Achievement gap or opportunity gap?

Julianne Malveaux | 5/2/2013, 12:05 p.m.

African American students achieve at a different level than White students. Test scores are lower, as are high school and college completion rates, and the number of African Americans attending four-year institutions is falling. The rate of African American suspensions and expulsions from K-12 schools is higher than that of other groups. By almost any metric, there are gaps between African American students and White or Asian students (Latinos achieve at about the same rate as African Americans).

Why does this happen? The late sociologist John Ogbu hypothesized that the gap was the result of young African Americans thinking that learning was "acting White." His theory was batted around as if it were fact, even when Duke economist William Darity refuted it.

Why? Because it fits somebody's stereotype to describe African American youngsters as culturally alienated from the mainstream, so much that they eschew the very institution that could be a bridge for them into the middle class.

Given the history of African Americans and education, it is hard to swallow these stereotypes. Several states had laws on the books to prevent African Americans from learning to read and write in the pre-Civil War period. Both White and Black people risked flogging, cash fines and other penalties for "teaching a slave to read." Millions of African Americans sacrificed for the right to be literate, and ensured that their children would also have opportunities by baking cakes, frying chicken, and raising a few dollars to get to college by whatever means necessary. At the beginning of the 20th century, the only colleges open to African Americans were historically Black colleges and universities, and we went despite the obstacles. Our presence rejected the notion that learning was "acting White." In fact, we were acting learned and literate.

Still, it is in the interest of some to continue that stereotype. You've heard that adage that if you don't want an African American to know something, just hide it in a book. That kind of ignorance is the very reason that African American people were able, during the Civil War, to spy on Confederates who thought they were only illiterate enslaved people. That is why Mary Ellen Pleasant was able to eavesdrop on conversations on stock and turn them into wealth.

Consequently, those who write about the achievement gap ought not underestimate African Americans.

Where does the achievement gap come from then? It comes from the opportunity gap. The average African American household earns $31,000 a year, compared to $51,000 for Whites; $51,000 can buy a lot more opportunity than $31,000 can. If income determines housing clusters, neighborhoods with a $51,000 mean income have better schools and more involved parents than the $31,000 neighborhood does.

Closing income gaps closes opportunity gaps, according to a Ford Foundation-sponsored book written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Ed.D., an Obama education adviser. She says poverty and segregation means that some students attend schools that have fewer resources than others. Indeed, inner city high schools are less likely to offer advanced placement (AP) or international baccalaureate (IB) classes. Sometimes when these courses are available in suburban high schools, African American students are discouraged from taking them.