William Raspberry Gets It Wrong

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Sadly, William Raspberry has to be added to the too-long list of leading black public intellectuals who have their facts wrong about black America. In November, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Raspberry in which he argued, "Many black children -- and too many of their parents -- don't value education" and "Black communities are beset by crime and violence but, again, less because of racism than because of lack of discipline in those communities." Raspberry is wrong on both counts.

First, black students and their parents value education at least as much as white students, if not more than white students. I've been trying to get the punditry and the media to look at the actual data for a few years now. For example, in a recent lecture that I gave to the Education Policy Forum in Washington D.C., I pointed out that data from the Monitoring the Future survey, the National Educational Longitudinal Study, the Survey of Income Program Participation, Public Agenda's Reality Check survey and a number of other surveys all show black students to value education at least as much as white students. Most of these surveys, in fact, show black students to have stronger pro-school attitudes than white students.

The test-score trends also support this view. Although black students still have significantly lower test scores than white students, the gap has declined since the 1970s. The long-term trends National Assessment of Educational Progress, the General Social Survey vocabulary test, National Assessment of Adult Literacy and a variety of cognitive tests all show that black students standardized test scores have increased at a rate faster than white students over the last 40 years. If black students were rejecting education as much as Raspberry and others believe, it is not likely that this closing of the gap would have occurred.

Finally, black students have had strong growth in their enrollment and completion of college. Years ago, in the book, The Black-White Test-Score Gap, Christopher Jencks showed that when black and white students have equal levels of academic achievement in high school, black students are more likely to graduate from college. This result is what one would expect if black students valued education more than white students--which is exactly what the attitudinal survey data suggests.

Where this generation of black punditry goes wrong is that they fail to appreciate the degree of socioeconomic disadvantage the average black student faces relative to the average white student. A large black-white achievement gap already exists by first grade. This is because relative to white students, black students are much more likely to grow up in poverty, live in families with much less wealth (as opposed to income), have less-educated parents, have been born with a low birth weight, have a mother who is suffering from depression, and I could go on and on. These and other factors put black children behind from the earliest days of formal schooling. And then, to add insult to injury, we put these disadvantaged students in schools that are of significantly lower quality than the schools white students attend. This school-quality disadvantage increases the black-white achievement gap. And then to add further insult to injury, a generation of black public intellectuals decide it is black students who need to be condemned in this picture.

Raspberry is also wrong in his take on crime in black communities. Raspberry assumes that crime in black communities has been increasing because of a lack of discipline due to absent fathers. There may be lots of real and fictional crime stories in the media, but the facts are that from 1993 to 2004 we saw a strong and steady decline in violent crime in black communities. The data is also fairly strong that, again, black socioeconomic disadvantage lies at the root of the higher crime rates in black communities. See the list of references below for some recent research on this issue.

Raspberry's larger point was that we need to begin to shift our energies away from a focus on civil rights concerns like equal quality education and criminal justice reform to the issue of moral uplift in the black community. If one looks clearly at the evidence, it is clear that he is wrong on that point too.

Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Crime: References
  • Eric D. Gould, Bruce A. Weinberg and David B. Mustard, “Crime Rates and Local Labor Market Opportunities in the United States, 1979-1997,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 84(1), February 2002: 45-61.

  • Jeff Grogger, “Market Wages and Youth Crime,” Journal of Labor Economics 16(4), October 1998: 756-791.

  • Morgan Kelly, “Inequality and Crime,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 82(4), November 2000: 530-539.

  • Jens Ludwig, Greg Duncan and Paul Hirshfield, “Urban Poverty and Juvenile Crime: Evidence from a Randomized Housing-Mobility Experiment,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 116(2), May 2001: 655-679.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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