Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

A Deconstructive Look at the Myth of Race and Motivation

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

A Deconstructive Look at the Myth of Race and Motivation

Article excerpt

This article examines the myth of motivational differences in Black and White children's achievement within a post-positivist paradigm aimed at deconstructing existing explanations rather than posing alternative ones. Two replications were conducted of an earlier study that substantiated a cognitive-developmental theory of motivational deficit in Blacks. In the first, the achievement task was varied as per the earlier experiment, and racial differences in apparent motivation were found to be consonant with the patterns reported; in the second, the task was systematically controlled across age, sex, and race substrata for interest value, and racial differences disappeared. The implications for theories of motivation and for the methodological integrity of myth-substantiating research on Black-White achievement and potential are discussed.


One of the most enduring legacies of any society is its structure of myths. These myths usually romanticize, through both simplification and exaggeration, key dimensions of historical experience, along with the principles, values, and moral (as well as pragmatic) implications that derive from them. Powerful myths have remarkable endurance, evolving in narrative form along with the society's technical changes, while retaining the original substance of their central lessons. As such, it is no surprise that certain historical experiences of American society have spawned myths of racial differences whose roots in social, political, or economic programs have survived the paradigm shift to a postindustrial, technical/scientific age.

Within the traditional positivistic framework of science, the empirical content of hypothesis statements consists of their evidential referents. Hypotheses, myth or otherwise, once substantiated remain in a status of priority until an alternative hypothesis is advanced of at least equal evidential or empirical substance. Thus, the conventional sociology of scientific practice gave rise early to the emergence of reconstructionist paradigms for the engagement of myths regarding the psychology of Black populations (Montagu, 1942; Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b, 1996). The inherently anti-progressive burden of this approach handicapped a full-scale attack first upon the myth of intelligence, and later upon the myth of motivation.

The structure of this scientific mythology is, by now, well known. The behavioral sciences have largely built upon a pre-existing network of prejudices, stereotypes, and disinformation to form an edifice of misunderstanding about the nature of behavior and experience in Black populations (Banks, 1990; Gould, 1981; Montagu, 1942; Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b, 1996). There have been at least three general methodological strategies by which reformists within the discipline of psychology have sought to redress this situation (Banks, in press), but only the approach of deconstructionism has undertaken to confront these myths head-on for the unapologetic purpose of refuting them. Such a deconstructive perspective seems particularly apropos for the examination of a myth whose vitality seems to survive even the most thorough critiques (Banks,1980; Graham,1994), and that sustains an enduring scientific belief in the phenomenon of failure and its causes among Black individuals (McElroy-Johnson, 1993).

In the analysis of race and social-class differences in achievement, a central conceptual issue has been that of intrinsic motivation. Katz (1967), for example, attributed minority children's deficiencies in academic achievement to their relative inability to sustain effort in tasks that are not immediately associated with extrinsic reinforcement. In this regard, a general hypothesis has been that minority and lower-class individuals fail to perform as effectively, or be as effectively achievement motivated, as White middle-class persons in the absence of material or concrete reinforcements.

Several investigators have provided supportive evidence on behalf of this hypothesis. …

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