While the key theme of Whistling Vivaldi is identity, Steele’s book is also an attempt to understand, and take a few more steps toward solving, a major problem facing America in the 21st century: the achievement gap. Across many different fields, minorities are less successful than white Americans—they “underperform” compared to white Americans. Whether on standardized tests, income, or employment, there is a “gap” between what the average white American and the average American from a minority background achieves. Steele’s book—and the bulk of his professional career—is structured around understanding and explaining this achievement gap.
In the first chapters of the book, Steele goes over some of the traditional explanations for the achievement gap. To begin with, the achievement gap is, at least in part, the product of structural racism in American society. There are numerous laws, business practices, and economic policies that have been shown to favor white Americans over minorities. But although structural inequalities of this kind can partially explain the achievement gap, they can’t explain it completely. As Steele points out, white university students outperform black university students, even when they come from families with the same income, and even when they got the same SAT scores in high school. There must be some additional factor at work, in addition to the material, economic gap between white and black Americans. Tragically, some Americans have and continue to maintain that the achievement gap proves that white Americans are genetically superior to minorities, or that men are genetically superior to women. While one might think that this bigoted idea would have no place in academia, Steele points out that even the president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, was at least willing to entertain the idea that women are genetically inferior to men when it comes to mathematics. In no small part, Steele was motivated to study the impact of stereotype threats because he wanted to lay to rest, once and for all, bigoted explanations for the achievement gap.
In contrast to the geneticist hypothesis for the achievement gap, Steele advances the argument that many American minority groups underperform in comparison to white Americans because they’re distracted or disturbed by the mere threat of confirming a stereotype. Thanks to the many experiments Steele has conducted at Stanford University, Steele was shown that different groups’ fear of upholding a stereotype does often cause them to underperform on a test. On the other hand, minority groups who are specifically told that they’re not being tested for intelligence or ability (prompts which would provoke a stereotype threat) perform at the same level as their white test-taking counterparts.
This suggests, first of all, that the achievement gap isn’t the result of an inherent genetic deficiency in women, black people, or other groups that have traditionally been marginalized—under fair circumstances, these groups perform as well as white men. Second, Steele’s findings suggest the real reason for the achievement gap: when taking exams, minorities are more vulnerable to the threat of stereotypes than white Americans are—not because they’re inherently weaker or more vulnerable people, but because they’re keenly aware of the negative stereotypes associated with their group. (On the other hand, Steele has found, white people tend to be more vulnerable to the threat of stereotypes than black people are when they’re tested on their athletic abilities—because there’s a stereotype that white people are inferior athletes compared to black people.)
One might argue that Steele is focusing too much attention on a relatively minor cause of the achievement gap (stereotype threats) rather than the major cause (structural, economic inequalities). But Steele isn’t denying that there are structural reasons for the achievement gap, or suggesting that policymakers should try to reduce these inequalities. Rather, he suggests that educators and parents can do a surprising amount on an individual, personal level to reduce the achievement gap by protecting their students and children from the influence of stereotype threats.
The Achievement Gap ThemeTracker
The Achievement Gap Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi
Among students with comparable academic skills, as measured by the SAT, black students got less of a return on those skills in college than other students. Something was suppressing the yield they got from their skills.
Steve Spencer and I weren't especially interested in the genetic explanation of sex differences in math. Our idea was that stigma had more to do with these differences than people commonly thought. But we knew, long before the Summers episode, that the genetic question carried huge cultural weight.
It's conventional wisdom, a virtual stereotype of what causes members of negatively regarded groups to fail. So if something causes black and women college students to perform less well than you'd expect from their skills, it must be—the idea goes—these psychic deficiencies, deficiencies of confidence and expectation, self-sabotaging deficiencies.
And third, in finding a reliable means of reproducing in the laboratory the black student underperformance we'd seen in real life, we knew we could examine it up close—tear it apart and see how it worked.
Here was the irony we had suspected. What made Mikel's vanguard black students susceptible to stereotype pressure was not weaker academic confidence and skills but stronger academic confidence and skills.
[Treisman] saw black students—in an effort to succeed where their abilities are negatively stereotyped—following a strategy of intense, isolated effort, a strategy that often set them up for defeats and discouragements.
Heart attacks also have background causes that are difficult to change—genetic history, long-term habits of diet and exercise, smoking, life stress, etc. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a heart attack can be greatly reduced by drugs and surgery. They do nothing to counter the background causes of heart disease; they treat the most immediate cause of a heart attack, blocked coronary arties.
The identity threat explanation doesn't require attributing prejudice to the white passengers. All one need assume, it says, is that they have a worry like Ted's: the risk of saying, doing, or even thinking something that would make them feel racist or like they could be seen as racist in interacting with the black passenger. It takes the perspective of the person whose actions one is trying to explain—the woman or minority taking the math test, for example, or in this case the perspective of the white passengers passing up the seat next to a black passenger. It assumes, in light of present-day norms of civility, that most of these passengers are invested in not appearing as racist. It further assumes that this investment, ironically, may lead them to avoid situations like the seat next to the black passenger.
This was Glenn Loury’s reasoning. It led him to a surprising claim: the everyday associational preferences that contribute to racially organized networks and locations in American life—that is, racially organized residential patterns, schooling, friendship networks, and so on—may now be more important causes of racial inequality than direct discrimination against blacks. He's not announcing the end of racial discrimination. He's simply underlining the importance of preferences that organize blacks out of networks and locations that could better their outcomes.
The prospect of an interracial conversation on a racially sensitive topic made white participants mindful of the whites-as-racist stereotype. And the more mindful they were of this stereotype, the more they distanced themselves from black conversation partners. Worry about being stereotyped was driving them away.
It wasn't prejudice that caused them to sit farther from their black partners conversation. It was fear of being seen as racist—pure and simple. It was stereotype threat, a contingency of their white identities in that situation. It was probably this threat, too, rather than racial prejudice, that caused Ted's intense discomfort in his African American political science class, and that caused at least some of the white passengers to give Sheryll Cashin her Southwest Airlines First Class seat and that might make it difficult for white teachers to engage poor-performing minority students. Who needs the hassle?
When I look over my life as an African American, I see improvements in the contingencies attached to that identity. The swimming pool restrictions of my youth are gone. So are the suffocating limitations Anatole Broyard would have faced as a black man in New York City in the late 1940s. Things have gotten better. But remember, contingencies grow out of an identity's role in the history and organization of a society—its role in the DNA of a society—and how society has stereotyped that identity.