Given all of the hoopla, it's surprising that no one has been able to find support for this theory's key predictions. To be sure, there are some ongoing points of contention, and I will discuss these below.
- Prediction 1: Involuntary minorities like African-Americans do not believe that education will lead to social mobility.
Despite their poorer performance on average, study after study has demonstrated that African-American students do not perceive lower returns to education or less favorable occupational opportunities than whites.
Less understood is the gap between African-Americans' positive attitudes and their school-related habits and behaviors. A common explanation is the idea of a unique "cultural toolkit" shaped by African-Americans' economic experiences. As sociologists James Ainsworth-Darnell and Doug Downey explained:
African-American students tend to live in neighborhoods with material conditions (e.g. high unemployment and nontraditional family structures) that are less likely to foster the kinds of skills, habits, and styles that lead to school success. For example, contrast the life of student A, who lives in a world in which parents rise daily to prepare for work and other adults in the neighborhood also follow the structured routine of work, with student B, whose parents and many other adults in the neighborhood are unemployed. Other factors being equal, Student A will be more likely than Student B to develop the habit of being on time to school because of exposure to and emphasis on a daily schedule. Despite valuing education, therefore, African-American students are less likely to exhibit the kinds of school-related behaviors that teachers reward.
In short, there is still much work to do to understand what Roz Mickelson dubbed the "attitude-achievement paradox" - but there is little support for Fordham and Ogbu's claims about African-Americans' negative attitudes towards education.
- Prediction 2: Black students reject education and academic achievement as a "white" enterprise.
In his paper, economist Roland Fryer raises an interesting point about the distinctions drawn in this literature. For example, if speaking standard English is corrrelated with academic success, does it make sense to draw distinctions between academic and cultural meanings? This is worth thinking more about.
- Prediction 3: Black students ridicule their peers who put forth effort and achieve academically.
Watch any TV sitcom and you'll see that, regardless of race, teenagers give "geeks," "brainiacs," and "nerds" a hard time. This is the key finding from Karolyn Tyson's study of North Carolina schools. However, in a subset of schools where tracking was racially and socioeconomically polarized, she did find evidence of a "burden of acting white." (Note that this is an association, not a causal claim; the direction of causality could run in either direction.)
Tyson's finding works in tandem with Roland Fryer's paper on the relationship between student popularity and GPA. Only in racially integrated schools did he observe a different relationship between popularity and GPA for black students. (I'll say more about the Fryer paper tomorrow. ) John Ogbu's study of Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb, as well as Ron Ferguson's work on integrated suburban schools, have uncovered similar findings.
- Prediction 4: Black students' coping with the "burden of acting white" is one major reason why a black-white achievement gap exists.
Roland Fryer takes up this question in his paper. He finds that for the average black student, eliminating the popularity/GPA relationship would actually increase the black-white test score gap. (This is because black students with low GPAs are more popular than white students with low GPAs.) For black students with GPAs of 3.5 or greater, eliminating the popularity/GPA relationship would explain 11.3% of the black-white achievement gap.
Unfortunately, the media hasn't latched onto these studies as tightly as it did to Fordham and Ogbu's idea of acting white. Hopefully they'll set the record straight in the future.
PS - For those who are interested, there's a new edited book called Beyond Acting White that covers recent research on this issue.