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'Racism' claim lets kids down

by Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of The Atlanta Constitution, published July 27, 2003.

In the summer before my eighth-grade year, my mother handed me a vocabulary book and announced that I would spend that summer learning new words. I still had a little unscheduled time for "Gilligan's Island" and sandlot softball, but the book was thick and the words demanding. I studied a lot.

The next summer my mother handed me a reading list. "This is the list of books that all college-bound students should have completed by the time they finish high school," she announced. Once again, my free hours were crimped, but at least the reading list was a four-year project.

Summer, it turns out, is a good time to reinforce academic achievement, even if children are not attending school or academic camps. All it takes is time and attention -- and the understanding that your children's education is too important to be left to schoolteachers.

While most middle-class parents are conscientious about their children's educations, black middle-class students are underachievers compared with their white and Asian classmates. They make lower grades; they take fewer advanced placement classes; their standardized test scores are lower.

No doubt, the legacy of racism still hampers the achievement of black youngsters. But researcher John Ogbu has also found a disturbing culture among black students that discourages scholarship. That must change.

While the Supreme Court recently supported affirmative action in college admissions, its ruling, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, also urged that time limits be placed on those policies. "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary," she wrote.

Many educators have said that the only way for black and Latino students to meet that goal is for public schools to work harder to close the achievement gap. Indeed, there is much work for schools to do.

Many studies have shown that black students are more readily sent to special education classes, more often charged with disciplinary infractions and less likely to be encouraged to take demanding classes. Public schools have an obligation to re-examine the prejudices that are commonplace in the classroom.

But, let's face it, parents are the most important factor in any child's education. Attentive parents can compensate for classroom neglect. By contrast, parents who don't demand hard work from their children do as much harm as incompetent or inattentive teachers.

Invited to Shaker Heights, Ohio, by middle-class black parents concerned about their children's failure to do as well as their white peers, Ogbu, a University of California professor, spent months interviewing teachers, parents and students.

He published his findings as a book, "Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement."

In several cases, black students admitted that they simply didn't work as hard as their white classmates. Those who did work hard talked about peers who teased them, dismissing their efforts as "trying to be white."

Since when did academic excellence become the sole province of white students?

Despite their invitation to scrutiny, some black parents in Shaker Heights have rejected Ogbu's conclusions, arguing that racism is to blame for their children's failures.

Racism is, indeed, alive and well in America (as it will be, unfortunately, in 25 years) but those parents are giving in to a fatalism that solves nothing. They have the ability to influence their children's educational success. They should use it.

I was not enthusiastic about my parents' intrusion on my summer leisure with vocabulary words and classic literature, but they insisted that hours devoted to Hemingway and Hawthorne and Baldwin would be time well spent. It turned out they were right.

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