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In the Affluent Suburbs, an Invisible Race Gap

June 4, 2003

In the Affluent Suburbs, an Invisible Race Gap



ACROSS America, there may be two or three dozen suburban school districts similar to this one, towns like Evanston, Ill.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; Arlington, Va.; White Plains. They are heavily upper middle class, are racially mixed and feature high quality public schools.

The high school here, Columbia High, is 51 percent black and sends 77 percent of its seniors to four-year colleges.

Five percent are accepted to the Ivy League. A lot of black Columbia High graduates go on to big things. Rhena Jasey went to Harvard, Colin Brown to Princeton, Carla Peterman won a Rhodes, Lauryn Hill won five Grammys.

From afar, these racially mixed suburbs appear to be the fulfillment of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling a half century ago. Green and tree-lined, they look like the quintessential level playing field. They seem to make the need for affirmative action passe.

But they are not what they appear to be, as Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor, knows from surveying 34,000 seventh to eleventh graders in 15 of these racially mixed suburbs across the nation.

Everywhere, he finds the achievement gap, with whites averaging B+ and blacks C+. Professor Ferguson calculates about half the Gap can be explained by economic differences.

When the wealth of the 15 towns is dissected into four socioeconomic classes, 79 percent of blacks are in the bottom 50 percent; 73 percent of whites are in the top 50 percent. Fifty-three percent of these suburban black children live with one or neither parent, compared with 15 percent of whites.

Twenty-two percent of the blacks have no computer at home compared with 3 percent of whites. Forty percent of blacks own 100 or more books, compared with 80 percent of whites.

All this spills into these schools. "Teachers see black kids not doing as well academically, getting more incompletes on their homework," Professor Ferguson said. "They interpret that to mean black kids don't care, don't work as hard."

Yet whites and blacks taking similar level courses report that they spend the same time on homework. It is just that the results are different: 38 percent of whites who spend two hours on homework nightly get all their work done; only 20 percent of blacks spending two hours finish their homework — the Gap.

It would be politically convenient for Professor Ferguson, a black man raising his two children plus a nephew in a Boston suburb, if the Gap could be explained away by economics.

It cannot. When he controls for income, half the Gap persists. Among the richest families, blacks average B+, whites A-. How to explain it?

On a political level, he believes the human damage from two centuries of slavery plus legalized segregation that persisted until the mid-1960's will simply not be undone in a generation, not even in suburbia.

On a personal level, he has looked hard at the data for ways to narrow the Gap.

While 31 percent of whites say that a teacher's encouragement motivates them to work hard, 47 percent of blacks cite teacher encouragement as crucial. Professor Ferguson believes this may reflect the black children's insecurity.

"Even in our own towns, we may feel like outsiders," he says. And so, Professor Ferguson runs seminars for teachers that emphasize the importance of encouraging these children to excel.

If whites and blacks spend the same time on homework, and the black child is not getting as much done, says Professor Ferguson, "that's a skills gap." He works with schools to focus on the points in the curriculum where children fall behind, and to develop smarter ways to teach those lessons.

His research shows that in the years before school, white parents spend more time reading to their children, while blacks devote more to song and play — the start of the Gap. Professor Ferguson writes, "As a black parent, I acknowledge there might be differences in what we do with our preschool children that would put them on a more equal footing with whites on the first day of kindergarten."

While he practices that at home, quizzing his 3-year-old with math problems, he is hesitant to speak too much publicly about advising black parents.

"If it shows up in The New York Times, it's like, wait a minute, here's another guy saying to black parents, 'It's your fault.' This needs to be done within the community."

In this community, Robert Marchman, 45, a lawyer with the New York Stock Exchange, has taken on the Gap. He is chairman of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, which has been sponsoring discussions on the Gap and helped bring Professor Ferguson here.

Mr. Marchman is one of a dozen black dads who run a mentoring program for 30 black eighth graders. "We talk about stuff you hear, like, 'being smart is acting white,' " Mr. Marchman said. "I'll say to them, 'So what does being black mean? To be an idiot?' "

Mr. Marchman himself has bridged the Gap. He grew up in a Brooklyn housing project and when he was a senior, took the SAT, without any preparation. In the high school guidance office, he picked a college by starting with the letter "A" which landed him at Alleghany College.

By law school — at the University of Pennsylvania — he was no longer making educational decisions based on alphabetical order.

Last summer, before his older son, David, entered 10th grade, Mr. Marchman bought the boy his first SAT study guide.

While Mr. Marchman played basketball ("that's all there was"), he encouraged David to switch from football to lacrosse, because it is a niche sport that might help get him into a top college.

Though Mr. Marchman has made it to the far side of the Gap, he keeps his guard up. At the start of each school year, he makes appointments to see the teachers of his sons, David and Travis. "I put on a business suit," he says. "I want to set the tone with the teachers. I want them to know we have high expectations." His are black children to be encouraged, he wants the teachers to know.

And though Mr. Marchman no longer needs affirmative action, he supports it, for even in this suburban place, he can see more clearly than most all those children still finding their way across the Gap.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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