John Ogbu was a major figure in educational anthropology. The impact of his writings and his influence on hundreds of students and colleagues will be felt for decades to come. His work has been translated into numerous languages and has influenced educational debates within and beyond the field of anthropology.
Like many scholars before and since, Ogbu searched for explanations for the disproportionate rates of academic failure among ethnic minorities in the U.S. He found explanations based on “cultural differences” unconvincing, noting that some minorities manage to succeed at rates equal to or above those of white students, despite being culturally and linguistically quite different from the “mainstream.” He instead pro-posed that the essential factor shaping minority students’ orientation toward formal schooling was their status as either “voluntary” or “involuntary” minorities. Voluntary minorities are immigrants by choice who aspire to succeed on the terms of their host country; success may lead to cultural assimilation but is not in itself incompatible with membership in the minority group. Involuntary minorities, however, are the descendents of enslaved or colonized peoples (e.g., African Americans) who formed their collective identity in a context of oppression by the dominant group (whites). An essential element of involuntary minorities’ group identity is their oppositionality vis-à-vis the dominant group, expressed through alternative cultural practices and resistance to dominant institutions, including the school.
Ogbu stressed the importance of students’ own cultural practices and group identity to their school experience, but unlike “cultural difference” explanations of minority school failure, he situates minority students’ oppositional culture and identity in larger structures of racism and economic marginalization. According to Ogbu, as African American youth become cognizant of the “glass ceiling” limiting their economic advancement, they reject the ideology that posits educational achievement as the key to social mobility. Furthermore, since academic achievement is equated with “acting white,” it is viewed as incompatible with full cultural membership in the minority culture. Ogbu saw African Americans as a “caste-like” minority, their subordinate status enforced by dominant ideologies of contamination and inferiority, similar to those pertaining to rigid caste societies. While subject to the criticism that the U.S. racial hierarchy is in fact considerably less rigid than actual caste societies, Ogbu’s ideas are supported by research showing that many groups that are low-achieving “involuntary minorities” in their home countries become high-achieving “voluntary minorities” after migrating to the U.S. While recent theories of race and ethnicity posit such categories as considerably more fluid and arbitrary than Ogbu presents them, those same theories also support Ogbu’s notion that dominant and subordinate identities are forged relationally in the same historical cauldron, rather than as independent cultural entities. Furthermore, the growing body of research into youth cultures has demonstrated the centrality of oppositional identities and resistant cultural practices to the lives and values of minority adolescents.
Ogbu was also a prominent voice in the debate over the role of Ebonics (African American Vernacular English) in formal education. As part of a California task force on African American education, he stressed the incompatibility between the linguistic norms of Standard English and those of African American communities. The task force and the Oakland School Board called for the educational use of Ebonics to help African American students transition to Standard English, but their position did not ultimately prevail. The Ebonics controversy spread far beyond academia to eventually engage the entire nation, evoking (but not resolving) myriad conflicts and popular misconceptions about race, language, and minority education in the United States.
At the time of his death, Ogbu was still theorizing the relationship between collective identity and cultural/ linguistic boundaries, and using cross-cultural data to shed light on notions of intelligence and “scientific testing” of minorities. His interest in the influence of culture change on cognitive skills led him to examine what he called “cultural amplifiers of intelligence” (e.g., schooling, art involvement, indigenous economic activities) and their effects on cognition. Ogbu was buried in his native Nigeria.
- Gibson, M. A., Ed. (1997). Ethnicity and school performance: Complicating the immigrant/ involuntary minority typology. Theme issue of Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 28(3).
- Ogbu, J. (1978). Minority education and caste: The American system in cross-cultural perspective. New York: Academic Press.
- Ogbu, J. (1999). Beyond language: Ebonics, proper English, and identity in a Black-American speech community. American Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 147-184.