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
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.