Closing the Racial Academic Achievement Gap
Whose Responsibility Is It?
CLOSING THE RACIAL ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT GAP
Whose Responsibility Is It?
Michael H. Creswell
It’s no secret that black students fare poorly on the academic achievement scale. Their scores on standardized achievement tests, their academic performance while in school, and their rates of enrollment and graduation lag far behind their white and Asian counterparts. Although the black-white gap on test scores began to narrow in the 1970s and 1980s, this progress has since halted and the divide has remained in place. And while colleges and universities are reticent to discuss it, black students overall perform less well academically than other racial groups. (Academics and administrators who do point this out place themselves in professional peril). Enrollment and graduation rates among blacks at institutions of higher learning are also sources of concern. Since 2000, black enrollment has declined at the country’s most selective public colleges and universities, while the six-year college and university graduation rate for black students who entered in the fall of 2010 was 49 percent. By way of comparison, the graduation rate for other groups of that same cohort was 74 percent for Asian students, followed by white students at 64 percent, students of two or more races at 60 percent, Hispanic students at 54 percent, Pacific Islander students at 51 percent, and American Indian/Alaska Native students at 39 percent. The persistence of this achievement gap is deeply frustrating and harmful to our society. But how can we close the gap and whose responsibility is it to do so?
To many college and university officials, the reality and cause of this enduring, multi-faceted problem are self-evident. Despite fear of speaking openly about it, almost no one disputes that a racial academic achievement gap exists; the evidence is clear. The reason for the gap also enjoys a rough consensus: it is racism, pure and simple. Taking it a further step, colleges and universities have decided that they know how to close the achievement gap and that they should assume the primary role in doing so. Although these institutions rarely state it this baldly, it is nonetheless the inescapable conclusion one draws from their words and actions.
To this end, many selective colleges and universities have sprung into action by changing their admissions standards in ways to ensure there will be a representative number of black students on campus. One initiative gaining ground on the nation’s campuses is to no longer require applicants to take a standardized test—either the SAT, ACT, or GRE—on which black students disproportionately score low. Colleges and universities are also altering their curricula in ways designed to attract more black students and to help them do better in the classroom. Efforts along these lines include eliminating or relaxing academic requirements that some educators claim are racist toward black people.
Princeton University, for example, has eliminated the requirement for Classics majors to take Greek and Latin. There is even talk at some schools of jettisoning Classics altogether because the field is deemed to be a “product and accomplice of white supremacy.” Even the STEMM fields are not exempt from this trend, as they too are abolishing, lowering, or altering the traditional expectations for their majors in order to increase the number of black students.
Colleges and universities are also striving to make the campus experience more inviting and less stressful for black students in the hope that this more welcoming environment will translate into greater numbers and heightened academic performance. Giving official sanction to racial affinity spaces as well as removing campus symbols and renaming buildings that are deemed to have racially problematic histories, are now the new normal at many colleges and universities.
However these efforts are pitched or justified, they clearly demonstrate academia’s unwillingness to hold black students primarily responsible for their own academic uplift. Largely by design, colleges and universities have taken it upon themselves to be the main agents for this task of improved black academic achievement. They are, at least in their own minds, today’s new deliverers.
Yet, despite the increasing popularity of the belief that colleges and universities know how to ensure black academic parity and should be the primary agents for achieving it, this is a profoundly misguided idea. It is premised on the assumption that colleges and universities have figured out how to close the gap by making what amount to only cosmetic changes to the campus environment. However, colleges and universities don’t actually know how to close the gap, or else they would have done so long ago. And while the changes they have made might tamp down public criticism, most of these changes will do nothing to close this gap.
Lowering academic expectations for black people is one new change that goes beyond the cosmetic, and it is a regressive one. It fosters the notion that blacks are intellectually inferior to other groups and simply can’t cut it when it comes to academics. This practice sends precisely the wrong message. Black students have been bombarded throughout their lives with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that they should not be expected to do as well in school as white and Asian kids. This pernicious idea needs to be combatted. What’s worse, this condescending attitude directed toward blacks can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you routinely expect poor academic achievement, don’t be surprised when that’s what you get. Moreover, lowering enrollment standards in order to admit more black students whose academic skills and preparation are measurably inferior to those of other admittees inevitably consigns many of them to the lower spectrum of the academic performance scale. This cruel fate will surely undermine their self-respect.
Another problem is that taking on the role of protector exceeds the proper mission of the university. The core traditional function of the university is the impartial preservation, creation, and propagation of knowledge through teaching and scholarship. The dissemination of this knowledge is intended to further the development of the mind and character of all those who enter the gates of the academy. This undertaking is meant to prepare students to better understand themselves and to navigate the vicissitudes of life beyond the groves of academe.
However, colleges and universities must recognize what they can, cannot, and should not do, and act accordingly. When colleges and universities remain resolutely faithful to their traditional mission, it is ultimately the student who must put forth the effort needed to benefit from this education. Indeed, the way to achieve academic success is through self-improvement. Ceding to others responsibility for one’s own future is a reckless strategy. It breeds a sense of helplessness and nourishes the self-defeating ideology of victimhood.
This is not to say that colleges and universities have no role to play in narrowing the racial achievement gap. In fact, I have publicly urged that college and university history departments make changes to ensure that black and other minority students feel welcome and are treated fairly. I have also recommended that history departments engage in outreach to underrepresented communities and provide them with competent mentoring. But while making such changes would be a welcome step toward improving the campus climate, these efforts alone will not translate into significant progress in closing the racial achievement gap, even assuming good will, adequate funding, and everything going according to plan. Other factors, which I outline below, lie beyond the campus walls and are much more important. The best we can hope for by adopting strategies for outreach is a very modest step toward achieving black academic parity.
What, then, is to be done? How can we move beyond the undesirable status quo? In fact, the most effective strategies for closing the achievement gap are straightforward. Moreover, these strategies must be implemented by black people themselves. I enumerate them below.
First, black people themselves need to accord much greater respect than most of them do at present to black intellectual achievement. This means respecting those uncool nerds and bookworms who sit in the front row, dutifully take notes, ask questions, frequent the library, and use big words. Disparaging these bookish souls with the epithet of “acting white” or some other schoolyard insult sends the ominous message that seriously pursuing intellectual endeavors is akin to fraternal treachery and cause for being drummed out of the race. That needs to stop.
Second, blacks must continue to fight racism, but they must never ever let it become an excuse for not excelling academically. Obsessing about low-level racism is a waste of time and energy that is better directed elsewhere. Blacks should instead take it as a personal challenge to show that the doubters, name callers, and naysayers are wrong. This means devising ways to overcome obstacles. Overt racism, which is considerably on the wane, must be fought tooth and nail. However, unconscious or inadvertent racism, which remains an annoying social reality, ought never to be viewed as an unbreachable roadblock to reaching the intellectual heights. The focus must be on getting ahead, not getting even.
Third, black students should branch out of the academic comfort zones of African American Studies, American History, Education, and Psychology, and instead seek to stretch themselves intellectually. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the aforementioned fields—they offer much of value when taught properly—they simply do not require the long hours and hard-to-master technical skills needed to excel in some other fields. Having more black students major in the STEMM fields, Architecture, Economics, or foreign languages—especially difficult languages such as Arabic and Mandarin—would be a welcome change. Yes, these fields are difficult to master; yet they are not only intellectually rewarding, but because so few blacks major in them, those who do will undoubtedly find many professional doors open to them. Indeed, successful groups disproportionately enroll in the more challenging fields of STEMM because they offer a fast-track to success.
This does not mean, however, that blacks should choose a college major simply because of its reputed difficulty. Though choosing one of the hardest college majors will impress many people, absent the necessary academic preparation, skill, and passion for the field, the student is unlikely to succeed or be truly fulfilled. Select a field for which you have both the skills and the desire, and which offers you the best chance of landing a good job upon graduation. Intellectual openness, genuine curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge must be blacks’ philosophical touchstones. That is the way forward.
Fourth, blacks must reject outright being subjected to lowered expectations. Doubts about the ability of blacks to meet high standards are widespread, even if largely unspoken. Ironically, this belief is shared by both racists and many non-blacks of good will. Racists believe this because they have antipathy toward blacks; many white do-gooders believe it because, “Well, blacks are not quite mature and will need our help for the foreseeable future.” Even coming from those who mean well, these low expectations exact a costly toll. They subtly eat away at blacks’ self-confidence, which in turn erodes black performance and insidiously perpetuates the negative suspicions that others have about blacks. Blacks must firmly believe in and invest in their own ability to succeed. They should set high intellectual expectations for themselves even when others do not.
Fifth, blacks must avoid engaging in self-defeating behaviors. There are already many obstacles placed in the way of black educational progress, so it’s important not to erect obstacles of your own making. But when it comes to education, too many blacks have done just that: blocked their own path to success.
Despite what college and university administrators may say, the main locus for academic achievement is the home, which is where the journey to academic success begins. A school’s performance is largely dependent upon family performance. Its quality reflects the qualities of the families from which its students come. High achieving students are the foundation of high achieving schools. And of the many factors that govern a student’s ability to succeed at school, five stand out: hours spent watching television, days absent from school, pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading matter in the home, and the presence of two parents in the home. How do black families fare on these metrics?
We begin with blacks’ media consumption habits: they far outpace all other groups when it comes to traditional TV consumption, in addition to which they spend considerable time ingesting the fare offered on other platforms and devices. Leading the pack in this category is indeed a self-inflicted wound, because it entails a massive opportunity cost.
Another indicator of academic success is the number of pages read for homework. But if you are busy watching television, you are not busy reading. This dynamic relates to another important factor: the quantity and quality of reading matter in the home. Although the quality of reading matter is often a matter of taste, the raw numbers are less open to dispute. While blacks outpace Hispanics in this area, they trail whites in the sheer quantity of reading done. While reading is critically important, it also matters what is read. Reading widely is more beneficial than confining oneself to a single area. Blacks should therefore avoid cultural isolation by, first, reading about other groups and cultures. Although there is nothing wrong with black parents wanting to teach their children about black culture, history, and traditions, adopting this as an exclusive intellectual diet renders it harder to enter and succeed in most colleges and universities. Success in these venues rests on being conversant with cultures, histories, and traditions of other groups in society. If you don’t already speak those other languages, you could be denied entry; and if you do gain entry to these colleges and universities, it will be difficult to learn the languages in which other groups are already fluent. And if you manage to graduate, you will be entering the white-collar knowledge economy a step or more behind your more cosmopolitan peers. Coming back from behind is never easy.
Spotty school attendance constitutes yet another unforced error. Although they are not the leaders in this dubious category, black students are much more likely to be truant than white students. Playing hooky opens the door to a host of bad things. Not being in class means that you don’t learn that day’s lesson. Too many missed days could mean failing the course or at the very least not fully benefitting from the teacher’s efforts. Truants are also probably not spending their unsanctioned off days at the local public library or city museum Instead, there is a chance some of them are engaged in activities their parents had warned them against. And though we must be mindful of black students who miss schooldays for reasons beyond their control, they are also harmed by not being in class. Bottom line: showing up is half the battle.
Lastly, there is a positive correlation between academic achievement and the presence of two parents in the home. Sadly, too many black students come from homes in which only one parent is present. Black women are two times as likely as white women never to marry and three times as likely never to live with an intimate partner. This decline in marriage among blacks extends across the socio-economic spectrum to include the upper and middle classes. Pointing this out is not intended to shade or disrespect single parents; there are a multitude of reasons behind this phenomenon, and many single parents do a wonderful job rearing their children. Generally speaking, however, there is a mountain of evidence indicating that two-parent households generally produce children who are better prepared to succeed academically than one-parent households. I don’t recommend that single parents jump the broom with the first cute smile flashed at them. I do recommend that young people defer parenthood until they are ready, and that single parents more actively consider acquiring a full-time mate so that two people can take an active role in the intellectual lives of the children. This of course rules out acquired mates who display little or no interest in his or her stepchildren, or in some cases the wrong kind of interest entirely.
My final recommendation takes us full circle: black people should not and cannot rely on others for their academic success. Blacks compose only 13 percent of the U.S. population, so they are in a weak position to make continued and escalating demands; the numbers simply aren’t there. And whatever moral leverage blacks currently hold on American society will not last forever. Despite the sympathy and concomitant elevation of civil rights stemming from the murder of George Floyd, the moment will certainly pass. In fact, we have already begun to see a backlash. Whites will still hold disproportionate economic and political influence for a long time to come. Many of them will also tire of being told they are the sole authors of black America’s woes. They will wonder, as surely many do behind closed doors, “When are black people going to get their act together? Haven’t we already done enough?” Black people must accept that this day is coming, so they need to wean themselves from the special dispensation given to them by others.
Although these recommendations no doubt seem like common sense to groups that have already achieved widespread academic success, when it comes to blacks, the recommendations suddenly become hot-button issues capable of inflaming certain segments of academia and the general public. Even though college and university administrators and faculty want blacks to do well in school, this desire is conditioned upon doing it a certain way. Unfortunately, that way is the easy way: avoiding difficult conversations, lowering academic standards, engaging in wishful thinking, caving into student demands, and then taking credit for being so tolerant and open-minded. It is a play that has been run repeatedly, despite never reaching the goal that colleges and universities supposedly seek: closing the achievement gap.
Make no mistake, racism is no Loch Ness Monster. Unlike Nessie, racism truly exists and racists still inhabit the Earth. This has always been the case and, sadly, will continue to be the case as long as there are different races and as long as human beings fall short of perfection. But let us face facts: racism today is much less powerful than it was even two generations ago. It is certainly not an anchor that can keep down a race of people who place great value on education for its own sake, who relish the opportunity to meet intellectual challenges, who insist on being held to high standards, who refuse to make excuses, and who celebrate academic high achievers to the same degree—if not more—than they do celebrities. A people who embody these principles will do much more to close the racial achievement gap than any plans adopted by colleges and universities. The true change must come from black society itself. There is no other way to achieve tangible progress.
Michael H. Creswell is an Associate Professor of history at Florida State University, the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe, and an executive editor at History: Reviews of New Books. A specialist on the Cold War, Creswell is currently writing a book that examines the increasing difficulties Americans have in communicating in socially and politically productive ways.
Wonderful essay. Should be required reading everywhere!
A very interesting read. I wonder if you have considered the difference in racial attainment gaps between various countries? For example the recent UK Commission on Racial Equality (2021) had the interesting statistic that the US Black attainment gap was 8 x greater than the UK gap.
As the report notes, there are considerable differences between the two countries but nevertheless, it is a statistically significant gap.
The head of the Commission was Tony Sewell who founded the UK Generating Genius charity which has been focussed for the last 15 years on increasing Black and other people from disadvantaged backgrounds in STEM. It has been reasonably successful. Could the lessons learned from such a charity be put to good use in the US ? https://generatinggenius.org.uk/
Dr. Sewell is controversial now in the UK because of the report and his practical approach to the problem, but he does seem to be getting results.