Areas of Expertise


Achievement Gaps
Literature Library


Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. Social Factors

Scholar Identifies Two Sides of Racial Stratification in the U.S.

Racial stratification persists not only because of the ways that whites treat blacks but also because of the responses of blacks to this treatment. A scholar argues that we must understand the basis for racial stratification and racial inequality in the U.S. in order to address it effectively.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Ogbu, J. U. (1994). Racial stratification and education in the United States: Why inequality persists.Teachers College Record,96, 264-298. Retrieved August 2, 2002, from

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Racial stratification in the U.S. is not a simple process.

Scholar John Ogbu argues that the stratification of blacks and whites in the U.S. is a result of a complex dynamic between the ways that whites have treated blacks and the ways that blacks have responded to this treatment. He distinguishes between two types of race relations:

  1. Instrumental actions are relations over the control of important social resources like jobs, education, and income.
  2. Symbolic and relational actions are relations concerning the value or worth attributed to the group and its culture.

Ogbu examines what difference the social rights movement of the 1960s made on these different types of race relations.

White Treatment of Blacks

White treatment of blacks has changed somewhat over the course of the twentieth century. However, says Ogbu, many limitations on black equality remain in place. In the case of black access to education, housing, and jobs, the standard explanation has shifted away from race to explaining continuing inequality because of social class differences.

Before the 1960s

After the 1960s


Whites limited access of blacks to important social resources such as education, jobs, and places to live. While some limitations were covert or based in convention, many of these limitations were supported by law.

During the civil rights era, many of the legal and even conventional practices that allowed whites to limit black access to social resources were dismantled— at least officially.

If blacks were no longer officially discriminated against because of their race, then persisting black inequality must be due to something else. Ogbu says that the standard way of explaining continuing inequality is that it is due to class status rather than racial status.

Symbolic and Relational

Whites put down virtually all aspects of black life and culture. Blacks were considered inferior to whites culturally, morally, intellectually, and linguistically. In order to protect the white population from "contamination" by black culture, interracial marriages were prohibited and blacks were forced to live in segregated areas away from whites.

Polls show that fewer and fewer whites continue to believe that blacks are inferior to whites. Additionally, the rate of interracial marriage is increasing. However, being "successful" for blacks still means not only "acting white" but generally means leaving the black community.

Black Responses to White Oppression

Race relations are not a one way street. How American blacks are defined has as much to do with how blacks respond to whites as how whites treat blacks.

Ogbu notes that black responses to white treatment after the 1960s have not done much to enhance racial equality, however.

Before the 1960s

After the 1960s


Blacks developed their own folk theory that the American system simply worked differently for blacks and whites. For blacks, being educated or "acting white" would still not allow them to advance as far as whites.

Many well-educated and middle-class blacks came to believe that black Americans really did have the same access to social resources as white Americans. They explain continuing racial inequality in terms of class rather than race.

Ogbu says that many of these middle-class blacks fail to realize that they are in the positions they are in not because of changes in social class, but because they have been "sponsored" by white institutions as a way of signaling racial equality. So from Ogbu's perspective, nothing much has changed in terms of economic relations between blacks and whites. The examples of black success are largely a result of legal and normative pressures to demonstrate racial equality rather than real changes in racial access to economic resources.

Symbolic and Relational

Blacks did not simply accept the "white way of acting" as a way to get ahead. Rather, they developed oppositional stances toward the dominant white society and culture. In one example, black linguistic patterns were developed that were not merely different from white ways of talking, but were actually "inversions" of white meanings. For instance, in black parlance the term "bad" was redefined to mean "good." Ogbu says that "the most significant feature of black relational responses to racial stratification is the degree of distrust of white Americans" (Black Responses section, ¶ 16).

Ogbu says that black reactions to the Civil Rights era "have not all been in the expected direction" (Changes in Black Responses section, ¶ 1). Rather than come to define black responses to white society in terms of assimilation or accommodation, Ogbu says that the 1960s increased and reinforced the oppositional stance blacks have toward white society and culture.

Becoming successful for black Americans generally means becoming "white." Successful blacks are expected to talk and dress in ways that conform to white American norms. In other words, being successful means jettisoning distinctive black cultural heritage.

Why Do Many Americans Prefer a Class Explanation of Inequality to a Racial Explanation?

If racial inequality persists and it is not due to class stratification, but racial stratification, why would so many Americans, both black and white, still believe that class stratification is the problem? Ogbu points to two reasons.

  1. Misconception of the racial situation in the U.S. Ogbu says that most Americans misunderstand the unique situation of U.S. blacks. Blacks are in a different situation from any other racial or ethnic group in America. He points to two misconceptions of the black situation that give rise to confusion:
  • The situation of blacks is thought to be similar to the situation of European immigrants. Ogbu distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary immigrants. Because blacks were forced to come to America as slaves, their place in U.S. society is different from racial or ethnic groups who chose to come to the U.S. in search of a better life.
  • Confusion over the notion of assimilation. Ogbu points to a general belief that for blacks to be successful in U.S. society, they must assimilate to white culture. There are two problems with this. First, he says that it is not clear that whites are at all interested in such assimilation. Second, he says that the experience of Chinese-Americans and East Indians shows that different racial and ethnic groups can be successful without assimilating to white culture.
  1. Egalitarian ideology and mythology of individualism. Ogbu says that the deeply held American belief in the values of equality and individualism can prevent people from seeing the reality of the system that underlies their behaviors.

Racial stratification has a long, complex history in the U.S. Unfortunately, it is a reality that persists even to this day, in spite of the Civil Rights era. White treatment of blacks, black responses, and widespread confusion over the real basis of racial inequality prevent America moving ahead to a more racially egalitarian society.

Research Design:

Research Questions

Why does racial inequality persist in the U.S.?

Data and Methods

Ogbu draws on a wide range of research on race and education to make the argument that racial inequality is a result of racial stratification rather than class stratification in the U.S.

Funding Source

Not given.


Copyright © 2007 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.