Review of “Multiplication is For White People” by Lisa Delpit

MacArthur Fellow and education professor Lisa Delpit (author of the seminal book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom) takes on the “pedagogy of poverty” in this exploration of why education is still failing poor students of color. She charges that in spite of the fact that America has a black president,

“…we are far from a color-blind society, that African Americans are still devalued, stigmatized, and made invisible.”

In particular, she points to “microaggressions,” the term coined by Harvard researcher Chester Pierce, which refers to:

“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

As Pierce observed, any one of these may not be of great consequence, but when added together over time create a deadly psychological assault.

Delpit provides numerous examples of children of color (including her own daughter) being discounted, discredited, and stereotyped in the classroom.

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The author reminds us that research shows there is no achievement gap at birth. But as minority children endure year after year of this treatment, they begin to “disidentify” with school and education and may either protest by acting out, or withdraw by disengaging. As Delpit writes, “Disidentified students become aliens in the academic world.”

Part of the problem is that different socioeconomic classes and different ethnicities have quite different ways of expressing themselves and of learning. When white teachers encounter these differences in children of color, they very often infer the child is learning impaired or disruptive or incapable of learning, when this may not be the case at all. Most critically, the students and their innate capabilities (or lack thereof) are blamed for failures in achievement rather than a deficiency in the teachers.

Interestingly, Delpit reports that one unexpected and deleterious effect of the Brown v. Board of Education decision (desegregating the schools) was that a large number of black teachers and administrators lost their jobs and were replaced by whites (at the insistence of white parents). These new educators were not necessarily better qualified than those they replaced. But even many well-meaning and qualified white teachers went into these newly integrated classrooms with a view of themselves as the white “saviors” of the black children. There were two other bad results as well: one was that black students were less likely to see people “who looked like them” in positions of authority. Perhaps more importantly, these white teachers and principals had little understanding of the cultures and styles of learning of their students.

As a result, behaviors that may be overlooked in whites are disparaged and punished in blacks. (A study released in March 2014 by the Department of Education found that while black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment they make up 48 percent of preschool children who receive more than one out-of-school suspension.) Is it a matter of black students just being not as well behaved? Data is only beginning to be analyzed, but anecdotal evidence at least, as reported in “The Washington Post,” suggests this is not the case.

What happens to those students who have become alienated from education? As one educator said, “the disenfranchised will either implode and destroy themselves or explode in our own front yards and most assured destroy us.” Do we really want to abandon all these children and create dangerous and expensive social problems rather than encouraging every child to reach his or her potential and contribute to society in a positive way? What must be done to change this pattern?

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Delpit admits there are things educators cannot change, such as the level of poverty in a community, but asserts that blaming poverty is just an excuse for poor teaching. She identifies many examples of programs in blighted areas that experienced success when children were treated as if they could and would succeed. She proposes a formula for fostering excellence in urban classrooms that includes recognizing the inherent brilliance of poor, urban children and teaching them more content, not less; demanding critical thinking; providing children with emotional ego strength; and honoring and respecting the children’s home cultures, inter alia.

Unfortunately, recent education “reforms” with their emphasis on worksheets and test preparation make instituting these practices difficult. Even charter schools have started to weed their student populations in favor of less challenging students whose scores will generate more funding.

We must not give up, though, she urges. What is at stake is too important. It is only by continuing to push open dialogue on these issues (as she does with her books) that educators can honor their sacred trust to “fill our students’ hearts and minds with the potential for envisioning a future better than we ourselves can even imagine.” And that means filling all our students’ hearts and minds.

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Discussion: Obviously the quality of American education is suffering in all socioeconomic groups. (See for example this article by Elizabeth Green, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”, an except from a new book on problems with teaching.) But middle and upper class white children, as members of the social majority, have opportunities and resources not available to poor children of color. Moreover, they have a more immediate acceptance and sense of comfort by how they are treated, which enables them to maintain a positive attitude and the expectation of success. This optimistic frame of mind is easier to maintain when one is not beaten down at every corner. Simply stated, those who think people of color are “oversensitive” have never gone through life as a person of color.

Evaluation: Anyone concerned about the quality of American education and the future of American society will find this book illuminating, as will anyone who contends that we in America have come to “the end of racism.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by The New Press, 2012

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8 Responses to Review of “Multiplication is For White People” by Lisa Delpit

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I admittedly never had the opportunity to see any of this with my kids in a private school. But now with Ryan in an inner city public school with over 600 kids per grade, I’ve got a different view. Fascinating on how the advantage of his private schooling put him way ahead of most other kids, however I think the level of education there is good. Ryan has interesting observations of the dynamics going on in these classrooms…it is definitely not a simple issue. Some of the children of color may have been beaten down over the years, but there is some attitude there that is going to seal the deal if they don’t make an effort.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    Schools are failing so many of our students. When Vance was in school, I felt that a lot of things were skewed toward females. The thing is middle class and beyond can afford tutors, computers, books, iPads, enrichment programs, etc. so the schools’ failures aren’t as obvious in those groups. I do think part of the schools’ problems start at home because so many parents are quick to make excuses for their children these days.

  3. It sounds like an important book about a depressing problem. I think the discussion of education for minority groups and the effects of poverty go hand in hand. There’s bias and prejudice, but then there is also the compounding effect of poverty. The school district that we lived in in Oregon had high poverty levels and horrible ratings for the schools, yet the minorities were of a different composition (Latino) – it was the poverty that was the overriding factor. Now that we live in a city in the Midwest, we are exposed to a different variety of ethnicities, yet have fewer minorities in the wonderful school that my kids go to because we live in an area where families are not living in poverty. Go a few miles across town though and you will find public schools with high minority (African American) enrollment, high poverty, higher crime. It’s frustrating to see the crime reports on TV and see that it’s almost always a certain area of town – and wonder how different things would be if the people in that area weren’t stuck in a cycle of desperate poverty. There is certainly more prejudice here against African Americans, and in ways that I’m sure people who are privileged and have lived here all of there lives don’t much notice.

  4. I taught pre-kindergarten for disadvantaged students. Already at age 4 you can tell they are behind. We did home visits before school started and we went to drug dens, homes without toys or books, homes that had leaky roofs, Project 8 housing, 4 families living in a 2 bedroom apartment, homeless kids whose only meal all day was the free lunch at school and who slept at school because they were too scared to sleep at night on the street, and these were not even the immigrant families.

    Often those families were much better to work with because they still believed in the American educational system. All I could do was make sure each child was ready to enter Kindergarten but there was always one each year you knew you’d see on COPS one day and it would break your heart.

  5. Rachel says:

    Ugh. This makes my worried for my daughter. We’re middle class though so she’s go that going for her.

    Incidentally, I met an AA man in his 70s who grew up the son of sharecroppers. He was actually somewhat against segregation for all the reasons you mention above but also b/c in a school with all black teachers and students, the teachers could teach the students how to survive in the white world, i.e. how not to get shot for wearing a hoodie and walking down the street.

  6. Care says:

    Thank you for this post. I am studying this in my English Language Learner class this semester! You’ve given me some great sources for this week’s assignment.

  7. stacybuckeye says:

    Thanks for discussing this book, Jill. This doesn’t surprise me, but it’s sad that it still goes on.

  8. litandlife says:

    Very interesting stuff. I’ve been looking to expand my nonfiction reading and this might just be a good one for me.

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