The Subtle Racism of Low Expectations


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During one of the more memorable The Simpsons episodes, Bart Simpson is placed in a Special Ed class due to his continuous slacking on schoolwork. Being the bright yet defiant young man he was written to be, he sarcastically states, “So, I supposed to catch up to the rest of my class by going slower than them?” This paradox is the crux of the digital divide and the racial achievement gap.

In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer coins the phrase “the Okay Plateau.” The Okay Plateau explains that what was once assumed as the limits of our natural ability is actually our human tendency to only improve until we think that we have improved enough to reach a comfortable level of success.

This being said, if the expectation of success is lower for poor inner-city children than their middle-class suburban neighbors, their Okay Plateau will be lower, thereby making them seem somehow intellectually inferior.

How do we fix this?

Anyone who has been in a competition of any sort already has the knowledge to exceed the Okay Plateau. The job of every coach/trainer is to slowly increase the difficulty of practice in order to produce higher performance levels from their players. Moreover, every athlete, martial artist and chess champion knows that when they compete against other great players, their skills improve beyond their own perceived limits. Simple isn’t it?

As mentioned in bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, the exposure to quality training greatly influenced the success of our most revered “geniuses.” Mr. Gladwell gives example after example of how the current titans of industry became so by being exposed to more quality and consistent practice in their given field than the rest of us.

It may be easier to use race, gender or socioeconomic factors as indicators of success due to the pretty graphs these statistics often lend themselves to, but it is more likely that dedication, environment, and exposure to rigorous resources (like those found in a public library) are the keys to success and the ultimate cincher of achievement gaps.

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