A Harvard University economist offers evidence in a new study to bolster the controversial theory that high-achieving black and Latino teenagers are shunned by their peers in school for “acting white.”
Roland G. Fryer, an assistant professor of economics at the university, analyzed data on a nationally representative sample of 90,000 students in grades 7-12. For the most part, he found that minority students who get good grades are less popular in their own schools than white students who do well academically. But he also concluded that the phenomenon varied from school to school.
African-American and Latino students with good grades were more likely to pay a social price for their success in more integrated schools, he said, and less likely to do so in private or predominantly black schools.
“If the question is how much can ‘acting white’ explain the average achievement gap between typical white and black students, it can’t, because you don’t see it at predominantly black schools,” said Mr. Fryer. “But if the question is why there aren’t more minority students at elite institutions like Harvard, Princeton, or the University of Michigan, ‘acting white’ could explain that underrepresentation.”
The study, scheduled to be published this week in the periodical Education Next, is drawing criticism from scholars who have also tested the “acting white” idea.
They contend that Mr. Fryer ignored other evidence in the field and confused a strict definition of what it means to be accused of “acting white” with vague notions of popularity. They also argue that his work distracts attention from other possible causes of the achievement gap that separates black and Latino students from their higher-achieving white and Asian-American peers.
“This blames the victim and takes our attention away from what really matters, which is structural inequalities in educational opportunities for black and white students,” said James Ainsworth, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
The “acting white” or “cultural opposition” theory emerged in the 1980s, when sociologists coined the term to describe how African-American students in a District of Columbia high school dismissed academically oriented behavior as “acting white.” Nearly 20 years later, though, research on the idea is still mixed.
For his study, Mr. Fryer used a database known as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Surveyed students listed their closest male and female friends, up to five of each. Mr. Fryer looked at how often students’ names appeared on one another’s lists and made adjustments to account for the fact that some “count” more socially.
“The more frequently a peer is listed by others, the more weight I assign to showing up on his or her list,” he writes. He found that high-achieving minority students had fewer and less popular friends—both within their own racial and ethnic groups and across such groups—than did their white peers.
Ronald A. Ferguson, who is also an economist at Harvard, said he disagrees with his colleague’s interpretations but not his statistics.
Whether black students with good grades have lots of friends is not the same as whether they get stigmatized for “acting white,” Mr. Ferguson said.
“The notion of ‘acting white’ is that there’s something about high achievement that black students associate with being white,” he said, “and that, in an attempt to maintain their own distinctive, nonwhite identity, they’re resisting things associated with white behaviors.”
Though Mr. Fryer agrees that his measure does not directly test that idea, he said his work brings some nuance to the debate. For instance, he concludes that:
SOURCE: Education Week
• In private schools, high-achieving black students were more popular than white students who did well.
• Black males with good grades paid a higher social price in integrated schools. They were one- seventh as popular, by Mr. Fryer’s measure, as white male peers.
• The “acting white” effect is twice as large in relatively integrated schools than it is in less integrated ones.
“Racially integrated settings only reinforce pressures to toe the ethnic line,” Mr. Fryer writes.
William A. Darity Jr., a sociologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said academic tracking in schools might also explain why high-achieving minority students in diverse schools seem more socially isolated.
In his own research, looking at 11 North Carolina schools, for instance, he found evidence of the “acting white” pressure in only one school. In that high school, black students made up half the enrollment, but only two African-Americans took Advanced Placement classes.
“I think Mr. Fryer’s paradox would have been resolved,” he said, “if he had investigated the racial composition of classes.”