The Media Proves McWhorter Right: Some African-American Youth Believe Academic Excellence is Not “Cool,” by Dr. B.B. Robinson

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A great deal of controversy surrounds Berkeley Professor John H. McWhorter’s recent book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. In his book, McWhorter argues that contemporary African-American youth – the Generation Xers – shun academic excellence because it is not “cool.”

There is a lot of clear evidence on this issue from both sides of the controversy. You are likely to know at least one African-American youth who has excelled academically, and was laden with excellence awards as he or she graduated from high school or college this season. Similarly, you are also likely to know a Generation Xer who did not exploit his or her potential and is either not graduating or graduating with an average or below-average academic record.

But the story does not end there. The reality is that students who excel academically are likely to have a much more prosperous life than those who meander through the academic process. Ask the person I’m about to discuss what is “cool” about not excelling academically a generation from now. The student who excelled is likely to have a much higher paying job, more material wealth and a more pleasant lifestyle than his counterpart. Twenty years from now, the student who did not excel is likely to have regrets.

My example comes from a photo that appeared on the front page of the May 26, 2001 edition of The Washington Post. In it, you see an African-American student, Bobby Rashad Jones, of the U.S. Naval Academy jumping for joy at a recent commencement exercise. President George W. Bush looks on. Given the forgoing, all indications (except for the uncanny likeness of Jones to a hanging victim) are that this soon-to-be naval officer excelled academically. Quite the contrary is true. According to the Post, Jones graduated with the lowest overall grade-point average of his class. Consequently, he is called the “class anchor” at the Academy.

If having your picture on the front page of the Post is “cool” and a lifetime-type achievement, then this student was wise in not excelling academically. The top-ranked member of the graduating class was not pictured. However, if being awarded the best assignment the Navy has to offer upon graduation and a direct line to the admiralty is what you seek, then Jones was not wise at all in not excelling academically.

Some of you may think that I’m missing the point. You may point out that Jones graduated from the prestigious Naval Academy. That achievement is worth something. Correct! But, given the McWhorter controversy, it is a pretty inopportune time for an African-American to jump for joy to celebrate his poor academic performance. Moreover, the Post did not help African-Americans’ cause by featuring the picture. The picture is especially unappealing because the President of the United States looks on in approval. Note that during his commencement speech the President hinted that the military would be transitioning to an operation that relies more on brains and less on brawn.

Whether you agree with John McWhorter or not, the fact is that there are severe repercussions and economic costs to not excelling academically. Unfortunately, Jones may not have had those costs uppermost in mind during his tenure at the Naval Academy, nor do many African-American Generation Xers today.


(B.B. Robinson, Ph.D. is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and an economist. He can be reached at [email protected].)

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