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There’s No Such Thing as A Free Lunch: Thoughts on Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities

Josh’s Note: Guest blogging today is my good friend, E. Anyanwu, who writes about differences in black culture using John Ogbu’s concepts of involuntary and voluntary minorities. 

As a High School student I reveled in any opportunity to lead. Voted “most school spirit” in the Yearbook, I was all over the place: a rap cypher amongst fellow rappers in school, class organization leader, and the go-to guy for organizing the class skating party at Skate 22. There remains however, one opportunity wherein I perhaps led by way of…not leading at all. 

Sometime during eleventh grade, some classmates had issues with the school lunch. “We deserve better lunches” they demanded, and with such cries began the planning of what was to be a day of outrage. We were all to protest the quality of our meals. Naturally, Principal Butts got wind of this effort to turn 6C lunch into the Arab Spring, and summoned the organizers and me to her office. In the Principal’s conference room, Ms. Butts questioned my classmates about their concerns for about fifteen to twenty minutes, until she noticed something highly unusual. In this particular meeting, I sat silent. As junior class president, I was expected to partake in what would be a class movement.  Unbeknownst to Ms. Butts, I was not at all a part of this planned protest. However, out of respect for my peers, I chose to sit quiet, so as not to endanger their efforts. This tactic proved futile. Ms. Butts, with a flustered and confused look, asked “Evans, why are you so quiet? What is your take on this issue?”

With this question, my stomach sank and I was momentarily breathless. Fighting in my head were two opposing thoughts: solidarity with my classmates and maintaining my longstanding relationship with Ms. Butts that was rooted in honesty. As I swallowed heavily, and opened my mouth, I stayed true to an even worthier cause: it was imperative that I maintained true to myself. I said, “Ms. Butts, before coming to this country, I had two years of schooling in a developing African country.” I continued, while looking at my classmates, “School, in many parts of my native country consists of a frame of a building and a blackboard. No air conditioning, no school-provided textbooks, and absolutely no school-provided lunches.” At this point, one of my classmates shook his head in clear disgust. He had a look that screamed “c’mon E”…Really? You’re pulling this story out now?”

“I can’t” I said, “be true to myself and the values that my parents instilled in me, if I participated in a demonstration for better pizza instead of for better quality of teachers.” I truly felt that the latter was needed in earnest and trumped the former. And, with that statement, the meeting came to what appeared to be an abrupt halt. Ms. Butts and the Assistant Principal wore satisfied looks that screamed, “well, that was easy.” Whereas my classmates just shook their heads. One of them told me later that day, “You could’ve stayed quiet, ain’t nobody ask you about no damn Africa.” 

My classmates eventually got over their disdain, but it took me a while to understand what compelled me to take such a stand. It was not until June of 2008, while returning to my High School as its commencement speaker that I understood the essence of that moment. In 2008, New Jersey Monthly magazine ranked my High School number 307 out of 316 High Schools in New Jersey. However, the 2008 salutatorian of the High School’s graduating class, a young Haitian boy, was on his way to Harvard. The following year, two Guatemalan sisters received full scholarships to Brown University, and last year an amazing Ethiopian girl became the second National Coca Cola Scholar from the school (an honor that I share proudly with her), and also a Gates Millennium scholar who is set to begin her second year at Columbia University. Upon her acceptance to Columbia, I put her in touch with one of my best friends and high school classmate, a Nigerian that went to Columbia University the same time I attended Wesleyan University.

My commencement speech centered on excelling despite one’s background, and after I met the salutatorian, I endeavored to understand what makes some students excel and others not in poor urban schools. An answer can be found in a study, published in 1978, by the late University of California Berkley professor, John Ogbu. 

Ogbu is the author of “Minority Education and Caste”. In this study, we are introduced to the concepts: “voluntary minorities” and “involuntary minorities.” 

Voluntary minorities are people of color that chose to come to this country, as an example, Barack Obama’s father. Hardship for this group is seen as temporary. They are goal driven and strive to overcome their language and cultural barriers while maintaining their minority-group status. For them the glass is often half full and this belief that education and hard work overcomes all obstacles is passed on to their kids. 

Involuntary minorities did not choose to come to the United States. In Black communities, involuntary minorities are descendants of slaves. Many trace their origins to Southern U.S. states. The absence of a homeland to which they can return places this group in a position whereby they assess their success in relation to the success of the white majority group. Many in this group see institutionalized discrimination as barriers to entry into higher socio-economic circles. For this cohort, the glass is often half empty and unfortunately, this outlook is sometimes transferred to their kids.

In addition to a rigid belief in the fruits of hard work and education, another important trait found in the voluntary immigrant group is the presence of two parents. In Principal Butts’ office, I reacted from the perspective and vantage point of a voluntary minority. I had difficulty in seeing the school lunch crisis from the perspective of my classmates. Ogbu’s study helped my understanding of that moment in time. 

The great thing about Professor Ogbu’s voluntary and involuntary minority distinction is that it helps in understanding the differences in Black groups. It also helps to force the understanding of a mischaracterization of African American success. As an example, lost in the joy and celebration of the election of a Black president is the fact that we also elected the child of a voluntary minority. When the voluntary and involuntary classification receives scant attention, Blacks that trace their background to the South, the involuntary minorities, can be easily forgotten. 

A 2007 study by Princeton and University of Penns
ylvania professors published in the American Journal of Education (via the Washington Post) stated that while Black immigrants make up only 13 percent of America’s college-aged population, they account for more than a quarter of the Black students at Ivy League and other selective colleges. To put things in deeper perspective, while 7 percent of white students were enrolled in the nation’s Ivy League and selective schools, 2.4 percent of African-Americans were enrolled in these schools as compared to 9.2 percent of voluntary minorities and their children. 

While it is great to see voluntary immigrants excel in America, celebration of such successes should be uncomfortable given that involuntary minorities fought for the opportunities that voluntary minorities easily enjoy. Ms. Butts passed away soon after that year, but the lessons from that experience remain. Efforts to improve urban education, absent an understanding of the minority distinctions result in a race to the bottom. I am not sure if the lunch ever did improve, as I never expected gourmet food from the cafeteria; but I have no doubt that as a young man, who eventually went on to represent school districts and sit on an urban charter school Board, my understanding of myself and my community undoubtedly improved.

E. Anyanwu is a New Jersey based attorney that writes and researches on the intersection of law and technology.  Anyanwu has been cited nationally in publications such as NPR, the Miami Herald and the National Law Journal. He is an Honors graduate of Wesleyan University and received his JD from Rutgers University-Newark.


About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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