Election Section

Jefferson Elementary School, and Other Excuses for the Achievement Gap By MICHAEL LARRICK

Tuesday April 19, 2005

Black Americans and their leaders would be far better served if they would address the real problems in black education instead of the superficial and misleading issue of the name of a school. The name of a school has absolutely nothing to do with academic achievement. The real reasons for the “achievement gap” are uncomfortable for many to discuss so the portrayal of blacks as perennial victims is used to absolve them from having to accept responsibility for their own actions and bad choices. Racism is not dead, but as racism recedes as a serious obstacle to black advancement, most black American leaders continue the self destructive ideology of victimhood. They treat victim hood not as a problem to be solved but as an identity to be nurtured. Victimhoo d is seductive because there is an ironic and addictive contentment in being the underdog. However it inherently gives failure, lack of effort and even criminality a tacit stamp of approval. Many young blacks, born decades after the heyday of the civil ri ghts movement, and who have few if any obstacles to success, see victim hood as the defining element of their existence. 

The Berkeley schools do little to dissuade this attitude. The history and English departments would have you thinking that nothing ha s changed since Selma in 1965. Not challenging students and accepting sub-standard work does not make up for past injustices, but only exacerbates the problem. Mr. Hourula, the Willard Middle School History teacher, wrote a letter to the editor in the Dai ly Planet exhalting the hard working, underpaid and above all, altruistic teachers. I attended a “History Fair” sponsored by Mr. Hourula. It was a big event to showcase the students knowledge and organizational skills. What it really showcased was the dep ths to which academic standards have sunk. The majority of the projects were on the history of hip-hop, hair weaves, and NBA basketball teams. I am not making this up! The recent Harvard University report on the sorry condition of California’s schools ref lect this style of “education.” Harvard also commented on the lack of discipline at home which is allowed to continue in the schools with impunity. I will remind all you altruistic teachers that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

All discuss ions of the “achievement gap” issue assume that “black” means “poor.” From there it becomes natural to attribute the lag of black performance to inequities in school resources, teacher’s racist bias and chaotic home lives. We get this message steadily and without variation. Yet the very factors considered to preordain black students to mediocrity do not thwart a great many minority groups from scholarly achievement. (San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 2004) “Urban school breaks the mold, Oakland immigrant community prioritizes education-and won’t let income, language barriers hold kids back” Ninety percent of the students are Chinese, qualify for the free lunch, and half are learning English. “Despite language and income barriers used by other schools to explain away lousy academic performance scores ...they are fifth highest in the district”  

Black anthropologist and author Dr. John Ogbu has studied and written about education and raises some uncomfortable questions about race, opportunity and responsib ility. He found that the very same problems plagued both Oakland and the affluent black suburb of Cleveland, Shaker Heights Ohio. Black students were absent more often, did less homework, watched more television and had less involved parents. They did not value education and in fact, if a black student were doing well in school he was chastised by his peers. If you live up to your academic potential you are accused of acting white. He found that the students own attitudes hindered their academic achieveme nt.  

Black UC Berkeley professor and author John McWhorter describes the black attitude toward education as “anti-Intellectualism” and says it stems from the victim mentality. It is a defeatist message.” Is the existence of racism in society somehow able to obliterate intellectual abilities?” Education is seen as running counter to an “authentic” black identity. Add to this rap music’s continuous sound track of anti-social behavior which romanticizes the ghetto life and you have a problem. According to t he popular rap group N.W.A. “Life ain’t nothin but bitches and money.” A great message for our youth. Slavery was and is a horror. It was an accepted human condition in just about every society for most of recorded history. It is not particular to any one group being either slave or slave owners. In New Orleans in 1860 there were 10,689 free negroes. According to Duke University professor and the nations leading African American historian John Hope Franklin over 3,000 free negroes owned slaves or 28 perce nt of the free negroes in that city were slave owners themselves. Western civilization first condemned and then outlawed slavery. Slavery still exists as the accepted norm in Africa, Asia, and India.  

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and now, in western civ ilization, it is considered unthinkable to do such a thing. Today many of us eat meat. The animals which we eat are usually kept in horrific conditions until they are slaughtered. If they do roam free it is to the detriment of our environment on destroyed forest lands. Food fed to cattle could feed the worlds poor. There is very little good to said about the suffering lives and brutal deaths of animals to feed humans. Will this be seen as a form of slavery and murder in the near future and will we all be condemned? Many women decide to murder the babies inside their wombs today. Will society see abortion as a despicable act in the future? Will any women who had an abortion be denied a public building or park to be named after them? 

We are in a very large part the products of our time. The great ones change things for the better and others just accept the present conditions or even languish in the past. The black community needs to look to the future and make some changes in their approach to education an d it goes far beyond the name of a school. Time is running out on the ability to play the victim card. Doing something to change incredible school drop out rate and the number of single mothers is what should be a priority or you may as well just change the name of the school to San Quentin Prep. 


Michael Larrick is a Berkeley resident.??