August 20, 2003
John Uzo Ogbu, educational anthropologist, was born in the small village of Umudomi in the Onicha Government Area of Nigeria. Ogbu's scholarly career, spent entirely at the University of California at Berkeley, spanned over thirty years. He devoted most of his work to minority education and is best known for his research on black student achievement. His highly controversial work is as widely praised as it is criticized. For instance, Ogbu was the recipient of some of the most prestigious awards in education and anthropology and was named one of the four most influential figures in the history of North American education (Berube, 2000). Yet his work has frequently been criticized for downplaying the extent to which racism exists in school and society and for ignoring research that calls into question some of his basic conclusions.
Ogbu's main contribution is his application of cultural-ecological theory to explain why some minority groups are successful in school and why others are not. He is especially noted for theorizing that African Americans develop an oppositional cultural identity, or a sense of identity in opposition to white Americans, because of the injustices they encounter in society. In addition, he posits, African Americans develop an oppositional frame of reference, or a set of protective strategies to maintain their identities—and their distance from the dominant white culture. These identities, according to Ogbu, orient black students to view school success, for instance, as "acting white" and as affronts to their identities. Ogbu surmises that black children learn these attitudes and responses at an early age from their families and others in black communities with whom they form fictive kinships. For this reason, Ogbu often foreground cultural factors and gave only scant attention to system factors to explain black academic underperformance.
Ogbu conducted comparative studies in socially stratified societies in other parts of the world as well, including Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Great Britain, and demonstrated that similar disparities existed in their schools. Other researchers have also confirmed the usefulness of Ogbu's theories in their research. Critics, however, fault several aspects of Ogbu's work, not the least significant being that he gave little attention to studies that show that black students enjoy widespread academic success, even under the most dire circumstances.
The passionate responses to Ogbu's work over the years speak both to its significance and to the scholar's own convictions. And, regardless of the merits of the praise or criticism of his work, Ogbu undeniably has left an indelible mark on the field of urban education as scholars in diverse disciplines continue to build on and critique his work.
Berube, Maurice R. Eminent Educators Studies in Intellectual Influence, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Ogbu, John. "Cultural-Ecological Influences on Minority Education." Language Arts 62, no. 8 (1985): 860–869.
Ogbu, John. "Understanding Cultural Diversity and Learning." Educational Researcher 21, no. 8 (1992): 5–14.
Perry, Theresa, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard. Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.
Valenzuela, Angela. Subtractive Schooling: U.S.–Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
garrett albert duncan (2005)