Yvonne Abraham

Ivy League’s achievement gap

There is more than one kind of achievement gap.

There’s the academic kind we’re desperately trying to close in Boston, where black and Hispanic kids lag way behind their white counterparts. And then there’s the kind where some kids enjoy access to excellent schools yet emerge as insensitive oafs, ignorant of lives beyond their bubble of privilege.

The second kind burst into ugly view, yet again, at Dartmouth College recently, where the infamous Alpha Delta fraternity hosted a Bloods and Crips-themed party at which revelers descended into racial caricatures. One organizer of that sorry shindig — merely the latest in a series of slap-your-forehead-offensive transgressions at the Ivy League school — attended the vaunted Buckingham, Browne & Nichols school in Cambridge. Afterward, student organizers apologized, professing to have been previously unaware that making sport of gang wars that have destroyed lives and neighborhoods might be insensitive. And we worry about urban schools.


John Barros knows both kinds of achievement gap better than most people. The former Boston School Committee member is running for mayor in a campaign focused almost entirely on bettering the fortunes of the city’s mostly minority schoolchildren. He is also a Dartmouth alum.

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Barros grew up in Roxbury at the height of the gang wars of the 1980s and early ’90s. But his Cape Verdean parents were determined that he would not be another black child flailing in an awful school: They sent him to Boston College High.

At first, being a black kid from Roxbury defined Barros there. “People would want to touch my hair,” he recalled last week. “They’d ask, ‘Are you part of a gang?’ Teachers had lower expectations of me, making me feel like a C+ average was good enough. That drove me to do better.”

Barros threw himself into his studies, and excelled. He became the first president of the school’s black student union in 1991. While he would never blend in completely, he eventually felt most differences melt away.

That did not happen at Dartmouth. Barros, accepted into 13 colleges, chose the New Hampshire school because it gave him the best financial aid package. A weekend trip also convinced him the school was a vibrant, comfortable place for students of color. But once he got there, Barros found a different Dartmouth.


The school was “a very socially isolating place,” he said. The predominantly white frat scene was unappealing, and there wasn’t much of a network for black students at the time. Barros was always acutely conscious of his economic class. “I never felt more poor than I felt at Dartmouth,” he said. He helped start an exchange program, and was among the first to participate: A junior semester at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta expanded his universe. He returned more confident, and went on to lead Dartmouth’s African American Society and join the Casque and Gauntlet Society for student leaders.

He thinks his experience could have been different — and that offenses like Alpha Delta’s gang-themed party might be avoided — if only we talked more about race in America.

“Saying they’re just privileged jerks lets everybody off the hook,” he said. “We have a system that is failing folks. You can look at black literacy rates and say, ‘How come they didn’t learn to read,’ or you can look at how the system is failing them. In the same way, these [Dartmouth] students have gotten the best of the best, but they lack the basics of sensitivity and historical awareness. We all have a responsibility to correct that.”

And in the process, he says, we might narrow that other achievement gap, too.

“We have two Bostons, where 80 percent of the violence takes place in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, where we have huge racial disparities around foreclosures and education,” he said. “We are not at a place where we can stop talking about race.”


My solution to the Dartmouth debacle would be to do away with idiot frats. Simple. Barros looks deeper, at the much tougher issue that goes way beyond the adolescent animal house.

One more reason why I’m not mayoral material, but he surely is.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at