Opposing the Oppositional Culture Theory and its Opposition

Reviewed: Downey, Douglas B., “Black/White Differences in School performance: The Oppositional Culture Explanation,” Annual Review of Sociology, (9 April, 2008)

Vol. 34:107-1-6.

In the twenty-first century, the terms majority and minority have become hyper-sensitive trigger words whose very utterance resonate deeply emotional and personal tones among all the octaves of society. It has become impossible to elude or evade the consequences and implications of inequality, whether the roots of it be structurally natural and organic or socially imposed and artificial. One of these consequences is the emerging tendency to view natural outcomes through the lens of conspiracy, assuming ill intentions and malevolent traditions are the principle causes of this adversity. Another consequence is the damaging influence of good intentions on the natural order. Douglas Downey's (2008) reproof of John Ogbu's Oppositional Culture Theory is an example of just such a consequence. Downey makes a common mistake assuming that “eliminating the black/white gap would go along way toward reducing racial stratification.” (p. 108) He fails to consider the implications of his target outcome, which belies the broader trending (and fallacious) instincts of modern scholars who themselves are tasked with solving complex social riddles without surrendering their objectivity. His examination is fascinating, and his careful handling of the delicate subject matter is certainly beyond reproach, but somewhere in the minutia he misses the central flaw in his own perception, ironically similar to the plank he observes in Ogbu's eye: he associates the neutral concept of change with the value-driven concept of improvement. And thus, at the end of his journey he winds up exactly where he expects to be, and so fails to advance any further, which in turn prevents him from comprehending the horrifying consequences which would follow a practical application of his solution.

This discussion should begin with a brief review of Ogbu's theory, which is admittedly worthy of criticism on its own. According to Downey's interpretation, “Oppositional Culture Threory...[claims]...blacks are partly to blame for their station at the bottom” and that “an additional challenge is how blacks respond...” (p. 109) But instead of recognizing the obvious, bold-faced prejudice inherent in Ogbu's point of view, Downey renders a rather tepid attempt to dispute Ogbu on grounds of math and methodology, simply accepting Ogbu's flawed premise by default, seemingly unaware of his own concurrent seduction by the dark side. Referring to the observed “gap” in school performance (for which Ogbu sought his explanation in culture) between Whites and Blacks/Latinos (always taken together, as if the origin and evolution of these two “subcultures” was self-evidently interchangeable) Downey argues that “once the controlled socioeconomic status is statistically controlled, the gap is only reduced by one third.” (Ibid) Concerning the other two thirds of this gap, the author suggests that the remaining, persistent two thirds of this gap is “likely complex and a function of persistent discrimination,” segregation, and the consequences of these disadvantages.

To recap so far, the author has accounted for one third of the gap in wealth disparity, and defaulted to the usual explanations for the balance. So far, that's OK. It is the sum of the author's arguments being contested here, not the parts. Among those more typical parts are the interplay between groups of dissimilar social dominance, the disparity between the groups' perceptions of the respective material benefits of education, and the various merits and cons of the strategies employed by either group to improve these outcomes. Downey appropriately dismisses the theme he seems to find suggested in Ogbu's work, that African Americans are somehow “anti-school,” and he should be credited with recognizing that the affluent Shaker Heights community where his subject research was conducted was not representative of black-white social distribution in America, let alone the hundreds of other nations whose proportional outcomes are widely varied.

Instead, the author spends a considerable portion of time examining cognitive disparities and sanctions for “acting white” which might lead black youth's to “disengage from schoolwork.” (p. 112-115) Here, he makes an interesting connection which would be salient, like many of the other ideas ventured, if he would only take the psychological leap necessary to remove these emerging principles from the black-and-white box in which they are imprisoned. He adjoins the findings of two unrelated studies; one reported a gap in cognitive skills in toddlers at a certain age range, which track consistently throughout their later educational experience, while the other proposed an environmental skills deficit in low-income families. To quote Downey, “the black youth's strategy for success is less detailed, less complemented by daily routines, and ultimately less likely to succeed.” (p. 121) He redefines this as an outcome of a larger social trend, as opposed to a mere causality in the greater gap-cause complex. In the most neutral language possible, he intimates that this pattern implies that the respective parents didn't have the same access to educational opportunities because of the wealth gap. Combining all these vectors, Downey sees the engine clearly, at the expense of his view of the rest of the vehicle or the road it travels. Quoting Ogbu himself, Downey reasons that “their very attempt to solve their status problem furthers their subjugation.” He has come full-circle back to the originally flawed class-centric point of view. He has imposed, like so many before and after him, the broken assumption that certain cultural traits and characteristics, such as graduation rates and career paths, are better than others. He has assumed that failure to graduate high school or attend college is tantamount to actual failure in life, or prohibition from obtaining wealth or weilding political or social influence. He has accepted without criticism the notion that lower test scores imply lesser or lower cognitive ability, which, in the first place, is akin to asserting that only an improvement in test scores and graduation rates may serve as evidence of improvedcognitive skills, ignoring the other contributing variables like lecture quality and effort.

Downey comes close to avoiding this fate, however, with his discussion of the stereotype threat, which attempts to explain not the test scores themselves as broad watermarks of racial cognitive capacity, but rather as the result of a more common (and ethnically neutral) phenomenon called performance anxiety. This theory basically suggests that people's perceptions of themselves affect their performance. Downey refers to a study which distributed tests between two groups of people, the first of whom were told that it was a test of ability (which invoked all the preconceived notions drilled into a person by the outside world), while the others were told it was to test problem solving ability. (p. 122) Not unexpectedly, group B consistently outperformed group A. The author rightly acknowledges this strategy's potential for having a legitimating, normative effect on the education gap, the wealth gap, and even the racial divide, but then just sort of drifts away from it back toward his own somnambulent predestination.

Having reeled from his vision of this self-amplifying monster tearing through the black community, prohibiting its members from ever catching up to their white counter-parts, Downey stumbles into his conclusion in a decidedly linear, whackamole sort of fashion. He concludes that the posable social thumbs in this distress belong to blacks themselves (which is a conclusion not too distant from Ogbu's, hence the irony), and that the key aggravating factor is what he calls “black isolation.” (p. 122) This is the toughest part of reading Downey; he literally mentions and discredits the very idea he comes back to (brandishing a bouquet of platitudes as the credits roll, of course). To connect the dots, we began with a persistent gap in standardized test scores which themselves were problematic, and ended up with the confident assertion that the explanation for this gap was at least partly a matter of socioeconomic disparity, which is therefor both a cause and a consequence of the educational attainment outcome: a repetitive cycle. But by (subconsciously?) linking the black student's negative perceptions of themselves to black sanctioning by members of their own peer group, the author kind of indemnifies (or at the very least, casually ignores) the vastly more voluminous influences of white culture which negatively impact the collective self-view of African Americans. His placement of the mantle of institutional discrimination upon a perceived condition of racial isolation is the sociological equivalent of blaming the rape victim's choice of clothing and clubs, for one thing, but beyond that it implies the assumption that the very solvency of black neighborhoods is in itself acidic, which is a social theory that has no place whatsoever in the realm of policy, and very shaky footing at best in the field of academia. Is the solution then to go in and break up black communities? Should we force our fellow citizens to integrate more diffusely into our better, whiter, social institutions? Should we further dilute the embattled black identity in the interest of conformity? In favor of the Dominant cultural norms of social expectation? And what of highly dense white neighborhoods with poorly performing schools...Do we disperse them into Asia?

Let's take a big step back. Politicians and educators often assert at least one common basis for the justification of efforts to increase performance and productivity: competition. In 2001, Nancy Kober stated that “It is becoming increasingly apparent that the nation cannot raise achievement to internationally competitive levels without addressing the achievement gap.” (p. 10) Never mind the fact that the nation she refers to boasts the discovery of nuclear energy, the first man on the moon, and the first black president; the take away is basically that the US financial markets and research facilities are behind some few nations in Europe or the East because Black People. This is the most interesting part of the cultural exchange. Speaking of “racially isolated” communities, Downey insists that a failure to assimilate into the habits and expectations of their more successful counterparts is a cause of suffering to blacks. Kober essentially claims it is also a source of suffering to whites too! Together, neither of these schools of thought make any credible argument that black culture “as is” has any productive place in society, and proponents of either assumption consistently fail to embrace that imminent moment of self-awareness inherent in their own responsibility for the resulting impact of their routine and highly-vocal prognostications upon the integrity of black identity. The tragedy of it all precludes any nod toward the irony.

Editorial Note: An entire generation of low-income African Americans was targeted by the predominantly white American banking community for high-risk mortgage loans which were expected to garner a cyclical source of interest revenue in the resulting foreclosure-to-market cycle. Those bad loans created more wealth than almost any other venture in the history of the industrialized world, for a few. Those few then bundled those bad loans into packages and sold them into every major economy in the world, multiplying their lofty fortunes beyond reason, one transaction fee or interest payment at a time, while their debtors lives were destroyed by zip code. These same people almost destroyed the global economy, but none of them went to jail. In fact, the government bailed them out to save humanity from the next great depression. The principle tax-payers responsible for aquiring this debt were the same working class and minority citizens whose lives had been harvested to build the machine that destroyed them in the first place. These are the ones who have to listen to their own teachers, representatives, and business leaders constantly echo the demands of corporate America for economic growth and improvement, as though the value of our democratic society was a function of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average. The real tragedy is that when black people speak of reparations, they usually have the Civil War in mind. They should be thinking about the nineteen-eighties. That's where they'll find the real money, and the genuine root of their “subjugation.”

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 Kober, Angla., “It takes more than testing: Closing the Achievement Gap,” Center On Education Policy, (April, 2001).