Soundings

Tamar Jacoby
It’s Culture, After All
Winter 1999

For months, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok's new book, The Shape of the River, which defends racial preferences, has dominated the national debate over affirmative action. Several scholars have cast doubt on the book's methods and objectivity, but the press and much of the general public remain enthralled—and cowed, perhaps, by the authors' voluminous statistical evidence. Meanwhile, a far better book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips—also, significantly, liberal academics—has gone unnoticed.

To be sure, Jencks and Phillips defend preferences. But the editors don't shrink from describing the gap of their book's title in all its gut-wrenching magnitude—showing an intellectual honesty rare among preference supporters. Here are two disturbing measures of the black-white testing gap the editors present: before kindergarten, the average black child already scores below 75 percent of his white peers; white high school seniors are ten times more likely than blacks to score in the top tenth of test takers.

The 14 papers Jencks and Phillips assemble help clear the way, at last, for a serious discussion about the black performance lag. Among the collection's critical findings: the SAT fairly and accurately predicts future academic success; "the average black child and the average white child now live in school districts that spend almost exactly the same amount per pupil," so money alone won't solve the problem; and, other things being equal, black teachers seem to do no better than white teachers in helping black students perform better. Most important, the authors observe that closing the test-score gap will make preferences unnecessary.

How do we eliminate the gap? Jencks and Phillips adamantly insist that no evidence exists of genetic intellectual differences among races, and they make several suggestions about how schools can improve black scores, primarily by hiring better-qualified teachers with higher expectations. But the black-white gap is rooted in culture as much as it is in education, they suspect, and it won't close without a major change in entrenched habits and attitudes—changes in black parenting, changes in black attitudes toward mainstream success, changes in the way too many black students respond to the challenge of school.

A sobering diagnosis—and all the more important coming from liberal academia, which has been so reluctant to seem as if it were "blaming the victim" in matters of race. Just how to change cultural attitudes isn't clear. But there's no better starting point than a national consensus on what the problem is, and this important book shows that it may be forming.

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