Professor John U. Ogbu




Professor John U. Ogbu
1939 – 2003

Chancellor’s Professor
Department of Anthropology
University Of California, Berkeley




John Ogbu, University of California, Berkeley, Anthropology Professor, Noted Researcher of Minority Education and Identity, Dies

John Uzo Ogbu, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, a path-breaking scholar in the fields of minority education and identity, and one of the leading educational anthropologists in the world, died of a heart attack on Wednesday, August 20. He was 64.

The Nigerian-born Ogbu died at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland after undergoing back surgery.

His provocative theories on a collective identity that is created and sustained by both external and internal factors and his distinction between voluntary and involuntary minorities revolutionized thinking about minority education, especially that of African Americans.

“In every article on the subject of minority education, inevitably there are references to John’s work,” said Herbert D. Simons, U.C. Berkeley professor of education and co-author with Ogbu of “Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education,” which appeared in Anthropology and Education Quarterly in 1998.

“He devoted his life to the study of a very difficult problem—differential educational achievement among minority populations in the United States,” said Stanley Brandes, one of Ogbu’s colleagues in the U.C. Berkeley anthropology department. “He pursued this issue from a wide variety of standpoints, despite the fact that it presented no solution.”

At the heart of his work was the way Ogbu differentiated minority groups. “Voluntary minorities,” he said, “come to a new environment with their collective identity intact, because it was an identity already in place prior to their emigration. In marked contrast, involuntary minorities such as African Americans formed their collective identity after coming to the New World and in the context of oppression by the dominant society. ”

Ogbu considered their collective identity “oppositional,” and the collective identity of voluntary minorities “non-oppositional.” His distinction became part of the groundwork for understanding and debate on race and ethnic differences in educational and economic achievement.

In the late 1990’s, Ogbu played a prominent role in the highly publicized debate about the place of “Ebonics” or Black American English. As a member of the Task Force on the Education of African American Children in Oakland, Calif., Ogbu helped write the Ebonics resolution adopted by the Oakland Board of Education in 1996.

His analysis stressed that beliefs held about “standard” or “proper” English required in the classroom were incompatible with black vernacular English, spoken at home and out of school. He believed this incompatibility was closely tied to critical notions of group identity and learning.

Ogbu’s latest book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 2003), is based on fieldwork in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Concerned parents and other members of the middle-class black community in Shaker Heights invited Ogbu to study them in an effort to determine why black students in this highly regarded suburban school system were “disengaged” from academic work and performed less well than their white counterparts. Ogbu concluded that African Americans’ own cultural attitudes could hinder academic achievement and that these attitudes are too often neglected.

The book created controversy even before it was published, and upon its publication, journalists and educators across the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia hotly debated his findings. Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb went into its second printing in less than three months.

Ogbu’s contribution to minority education has been recognized in numerous ways. In 1990, he was elected to the National Academy of Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education featured him in its 1997 article “What 15 Top Anthropologists Are Working On Now.” The same year, Ogbu was elected to the International Academy of Education and was appointed Chancellor’s Professor at U.C. Berkeley.

Also in 1997, a special issue of Anthropology and Education Quarterly (Vol. 28 #3) was devoted to “Ogbu’s Theory,” with contributions by an international group of scholars. His ideas, framework, and research have been subject of professional sessions at a number of annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, the American Education Research Association, and the American Sociological Association.

Ogbu has been bestowed numerous awards. In 1998, he received the American Educational Research Association’s Research Contribution to Education Award, which is given “to honor a meritorious contributor to educational research; its purpose is to publicize, motivate, encourage, and suggest models for educational research at its best.”

Ogbu also received the prestigious Margaret Mead Award given by the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1979. The award came a year after he published Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Academic Press), which studied education and society in the U.S., India, Israel, Japan, and New Zealand. In the book, Ogbu argued that many black children in the U.S. do poorly in school because adult blacks are poorly represented in jobs favoring extensive education, rather than the previously held idea that blacks are underrepresented in professional settings because they do poorly in school. Job market realities create a caste system in this country, he said, and improved job opportunities for blacks are crucial to closing the gap between black and white school achievement.

A few other honors include: Distinguished Achievement Award, Nigerian Eagle Society; Alumni Distinguished Professor, UC Berkeley; and Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, Professor Maurice R. Berube of Old Dominion University in Virginia, a specialist in educational leadership, published Eminent Educators: Studies in Intellectual Influence in 2000 and chose four individuals whom he believed “best represented the legacy of progressive education.” He selected one philosopher, two psychologists, and anthropologist John Ogbu, who he credited with causing “a major paradigm shift in American education.”

An avid researcher, Ogbu published several book and numerous articles and chapters in books, with his writings translated into French, German, Japanese, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, and Croatian. He was a frequent lecturer and interview subject around the world.

He was also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar to numerous universities nationally and worldwide. He was consultant and board member to many school districts, government select committees, policy workgroups, and commissions on education, minority education, race, and employment. He was member of the U.S.-Israel Joint Delegation on Colloquium on Education of the Disadvantaged and had served as the Chairman for the UNESCO Committee of Experts on the Transfer of Knowledge.

He received several grants from different foundations, such as The Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, The Rockefeller, Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, W. T. Grant Foundation, Russell Sage, National Institute of Health, California Department of Education, and a number of other foundations and institutions.

Ogbu was born in 1939 in Umudomi, Onicha, Onicha Government Area, Ebonyi State, Nigeria. The son of farmers, he attended Hope Waddell Training Institute. Later he went to a Methodist Teacher’s Training College, Uzuakoli, and taught Latin, mathematics, and geography.

As part of his plan to become a minister, he was sent to Princeton University Theological Seminary. There he realized that to work for the church in Nigeria, he needed to know more about his own country, and he turned to anthropology. He said he had never heard of anthropology before coming to the United States.

Since 1961, Ogbu has been closely associated with U.C. Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in anthropology in 1965, his master’s degree in 1969, and his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1971—all at U.C. Berkeley.

From 1968 to 1970, he worked as an ethnographer in the Stockton Unified School District in Stockton, Calif. He began teaching in U.C. Berkeley’s Anthropology Department as an acting assistant professor in spring 1970. He received tenure in 1976 and was promoted to full professor in 1980.

“John Ogbu’s humanity and warmth informed all of his intellectual work. He didn’t avoid the controversial questions but always brought a fresh comparative perspective to the answers he sought. He will be missed as a scholar, but also as a mentor and a friend,” said a former student of Ogbu, Angela C. Davis.

Other than anthropology, his passions included reading and writing poetry, remaining active with the Nigerian community in the U.S. and in Africa, and his family.

Ogbu’s survivors include wife Marcellina Ada Ogbu, of Oakland; daughters Grace Ugo Ogbu, of Oakland, Elizabeth Ijeoma Ogbu, of Cambridge, Mass., Cecilia Chinyere Ogbu, of Oakland, Christina Ndidi Ogbu, of Oakland; son Nnanna Ibiam Ogbu, of Los Angeles; and brother Chris Ogbu and family, of Oakland. He is also survived by several other brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins in the U.S. and Nigeria.

He will be buried in Nigeria on September 20, 2003.



We wish to thank all of you for the outpouring of support and sympathy during this very difficult time.

May the almighty God continue to reward all of you with His infinite blessings.

The Ogbu Family


This page was lasted updated on Spetember 7, 2003.
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