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Minorities, racism, and UMass’s choice

Consider two questions that have nothing to do with each other:

1. If 22 percent of the students at Quincy High School are Asian, why do Asians account for 94.4 percent of the math club?

2. If J. Keith Motley would have been the first black chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, why is the UMass board of trustees about to give that job to somebody else?

Each of those questions has been the subject of recent media attention.

On May 18, Michael Winerip devoted his ‘‘On Education’’ column in The New York Times to exploring the overwhelming Asian makeup of Quincy High’s math club. What is it about math, he wondered, that attracts so many Asian kids? His answer, in a nutshell: Most of the school’s Asians are recent immigrants who struggle to communicate in English.

‘‘When I was a freshman, half year in US, English is a big problem,’’ one student told him. ‘‘I just know, ‘Hello, how are you?’ History is a big problem. You don’t openly express yourself because you don’t know what to say and stuff. . . . You don’t have the basic English.’’

But math doesn’t pose that hurdle. In the words of Evelyn Ryan, the head of Quincy High’s math department, ‘‘Math is a universal language.’’ She rejects the notion that Asians have a natural aptitude for math. ‘‘She believes it’s partly cultural,’’ Winerip wrote, since ‘‘math and mathematicians are championed over there’’ — in Asia — ‘‘the way reading and writers are here.’’ Before Asians began immigrating in large numbers to Quincy in the 1980s, Quincy High had only 10 students studying calculus; today there are two calculus classes totaling 40 students, 75 percent of whom are Asian.

I agree: The secret to Asian dominance in the math club and calculus classes lies in Asian culture. But the critical cultural ingredient isn’t that mathematicians ‘‘are championed’’ in Asia. It’s that Asian parents make their kids do homework.

By virtually any measure, Asian Americans achieve spectacular academic success. They make up just 4 percent of the US population, but 17 percent of the incoming students at Harvard, 18 percent at Columbia, 25 percent at Stanford, and 27 percent at MIT. Fewer than 1 New York City student in 10 is Asian, yet Asians fill half the seats in the city’s elite public schools, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. One-fifth of US medical students are Asian, as are 10 to 20 percent of the students attending Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other leading law schools. Asian students score in the highest bracket on the SAT — both verbal and math — at far higher proportions than their share of the public. Likewise the specialized SAT II subject tests, in which Asians amass triple their proportional share of top scores in writing and history, five times their share in biology, and eight times their share in math, chemistry, and physics.

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

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