Summary of Chapter Four: Skin Deep
Fifty-two minority high school juniors spend the summer taking classes at MIT. If they do well, they may be invited to enroll. Cedric feels “bigger,” like he belongs (p. 77). The students take Introduction to Engineering and Science and are called MIT MITES. Most are black or Hispanic, with one Native American, but they are all from middle- or upper- class backgrounds, and their SAT scores, when they compare, are higher than his. His worst fears are realized when the testing reveals he is behind the level of the other students. He is in basic physics, chemistry, and English, and still he is lost. He avoids the other students and studies by himself, not wanting to be found out. He does not feel comfortable with the middle class kids who have had a much easier path than he has.
Eventually, he begins to come out of his shell and admit his ghetto background to the others. They are sympathetic and try to make friends, including him in outings. His mid-terms are a failure, but his group of three in the robot building competition makes it to the quarter finals. On his birthday, some of his friends fix him a “ghetto bag” with condoms, M&Ms, a rap CD and boom box batteries. Cedric likes the joke. The more he hangs out with the others, the better his grades. He moves up to middle spot in his calculus class.
Bill Ramsey is the black engineer and successful corporate executive who has run this program for the last seven years. Cedric likes him because he is successful, tough, but wise, a good role model. Unfortunately, he is paired with the white professor of aeronautics at MIT, Leon Trilling. He is the one who will review each student’s work. In the final week, he has an exit interview with Cedric, explaining to him that he is not MIT material. His scores are too low, and he is struggling. He should think of Howard University or the University of Maryland. Though his friends are supportive, Cedric is downcast and angry, leaving without attending the farewell banquet.
When Cedric returns home, he struggles with his failure and what he should do. Barbara wants him to take a scholarship from one of the prestigious private high schools for his senior year, but he already sees how it will be for him there among middle-class whites in a private school. He declines. He doesn’t fit with Ballou either. After his experience at MIT, however, he is ready to return to Ballou that he already knows.
Commentary on Chapter Four: Skin Deep
This chapter highlights Cedric’s lack of connection with other minority students, who, though they share his skin color, come from different worlds. Jenica’s parents are teachers; Isa’s parents are college professors; Micah’s father is a lawyer. Cedric is the only ghetto kid in the group and finds himself hopelessly behind. Bill Ramsey, the director, understands that the affirmative action cards are stacked against ghetto kids, favoring the middle-class students. Ramsey knows “It would take two years of tutoring” to bring someone like Cedric to the standard MIT requires, yet he feels obliged to give a few ghetto students the chance. The similarity of a ghetto kid and a middle-class black is “little more than skin deep” (p. 91).
Cedric receives both encouragement and discouragement at MIT. The other students try to reach out to him socially, but they cannot help his struggle. At the end of the six weeks, his “exhausting panic” (p. 95) dissolves a little because he begins to make headway only to be told, it is not enough. One of his friends from Jefferson Middle School, Torrence Parks, has become a Muslim and tells Cedric he is feeling guilt for betraying his race and trying to go to white schools. On the other hand, one night Cedric has an experience of the spirit of Mother Cunningham in his bedroom. She was an elderly lady at his church who had died two weeks previously. She tells him to continue fighting, and he gets new energy from that.
Although the offer of a scholarship to a white private high school is what Cedric needs to boost his background, he declines because the summer at MIT “left him feeling battered” (p. 100). At this point, the reader wonders whether he will give in like the other Ballou students. Any alternative, leaving or staying at Ballou, requires a lot of energy and hard work. Trilling had told him of another path--to do two years at Howard or the University of Maryland, and if he is doing well, he could transfer to MIT. Cedric’s only response to Trilling is to feel “paralyzed” (p. 95). He calls Trilling a “RACIST” as he lies on his bed with the door locked.