The Achievement Gap: A Genetic Issue?

The Achievement Gap: A Genetic Issue?

Why Do Poor Whites Outscore Rich Blacks on the SAT?

by Jamal Mtshali

2016 proved yet another precarious year for U.S. education policy. The Supreme Court’s Fisher ruling and Donald Trump’s election (and tapping of charter school champion Betsy DeVos as his education secretary) teetered the U.S public policy playground’s seesaw. But Trump’s inauguration along with the Republican Party’s control of 31 US governorships threatens to catapult the vision of equitable American education into oblivion. Such disequilibrium manifests most glaringly in the education achievement gap, an expanse characterized by stark racial disparity. Policymakers at both ends have debated the root cause of this gap, teetering between rationales rooted in either nature or nurture.


The education achievement gap is part of a constellation of inequality—accompanied by justice, employment, and other dwarves—that has never ceased to exist in the United States. Few would seek to refute the pre-Brown v. Board existence of an achievement gap. Also, few would argue that such an achievement gap, given the gross and conspicuous inequity of the time, was either fair or exclusively attributable to flaws of the African American community. But today—in our “colorblind” society—we cross out racism in red ink, convincing ourselves that other factors are responsible for classroom disparity.


In The Black-White Achievement Gap, former U.S. secretary of education Rod Paige and former Norfolk State University dean Elaine Witty establish the case for the existence of the achievement gap and document its potential causes. They analyze “socioeconomic disparity,” “sociopathological culture,” “genetics,” “Black identity,” and “educational deprivation” as causes of the disparities between the races. They cogently touch on the strong correlation between not just race and educational achievement, but also between class and educational achievement. The persisting socioeconomic inequities of American society certainly seem to influence student achievement. Students who come from less-educated households will be both less likely to afford and less likely to value tutors, prep courses, and other achievement aids that more affluent families both value and afford. The authors seem somewhat partial toward the sociopathological argument wildly popular among conservatives, but “refute [it] as a comprehensive explanation for the Black-white achievement gap.”


Paige and Witty summarize the crux of this conservative argument, which says, “African Americans should stop whining and complaining and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Rejecting this, they mention studies demonstrating “that teacher expectations have powerful influence on student learning” while also pointing to the rare stars shooting from a dark milieu as proof that gases of pathology may be holding back a bigger bang. Paige and Witty dismiss the genetics argument (a view staunchly supported by the authors of The Bell Curve). The authors support the idea that a prevailing element of Black culture adopts an “oppositional” identity that repudiates traits of success, associating them with whiteness. Finally, they cite the “educational deprivation” argument, which holds that the education system fails to put forth sufficient efforts to target and address the problems of low-income, predominantly Black communities.


Save for the genetics argument (which both authors disagree with), the arguments that Secretary Paige and Dean Witty discuss bear critical insights and are, in some ways, legitimate. The problem is that these arguments each fail to grasp the magnitude of institutional racism in contemporary education. Several studies document the phenomenon of educational racism against America’s Black students. In terms of disciplining, grading, tracking for both AP/Honors courses and remedial and special education, and other measures, it has been found that even when white children and Black children are characteristically similar, Black children are much likelier to find themselves on the short end of the stick while their white peers are placed into situations conducive to success.


Beyond neglecting the role of these widespread personal (and therefore altogether systemic) prejudices in perpetuating the achievement gap, they fail to realize each of the factors they invoke is itself to a tremendous extent fueled by institutional racism. Socioeconomic disparity, for example, is generated in part by job discrimination, which precludes even qualified African Americans from obtaining the sort of employment better enabling them to foster home environments conducive to their children’s success.


The sociopathological culture that conservatives so often speak of is born from a system in which, among other things, Black families are deprived of constituent parents and children, both of whom the justice system deem unworthy of equitable judgment. Certainly, the fact that African Americans are in so many ways blocked from adopting the traits, identifiers, and possessions erroneously associated with whiteness contributes to the creation of this oppositional, backward, sociopathological Black identity (the subject of a later chapter). And when we observe the gross inequality of schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods versus those in whiter areas, we can look at the phenomenon of resegregation happening today as precipitously as ever and annotate our notes with a cynical “DUH.”


It is relieving that Secretary Paige and Dean Witty recognize that policy plays a role in creating the educational gap and can therefore effectuate solutions. This is more than can be said for colorblind Americans who presume that America’s school system serves as a consummate example of the efficiency of integration policies and that, incidentally, the goals set forth by Brown have been achieved. But, like many policymakers, Paige and Witty are looking in the wrong places. Each of the dilemmas contained in the arguments enumerated in The Black-White Achievement Gap is largely a product of institutional racism. It says a lot for the invisibility of institutional racism in American society that we overlook not only its role in the perpetuation of the educational achievement gap, but also its role in the perpetuation of the rationales that we establish as causes for this universal void. Until we can address institutional racism head-on both in society at large and inside America’s classrooms and school halls, the racial educational achievement gap will live on in an infamy attributed to its victims.


Though Paige and Witty dismiss its merits, the argument of a genetic role in the achievement gap is not to be overlooked. Opponents of educational equity point to the fact that poor whites outscore rich Blacks on the SAT as undeniable proof that the achievement gap’s blueprint lies in kinky strands. College Board data does indeed show that in 2008, white test takers with family incomes between $20 and $40 thousand outscored black test takers with family incomes above $200,000. The details seem damning. They are—for arguments holding race prejudice as anything but a predominant factor in engendering disparity. The trappings of elite status—posh prep or affluent public schools, tutors, and test prep courses—open doors for white students, but for all their might still fail to unfasten the Gordian knot racial bias ties around the double door handles at the detection of Black footsteps.


It has been established that Black students get suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates, often for offenses that merit mediation or even medication for white students. What may seem more surprising is that schools in affluent areas suspend and expel Black students at the highest rates. A study from Penn State University assessed over 60,000 schools in 6,000 districts and found that school districts in socioeconomically advantaged locales tended to favor policies that gave schools greater latitude over their own discipline policies. In disadvantaged areas, school boards tend to hold the power, typically setting uniform policies that are followed across schools with varying demographic constitutions.


The study found that race bias in discipline was far more prevalent in advantaged areas, in which school administrators were empowered to suspend or expel students at their own discretion. In these schools, the same offenses schools felt merited mental health treatment for white students were met with suspensions and expulsions for Black students. We have to remember that gratuitous suspensions and expulsions are the extremes of racial abuse in school discipline. If wealthy Black students’ money can’t purchase manumission from the extremes, what toils do Black students experience in grading, social experience, and, most importantly, learning? The horrors are untold yet ringing. Unlike dusky, despised dirt barred from commencement, segregated destiny matriculates into fine mortar ground from vast endowments. Studies find that whites raised in mires of poverty are much less likely to wind up incarcerated than Blacks suffering a soiled strain of “affluenza.”


Although one would never have guessed it, class-not-race liberals and their Bell Curve-thumping, human biodiversity-touting far-right adversaries have one thing in common: the expectation that money should enable African Americans to catapult ostensible barriers of racial discrimination. That very ideology—which ignores the fact that wealthy Black students are subjected to substandard treatment that not even the poorest whites experience—reinforces those barriers, scaling them ever higher with each iteration. Class correlation with Black academic performance holds mostly as an in-group phenomenon. And rightly so, as anti-Black racial bias knows no class bounds. African American students and families—and their DNA—are not at fault. Rampant biases of teachers and administrators—who don’t require copies of students’ parents’ 1040 forms to make destructive, life-altering decisions—are.


Donald Trump’s administration will do the achievement gap no favors. This should surprise no one. But the right’s penchant for falsification and its implications for the achievement gap go far beyond Trump. It also goes beyond the class backgrounds of America’s Black students. Beliefs that Black student underperformance lies either in darkness of spirit or double helix will continue to reproduce the achievement gap, and with it, poor life prospects for African Americans. Erroneous beliefs are the achievement gap’s building blocks. This edifice, in tandem with the school-to-prison pipeline, portends a divided schoolhouse that will collapse onto Black America’s destiny without the iron reinforcement of Black America’s will.


Adapted from the chapter “The Miseducation of the…African American?” in Jamal Mtshali’s Last in Line: An American Destiny Deferred, published by African American Images and available on Amazon. For more on the author, visit Follow Jamal on Twitter at @jtmtshali.

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