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Home > Teaching and Curriculum > Achievement Gap - Challenging the Notion of "Oppositional Culture"

Achievement Gap - Challenging the Notion of "Oppositional Culture"
HGSE Professor John Diamond

HGSE assistant professor John Diamond – a principal contributor to the Harvard Achievement Gap Initiative – is a sociologist of education who focuses on how race, ethnicity, and social class intersect with school leadership, practices, and policies to shape the educational opportunities and outcomes of children. This article combines an interview with highlights from Diamond's recent paper, "Are We Barking Up the Wrong Tree? Rethinking Oppositional Culture Explanations for the Black/White Achievement Gap."

In his paper Diamond writes, ‘Black students face a racialized educational terrain that creates material and symbolic disadvantages for them. This, I argue, has been overshadowed by our continuing search for oppositional culture.’

John Diamond wants to get young African-Americans out from under "the burden of 'acting white.'" In a paper he presented at a Harvard conference on the achievement gap, Diamond challenges the notion that "oppositional culture" – an alleged pattern of resistance to striving for excellence in education – is a major factor in holding black young blacks.

This concept has been part of the conventional wisdom on black achievement for 20 years. The common interpretation of the thesis is that African-Americans hold themselves back in school for fear of being accused of "acting white" should they excel.

The trouble with this thesis, Diamond explains, is that there isn't much evidence for it. He wants to see educators refocus their attention on what, in his view, really matters: the structural and institutional explanations for the achievement gap, such as the disparities in wealth and school-based educational opportunities between blacks and whites.

"It's critical to focus on the structural inequalities, because we can't find strong evidence for the oppositional culture among African-Americans," he says.

In his paper Diamond writes, "Black students face a racialized educational terrain that creates material and symbolic disadvantages for them. This, I argue, has been overshadowed by our continuing search for oppositional culture."

Many of those structural inequalities are economic: Diamond notes that it's common for analysts to regard a black family and a white family each with the same income as "economically similar," without taking into account disparities of net worth. And net worth, he maintains, is a "more accurate measure" of economic status.

Diamond doesn't claim to be the only voice calling for a challenge to the idea of "oppositional culture." As his paper states, "An increasingly well established body of survey, interview, and observational research challenges the widely held belief that Black students are more oppositional toward education than whites.... Survey research shows that Black students want to attend college at the same rate, spend about the same amount of time on homework, and have similar rates of absenteeism when compared to whites of the same social class."

The paper that put the "oppositional culture" argument on the radar screen of the national educational establishment was a 1986 study by anthropologists Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, entitled "Black Students' School Success: Coping with the 'Burden of Acting White.'" 1

It was a single article, based on a study of only eight students, but it presented a new thesis that was immediately taken seriously as an explanation for a vexing, long-standing social problem.

As Diamond explains it in his paper, the authors argued that the high school students they studied "dealt with a 'burden of acting white' because their high achievement was ridiculed by their African American peers as what the authors called 'white' behavior."

An increasingly well established body of survey, interview, and observational research challenges the widely held belief that Black students are more oppositional toward education than whites...

Diamond notes that the concept of "the burden of acting white" has become part of the national political discourse. During the 2004 election campaign, for example, current Senator Barack Obama of Illinois (while not necessarily endorsing the thesis) argued for the need to "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Other prominent African-Americans are promoting the importance of various aspects of "oppositional culture," including Juan Williams, Bill Cosby, and John McWhorter, Diamond observes.

Moreover, he says, "This 'acting white' argument really seems to be a powerful influence on how people talk about achievement inside schools."

Diamond concedes that there is a certain teenage anti-intellectualism among young blacks, as there is among whites – a phenomenon that "any of us would recognize from our own school experience," he adds with a bit of a chuckle.

And there is evidence that black students in integrated schools do seem to pay a "popularity penalty" if their grade-point average exceeds 3.5. Even within an ostensibly integrated school, some "spaces" within it – the advanced-placement math class, for instance – are in fact segregated, and this seems to have consequences for social interaction.

But his paper cites research showing that "African American students are more likely than whites to report that their friends think it is 'very important' to study hard and get good grades."

Diamond's paper is a call to focus on the structural and institutional inequalities that continue to cause achievement gaps, even in the kind of communities he describes as "liberal, progressive suburbia," which may appear to be better integrated than they are.

In the interview, he cites parental involvement at the local PTA, for instance: If both parents in an African-American family are having to work full time to provide a reasonable standard of living for their children, they just won't have the same opportunity to be present at every meeting in the same way as a white family with a stay-at-home parent or one who at least has flexibility in his or her work schedule.

"Schools need to be more proactive about providing information to those folks, for instance...they need to figure out ways to make the school feel more welcoming and accessible."

The complete text of John Diamond's paper is available on the Harvard University Achievement Gap Initiative web site.

1The Urban Review, 18(3): 176-206.

By Ruth Walker

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College