Talking Points: Cora Daniels on the Tyranny of Low Expectations
At [my husband’s predominantly white] prep school the students did not wear caps and gowns at graduation. Not at graduation from elementary school, not at junior high (or middle school in prep lingo), and not at their high school graduation, either. Instead they were required to wear dress shirts, ties, and jackets just as they did every day to class. The thinking was that the first time students should wear caps and gowns was the moment they graduated from college. And the expectation was that everyone at his prep school would certainly see that moment. These are expectations at their highest. I donned my first cap and gown when I “graduated” from Head Start.
–Cora Daniels in Ghetto Nation: Dispatches from America’s Culture War
This quote speaks to that subtle and insidious lowering of expectations that occurs when parents, teachers, and other authority figures reward young people for completing tasks or taking on responsibilities that would, in other contexts be considered minimally acceptable or commonplace. You can see it when, for example, a mother praises her son for “taking care of his responsibilities” (parenting his children); when a father or supports his claim that his daughter is a “good kid” because she is “in school, doesn’t use drugs, and has never been arrested”; or, in the type of scene that the author describes, in which children are clad in the child’s version of academic regalia and celebrated for completing kindergarten, grammar school, or middle school. Such behavior from adults communicates to young people that they are only capable of these types of minimally acceptable outcomes; if the adults in their midst expect so little from them, then they will quite likely expect even less from themselves.
Is this a possible explanation for African American students’ tendency to perform less well at the college level than non-Black counterparts with similar class and family backgrounds? Could it be that since getting accepted to college already surpasses most Americans’ understanding of what U.S. Black people are capable of achieving, distinguishing oneself academically once on campus feels either out of reach or unnecessary for an African American student who has already achieved more than anyone might expect of him/her simply by meeting minimal requirements for remaining enrolled?
Biographical Notes: Cora Daniels is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Fortune, the New York Times, Essence, O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Heart & Soul, FSB: Fortune Small Business, and Savoy. She is a native New Yorker who was born and raised in Brooklyn. She holds a B.A. from Yale University (history) and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Her first book, Black Power Inc., appeared in 2004. Cora Daniels lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Posted by Ajuan Mance