|Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)|
|13. Ethnic and racial groups in the USA: Conflict and cooperation|
Ogbu (1978,1990) has developed a theory about the cultural differences between voluntary migrants and involuntary minorities, a difference which corresponded in the past with the historical distinction in the United States between racial and ethnic groups, but which, as we have seen, is now more complicated.
Ogbu has examined the question of why minorities stemming from involuntary migrants in a variety of countries around the world do not perform well academically, especially when compared to the academic achievement of voluntary immigrants. He argues that the persistent underperformance of minorities in these societies cannot be completely explained by "conflicts in cognitive, communication, social interaction, teaching and learning styles" (Ogbu, 1990: 144). He maintains instead that the history of the mode of incorporation of the group into the society, the history of how the minority group was treated by the dominant group, and the history of how the minorities responded to that treatment must be taken into account because these histories give rise to different cultures and identities.
The important distinction Ogbu makes is between immigrant "voluntary minorities" who have chosen to move to a society in order to improve their well-being, and castelike "involuntary minorities" who were initially brought in to the society through slavery, conquest, and colonization. He argues that voluntary and involuntary minorities have very different understandings of what it means to be a minority, which are a result of the historical experience of how they were incorporated into society and the cultural adaptations they made to the treatment they were subjected to by the dominant group. Voluntary migrants who are subject to discrimination and exclusion because they use their home country and culture as a frame of reference do not measure their success or failure primarily by the standards of other white Americans, but by the standards of their homelands. Such minorities, at least during the first generation, do not internalise the effects of such discrimination, of cultural and intellectual denigration. (Ogbu, 1990: 8)
They develop "immigrant identities" which differ from the dominant group in society's identities, but are not necessarily opposed to those identities.
The situation differs greatly for involuntary minorities who do develop oppositional identities:
For involuntary minorities there were no expectations of economic, political and social benefits. Resenting their initial incorporation by force, regarding their past as a golden age and seeing their future as grim in the absence of collective struggle, they understood that the American system was based on social class and minority conditions. (Ogbu, 1990: 150)
The coping responses that different groups develop for dealing with problems with the dominant group thus reflect the different histories and social psychologies of the groups. Ogbu argues that voluntary migrants have a greater degree of trust for white Americans, for the societal institutions controlled by whites, than do involuntary minorities. Such immigrants acquiesce and rationalise the prejudice and discrimination against them by saying in effect, that they are strangers in a foreign land [and] have no choice but to tolerate prejudice and discrimination. (Ogbu, 1990: 152)
The involuntary minorities do not have a homeland with which to compare their current treatment, or in which to root their identities. Thus, Ogbu argues, they do not see discrimination against them as a temporary barrier to be overcome. Instead, "recognizing that they belong to a subordinate, indeed a disparaged minority, they compare their situation with that of their white American peers. The prejudice against them seems permanent, indeed institutionalized" (Ogbu, 1990: 153). This also leads to distrust of the institutions controlled by the dominant group. This understanding of their situation leads the involuntary minorities to conclude that solidarity and challenges to the rules of the dominant society are the only way to improve their situation. Ogbu describes the psychological orientation that develops among involuntary minorities as being "oppositional" in nature: "They do not see their social identity as different from that of their white oppressors, but as opposed to the social identity of white Americans" (Ogbu, 1990:155). These "oppositional identities" mean that the involuntary minorities come largely to define themselves in their core identities in terms of their opposition to the dominant group.
For blacks in America, Ogbu argues, the very meaning of being black involves not being white. The strong value put on solidarity and opposition to rules perceived as being against them means that when a member of the group is seen as cooperating with the dominant society's institutions, his or her very identity is called into question. In Ogbu's work, the young black student who tries to achieve in school is accused of "acting white."