What If It’s Not All About Race?

The racial achievement gap in the Madison school district, like most others across the country, has long been a topic of discussion, a flurry of programs and lots of public and private investment, all with a notable lack of success.

But what if we’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

It is a matter of dogma here that the one and only cause of the gap is racism. It explains 100% of the problem. To quote Ibram X. Kendi, “where I see racial disparities I see racism.” To suggest that anything else might be involved is a third rail so charged that virtually nobody ever touches it.

But let’s touch it here — it’s what we do.

The idea that all of the achievement gap is due to race has never made intuitive sense to me. Because if it were true, then all low-achieving students would be Black, but of course they’re not. If the whole system is set up to reward white kids, then why are there any low achieving white students at all? It must be because more goes into all this than just race.

That intuitive response got a boost in a recent column by the excellent New York Times writer Thomas B. Edsall. In it he explores the achievement gap not between white students and students of color, but between boys and girls. As is his practice, he consults with academic researchers and other experts, and in this case they conclude that boys of any color from single parent families perform worse in school and act out more than boys from two parent families. In short, the absence of a father in a boy’s life makes a huge difference. The research shows that the absence of a father has much less effect on girls.

Edsall quotes one study: “The absence of stable fathers from children’s lives has particularly significant adverse consequences for boys’ psychosocial development and educational achievement. On a wide variety of self-control, acting-out, and disciplinary measures (including eighth-grade suspension), the gap between boys and girls is substantially greater for children reared in single-mother-headed households than in households with two biological parents.”

And since there are more single parent Black families, it follows that more Black young men are going to be negatively effected by this than others. In other words, maybe the problem — at least among male students — is not so much their race as their gender.

In addition, a culture that rips endlessly on men and all masculine traits (“the future is female”) is only going to make things worse. This could also partially explain why, when they grow into adulthood, more men of color are joining their white counterparts in “acting out” in the voting booth by casting ballots for candidates like Donald Trump. In this regard, along with immigration, dealing with the plight of non-college educated men is key to doing nothing less than saving liberal democracy.

So, if we’re going to ever solve the racial achievement gap the solution might be to stop thinking about it that way in the first place. There is simply a gap between high and average achieving students and those who fall behind. It’s right to focus attention and resources on the kids who aren’t keeping up.

But if we’re going to put those resources to good use, then we need to correctly diagnose the problem, and the problem is complex. I have no doubt that race plays some role, but the evidence presented by Edsall suggests that gender and family structure play a much greater role, as does the personal responsibility of the kid and his parents.

You can’t solve a problem until you define it correctly. It’s pretty clear that in Madison and other communities, we are badly misreading the student achievement gap, and so we’re wasting time and resources on interventions that can’t possibly work.

Welcome to the 217th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

8 thoughts on “What If It’s Not All About Race?

  1. Let’s do a 50 year “progress check”. Who is your favorite Black Power revolutionary from the 60’s? Is it Angela Davis? Maybe Bobby Rush or Fred Hampton or Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael? Perhaps Bobby Seale or Huey Newton or someone else? FUN FACT– All were the products of two parent families. All enjoyed the benefits of both a father and mother in the home. Most also enjoyed the security of brothers and sisters.

    A scenario that is not typical, just all too common, is this –(for illustrative purposes only)— If a man fathers children with three different women, and each of those women bear the children of two other men, each child has four half-siblings (two in residence and two absent). If any of those seven men wanted to be a “father” do they focus on their own children and exclude the others? Do they try to be a “dad” to all nine? Such fluid family dynamics are destructive to a child.


    1. I’d be interested to see if there are anthropological exceptions to this idea, where child-raising structures are not necessarily 2-parent.

      A contemporary story: when my spouse and I had our 1st child only one of us was working full time, the other in school full time. We had too much income to qualify for any benefits except the one I didn’t need (insurance), but things were pretty tight, our income was pretty low. We realized that had we been unmarried the state would have paid for our child care and food, and that would have made a HUGE difference.

      So I’m my experience it was an unwise decision (financially) to be married while having children. And we wonder why it’s uncommon to be married in low income communities….


      1. “We realized that had we been unmarried the state would have paid for our child care and food,…..” .

        Who is this “state” that you are referring to? Your fellow citizens? People who “owe” you nothing? Safety nets are in place to prevent homelessness, hunger and malnutrition, and look out for the welfare of children. They don’t exist to give anyone more disposable income or “make things easier”. But never mind, that’s not the point.

        No one CARES if people in “low income communities” marry or not. This is about a man and a woman making a commitment to each other, and their children, to provide a stable environment FOR those children. A home with a mother and father, not a mother and a string of boyfriends. Marriage is not a requirement for that.

        To answer your first question about “anthropological exceptions” to two parent child raising, the answer is no, only in mythology. (the Amazons)

        You’re a good man Rollie, you’re a “thinker”, and that is a good thing.


  2. Sure, nothing is ever 100% one thing or another. While racism is a factor, of course there are other factors. It’s like saying smoking causes cancer – there are people who smoke that don’t get cancer. But that fact doesn’t negate the relationship.

    I don’t believe that Kendi is arguing that racism is literally the only factor. But he does highlight that if there is a racial disparity in an outcome, there are essentially only two potential explanations: there is a problem with the racial group themselves or there’s a problem with the larger society. Because he believes that there is not a pathology biologically inherent within people of color, he is (and one could say all of us are) only left with one other option.

    It would be far too much a stretch of imagination to believe that while race is correlated with so many negative life outcomes racism is not also correlated. None of that reasoning excludes other factors, it just highlights that where there is racial disparity there must quite likely be racial bias. He doesn’t bother with the “quite likely” part, as he seems to be tired of beating around the bush 🙂


  3. I agree that having a father is a huge factor. We have such a hard time talking about race. I’ve read that race is a social, not a genetic construct. If race isn’t a factor, being a member of a race-based underclass is. Another factor is that multiple generations of families are still recovering from the very idea of families being torn apart during slavery. Slaves weren’t even allowed family names. Frederick Douglass wrote a first hand account of this. Many people say family is fundamental, so how do you help restore families? Churches seem to have done more than any other other institution on this account. The suffering from a situation can long outlive the situation and even be passed down to future generations.


    1. I agree. There’s absolutely nothing about race in itself that dictates intelligence, character, family structure, etc. It’s all about how society has treated people simply because of their race. But there’s a difference between saying that the solution is to now reverse the discrimination and saying that the answer is to recognize the dysfunction in families and work on fixing that.


  4. Ibram X. Kendi, “where I see racial disparities I see racism.”

    This is a correlation = causation argument and in this case it’s racism and it’s immoral.

    Racist see everything through the bigoted eyes of their own race identity and exclude all other factors as possibilities; with that said, Kendi’s statement “where I see racial disparities I see racism” is pure unadulterated racism and based on that knowledge Kendi is likely (not definitely) a closet racist that’s either blind to his own racism or actively tries to hide it by projecting it on other races, Kendi should do some self reflection on this.

    Those that don’t see Kendi’s statement quoted above as being racism are rationalizing and probably using one or more of the rationalizations on THIS list.

    Racism is immoral.

    My Opinion
    1. Our society, culture and country needs to become relatively race blind making race as irrelevant as possible! There’s only one correct path I can see towards become racially blind in the USA and it has a definite starting point. United States of America needs to take the first giant leap toward to making race irrelevant in the USA by making it illegal to ask any questions regarding race on any form used in the USA, until this is done we cannot take the next steps to achieving a society that’s relatively racially blind.

    2. I also think statisticians need to stop making any statistical analysis based on race. We are all part of the human race and the divisional identity factors of race should be ignored.

    3. I also think the line of thinking in #1 and #2 should be applied to gender.


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