African American Research

Although born in Nigeria in 1939, John Uzo Ogbu grew up to become one of the top African American research scientists in the United States.  He is cited as one of “four intellectual giants of the 20th century” in the book, Eminent Educators:  Studies in Intellectual Influence, published in 2000.

As an African American research scientist, Ogbu devoted his live to anthropology, especially how race and ethnicity influence the educational and economic impact of black Americans in today’s society.  Ogbu explored the assumption that a high level of achievement in school and on the job presented a portrait of a black person acting white to their peers, which, in turn, promoted under achievement across the black community.

Ogbu’s early Nigerian education led him to a brief stint at seminary school at Princeton University in 1961, followed by enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1965.  His continued studies at UC-Berkeley let to a 1969 master’s degree and a doctorate degree in 1971.  He achieved a professorship at UC-Berkeley in 1970, a position he held until his death in 2003.

As an African American researcher during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, his findings were often considered controversial by mainstream Americans.

One such controversy revolved around Ogbu’s argument that people of the same race in other countries of the world did not experience the same degree of under-achievement as was evidenced in the United States.  He characterized African Americans in the US as voluntary and involuntary minorities.  Members of the voluntary minority were blacks born in other countries who voluntarily immigrated to the US and experienced a high level of education and economic success and enjoyed lives of self respect and satisfaction.

The involuntary minority, he argued, were those African Americans born in the US who had developed a caste-like mentality that was perpetuated by black and white Americans alike.  These involuntary minority members experienced lives of hardship and strife with racial prejudices and injustice felt on the job, in the school system, and at home.

Ogbu’s believed that African Americans spoke a language similar but different from “proper” English, which led to difficulties in school and the workplace for most American-born blacks.  To bridge the language gap, he encouraged the use of African American Vernacular English (dubbed “ebonics”) in the Oakland, California, school system in 1996.  His belief in the use of ebonics led to ridicule in the national media and in homes around the country.

In spite of the controversies, Ogbu remains one of the country’s greatest African American research scientists, especially in the study of race and intelligence.

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