Ogbu, John U.
Ogbu, John U. 1939-2004
John Ogbu, one of the United States’s foremost educational anthropologists, studied the educational attitudes of marginalized youth, particularly highlighting the underachievement of African American students. Ogbu depicted blacks as being the victims of their own defeatist attitudes that have evolved over years of oppression. His work was and remains controversial.
Born to a farming family in a small village in Nigeria in 1939, Ogbu completed his BA (1965), MA (1969), and PhD (1971) all at the University of California at Berkeley. He was hired into the university’s department of anthropology and was promoted to professor in 1980. He died August 20, 2004, at the age of 64.
Ogbu was not the first to stress a victim blame analysis, but his theoretical propositions, written with such sophistication, elegance, and clarity, were easily translated into researchable hypotheses, and this explains why his ideas continue to generate research that both affirm and contest his stance. To Ogbu, low-income and privileged black youths shared a resistance to high achievement that is a result of the legacy of slavery as well as the racial oppression that was particularly acute up to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision calling for the desegregation of public schools. With the expanding opportunities achieved by blacks as part of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Ogbu saw black resistance turn into an anachronistic coping mechanism (Ogbu 1995a; 1995b). He did not deny the effects of ongoing racism, but he felt blacks should recognize they were misreading the now more open and less oppressive U.S. society. Eschewing notions of genetic inferiority, Ogbu argued that the larger society and the black community itself had to work to help turn black educational attitudes from disengagement to an active pursuit of excellence and hope.
Because Ogbu’s theories touched on educational disadvantage found across the globe, his books, chapters, and articles were translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, French, German, and Croatian. Although his analysis placed heavy emphasis on the educational attitudes of individual children and their parents, his overall perspective was ecological, and he demonstrated that educational attitudes held by children were the result of complex, daily interactions within the family, neighborhood, community, workplace, and nation. Overall, his work reflected strong structural-determinism themes. His Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective (1978) argued that the same kinds of social divisions between white and black societies in the United States are replicated in caste-society interactions across many cultures. His work with Signithia Fordham (1986) helped popularize concepts such as the burden of “acting white” and “black oppositional identity,” and his career culminated with a stunning text, Black Americans in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement (2003), in which he showed that both low-income and middle-class black youths are hesitant to embrace academic achievement.
Much of Ogbu’s research was grounded in small-scale ethnographic studies covering a limited number of participants and a constrained number of research sites. Using large samples collected in schools across a wide range of sites, other researchers have failed to find empirical support for Ogbu’s key premises (Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey 1998; Cook and Ludwig 1998; Spencer et al. 2003). Even Ogbu’s attempt to link contemporary trends in black education with a “legacy of slavery” has been shown to have no basis in historical fact and research (Anderson 1988; Spencer et al. 2003). It has been suggested that the small scale of Ogbu’s research exaggerated the significance of educational attitudes held by only a fraction of black students while overlooking or dismissing attitudes held by the overwhelming majority of students that undercut his pejorative thesis (Foster 2004). To the very end, though, Ogbu held true to his perspective, and he accused his critics of the worst kind of cultural romanticism (2003), although he never produced findings from any large-scale study that refuted his critics’ charges. Although the trend in the empirical literature is to move away from Ogbu’s theorizing, figures in the popular debate about black achievement attitudes—such as the comedian-turned-social-critic Bill Cosby and the celebrated radio-television commentator Juan Williams— continue to accord Ogbu’s work considerable credence (Williams 2006).
SEE ALSO Achievement Gap, Racial; Acting White; American Dream; Americanism; Anthropology; Culture; Education, Unequal; Inequality, Racial; Oppositionality; Schooling in the USA; Underachievers
Fordham, Signithia, and John U. Ogbu. 1986. Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of “Acting White.” The Urban Review 18 (3): 176–206.
Ogbu, John. 1978. Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Academic Press.
Ogbu, John. 1995a. Cultural Problems in Minority Education: Their Interpretations and Consequences—Part One: Theoretical Background. The Urban Review 27 (3): 189–205.
Ogbu, John. 1995b. Cultural Problems in Minority Education: Their Interpretations and Consequences—Part Two: Case Studies. The Urban Review 27 (4): 271–297.
Ogbu, John. 2003. Black Americans in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ainsworth-Darnell, James W., and Douglas B. Downey. 1998. Assessing the Oppositional Culture Explanation for Racial/Ethnic Differences in School Performance. American Sociological Review 63: 563–553.
Cook, Phillip J., and Jens Ludwig. 1998. The Burden of “Acting White”: Do Black Adolescents Disparage Academic Achievement? In The Black-White Test Score Gap, eds. Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, 375–400. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.
Foster, Kevin M. 2004. Coming to Terms: A Discussion of John Ogbu’s Cultural-Ecological Theory of Minority Academic Achievement. Intercultural Education 15 (4): 369–384.
Spencer, Margaret Beale, William E. Cross Jr., Vinay Harpalani, and Tyhesha N. Goss. 2003. Historical and Developmental Perspectives on Black Academic Achievement: Debunking the “Acting White” Myth and Posing New Directions for Research. In Surmounting All Odds, eds. Carol C. Yeakey and Ronald D. Henderson, 273–304. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
Williams, Juan. 2006. Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It. New York: Crown.
William E. Cross Jr .