Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Evidence: Is There an "Acting White" Phenomenon?

Since 1986, the idea of "acting white" has been won a place in the popular consciousness. It is used by the media to explain black kids' lower achievement. It is deployed by politicians like Barack Obama and celebrities like Bill Cosby to rally the black community. It is called upon in faculty lounges to account for the behavior of students.

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.
When black and Hispanic kids use the term "acting white," are they equating doing well in school with whiteness? Most studies have concluded that black students are referring to cultural, rather than academic, practices when they use this phrase. In a recent study that's worth reading, sociologist Prudence Carter explained that black and Hispanic teenagers are referencing modes of speaking and dress, as well as the composition of one's friendship network, when they use this term - not academic achievement. Carter also points to the wide variation in attitudes about acting white within the black community, and concludes that Ogbu wrongly treated African-Americans as a monolithic mass.

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.
If the "burden of acting white" is largely a fiction, it cannot explain the racial achievement gap. However, there is some evidence that such a phenomenon exists in particular settings - so what proportion of the black-white test score gap could the "burden of acting white" explain?

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.


Holden said...

"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.)"

I don't follow this at all. Huh?

Stuart Buck said...

I'm not sure I follow how the first 3 points prove the initial line of the fourth point, i.e., "the 'burden of acting white' is largely a fiction." Yes, an ethnography that interviewed a relative handful of students in 8 North Carolina schools -- and that didn't even ask them about "acting white" -- would disprove the extravagant thesis that 100% of all black students in all times and places will readily volunteer to researchers that they think of education as "acting white," and that this explains the entire achievement gap.

But has anyone seriously argued for such a powerful thesis in the first place? John Ogbu's 2003 book, for example, says, "there are many other factors that might adversely affect the school performance of Black students.” (p. 189).

* * *

One point about Roland Fryer's study. As I understand it, his and Torelli's paper defines "acting white" as the dip in popularity that is experienced by black students with a >3.5 GPA. If you make that popularity/GPA discrepancy go away, that would explain 11.3% of the achievement gap.

But the >3.5 GPA students are the very ones who have overcome any negative peer effects that might exist. A greater problem would exist if there's a student with a 2.4 GPA who could have gotten a 3.0 GPA without the distraction of peers. I don't think there's any way to tell from Fryer's research how many such students exist (or whether the dip in popularity when the GPA is >3.5 affects the way that students further down the scale think). In other words, I suspect the 11.3% is a lower bound.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this comprehensive summary, eduwonkette :-)

Stuart Buck said...

I'm also interested in the claim that teenagers give nerds a hard time "regardless of race." The only support for this is a citation to "any TV sitcom" and an ethnography of a handful of North Carolina schools. Of course, there is plenty of literature -- going back at least to Coleman's Adolescent Society, and including Penelope Eckert, Jay MacLeod, Laurence Steinberg, etc. -- showing that white students are hardly in love with the world of academics.

Still, it hasn't been shown that "acting white" is just the equivalent of "nerd," rather than something more potent. There's plenty of anecdotal testimony by people who found that being accused of not being "black enough" was incredibly hurtful (see, e.g., this). As Angela Neal-Barnett has said, "Acting white is the most negative accusation thrown in the face of many Black adolescents."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for opening up this discussion. Interesting points in the blog and in the comments as well.

There are schools where the teachers are predominantly of a particular academic/cultural/racial "grouping" and not only the students, but the paras, security officers, and other support staff are overwhelmingly representing something really different. [I am trying to be as careful with my wording as I can, because I do not want to offend a single person by using in any of these terms casually.]

This is where "staff development" would actually be appropriate, and for a change, even useful.

Anonymous said...

All domestic dogs, from Chihuahua to Great Dane, are species canis familiaris; breed genetic differences result from enforced separation by breeders/trainers for the last 800 years. Domestic dogs are all one species. Similarly, all humans are species homo sapiens with race differences resulting from separation over thousands of years by geographic barriers. Dog breeds and human races are directly analogous as sub-groups within the respective species.

Much can be learned from studying dogs; medical science does a great deal of this to avoid experimentation on humans. The brain is no exception, as dog brain structure and information flow processes are very similar to that in humans. Numerous dog brain studies to analyze human brain diseases/conditions are in the medical literature.

Any experienced domestic animal breeder will acknowledge the profound influence of genetics on intelligence and behavior. Traits such as trainability, aggression, prey drive, docility, bite inhibition are highly heritable and difficult to modify. Extensive evaluations of dog intelligence have developed breed rankings according to ease of training (number of repetitions needed to learn a command) and reliability (percent of time) of correct response to learned commands. Instinctive ability to to take correct action in complex situations is also recognized to vary with breed (there is a valid reason police K-9 units use German Shepherds instead of Pit Bulls). Among dog breeds, there is a huge Achievement_Gap. This is all easily Googled…

You can talk openly about dogs without being politically incorrect. You won’t get into trouble, lose your career or research grants, as you might if you reveal unpleasant truths about humans: e.g., James Watson, Jimmy the Greek, Al Campanis, Don Imus…

Humans are not exempt from the fundamental rules of biology. As with dogs, human Achievement Gaps are genetic...