A few days after the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, an extraordinary panel met in New York City to discuss the urgent problem still posed by the racial gap in educational achievement.
The panel was part of an event many would be quick to identify as a "conservative" venue—a conference of the National Organization of Scholars, an 11-year-old group formed in opposition to "political correctness" in academia. The same conference offered a workshop on new legal strategies to combat race-based preferences in college admissions. Many, perhaps most, of those in attendance would have probably described themselves as right of center politically. Yet racial inequality in education was clearly seen as a matter of grave concern.
Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and a commissioner on the US Commission on Civil Rights, presented the alarming data. (She and her husband Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University and also a speaker on the panel, are co-authors of the 2003 book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.) On the National Assessment for Educational Progress test, the typical black or Hispanic student at age 17 scores below at least 80 percent of white students. "On average, these non-Asian minority students are four years behind those who are white and Asian," said Thernstrom. "They are finishing high school with a junior high education."
What's more, Thernstrom added, differences in socioeconomic status account for only about a third of this gap. The rest is due to a variety of cultural factors—some of which can be overcome by a concerted effort to provide better schooling. Thernstrom cited exceptional inner-city charter schools that seek not only to educate children in a safe, orderly environment but also, unabashedly, to impart "middle-class" cultural values such as discipline and responsibility.
Some say that to blame racial disparities in education on social and cultural ills within the black community amounts to "victim-blaming." No one denies these ills are rooted in a shameful legacy of oppression. But what are the implications of this today? Another speaker, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, addressed this issue in a striking parable. Suppose, she said, that a person is badly injured in a car accident through no fault of his own, and has to undergo rehabilitative therapy in order to walk again. The culprit can be forced to pay damages—but without arduous effort on the part of the victim, the therapy will not work.
White panelists talking to a mostly white audience about the need for the black community to fix its problems risk coming across as offensively patronizing. But the message of responsibility was most powerfully articulated by a black speaker, Vanderbilt University law professor Carol Swain.
Swain identified a number of cultural factors that may hold black students back, including "dysfunctional abusive homes," "lack of parental involvement in the schools," and "negative peer pressure about learning and about high achievement as evidence of one's 'acting white.'" Better schools may provide some solutions, Swain said, but there must also be cultural change, and "middle-class minorities must take a leadership role in this area." On an even more controversial note, Swain identified affirmative action as currently practiced by universities—lower admissions standards for blacks and Hispanics—as part of the problem. These policies, she said, have "created a negative incentive structure for African-Americans who have either internalized societal messages about inferiority or have chosen an easier path of not exerting themselves too vigorously" since they don't have to meet higher standards.
Swain's message was made all the more powerful by her personal story as one of 12 children in a poor rural home in Virginia. None of her siblings finished high school. "I was by no means the smartest," said Swain. "By the grace of God, I was the one who managed to escape."
In a later e-mail exchange, I asked Swain if she was concerned about being used by conservatives who have their own agenda. "Do liberal blacks worry about being tokens for the status quo?" she replied. "I doubt it. I call things the way I see them."
Indeed, "conservative" may be a misnomer for the panel's agenda. Abigail Thernstrom noted that she and her husband found themselves radicalized by working on their book. Without a "radical overhaul of American education," she said, too many black and Hispanic young people will find the doors of opportunity closed, and "ancient inequalities" will persist. "Is that acceptable? No decent American will say yes."