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Minorities, racism, and UMass’s choice

Page 2 of 2 -- These illustrations — there are many more — come from ‘‘No Excuses,’’ Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s 2003 book on racial differences in academics. Why do Asians do so much better than their peers in school? Because, the Thernstroms conclude, they care so much more about academic success.

On average, Asian students spend twice as much time doing homework as their non-Asian classmates. They believe they’ll get in trouble at home if their grades fall below A-, while for whites the ‘‘trouble threshold’’ is B-, and for blacks and Hispanics, C-. They don’t believe that success or failure in school depends on factors beyond their control. ‘‘They believed instead that their academic performance depended almost entirely on how hard they worked,’’ the Thernstroms write, summarizing the findings of survey researcher Laurence Steinberg. ‘‘Their performance was within their control. A grade below an A was evidence of insufficient effort.’’

Quincy High’s math club may be virtually all-Asian, but Asian American students don’t excel only at math. They tend to excel, period. And they do so not because they are compensating for weak English skills, but because they grow up in an environment that places enormous value on academic achievement — and pegs that achievement to individual effort.

Which returns me to the University of Massachusetts, and the current flap over the decision to name Dr. Michael Collins to run the Boston campus instead of the acting chancellor, J. Keith Motley. One of three finalists for the job, Motley would have been the first black chancellor of UMass-Boston.

The chairman of the UMass board of trustees says the choice came down to Collins’s executive experience — while Motley was a dean of student services at another university, Collins spent 10 years running a multibillion-dollar hospital network. But a vocal chorus of disgruntled Motley supporters are calling the decision racist.

Leonard Alkins of the Boston NAACP blasts it as proof ‘‘that the plexiglass ceiling is still there for people of color.’’

Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey denounces it as ‘‘a slap in the face to our children.’’ Others call it an example of how whites ‘‘cling tenaciously to power in Boston,’’ and cite a recent poll by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, which finds 80 percent of blacks and 50 percent of Hispanics calling racial discrimination a serious problem in Greater Boston.

Motley’s supporters plan to flood the trustees with phone calls and to stage a protest at the UMass president’s office. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino boycotted a UMass breakfast to demonstrate his solidarity with those playing the race card. No doubt the story will continue to seethe for a while.

Is there a connection between the Asian math whizzes at Quincy High and the accusations of racism against the UMass board of trustees? Not an obvious one. And yet I can’t help wondering what kind of message black students absorb when racism is invoked, as it so often is, to condemn anything black politicians and activists disapprove of. Who is more likely to succeed — the child who grows up in a culture that tells him success depends on his own hard work, or the one who keeps hearing that until white prejudice is eradicated, minorities will never get a fair shake?

Asian kids don’t have a gene for calculus or getting into Yale. They have a culture that demands hard work, cares deeply about academic success, and rejects ‘‘racism’’ as an excuse for mediocrity. When the same can be said about black American culture — or, for that matter, about white American culture — the math club at Quincy High will look very different.

Jeff Jacoby’s e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com 

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