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The outcast effect

DANIEL HERTZBERG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

In feudal-era Japan, grave-diggers, butchers, and garbage collectors belonged to an outcast class so lowly that a court once ruled they were worth one-seventh of a person. That is to say, you had to kill seven of them in order to be convicted of murder.

Although they looked no different from other Japanese, they were forbidden to marry outside their caste or live outside the impoverished villages — called "Burakus" — where they were born.

A government edict emancipated them in 1871, just eight years after American slaves. Yet, a full century later, the Burakumin — "people of the Buraku" — still dropped out of school and lived in poverty in far higher numbers than other Japanese.

In 1969, the Japanese government instituted a sweeping program aimed at closing the achievement gap between Burakumin and non-Burakumin. It paid for roads, clinics, and new apartment complexes in Buraku neighborhoods. It gave low-interest loans to Burakumin families to fix up their houses. It paid for extra teachers in schools and gave scholarships for high school. The policy, which was supposed to last for only 10 years, got extended until 2002. The results?

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"If we define success as improving matriculation rates, increased economic security, then yes, it worked," said Christopher Bondy, associate professor of sociology at the International Christian University in Japan, who just published a new book on the Burakumin. "Did it work for everybody? No. Did it eliminate discrimination? No."

Three decades of affirmative action narrowed the gap, but did not close it.

Why do some minorities lag behind in school, even after years of government policies aimed at leveling the playing field?

In the 1970s, a Nigerian-born anthropologist named John Ogbu at the University of California Berkeley grew curious about this question. He noticed that the descendants of African slaves in America tended to perform more poorly in school than Africans fresh off the boat.

Then Ogbu learned about the Burakumin, who lagged behind in school in Japan but excelled when they came to the United States.

They provided an intriguing piece of the puzzle. Ogbu developed a theory that there's a difference between "voluntary" minorities — optimistic strivers who come to a country willingly, because they view it as an opportunity for a better life — and "involuntary" minorities, who have no choice in the matter. Involuntary minorities tend to view themselves as stuck in a system that's rigged against them. "Caste minorities perceive the barriers against their full participation in society as either not changing at all, or changing only at a discouragingly slow pace," Ogbu wrote.

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In 1978, Ogbu published "Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective," which detailed educational disparities around the world. In it, Ogbu compared the plight of black Americans to the Untouchables of India, the Maori of New Zealand, and the Middle Eastern and African-born Jews of Israel. In each case, kids lagged behind their peers in school and ended up in less-skilled, low-wage jobs.

Throughout the 1970s, all those countries took measures to close the achievement gap. The United States and Israel desegregated schools. Japan, India, and New Zealand gave affirmative action scholarships and other assistance. In the 40 years since, they've made some progress in narrowing the gap. But so far, none has closed it.

Ogbu, who died in 2003, might have said that's because they misread the problem. Most of those programs were built on the idea that kids end up in low-wage jobs because they do poorly in school. But Ogbu concluded that the opposite was true: Low-caste kids perform poorly in school because they believe they're destined for low-wage jobs.

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"Ten percent of black women who finish college end up as domestic workers," Ogbu wrote in 1978. Indeed, back then 43 percent of all black women worked as maids or in other low-skilled service work. If you think you're destined to clean toilets for a living, would you bother learning physics?

Ogbu's theory charted a middle path between conservatives who view low academic achievement as purely a matter of individual drive and liberals who see it as the product of a racist system. For Ogbu, children from low castes weigh the odds of success and make a (sometimes rational) decision that it's just not worth it to aim higher.

Of all the countries on earth, Israel seemed to stand the best chance of ending ethnic disparities, at least among Jews. Israel's founders believed the very survival of the Jewish state depended on the ability to mold a disparate collection of Jewish exiles into one unified citizenry.

But Ashkenazi Jews, who immigrated to the Holy Land from Europe and America, tended to live in elegant neighborhoods with high-performing schools that prepared kids for university. Mizrahi Jews, born in the Middle East or North Africa, tended to live in ramshackle slums with schools that churned out electricians and hairdressers. In at least one case in Jerusalem, the two schools were close enough to share a playground.

The Ashkenazi didn't harbor a visceral hatred or fear of the Mizrahi, as many white Americans harbored about blacks. But they considered the Mizrahi to be poorer. Less educated. Primitive. Meanwhile, the Mizrahi viewed all things Ashkenazi as superior.

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"If I wanted to be a big shot, I had to bring home an Ashkenazi girlfriend," Uri Umedi, a Mizrahi community leader in Jerusalem told me. "But then her parents would ask her, 'Who's this guy?' "

The stereotypes were backed up by facts. In 1975, just 9 percent of Israeli-born Mizrahi men working in salaried jobs had bachelor's degrees, compared to 35 percent of their Ashkenazi counterparts, according to Yinon Cohen, sociology professor at Columbia University.

Over the years, the Mizrahi learned to mask their accents and change their names on their resumes to avoid subtle discrimination.

"When they look at you and they are sure you are Mizrahi, they don't want you," Ilana Eliya, whose family hails from Iraqi Kurdistan, told me. "When you send your resume with a Mizrahi name, it is a little bit difficult, even today."

During her childhood, most Mizrahi kids were encouraged to go to vocational schools that didn't have entrance exams, she said. She scored high enough to get into an Ashkenazi school, where she become a part of Israel's first experiment with ethnic integration. But she said school authorities made little effort to actually integrate kids.

"They kept us separate," she said, recalling that her class was made up entirely of Mizrahi students.

Initially, many in the Mizrahi community internalized their second-class status. They longed for what the Ashkenazi had, but did not demand it.

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It was the American civil rights movement that changed their attitude. A group of Mizrahi youth who met briefly with Angela Davis began to call themselves the "Israeli Black Panthers." They stole milk from Ashkenazi doorsteps and delivered it to Mizrahi neighborhoods. They held huge rallies in Zion Square.

Fearing widespread social unrest, Israel's Ministry of Education adopted a policy of ethnic integration in schools in 1968. In the years that followed, some 7,000 Jewish elementary school children in Jerusalem were integrated in the first grade. Unlike school integration here in Boston, Israel avoided busing and started with the youngest kids. Teachers were encouraged to adopt a new curriculum of activity-based learning, which was thought to help less-academically-oriented children.

The result?

Activity-based learning was a hit. All students improved under it, even those in schools that had not been integrated. Yet, by 1984, researchers could find little evidence that integration boosted academic achievement. The push for integration faded, much as it has here in the United States. Today, wealthy parents enroll their children in semiprivate schools that require extra tuition. Special schools have been created for struggling Mizrahi kids that emphasize pride in their heritage.

The Mizrahi have gained ground, thanks to intermarriage, political clout, and common bonds formed in the army. More than 20 percent of Israelis are of mixed heritage. Increasingly, with this young generation, you can't tell who is who. Yet the gap remains.

Last week, the Israeli newspaper Haartez reported that only 29 percent of second-generation Mizrahi have a college degree, compared to about half of Ashkenazim. And last year, researchers at Hebrew University reported that job-seekers with Ashkenazi names got twice as many interviews as those with Mizrahi names.

"Those of mixed ethnicity are doing better," said Cohen, the sociologist. "But the ethnic disparities are still there."

Of all the disadvantaged minorities in the world, the Burakumin seemed to have the best chance of erasing the achievement gap. After all, they were not from a different ethnic group. And Japan takes great pride in the country's image as a homogenous, middle-class society.

During World War II, the Japanese government encouraged social integration — or "dowa" — in the military. After the war, the government heeded the demands of the Buraku Liberation League and passed the Special Measures Law of 1969, which allowed Buraku communities to apply for extra funding. (Half declined, fearing the social stigma.)

Osaka's Buraku district is studded with things that funding built: a park, named after the leather drums the Burakumin once manufactured. A pink and gray apartment complex, which replaced the old shanties. A hospital that closed when the law expired, because the local community couldn't afford it.

"This neighborhood has the highest percentage of people living on government assistance," my guide, a researcher named Yoshiro Nabeshima, told me. At a park nearby, men in ragged coats waited for work as casual laborers.

Nabeshima got interested in the Burakumin in college, when he volunteered to tutor poor kids after school. He discovered children unlike any he'd met before, who had little interest in college.

A mentor told him that he needed to familiarize himself with the problems of the Burakumin. He was stunned. It was a subject most Japanese only encounter in history books.

But hidden in plain sight, on the industrial side of town, lay a community that still identified with that heritage. A group of devoted activists and educators fought discrimination with a curriculum that taught tolerance and self-esteem.

They've made great progress, with government help. In 1965, only 30 percent of students in Buraku districts enrolled in high school, compared to 71 percent of all students nationally. By 1995, they had almost caught up with their peers. More than 92 percent enrolled, compared to 97 percent of all kids.

Nevertheless, Burakumin students lag behind their peers in college.

"There's a considerable academic discrepancy between Burakumin and non-Burakumin, even when you control for class," Nabeshima told me. Of students whose fathers had only a high school education, about 34 percent of non-Burakumin went to college, compared to just 23 percent of Burakumin students, he wrote in his 2003 book, "High School Wars." (About half of all Japanese ages 25 to 39 have postsecondary degrees.)

The more he studied the issue, the more he began to feel that kids in the Buraku adapted to their low status in ways that hindered their chances at school. He tested thousands of school children and found that Burakumin placed a higher value on "being macho" or "getting famous" than academic achievement. It's a stunning parallel with the middle-class black kids Ogbu studied in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who tended to view academic success as "acting white."

Maybe this is the universal truth of outcasts everywhere: The outcast who loves herself must by definition despise the society that shuns her. When society defines you as a failure, you must adopt your own definition of success.

That's why Burakumin teachers didn't appreciate Nabeshima's focus on academic achievement.

"Some teachers think that adapting to that 'achievement society' is also adapting to a discrimination society," he said. Others believed boosting academic achievement was unnecessary because the real problem is discrimination.

In a society where it's impolite to discuss this issue — the very word Burakumin is taboo — it's hard to gauge how closely the perception of discrimination matches reality. These days, intermarriage is common. Some successful Burakumin move away and hide the family history, even from their own children. But stories still surface of private investigators hired to trace the origin of a potential employee or a future son-in-law. The fear of discrimination is still real enough that Google sparked an uproar when it published ancient maps of feudal Japan, which identified as "Buraku" the ancestral homes of families who've escaped.

Like Israel and Japan , the United States has also made progress over the years. In 1975, only 6.5 percent of black Americans had college degrees, compared to 14.5 percent of whites. Today, the percentage of blacks with college degrees has nearly tripled — to 19 percent. But that's still far behind whites, at 30 percent.

If Ogbu were alive today, he might explain that gap by pointing out that 56 percent of recent black college graduates are working jobs that don’t require a degree. Twelve percent are unemployed, compared to 5.6 percent of all graduates their age.

The problem isn't the kids, but their often accurate perception that they're destined for low-wage jobs anyway. Or no job at all. The achievement gap is likely to remain for as long as kids view themselves as of a lower caste.

"To change this situation . . . requires, first a total destruction of the caste system," Ogbu wrote. A tall order to be sure, even today.


Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.