June 04, 2005

"Acting White"

At the Democratic convention last year, Barak Obama talked about inner-city education in the course of his keynote address, saying, "[Inner city folks] know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Ah yes, acting white. We hear that a lot these days, and I've always wondered, is "acting white" an insult different in kind from other anti-intellectual insults? When I was growing up, for instance, I briefly attended a lily-white high school in upstate New York, where it was for the most part a capital offense, punishable by schoolyard beat-down, to hold a book in your hands. I wouldn't say anti-intellectualism is limited to a single race by any means.

At any rate, Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli of Harvard have done a lot of work on "acting white"—which can mean a lot of things, but in this context refers to the theory that weaker school performance by black students is due to the fact that it's not cool to get good grades—and their latest analysis is worth discussing. Obviously there's a long history of researchers trying to figure out why there's a persistent achievement gap between white and black students on various tests: explanations range from income inequality, differences in school quality, poor parenting, racially biased tests, racially biased teachers, or even, if you like shoddy Bell Curve research, genetics. But peer pressure and socialization is another oft-cited explanation.

The "acting white" explanation first cropped up in 1986, in a study by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu. They found that black students aren't ridiculed by their peers for getting good grades per se, but are ridiculed for doing things that tend to get you good grades, like raising your hand in class, or "proper diction". A separate study in 1998, by Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, disputed these results, in fact finding that black students who were part of honor societies were more likely to see themselves as popular, and that in general, black students were no more "anti-intellectual" than their white peers. (Although obviously there's still a damned lot of anti-intellectualism in the world.) Similar findings were published by Karolyn Tyson and William Darity, Jr., who also noted that instances of anti-intellectualism were treated differently: among whites it "is seen as inevitable, but when the same dynamic is observed among black students, it is pathologized as racial neurosis."

At any rate, Fryer and Torelli revisited the subject, basing their analysis not on self-reported measures of popularity, but on "an index of social status" (how many same-race friends a student has, weighted by the popularity of each friend). According to their data, there is indeed a discrepancy between students of different races. For blacks, higher grades bring higher popularity until you reach a GPA of 3.5, at which point you start losing popularity. For Hispanics, you start losing popularity after reaching a 2.5 GPA. For whites, higher grades generally correlate with higher popularity all the way up. Interestingly, this effect is strongest at schools with fewer than 20 percent black students; it is virtually non-existent in predominantly black schools. (The results hold up when you vary up many other school characteristics.)

A few comments. Obviously the "acting white" phenomenon only has a strong effect on achievement if the loss of friends is high enough to act as a deterrent on doing well in school. Intuitively, I'm not sure it does. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a similar white student. Friends are nice and all, but that's not a huge difference. It's also possible that the causal arrow is all wrong here. The "acting white" thesis suggests that smart black students get scorned by their peers, but it could simply be that black students who are unpopular for other reasons just end up spending more time in the library and hence, get higher grades. (That doesn't explain why smart black students are more unpopular than their white counterparts, though.)

Finally, the finding that there's not much of an "acting white" effect in predominantly black schools is important. (To be sure, there's probably a good deal of anti-intellectualism, but nothing over and beyond what goes on among, say, white students.) In their original study, Fordham and Ogbu had originally suggested that black students, because they were on average given shoddy schools and had lower job ceilings, and have long been seen as not very capable of high achievement, all decided that academic success was for white people and shrugged it off. Some have charged that this is a simplistic view of identity-formation. But more to the point, why is it that this effect only persists in interracial schools? I can think of a couple explanations, but none of them certain. And even more to the point, since we do have heavily segregated schools in this country—70 percent of black students attend predominantly minority schools—it stands to reason, then, that the "acting white" slander probably can't explain why all of these black students are falling behind their white counterparts. So Obama's probably off on this one; there are likely far bigger problems to tackle.
-- Brad Plumer 9:08 PM || ||