Two vignettes illuminate the controversy that has embroiled the New York State Board of Regents. The first, from "Cotton Comes to Harlem," the cinematic farce of a few years back, has Redd Foxx describing an escaped crook as a white man, even though the absconder wore a disguise that covered him from head to toe.
"How do you know he was white?" the investigating officer demands.
Foxx's response: "Because he run white, dammit."
The other vignette, doubtless apochryphal, no matter how earnestly and often it was repeated, goes back to the late '50s days of desegregation, and has a young white child telling her mom about a new school friend.
"Is she white or black?" Mom wants to know.
"I don't know," the child replies. "I'll look tomorrow."
The first vignette accepts as a simple fact that there are observable differences between the races that have nothing to do with skin color or socioeconomic status. The second suggests that race is visible only to those who are blinded by prejudice.
The New York regents recently put out a 110-page booklet on dropout prevention that included a small section on black-white differences in learning style. Drawing on the work of Cleveland State University's Janice Hale-Benson, it contended the black style includes a "preference for inferential reasoning rather than deductive or inductive reasoning" and a tendency to see things whole rather than focus on their discrete parts. The implication was that black children may be doing poorly in school because they are forced to respond to a white pedagogy.
Several state educators immediately branded the passage, included at the insistence of black members of the board of regents, as racist nonsense that implied that black students are less capable than whites.
"Caricaturizing people by the color of their skin or their ethnic origin is racist," said an outraged Louis Grumet, the white executive director of the state association of school boards.
Grumet's reaction is nothing more than "a knee-jerk response," countered Irving Hamer Jr., the black deputy education commissioner. "What we have here is a lack of willingness to deal with the issues on their merit because there is the possibility that there may be a racial implication. Well, you can't have it both ways, because what we've been doing continues to be unproductive for 30 or 40 percent of the students, and a disproportionate number of them are black and Hispanic."
Kenneth B. Clark, the black psychologist who is a former regent, called the booklet's contention "an incredibly stupid approach. There are individual differences in learning styles, but to lump it all together in terms of groups or culture doesn't make any sense."
But Adelaide L. Sanford, also black and one of the regents who backed the inclusion of the passage, defended the learning-style theory. "For the first time, we're saying, 'Maybe we haven't been doing this right, maybe these youngsters can learn.' "
That, really, is the most encouraging aspect of the flap. It has been my observation that people who believe that a problem can be solved look for solutions; those who think the problem is unsolvable look for ways to avoid blame.
Thus, many blacks, persuaded that black college students can learn, have defended historically black colleges, saying in effect: we who love our children can educate them; just give us the resources and get out of the way. But many of these same blacks, doubting the ability of many black elementary and secondary youngsters, have sought to blame half-hearted integration -- white people -- for their academic failure.
Clark has contended for years that black children can learn "if properly taught." The black educators with whom he is now locked in controversy are saying that black children can learn if appropriately taught.
Are they right? I have no doubt that they are. But there is serious doubt as to whether the problem is primarily one of learning styles.
Even Hale-Benson, in her book, "Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles," argues only that the evidence warrants serious research into the question. She clearly believes that learning style is critical, that black children grow up in a distinct, Africa-based culture and, consequently, require "an educational system that recognizes their strengths, their abilities and their culture, and that incorporates them into the learning process."
But even supposing she is right with regard to significant numbers of black children: what are the implications for black students who fare well with the "white" learning style? For black children whose teachers are white? For children in integrated classrooms? For integration itself?
The suspicion here is that much of Hale-Benson's theory is spurious and, in any case, unvalidated and, therefore, not ready for inclusion in a curriculum except on an experimental basis.
In short, the New York State Board of Regents has made the right decision: to delete the controversial section from its manual pending expert review of its merits.