A Review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part V

Part I – Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Part II – Are Jews Generic?
Part III – The Real History of Slavery
Part IV – Germans and History
Part V – Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies
Part VI – History versus Visions

“Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies”

Sowell’s essay “Black Education” challenges the “prevailing educational dogma [that] you simply cannot expect children who are not middle class to do well on standardized tests, for all sorts of sociological and psychological reasons” (p. 203). To dispute this claim, Sowell calls attention to a number of impressively high-performing schools, both historic examples like Dunbar High in Washington D.C. and contemporary ones like Bennet-Kew Elementary in Inglewood, CA.

Dunbar High was an all-black high school in Washington, D.C. that produced tremendously successfully alumni. Of four public high schools in Washington, D.C., three of which were white, Dunbar students placed #2 in standardized test scores in 1899. Reflect that this achievement was registered less than forty years after the abolition of slavery. In the early and mid-20th century, it had “less absenteeism and less tardiness than the local white high schools” (p. 206). By 1970, it had produced more Black PhDs than any other high school in the country (p. 208) and its graduates included the first black man to graduate from Annapolis, the first black female PhD from an American institution, the first black full professor, the first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member, and on and on (p. 208).

Sowell rejects the idea that Dunbar achieved these results by educating only the “black elite,” noting that the parents of the 1892-93 class included “51 laborers, 25 messengers, 12 janitors, and only one doctor” (p. 204). Moreover, he observes that “For many years, there was only one academic high school for blacks in the District of Columbia and, as late as 1948, one-third of all black youngsters attending high school in Washington attended Dunbar High School. ‘If we took only the children of doctors and lawyers,’ a former Dunbar principal asked, ‘how could we have had 1400 black students at one time?'” (p. 206).

A more recent example is furnished by Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta, which is “99% black with 80 percent of its students coming from low-income families” (p. 218). Yet its students have scored “at the 74th percentile on reading tests and at the 83rd percentile on math tests. Principal Alfonso L. Jessie is so old-fashioned that he will not tolerate misbehavior: … ‘if student misbehave in school, they will be personally escorted to the parents’ place of work.'” (p. 219).

After listing a number of such high-performing, low income, predominantly minority schools, Sowell concludes “The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret. Work seems to be the only four-letter word that cannot be used in public today” (p. 220).

Sowell believes that a number of educational myths stultify Black educational progress. First, he rejects the idea that “racially separate schools cannot achieve quality education…the long, bitterly divisive, and ultimately futile campaign of busing students far from home for the sake of racial ‘balance’ is hard to understand without the underlying assumption that black students need to be with white students in order to learn. Thus ‘the white man’s burden’ doctrine of nineteenth-century imperialism became in effect the white child’s burden doctrine of twentieth-century education” (p. 222). He likewise attacks calls for “diversity”: the idea that “all students learn more in an environment where there are children from other racial, cultural, or other social backgrounds… [is] more politically palatable than the separate-is-inferior doctrine, this diversity rationale has had [no] empirical evidence to support it” (p. 222).

Second, he rejects the idea that “black children require a separate, racially oriented or ‘Afrocentric’ education” or the need for “racial ‘role models’ for inspiration and a ‘critical mass’ of black students, in order for these students to feel socially comfortable enough to do their best.” Despite the popularity of these ideas, “One of the few attempts to examine the facts, a study titled Increasing Faculty Diversity, found no empirical evidence to support the belief that same-sex, same-ethnicity role models are any more effective than white male role models at the college level” (p. 222-223). Indeed, “An empirical study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that ‘a higher percentage of Black schoolmates has a strong adverse effect on achievements of Blacks and, moreover, that the effects are highly concentrated in the upper half of the ability distribution” (p. 223-224).

Sowell’s most politically incorrect claim is that black educational disparities cannot and should not be blamed on racism. While Blacks are disproportionately poor, Sowell notes that “Asian American students from low-income families score higher on the SAT than black student from upper-income families… As for the racism of whites as an explanation for black educational deficiencies, there are enough black-run schools, colleges and universities where there would be dramatically better results than in white-run institutions, if racism were the explanation. But no such dramatic differences are visible” (p. 227). Instead, he believes that Blacks are “self-handicapped by the counterproductive attitudes towards education found even in middle class black communities” (p. 227).

Though Sowell’s claims might strike us as jarring today, they were shared by two of the most renowned Black activists of the late 19th century: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois lamented that even if white racism were to vanish overnight, “‘the mass [of blacks] would remain as they are’ until the younger generation began to ‘try harder’ as the race ‘lost the omnipresent excuse for failure: prejudice’. DuBois saw many of the blacks as sunk into ‘listless indifference, or shiftlessness, or reckless bravado'” (p. 232).

Since I haven’t studied education, I can’t comment on the accuracy of Sowell’s empirical claims. They may be entirely correct, or entirely false, or a mixture of the two. However, I will make two comments.

First, I don’t think Sowell’s anecdotal examples of high-performing black schools necessarily support his conclusion that popular educational models are false or that racism plays little role in racial educational disparities. From a purely statistical perspective, there will always be outliers. If I were to survey the diets of tens of thousands of professional athletes, I could almost certainly find a handful who regularly ate junk food. It wouldn’t follow that popular guidelines about healthy eating are false or that diet plays little role in health disparities.

Second, even if you vehemently reject Sowell’s conclusion, you should welcome his contrarian critiques and his insistence that we must allow empirical evidence to challenge our ideological assumptions. What struck me most as I read this chapter was how Sowell’s claims might not merely be provoke controversy among progressives, but anger. Yet if we’re concerned about which policies will help Black students rather than harm them, we dare not let one narrative become unquestioned and unchallengeable dogma. If some minority-run schools are making progress despite rejecting this narrative and if black educators are insisting that this narrative is holding students back, it’s at least worth considering whether they’re correct. Sowell concludes: “Whites walk on eggshells for fear of being called racist, while many blacks are preoccupied with protecting the image of black students, rather than protecting their future by telling the blunt truth. It is understandable that some people are concerned about image, about what in private life might be expressed as: ‘What will the neighbors think?’ But, when your children are dying, you don’t worry about what the neighbors think” (p. 245). In other words, if our true priority is helping students, we’ll prioritize truth over popularity.

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Next: “History versus Visions”

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