Robert Peebles, superintendent of schools in Alexandria, where I happen to live, recently ran a dutiful risk for which less civilized jurisdictions might tar and feather him.
He revealed that standardized-test scores in his schools show a discrepancy, 37 points on average, between the performances of black and white children.
He spoke out, he said, in some fear that the disclosure would be called "racist" but with the conviction that it's time to drag this secret from the closet and go to work on it. And for once, miraculously, the messenger wasn't shot for bringing bad news.
But a dreary routine did unfold. Some -- not all -- spokesmen for black interests began emitting the usual don't-blame-us sounds. An Urban League representative charged, for instance, that political pressures push the Alexandria school board to meet "the needs of white, upper-class students." Such familiar alibis can't be disproved, and may even have a smidgen of merit, but they're shopworn and useless. Race is no longer a source of significant discrimination in the schools, whatever happens on the fast track. School patrons are tuning out the old excuses, as they have every right to do. But they are in danger, as they shouldn't be, of losing interest in the problem of bringing young blacks up to academic speed.
There's a race out there, like it or not, and even with special help, black kids are too often losing it.
For instance, at the proud old Boston Latin School, where parents and friends have been wrangling fiercely over special admissions for blacks and whether a larger quota is in order, even the children of Vietnamese newcomers are quietly excelling out of all proportion to their numbers. Meanwhile, many young blacks admitted under a special quota falter and drop out.
What is wrong?
Blacks do not, and cannot, buy the premise that inferior capacity is the problem. Even if there is a racial group differential in "IQ," as on most tests, it cannot account for the pandemic failure of young blacks to compete academically.
For a while there was solace in blaming a figment of the imagination called "cultural bias" in testing. Yet selective colleges and universities are distressed to find that in predicting the performance of black admittees, they must discount -- adjust downward -- expectations based on SAT scores.
It is time for fresh thinking, of which an uncommon amount appears in an interesting discussion of "obstacles to black success" by Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond in the Sept. 9 New Republic.
Howard and Hammond say the problem is that young blacks, for various reasons, lack competitive zest. Yet obviously, young blacks are fearlessly competitive in sports and entertainment. It is only in the academic realm that "negative expectations," as well as fear of failure, hold them back.
The problem is culturally and psychologically complex, but I suspect Howard and Hammond are on to a useful idea. And, unlike the usual Alibi Ikes, they insist that blacks must assume at least some accountability for the cycle of failure and underachievement.
"When we react to the rumor of inferiority by avoiding intellectual engagements, and when we allow our children to do so," they write, "black people forfeit the opportunity for intellectual development that could extinguish the debate about our capacities and set the stage for group progress."
This is no novelty, of course. Jesse Jackson's been saying the same thing for years. But some essentials are left out, and one wishes Howard and Hammond had also noted, and warned against, the temptations of false counsel.
When young blacks were having trouble with so-called "standard English" a few years ago, there arose the great evasion call "black English," the notion that a colorful street idiom might usefully be treated as a substitute for formal English. It went along with the idea that wearing a dashiki or studying Swahili (the language of the African slavers, ironically) was a fitting replacement for the three Rs. These were comforting diversions; they probably served to cheat some black kids of opportunity.
Competitiveness as such is not always attractive, and it's easy to confuse verbal glibness, or slickness with tests, with learning. But the world as it is puts a premium on competitiveness and its skills.
Why can't the competitive ethos that produces, and makes cultural heroes, of the Michaels (Jordan and Jackson) and Dwight Gooden produce a few Jordans of algebra, Jacksons of history and Goodens of Tennyson, with publicity to match? On the day that it does, the problem, Alexandria's and everyone else's, will be on the way to solution. "For a while there was a solace in blaming a figment of the imagination called 'cultural bias' in testing."