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June 3rd, 2009
02:53 PM ET

What do you expect of black students?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/02/26/btsc.journey.change/art.jeremy.baker.gi.jpg caption="Black in America 2 premieres July 22-23"]

CNN

Back in 1972, on an episode of "All in the Family," Gloria posed the following riddle to Archie and Meathead.

Father and son go driving. There's an accident. The father is killed instantly, the son is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. The surgeon walks in, takes one look at the patient and says, "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."

The answer to the apparent paradox eluded Archie, Meathead and the guys down at Kelsey's bar for the balance of the half hour. They floated theories involving stepfathers, sons-in-law, priests, adoptions and returns from the dead. All of which Archie apparently found more believable than the true answer which was, of course, that the surgeon was the boy's mother. "If that's the answer," he spouted, "that's the dumbest riddle I ever hoid!"

Thirty-seven years later it is, perhaps, difficult to appreciate why this riddle ever was a riddle, how so apparent an answer could have stymied Archie, Meathead and, I would wager, the vast majority of the viewing audience.

The riddle speaks volumes not just about how the world has changed in four decades, but also about how unconscious expectations can blind us to the obvious. In 1972, one expected a man when one heard the word "surgeon."

Much as, in 2009, one expects a white kid when one hears the word "scholar."

People will deny this, will say all the right and politic things. But the disclaimers will be as thin and transparent as Saran Wrap. Black, white and otherwise, we are all socialized by the same forces and all carry, by and large, the same unconscious assumptions. One of which is that a certain level of achievement is black and another is white.

This is what you are hearing when a black kid speaks standard English and another black kid chides him for "talking white." This is what George W. Bush was alluding to when he decried "the soft bigotry of low expectations." And this is what we need to address forthrightly if we ever hope to close the so-called achievement gap that looms between black kids and white ones.

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Filed under: Black in America
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Victoria

    This article's premise is bogus; the author buys into a notion of white being the norm and black or any other race being the "other".

    Why else do we always hear media say "black /asian/hispanic / latino community" leaders yet no one ever reads about "white" community leaders, as if we vote but someone the legislators work only for whites!

    Until narrow-minded twits like this writer quit fanning racist stereotypes (dept of education has already shown over and over that when compared by socioeconomic factors, blacks and hispanics do just as well and sometimes better than their white counterparts.

    June 3, 2009 at 9:13 pm |
  2. michelle agha

    Expect the best and no different from any other race.

    June 3, 2009 at 8:45 pm |
  3. michelle agha

    let's let the past remain there, focus on today, make a better place for all people. I'm a mother of a 7 year old son, and everyday i encourage him with words of wisdom because i refuse to settle for less with him, he's my future, our future, let us please make a change!

    June 3, 2009 at 8:43 pm |
  4. B in California

    @Sol–ABSOLUTELY! I agree! I'm a young woman of African American dissent, and I just graduated from the University of Southern California (GO TROJANS), and there is always a look of surprise when I say that. Or, when I open my mouth to speak, people seem to comment on, "How I speak so well....", I think because I don't speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English). However, I just wonder, "Why Shouldn't I speak well, I just graduated from the second most selective University in the western region" (second to only Stanford). Point being, whether we like to admit it or not, we still have these racial stigmas in our society. And they're here because we don't deal with them. I too watch All in the Family on Nick @ Night, and see a lot of the same people like Archie Bunker in my classes and in our society.

    Happy Birthday Anderson!!!

    June 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  5. Lampe

    I grew up in an almost all White Area, went to an almost all White School. What my parents told me was. "If you go to school and do your best, that is all anyone can ask of you, but, if you don't do your best, then you and you alone are making it easy for others to say "We were right about them all along." Sure things weren't easy growing up, just like things aren't easy in alot of the world, but you work with what you have, and you make the best of it. My father worked two jobs, and my mother worked one, just so we can have a roof over or heads, and food in our stomachs. The problem with most folks today, is they think they are entitled to everything, nothing in this life time is free. Get off your lazy behinds, find work, make a better life for you and yours, and stop waiting for the man to make things right. And if your child is hanging on the street corner at 3 or 4 am , don't blame someone else if he gets in trouble, and stop saying " HE or She was a good child." No good comes to babies under the age of 18 on the corner and not in bed at that time. And start teaching our AA children there is more to life that a Football contract.

    June 3, 2009 at 7:57 pm |
  6. Eboney, Providence, RI

    It still amazes me to this day, how naive people are about racism. I can't believe that people think racism is something of the distant past. I mean the atrocity of Hurricane Katrina was not long ago. I completely celebrate my new President, however there still is a long road ahead. I believe his achievement was possible because of the younger generation as well as people who have been fighting this struggle and were ready for this new America, regardless of their race. Hope is universal.

    However even within these comments it shows how narrow minded people are. I've never met an African American, or any other person of Color who thought they would "get" a job because of their race. It's almost mind boggling that someone sees Affirmative Action like that. The fact that more than any other group, Affirmative Action benefits White women are lost on many Americans. So the joke was very relevant because we are in a place that people can hardly imagine that without Affirmative Action many workplaces would be as it was many years ago, an old boys network.

    Lastly if you want to know if it's as easy as just "wanting" to achieve, to make it, visit any inner city public school. Then let me know if all people start out on an equal footing. Brown v. Board of Education could be argued as easily today, based on the idea of "separate but equal". They say education is the great equalizer, but our schools are failing most of our poorer children.

    June 3, 2009 at 6:54 pm |
  7. Eboney, Providence, RI

    It still amazes me to this day, how ignorant people are about racism. I can't believe that people think racism is something of the distant past. I mean the atrocity of Hurricane Katrina was not long ago. I completely celebrate my new President, however there still is a long road to ahead. I believe his achievement was possible because of the younger generation as well as people who have been fighting this struggle and were ready for this new America regardless of race. Hope is universal.

    However even within these comments it shows how people are so narrow minded and ignorant. I've never met an African American, or any other person of Color who thought they would "get" a job because of their race. It's almost mind boggling that someone sees Affirmative Action like that. The fact that more than any other group, Affirmative Action benefits White women are lost on many Americans. So the joke was very relevant because we are in a place that people can hardly imagine that without Affirmative Action many workplaces would be as it was many years ago, an old boys network.

    Lastly if you want to know if it's as easy as just "wanting" to achieve, to make it, visit any inner city public school. Then let me know if all people start out on an equal footing. Brown v. Board of Education could be argued as easily today, based on the idea of "separate but equal". They say education is the great equalizer, but our schools are failing most of our poorer children.

    June 3, 2009 at 6:48 pm |
  8. Isabel Jimenez, Miami, FL

    Thank you, LYN. You have just made an excellent point; I hope more people read & appreciate your comment regarding "What do you expect of black students?", as well as the aforementioned article (in its entirety).

    June 3, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  9. Carol, Evanston, IL

    A lot depends on where the student attends school. I am retired now, but I taught in a "good" school in a system of over 500 schools. Despite attempts to make the schools equal, they were not. If a Black student began his education in our school, or a school like our school, with the same advantages, I expected the same from him/her as I would from any student I taught. If the student was sent to us from a school on the "watch list," perhaps, I would not have expected as much. In the end, it all depended on the student. I have had transfer students from some of the worst areas of the city that were excellent students. The "playing field" must be level.

    June 3, 2009 at 6:05 pm |
  10. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    @Avis, actually stereotypes are typically based on facts. For example, if you look at income by race in the US, Asians top the list followed by whites, Hispanics, and Blacks. If you look at IQ by race the results are the same Asians, whites, Hispanics, Blacks. Coincidence?

    June 3, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  11. Mari

    @ Earle, Florida........ Couldn't have said it better myself. Kudos!

    June 3, 2009 at 5:23 pm |
  12. LYN

    The reason scholar is perceived to be a white student, because when African-American’s achieve or described they have the prelude of Black Scholar, Black President, or as simple as a black man. Never do you hear the words White Scholar, White President, or white man. They would just be referred to as a scholar, President, or a man. Even through this article, they clarified when it was a black man, if we do not change how we speak, nor will those perceptions.

    June 3, 2009 at 5:23 pm |
  13. Brennis

    I like how no one is commenting on this article that is not of color...oops should I say minority....once again AMerica turns a blind eye...so you voted in a black president who is only half black by the way...so you have a couple of cool points to give yourself but for the black american the struggle is still against the average white american and their thoughts and stereotypes that are conditioning their minds every day and have been. Black people get it together not for this country's views of us but for our selves...because THOSE people will never respect us as equals and THEY will never accept us for being exactly who he are different and beautiful (no tyra) yet intelligent and contributory uniquely.

    Sad, sad day in america....please don't bring this stuff up anymore...THEY don't know how to handel it yet.

    June 3, 2009 at 5:18 pm |
  14. Isabel Jimenez, Miami, FL

    I was not born when "All in the Family" premiered on CBS back in the early 70s. However, I have seen enough episodes on Nick-at-Nite (& what-have-you...) to conclude at least 2 things: 1) It sure sounds like an AITF episode–& a good one, too; & 2) AITF is still a VERY relevant TV series, even after all these years. That reason, among several others, is probably why many people–myself included–consider AITF to be the classic landmark TV series that it is.

    We may have come a long way as far as human society & history is concerned (at least up to this point...); however, we all have a heck of a long, long way to go. The very least that ANY of us can do is strive hard to leave this world of ours a better place than when we first found it.

    P.S. Please let Anderson Cooper know that I would like to wish him a very Happy Birthday, & that he has many, many more of them.

    June 3, 2009 at 5:08 pm |
  15. Lampe

    If anyone Squanders chances in their life, no matter how small it is their fault, not someone else's predjudice.

    June 3, 2009 at 4:54 pm |
  16. Michelle E

    I think the most important line in the article is, "Most of all, they spoke of the simple power of expectation."

    As a former smart kid (much dumber adult), I heard the phrase "talking white" often. Whenever somebody said this to me, I was reminded of my parents explanation. They explained that the kids were not really talking about me, or to me. That they were really talking to my teacher or to anyone else who minimized their contribution and praised mine because of the way I spoke.

    My parents taught me that teachers ideally have high expectations of every child and finds ways to recognize contributions across the board. They reinforced this with a mantra that that being smart did not make me better, it just made me smart, usually followed by, “now don’t get smart with me young lady.” They also reminded me not to be shy in telling my classmates that I respected and like them even if they didn't sound like me and they better figure out how to do the same, if not, they’d have deal with me at kickball, on the court, or on the dance floor.

    Needless to say, I got pretty good at sports and dancing, and, my classmates sometimes decided to sound like me

    June 3, 2009 at 4:54 pm |
  17. DJ

    My granddaughter (age 3) is black (I am white) said to me the other day. "Grandma, see the planes in the sky, they are sooooo big." Her fasination with planes over the past few months prompted me to say to her, "So are you going to be a pilot when you grow up?" "Yes, I gonna be a piwet." Her sweet innocents and obvious no clue what a pilot really is leads me to respond to this sream of opinions. She can be whoever she wants to be and not just because we have a black man for a president now, but because I believe what we put into the minds of our young – black or white – can influence them to where they will be some day. When raising my daughter her grandmother on her father's side asked me how could I possible raise a black child being a white woman. I said, "Because I am not raising a color, I am raising a human being and I will teach her there are those that will love her for the same reasons other don't, but nobody gets to decide her destiny but her."

    June 3, 2009 at 4:49 pm |
  18. Gnubi

    Given the same opportunities as the white students Anderson,this wouldn't have been a question.

    June 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm |
  19. brandon

    Can't we just all work our very hardest to achieve our goals and let them do the talking? The whole riddle thing just confuses the issue... I'm so tired of affirmative action, it only tells our minorities that they don't have to be the best, just to depend on their racial background to carry them through. Its not fair to minorities or anyone else. If I were to get a job, I'd want it to be because I was the best candidate and most qualified. And for the record, when I hear the word scholar, I don't think of any race in particular. This is a generational thing, I am 27, perhaps our older generations think in the way this story suggests, but I doubt anyone near my age or younger feels this way. The same is true for same sex marriage. These issues which are based in biggotry and racism just aren't as prevalent in the minds of those who will soon be in control. Therefore, the idea that this is a major ongoing issue is really moot. Everyone is equal and in a short time (10 years or less) we will have this problems fixed.

    June 3, 2009 at 4:26 pm |
  20. Sol

    People need to be honest about the current state of affairs in our educational system. It is unfairly balanced. Where I live it is no coincidence that the white students are doing far better than their black counterparts. The majority of the white students live in a better socio-economic school district and therefore they have better resources. They have books, supplies and good teachers. They are told they can do anything they want (and heck look at their endless supply of role models). They attend school is safe neighborhoods. They do not have to worry about drive by shootings and the crackheads down the block. They can walk to and from school with zero fears.

    Also the support at the schools for the white students is quite different from those schools that are predominantly black and/or Hispanic. The expectations for a white suburban student differ greatly than those of a black suburban student. The white student is expected to graduate college and go onto greater things (ie. banker, lawyer, doctor etc.) and the black student is lucky enough to have someone believe he can even graduate high school.

    We all have to work hard to get ahead but let us be honest, some of us, have the odds stacked against us.

    June 3, 2009 at 4:26 pm |
  21. rebekahhi

    The facts are what they are, as Popeye the Sailor man may have said if he was better educated. White males still earn more income, minority women have a better chance than all others besides white men to be hired today if equally educated but that doesn't mean they will earn the same rate of pay. All kids no matter what need our support and all the education they can get in today's world. Hispanic population is growing at a faster rate than African Americans and we must all work longer years and hold on to our jobs, employment is still high for college and university grads as well as across the nation.
    And for those of us who saw it coming and decided to better educate ourselves for the employment market miss calculated the height of the lack of jobs wave coming upon us as we spend money to be able to secure a better job.

    June 3, 2009 at 4:22 pm |
  22. earle,florida

    They are our countries future! Yes,those that were surpressed for centuries without tapping the intellectual,and human resources,that we now have come to realized were squandered by ignorant predjudice. Now is time to move on with "Hope" as President Obama so eloquently celebrated! Go President Obama

    June 3, 2009 at 4:13 pm |
  23. Michele Briere

    I don't know, Anderson; what do I expect? I expect ALL students, no matter their race, to work as hard as they can and be honorable citizens, without crabbing about the injustices of their ancestors. We all have issues in the ancestry department; my ancestors were Eastern European Jews. I don't go around boo-hooing the past. Nothing I can do about it now except move forward and honor them.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:59 pm |
  24. Avis Stringer

    As an African American, I get frustrated when I hear people settling for anything! I think that we should all try to excel and banish the stereotyped images of our people. Look at the Asians! Their stereotype is that they are ALL smart, wealthy & hardworking. We as a people need to do better to improve our collective image.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  25. David

    I'm not sure the riddle about the surgeon is actually discriminatory as opposed to just playing on stereotypes. The reason....I presented the riddle to 4 women and 4 men. They were all stumped. Even the women did not guess it.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  26. Roni

    I agree.. HOWEVER don't be so quick to say the surgeon riddle would not still produce the same result if asked on a sitcom today. People still think white male when they think doctor. Not that much has changed.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:53 pm |
  27. JC- Los Angeles

    It's the height of hypocrisy, after January 20th, 2009, to frame any conversation along racial lines.

    It's not about color but rather taking advantage of opportunities afforded all Americans.

    While Jewish people could easily say the Holocaust presented insurmountable challenges, it's diificult to recall having ever heard such a thing uttered.

    January 20th, 2009 was a new day in America for those willing to embrace it and the beginning of the end for those grasping to excuses from the past.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  28. FinesseTheBest

    That title threw me off, but will attract readers. I think that title should have a different name. I'm personally not a writer or editor so I cannot provide suggestions... Just a thought!

    ~FinesseTheBest~

    June 3, 2009 at 3:50 pm |
  29. SLM

    Apparently Sotomayor thinks standards should be lower for Black Firefighters, since she ruled against the white ones. There should be no difference in expectations. Everyone has the same opportunity and can do as well as they WANT to. Race should not play a role or an excuse.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:40 pm |