrote a ridiculous column (which I criticized at my web site: http://www.patterico.blogspot.com/2003_05_01_patterico_archive.html#94489057), in which he ridiculed the idea that the Blair episode had something to do with race. Raspberry pretended not to know that Howell Raines had said: "But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

So you'll forgive me if I don't trust Raspberry to give me the straight scoop on something involving race issues.

That said, you appear to have followed the Thernstroms closer than I have. But whenever I have read her I have thought she made some sense. I think I follow your point: that it is stereotyping in the extreme to argue that *all* blacks are culturally opposed to education. But I think you also seem to acknowledge that this is indeed an issue for "underachieving blacks." (Thernstrom isn't the only one to say this -- John McWhorter and Thomas Sowell agree, to give a couple of examples.) Aren't the underachievers the ones we should be most worried about?

Posted by: Patterico at October 20, 2003 01:58 PM

Better read "No Excuses." I'm most of the way through it. What the Thernstroms are saying is that programs like class size reduction, Head Start, and Title 1 have had no effect on closing the learning gap. In essence, the charge that the politicians have taken the easy way out by pouring money on the problem, and they fault the educational establishment (NEA, teachers unions, etc.) for leading everyone down the wrong path--away from measurable standards. They point out that California spent $30 billion on class-size reduction without demonstrating any benefit. In fact, by adding 25,000 teaching slots, good teachers moved out of the inner cities, were replaced by inexperienced teachers, and test scores fell. That wasn't the fault of the students, but the system. The Thernstroms argue that quality teachers are the key, but they are few. Most math teachers, for example, are education majors who have taken some classes on how to teach math. What's needed, they argue, are math majors who can be taught to teach.

Posted by: Ted at November 17, 2003 07:38 PM

So are blacks against education because they supported programs that turned out not to work? No.

Everybody knows that the experienced teachers are not going to inner city schools. If teachers were shared equally across racial boundaries, there would never have been a need for bussing. But now that it is proven by the Thernstroms that highly qualified teachers is the difference, what is she going to propose to get those teachers to the students who need them most? Nothing. She will continue to blame black parents for backing a failed political horse, and pretend that it's blackfolks fault that they didn't know what their economic and educational superiors kept for themselves.

That's ugly.

Posted by: Cobb at November 17, 2003 09:33 PM

Cobb, before you criticize the Thernstroms you should actually read the book.

Posted by: pteranodon at November 23, 2003 11:49 AM

That's like saying that before the Thernstroms criticize black families they should be one. If they are advancing a theory then one needn't read what they say to wrestle with the implications of it. They're not the only people in the world with opinions about black people and education.

As an educated black person from an educated black family, which includes a university president, I say what Thernstrom knows about blacks who value education is negligible. And if she is willing to say that African Americans who fear or reject the value of education as the owners of black culture then she's barking up the wrong tree. Why would someone who has no problem with education read the Thernstrom's book? There isn't a satisfactory answer to that question.

It's either a self-help book or a political policy prescription and I have a hard time reckoning with the Thernstroms qualifications as educational reformers.

Posted by: Cobb at November 23, 2003 05:16 PM

How can you attract quality teachers who are proficient in their subject matter when that same person can make two to three more in the private sector and be respected at the same time? Money does matter when it comes to attracting and keeping quality staff. In the end, a teacher's merit will never be rewarded monetarily. As always, with apologies to Mr. Williams, we rely on the kindness of strangers to educate our children.

Posted by: John Smith at December 1, 2003 10:14 AM

I rather agree Joe but with the reservation that is a criticism not of schools or teachers specifically but of society in general. I think that what attracts us to films like 'Finding Forrester', 'Harry Potter', 'Fame', 'Drumline' and 'The Dead Poets Society' is the understanding that educating the elite has an absolute value which goes beyond the pursuit of money. But we're not so enthusiastic as a society about educating those who aren't destined for greatness (or aspiring to).

We seem to lack a certain amount of pride and honor in our ordinary lives which would allow us to manage ourselves in such a way that takes the sting out of a lack of excellence. Ironically, isn't this what the ethos against 'acting white' connotes? What is the point of being 15% better at math if only the top 15% of math specialists get respect? This is what we are inherently suggesting - that everyone needs to be above average. It is meritocracy gone feudal.

Our public educational system is a system without a purpose. This is why it is constantly off-balance. Any day, some new theorist can upset our satisfaction with it. We don't know what it means to be 'educated'; we don't know what American Education means. Is it a means to get a job? Is it for self-esteem? Is it a patriotic duty? Is it a socio-economic stepladder? Is it a respite from religious indoctrination? Is it a requirement for democracy? Is it a multicultural melting pot? Is it the means to social equality?

Posted by: Cobb at December 1, 2003 10:45 AM

Are we reading the same book? Thernstrom's point has more to do with family dynamics, the importance of the family unit as the primary teacher and influencer in a child's life, than an indictment of Black culture or a suggestion that Blacks are congentially less able to learn than other racial groups. The statistics in the book are hard to refute, and though it may be difficult to admit, the resistance (apathy?) to wards education in general (not cognitive inabiltiy)in Black culture may play a part in the lower academic production and proficiency of minority students. Is it worth considering that embracing education may be seen as a capitulation to a system that has at its core a deep racist idealogy? In that case, rejecting the value of education is tantamount to rejecting a society that has actively condoned (enslaved?) a group pf people based solely on race. What other minority group other than Blacks has displayed a consistent and regrettable lack of academic performance?

American Indians. See a pattern?

Posted by: Johanssen at December 1, 2003 11:08 AM

We are not reading the same book. As I said before, I have little use for the educational perscriptions of folks who would ignorantly indict a culture they understand little of.

If some African-Americans are resistant to education is it a black cultural phenomenon? Only ontologically speaking. It's precisely the same mistake as suggesting that trailer-parks and Jerry Springer are Eurocentric.

I simply point to the HBCUs which have operated as long as it has been legal for African Americans to be educated.

Perhaps we should create a comprhensive list of Black Cultural Literacy.

Posted by: Cobb at December 1, 2003 11:19 AM

So a social scientist can only offer insights as long as those insights concerns a culture they "understand"? I suppose I should dispose of my loyal copy of Tocqueville.

I sense a double standard. If I were to follow your reasoning to its logical conclusion, social research and observation would be limited to the extent of being racially specific.

Whites are only allowed to talk about white culture, etc. Sounds dangerous.

It seems to me the Thernstroms are at least voicing justifiable outrage at the state of minority academic performance and suggesting some reasonable steps toward remediation of that problem. It's about time.

To strip them of their credibility despite their strong statistical foundation and good intentions because "...It's a Black thing...you wouldn't understand." mentality seems unfair, discriminatory, and unproductive.

Posted by: Johansen at December 2, 2003 11:09 AM

i AM a social scientist. in order to perform SOCIAL SCIENCE, to either test or build theory, you have to account for all of the primary theoretical independent variables.

thernstrom does not. simple racial comparisons don't get it.

hell. ward, if you're still around, just check out ogbu's "methods" section. don't read anything else EXCEPT for that section.

i cannot call this social science. it is conservative policy analysis. which is ok...but we should acknowledge it for what it is.

Posted by: lester spence at December 2, 2003 04:11 PM