Commentators from Bill Cosby to Barack Obama have observed the phenomenon of black schoolchildren accusing studious classmates of “acting white.” How did this contentious phrase, with roots in Jim Crow-era racial discord, become a part of the schoolyard lexicon, and what does it say about the state of racial identity in the American system of education?
The answer, writes Stuart Buck in this frank and thoroughly researched book, lies in the complex history of desegregation. Although it arose from noble impulses and was to the overall benefit of the nation, racial desegegration was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It frequently destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals who could serve as role models, and made school a strange and uncomfortable environment for black children, a place many viewed as quintessentially “white.”
Drawing on research in education, history, and sociology as well as articles, interviews, and personal testimony, Buck reveals the unexpected result of desegregation and suggests practical solutions for making racial identification a positive force in the classroom.
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About the Author
An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, Stuart Buck is a Ph.D. student in education policy at the University of Arkansas. His work has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Administrative Law Review, and several other scholarly journals.
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ACTING WHITEThe Ironic Legacy of Desegregation
By Stuart Buck
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Yale University
All right reserved.
1 Does "Acting White" Occur?....................9
2 Why Should We Care? How Peers Affect the Achievement Gap....................27
3 The History of Black Education in America....................41
4 What Were Black Schools Like?....................54
5 The Closing of Black Schools....................73
6 The Loss of Black Teachers and Principals....................99
7 The Rise of Tracking....................116
8 When Did "Acting White" Arise?....................125
9 Where Do We Go from Here?....................147
Chapter OneDOES "ACTING WHITE" OCCUR? Courtney Smith figures she heard it nearly every day she was in public school: "Courtney acts white." "Courtney talks white." "Courtney thinks she's all that." Just because she did well in school and spoke proper English. "[Other students] feel they're supposed to be cool, and cool is not supposed to be making good grades in school." - Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Virginia, 2006 "All of my life, I've been accused of acting white," [Alexandra] Gray said. "Just because you are articulate or take [Advanced Placement] classes, kids want to say that. But I'm only being me. I'm only being myself." Many students echoed her ideas, saying that taking ballet classes or playing the violin brought accusations that they weren't "acting black enough." - East Valley Tribune, Mesa, Arizona, 2008
Many people think that the "acting white" phenomenon is just a myth. For example, Michael Eric Dyson, the University of Pennsylvania professor and public intellectual, claims in his book Is Bill Cosby Right? that "acting white" is the "academic equivalent of an urban legend" that is "rooted in a single 1986 study of a Washington, D.C., high school."
Indeed, some think that the "acting white" thesis is dangerous. Dyson argues that the "social mythology of low black academic desire" serves only to "deprive black students of an equal education." A piece in the New York Times Magazine claims that "the idea that failing black kids pull down successful black kids can be used as an excuse by administrators to conceal or justify discrimination in the public education system." Strikingly, a Duke professor who co-authored a study on black academic attitudes (described later in this chapter) has called his own scholarship "warfare in the academy" against the "acting white" thesis.
The "acting white" phenomenon is not a myth. Far from only a "single 1986 study," at least fifteen academic studies (from surveys to ethnographies) have found evidence of the "acting white" phenomenon in education over the past thirty-seven years. In addition, abundant anecdotal evidence shows that accomplished black students are often ridiculed. The "acting white" criticism deserves more than a hand-waving dismissal.
Is It a Myth? The Scholarly Evidence for "Acting White"
The most solid evidence in support of the "acting white" thesis comes from a study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr., a thirty-something black man who has already published a ream of important articles on race in America. Fryer found that smart black students are less popular with their peers.
Fryer's finding came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which collected information about the friends of some ninety thousand students nationwide who entered high school in the mid-1990s. The information was not self-reported (as we shall see, this makes Fryer's study more reliable than the studies that purport to disprove "acting white"). Rather, the students were asked to provide a list of their closest male and female friends. Fryer counted "how often each student's name appeared on peers' lists," and then-just as Google reportedly does with its ranking of Web sites-he weighted the raw counts according to how "frequently a peer is listed by others." He also controlled for factors such as parental education, occupation, and participation in extracurricular activities (including sports, student government, and cheerleading).
The results were striking. Whereas white students' popularity steadily increased along with their grade-point average (such that the most accomplished white children were the most popular), black children experienced a drop-off in popularity as their grade-point average rose above 3.5. In Fryer's words, "A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer friends of the same ethnicity than a white student with the same GPA. Put differently, a black student with straight As is no more popular than a black student with a 2.9 GPA, but high-achieving whites are at the top of the popularity pyramid."
A skeptic might ask, "Are white kids really more popular when they make higher grades? Isn't there a common stereotype of the friendless nerd in the American high school? Did that stereotype just come from nowhere?"
It is not that smart kids are always popular; just on average. Children who are wealthy often tend to be smarter, or at least better prepared from having had the sort of parents who put alphabet flashcards above their infants' cribs. Thus, some of the kids who are dominant in the high school scene (because of their wealth and style) are also the same kids who have been pushed to succeed academically from a young age. Another possibility is that some of the smartest kids are eager to build a long résumé to send off for college admissions, and therefore join many clubs or organizations, bringing them into contact with potential friends. Yet another possibility is that the smarter kids are better able to figure out how to navigate the complicated social world of high school.
Tellingly, Fryer found that the "acting white" criticism is unique to integrated schools, while in predominantly black schools, there is "no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students' popularity." What's more, when Fryer looked at schools with greater levels of "internal integration"-that is, more friendships between different races in general-he found much higher levels of the "acting white" effect. In Fryer's words, "Black males in such schools fare the worst, penalized seven times as harshly as my estimate of the average effect of acting white on all black students!" He then suggests that this effect may be because "racially integrated settings only reinforce pressures to toe the ethnic line."
Fryer's study is an interesting contrast with one performed in the late 1960s on the experiences of around sixty-five hundred children during desegregation. The children were asked to complete questionnaires in which each student gave first, second, and third choices for "whom from among his classmates he would prefer for friends, for schoolwork partners, and for members of a ball team." Among "segregated minority children" in the year preceding desegregation, the black students who ranked in the highest third of achievement were by far the most popular.
Fryer is far from the only scholar to have found an "acting white" effect in schools. Here are just a few others:
In 1986, Nigerian-American sociologist John Ogbu and Signithia
Fordham published what became a famous article describing the "acting
white" criticism in a high school in Washington, D.C. Fordham
later wrote a book about that high school, reporting that "students
had an inordinately long list of ways in which it was possible to act
white, many of them directly related to behaviors in and outside the
school and some directly related to the pursuit of academic achievement."
She briefly suggests a connection to desegregation: "Kaela
admits that she and her friend were ashamed to tell their families that
they had been down at the Smithsonian because, in this era of integration,
'cozying up' to White Americans brings one's identity into
One case study of 148 black students in an urban school district found
the "acting white" criticism to be common, and concluded that "peer
pressure and fear of isolation are powerful contributors to underachievement
among Black students, and gifted learners in general."
The same scholar followed up with another study focusing on black
female elementary students. Out of 89 participants, 54 percent reported
having been "teased for 'getting good grades,'" and 31 percent
had been accused of "acting white." And in March 2008, the same
scholar and several colleagues surveyed 166 gifted black students in
Ohio, and found that 66 percent reported that they knew someone
who was ridiculed for doing well in school, that most students
thought of "acting white" as being smart and doing well in school,
and (troublingly) that most students thought of "acting black" as
being dumb and pretending not to care about school.
In a 1993 lecture, two professors reported on a survey of 190 black
middle and high school students from Michigan, all of whom were
enrolled in summer academic programs. They found that a "sizable
proportion" of the students (around 21-25 percent) agreed that their
friends thought of academic success in terms of "acting white." The
professors admitted that theirs was not a random sample but argued
that they were probably "underestimating the prevalence" of "acting
white," because they looked only at students who already tended
to be in smart peer groups.
In a 1996 book, psychology professor Laurence Steinberg reported
on the results of a multiyear study that surveyed some twenty thousand
high school students as well as hundreds of parents and teachers.
In his words, "we heard variations on the 'acting White' theme
many, many times over the course of our interviews with high school
students." As a result, many black students "are forced to choose between
doing well in school and having friends."
As reported in a recent book, researchers found strong evidence of
"acting white" in a survey of more than one hundred black students
in Charlotte, North Carolina. One girl, for example, said, "I was always
on the honor roll ... you know, you get called white, which I
think is ridiculous 'cause that's meaning that if you're intelligent,
you're white, if you're dumb, then you're black."
In late 2006, Ronald Ferguson of Harvard released a survey that was
part of a broader research project involving twenty high schools in
eight states. He found that in integrated schools, almost half of the
A students reported that they were "sometimes" or "always" accused
of acting white.
There are several other academic papers that found an "acting white" phenomenon in particular schools. Any one of these studies does not prove a nationwide pattern. At the same time, when one ethnography after another keeps finding the same thing - whether in D.C., Michigan, Ohio, or elsewhere - the combined results are difficult to ignore.
Several common themes can be seen in these many studies.
Integrated Schools. Many studies, like Fryer's, suggest that "acting white" is a problem in integrated schools. For example, the first academic study that found "acting white" was a 1970 book about a desegregated school. In that study, sociologists found many examples of the "acting white" criticism. One student was asked, "What pressures do you feel from the fact that you attend a desegregated school?" He responded, "Well, I participate in speech; I'm the only Negro in the whole group.... The Negroes accuse me of thinking I'm white.... I think it's this kind of pressure from the other Negro kids which causes me the greatest concern." The book points out that "derogatory attitudes are particularly noticeable toward blacks, who ... try to compete with white students for academic honors, school offices, and roles in extracurricular activities.... The black student who enters these activities is called a 'white nigger' or an 'Uncle Tom' by other blacks." Indeed, the study's authors pointed out that the "acting white" criticism was directly tied to integration: "To do what 'whitey' does is the Negro's right, but once the right becomes a reality, the black is 'playing it white.' Thus, the Negro who is at the frontiers of integration is doing what his race demands but is, simultaneously, rejected by many other Negroes."
Similarly, sociologist Karolyn Tyson - who is otherwise a skeptic on the "acting white" issue - found, based on four ethnographic studies conducted over nine years, that "some black students are indeed accused of 'acting white' by their peers." Tyson points out that students who "attended all-black schools or schools that had more racially balanced classrooms" "rarely recalled ever being accused of acting white." (Racially balanced classrooms avoid the scenario in racially balanced schools wherein white students tend to be in the more advanced classes.) As well, a study of the St. Louis desegregation program notes that the "eleventh-grade transfer students participating in the focus group described how they 'hate it' when African-American students talk and act 'all white' when they are at their county schools and then get on the bus and start talking 'black' again."
Finally, David Bergin and Helen Cooks interviewed thirty-eight black students from several different schools in an unidentified "midwestern city." They suggest that the "acting white" syndrome is worst in racially mixed schools: "High-achieving students of color in racially balanced schools appear most likely to be accused of acting white because their enrollment in advanced classes puts them in constant contact with white students, and at the same time, there is a large number of students of color who are in a position to notice and comment on the supposed defection. ... Students in racially balanced schools seemed to feel more polarization based on race, so they were under more pressure to 'choose sides.'"
The same phenomenon seems not to affect all-black schools. Drawing on his own experience attending predominantly black schools when he was younger, Roland Fryer explains. "We didn't act white-we didn't know what that was," he said. "There were no white kids around."
The Effect on Boys. The second common theme is that "acting white" seems to have a stronger effect on boys, which potentially could help explain why black boys graduate from high school at a lower rate than black girls. Roland Fryer found that the cost of academic success is higher for black males than for black females: "Popularity begins to decrease at lower GPAs for young black men than young black women (3.25 GPA compared with a 3.5), and the rate at which males lose friends after this point is far greater. As a result, black male high achievers have notably fewer friends than do female ones."
Other researchers surveyed 2,730 eighth graders at randomly selected schools in Charlotte, North Carolina (just over 1,000 were black). They asked about "oppositional attitudes" - that is, whether the students agreed with statements such as "my friends at home believe that too much education makes a person give up his or her real identity."
Excerpted from ACTING WHITE by Stuart Buck Copyright © 2010 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1 Does "Acting White" Occur? 9
2 Why Should We Care? How Peers Affect the Achievement Gap 27
3 The History of Black Education in America 41
4 What Were Black Schools Like? 54
5 The Closing of Black Schools 73
6 The Loss of Black Teachers and Principals 99
7 The Rise of Tracking 116
8 When Did "Acting White" Arise? 125
9 Where Do We Go from Here? 147