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Jewish World Review April 24, 2000 /19 Nissan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Can black children be brilliant? --
When Jordan Adams sits at the piano, his feet dangle off the bench. That is hardly surprising -- he turned five only a few days ago. What is surprising is what happens when his fingers touch the keys: This child is playing Mozart.

It all happened rather by accident, according to the account in The Washington Post. Jordan's dad had given him an electronic keyboard for his third birthday. Unlike other toys that had been enjoyed and soon discarded, Jordan kept at the keyboard, sometimes for hours. After a while, his parents noticed something, 'He wasn't just smacking the keys, "his father reported, "he was playing them." Without help or instruction, 3-year-old Jordan was playing melodies.

Jordan had shown other signs of precocity -- he had walked at eight months, and was reading and writing legibly before age 3.

His parents found a teacher for him and upgraded him to a real piano. This summer, Adams will perform at the United Nations and at two embassies in Washington, D.C. Whether he will then repair home to curl up with his blankie was not stated in the article.

OK, a few more details about Jordan's family and home life, and then a small quiz. He is the oldest of the Adams' four children. The family is intact; the parents young. Mrs. Adams is a full-time mother and homemaker. They live in a three-bedroom townhouse that is lined with bookshelves. The children are permitted the occasional video or session of educational television, but "most of their time is occupied by reading, painting, crafts and gardening." Jordan's 3-year-old sister Bria has just started violin lessons.

Now the quiz: What race is this family? If you guessed Asian American or white, you'd be justified. Most families that fit this profile are. But the Adams are black.

Now here's another quiz: How many black children do you suppose are born brilliant like Jordan but for a variety of reasons never develop their talents? Here's my guess: very, very many. They're not all as gifted as Jordan of course. He is a prodigy, and no group of people produces many of those. But all races and groups have within their populations a great many talented and intelligent members.

Why then do blacks lag so in academic achievement compared to whites and Asians? The gap is undeniable. Most of the highly selective universities cannot get the numbers of black students they want unless they are willing to accept those whose SAT scores are 300 points lower than the average for whites.
As Steven and Abigail Thernstrom note in their book "America in Black and White," in 1981 white students whose parents had only a grade-school education scored better on the SATs than blacks whose parents had advanced degrees. And in 1995, blacks from families earning $70,000 or more scored lower on the SATs than whites from the poorest families. Certainly family structure is the biggest villain. In 1997, 69 percent of black children were born illegitimate. That alone would be enough to stunt the growth of most black kids. But there is also the deeper issue of psychology and mindset.

In an essay in the American Experiment Quarterly, Shelby Steele (always called "controversial" because he opposes affirmative action) offers a subtle and quite interesting analysis of the performance gap. It is rooted, he argues, in the fact that after the horror of slavery and Jim Crow had been removed, blacks continued to live side by side with their former oppressors. (In other situations, such as colonialism, oppressed and oppressor went their separate ways.) And because whites felt such a burden of guilt, and were falling over themselves to offer recompense, blacks made the decision to lean heavily on moral power, i.e. trading on white guilt, rather than on nation-building or self help, to get ahead.

This has had baleful consequences. "As long as there is a gap, as long as black kids don't perform well in school, then the larger society must be anguished, must worry, must spend money, and so on. We have a reverse incentive system in which inadequacy and weakness pay off."

Jordan Adams will not, we hope, succumb to the moral power temptation. But so long as Shelby Steele remains an outcast for his views, kids like Jordan will remain too rare in black America.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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