Social scientists John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham, attempting to understand the race gap in academic achievement, hypothesized that many African-American students choose not to engage in school because they perceive high academic achievement as "acting white." Their thesis was discussed at a Division of U.S. Studies program in April, 2004. As a follow-up to that conversation, the Division scheduled a discussion of Prudence Carter's Keepin' it Real: School Success Beyond Black and White. Prof. Carter's book critiques the Ogbu-Fordham "oppositional cultural theory" thesis.

Prof. Carter found that the majority of the young African-American and Latino students (ages 13-20) she interviewed in Yonkers, New York believed education was the key to success, jobs and mobility. What these young people resisted, however, was the assumption that to succeed in school one must assimilate into mainstream society to the exclusion of one's own culture. Not wanting to adopt the linguistic and clothing styles of the majority, Prof. Carter reported, these young people "struggled with how to maintain culturally authentic selves, while, at the same time, achieve." They responded to this challenge, Prof. Carter discovered, in three different ways. One group ("cultural mainstreamers") fully adopted the cultural dictates of mainstream society; the second ("cultural stragglers") managed to maintain the cultural practices of both their community and the dominant society; the third ("non-compliant believers") shared educational values but refused to comply with dominant cultural expectations.

The difference in the socialization of young men and women, Carter found, was a major component in student achievement as well – a component not explored in the Ogbu/Fordham thesis. The young women she studied had more pressure from parents and teachers to be academically successful and were therefore more likely to be cultural mainstreamers or cultural stragglers. The young men, however, experienced comparatively less pressure from adults to succeed academically. In addition, they grappled with social pressure to be "hard" and not to compromise their cultural identity for social success and, too often viewed as potential "thugs" by their teachers, turned to sports or entertainment figures as models. These social cues, Carter stressed, encouraged young males to be socially non-compliant, and placed them at odds with the largely inflexible academic institutions.

This model of a minority group's social mobility being predicated upon its ability to adopt the cultural codes of the dominant group is present in societies other than the United States, Carter continued. In South Africa, for example, schools disfavor African languages but emphasize the language and cultural practices of the dominant Anglo society. Commentator Lory Dance noted that Carter's findings reinforced her own work with students of Middle Eastern descent in Swedish society. Prof. Dance found that the survival skills the students in her Swedish study developed in order to function as a minority group was often mislabeled by their teachers as arrogance. The disconnect between minority students' academic goals and their achievement is not a function of their equating success with the dominant culture, Carter concluded, but rather a result of their rejection of the cultural inequity inherent in the school system.

To help students bridge this disconnect between their cultural selves and the expectations of mainstream society, Carter cited the need for "multicultural navigators" who understand the different rules that apply in different cultural settings. Such navigators, Carter explained, would be fluent in a variety of cultures and would teach students how to stay true to their culture as well as to build the social capital necessary for mobility in the dominant society. They would teach the students the equivalent of being world travelers who know how to use different forms of currency in different countries. Roger Wilkins, a former member of the Washington, D.C. school board, agreed. Making Carter's suggestion specific, Wilkins commented that he had long argued that schools should serve as multi-purpose community centers that provide medical and social services to the community – students and their relatives alike – while addressing the cultural gap between schools and the communities they serve. Such centers, Wilkins believes, would aid students' success by providing them with the services they need while helping many parents assume more supportive roles in the educational process.

Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4147