The Corner

Education

When Academic Achievement Means ‘Acting White’

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National studies consistently find disparities between black students, especially black boys, and their peers in reading, mathematics, and other core academic subjects. Still other studies show these disparities follow black males into college. That is, notwithstanding the many root issues of these gaps, black males on average are failing to get to the right answer more often than their peers. A new method of teaching threatens to supercharge this reality.

The Oregon Department of Education released a bulletin last month informing math teachers of a course available to those who are “looking for a deeper dive into equity work.” In an essay titled “Why Math is Racist,” John Hinderaker at Powerline calls out the bizarre concepts that the course promotes such as how “white supremacy culture shows up in the mathematics classroom” when “students are required to ‘show their work’” and “the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer.” I encourage folks to read Hinderaker’s take on the training and the other perspectives that have been shared in print and television.

Since time immemorial, one solution proposed to fix differences in educational outcomes for black boys has been to change the curriculum such that they will be inspired to learn. There are many ready-made programs from which educators can choose that alter the subject matter to make it more relatable and ostensibly of greater interest to certain students.

A recent and popular example is the curriculum developed for the 1619 Project, which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” That is, the consequences of slavery still permeate all facets of current American life and it ought to be central in our discussion of current issues.

A curriculum that teaches black kids that they are on average poorer, less educated, and more oppressed than their non-black peers because of slavery has an obvious relevance to them. So, whether intended by its creators or not, the 1619 Project curriculum has an emotionally motivating effect on, particularly, poor black students.

As the debate over curricula rages on, the approach in Oregon and other math departments to engage students of color focuses not on what is taught but instead on how it is taught. It should face the same scrutiny and similar condemnation as the 1619 Project.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a youth in the American South, there existed an unfortunate element in the subculture of poor blacks — within which I was a member. To show a desire to learn or to do well academically was criticized as “acting white” or considered effeminate for boys and men. I remember it well.

I didn’t live in what now are called “predominately communities of color”; my family always lived in solely black communities. In the neighborhood that I spent my adolescence and teenage years, I remember my mother being the only white person in the community.

This destructive part of southern poor black subculture meant that nearly all of the black boys in my neighborhoods — including me — shunned schooling or, at least, did well to pretend they disliked learning. At that time and place, appearing to be a race traitor or homosexual were two of the worst sins one could commit. I’m confident this element contributed to many of the black youths I knew turning to more culturally glamorized delinquency and ultimately, to trouble with the law, drugs, and the many other problems reflected in statistics on young black men.

The Oregon Department of Education’s approach to tinker with pedagogy threatens to further the problematic elements in the subculture of poor blacks, which may well extend to communities of color beyond the South of the ’80s and ’90s to places such as the Pacific Northwest today.

Devon Westhill is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO). Immediately prior to his selection as president and general counsel of CEO, Westhill served as the top civil rights official at the United States Department of Agriculture. Westhill’s career includes a separate presidential appointment, stints in all three branches of government and the United States Navy, and work in both private law practice and the nonprofit sector.

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