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Civil Rights Ate My Homework
by Richard Davis
19 December 2003No Excuses

The central civil rights issue is “our failure to provide first-class education to black and Hispanic students, in both cities and suburbs." A review of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom.

On the first page of their critically acclaimed book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom inform readers, as they would inform audiences repeatedly during their book tour, that the widening racial gap in education is the “central civil rights issue of our time.”  Thus they begin No Excuses with one of the biggest excuses of them all.

If poor student performance is a civil rights issue, then of course that demands more government involvement, more regulation, more bureaucracy, more money -- in short, more of the same. Worse, it perpetuates the Victim’s Excuse, which has more legs than the proverbial homework-hungry dog. 

It also appears to contradict the Thernstroms’ own principal conclusion that parental attitudes, not civil rights deprivation, are the ultimate cause of the gap. Black parents expect less of their kids than do Asian or white parents, and the kids respond as expected, or so goes their somewhat obvious hypothesis.

The Thernstroms have long been active in race and civil rights matters -- Abigail is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights -- therefore it’s not surprising that they find civil rights issues behind every situation involving African-Americans. (What is surprising, on the other hand, is that they defy orthodoxy and assign at least partial responsibility to African-Americans themselves, which makes their book highly controversial.)  

To the Thernstroms, civil rights are color coded. They find no civil rights issues, for example, with the performance gap between whites and Asians, though that gap is even larger than the white-black gap and also growing. And given racial demographics in America -- blacks comprise just 17% of all school students -- the total number of underperforming white students at the most dismal levels, including dropouts, has always exceeded the number of such black students. No civil rights problem there.

The central civil rights issue, according to the Thernstroms, is “our failure to provide first-class education to black and Hispanic students, in both cities and suburbs.” Actually, the central issue, as their book makes clear, is the failure of a large number of black and Hispanic students to take advantage of the education that is offered to them, good or bad, for reasons that have nothing to do with civil rights (except as they provide an excuse for underachievement).

I have a civil right to a public education, much as I have a right to vote, but if I am a substandard student, undisciplined, unprepared, often tardy, perhaps even hostile and disruptive, and my academic performance is correspondingly poor, my civil rights have not been violated. In fact, in so far as I interfere with the education of fellow students, I am violating their civil rights. The failure of my teachers and school to prevent me from doing that may be a further violation of their civil rights, and it is that failure we should accord centrality to. “The level of disorder and disruptive student behavior in many of our urban public schools is shocking,” write the Thernstroms.

This argument, that poor-performing schools evidence a civil rights failure, poses an embarrassing dilemma for civil rights advocates and liberal educators in general. They have had virtually absolute control over these schools, their curricula and environments, for more than a quarter of a century. Hundreds of billions of dollars
have been handed over to them almost without restrictions. Now these same people say to us, “We have made a royal mess of things, and they’re only getting tragically worse. Your failure to prevent us from doing this -- and we will fight you tooth and nail if you try to stop us -- has now created the central civil rights issue of our time.” 

Uncharacteristically, they have a point.

(One can expand this theme further by noting that many of the cultural factors identified as perpetuating failure and underperformance by minority children, most significantly the breakdown of the traditional family structure that has led to high illegitimacy and single-mother homes, have been exacerbated by well-intentioned liberal social programs that have only promoted poverty, dependence, crime, pessimism and irresponsibility.)

There are reasons behind every underperforming child -- and how many of us wouldn’t include ourselves in this category? -- but rarely today do they involve civil rights, which, despite their opening rhetoric, is actually the point of Thernstroms’ book.

The Thernstroms’ go on to write that this academic achievement gap is the “main source of ongoing racial inequality” in America today. Actually, that’s good news with a bad-news sidebar, though here, too, they (over)state the obvious. That the source of inequality is education and not civil rights signals a triumphant success for American society. We should be proud of ourselves, even though there’s still other work to be done.

Educational gaps, caused by a combination of personal and cultural factors, are inherently the main sources of inequality, racial or otherwise, in most Western societies. Every large family, graduating class or local community knows that from firsthand experience. Two kids start school together, even at a poor-performance urban school, and one becomes a highly paid doctor while the other struggles to get by as a day laborer. Although it’s hard for some to accept, both may represent a civil rights success.

Furthermore, the black-white inequality gap has been shrinking at a remarkable rate over the past 30 years, and there’s no indication that is about to be reversed. The one inequality gap that has been expanding is the one between haves and have-nots in general, and most have-nots are white. There are nine times as many whites living in poverty as blacks, according to the US census. Of course, no one couches their predicament in civil rights terms. But, then, there is no civil right to economic equality.

To be fair to the Thernstroms, once one gets beyond this civil-rights sermonizing No Excuses drops the excuses and faces unblinking America’s education woes, its causes and solutions. They debunk most of the left’s conventional wisdom that more money, smaller classes, more integration, higher-degreed teachers, etc., will solve the problems, and for that reason alone the book is a valuable and necessary addition to the discussion. It’s difficult to imagine any long-term remedies that don’t borrow generously from the Thernstroms’ no-excuses prescription.

But they should have been more thorough in jettisoning excuses. Not every social dilemma involving nonwhites is a civil rights matter. Making it seem so when it isn’t only deepens blacks’ emotional dependency on a debilitating psychological crutch.

The Thernstroms know the insidious and pervasive reach of this excuse. They note in their book that underlying the pessimism and failure of most underperforming blacks, the excuse they recite almost religiously, is this very one, that their civil rights to opportunity in America are denied them anyway, so there’s no point in trying. 

That excuse was dead years before they were even born, and it’s time we finally lay it to rest for their sake and ours.

No Excuses is available on Amazon.com.

Richard Davis is a former journalist living in Florida.

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