Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The "Burden of Acting White"

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They 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.
-Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic Convention

Most academic theories die a quiet death in the pages of a journal. Not so with Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu's notion of "acting white." Since its publication in 1986, this idea has been invoked as a central cause of the black-white achievement gap by media, politicians, and educators.

Fordham and Ogbu's theory was much more complex than the caricature that has been appropriated by the popular media. A handful of early articles, such as this 1988 article in the NYT, presented this complexity. But most articles on the topic lead with headlines like "Talented black students find that one of the most insidious obstacles to achievement comes from a surprising source: their own peers" (Time Magazine, 1992). Since then, the "acting white" hypothesis has been used to argue that African-Americans simply don't value education and that their deviant values are to blame for the black-white achievement gap.

Fordham has called these interpretations tantamount to blaming blacks for being forced to sit on the back of the bus. (See a recent interview here.) What was Fordham and Ogbu's argument, then?

In earlier work, Ogbu attempted to answer a vexing question: Why do some minority groups do much better in American schools than others? Ogbu concluded that the group's mode of incorporation into American society - whether it was voluntary or involuntary - affected the group's attitudes toward schooling and their behaviors in school. Voluntary minorities, he reasoned, came to the United States expecting upward mobility. In contrast, involuntary minorities - such as African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and American Indians - were incorporated through slavery or conquest. In examining the constellation of economic and social forces affecting African-Americans, they argued that African-Americans had adapted to historically poor educational and job opportunities by developing attitudes and behaviors incongruent with success in school. Their argument was not that the black community was pathological or deviant. Rather, Ogbu contended that limited opportunity gave rise to an adaptive culture.

Based on an ethnographic study of an African-American DC high school, Fordham and Ogbu added two new concepts to this foundation. They held that "one major reason black students do poorly in school is that they experience inordinate ambivalence and affective dissonance in regard to academic effort and success." The first new concept was the idea of an oppositional collective social identity: a peoplehood defined in contrast to whites that was the result of years of oppression by whites. Second was the notion of an oppositional cultural frame of reference intended to protect this identity and maintain boundaries between the group and white America. This frame of reference deemed behaviors and activities characteristic of whites as inappropriate for African-Americans. If African-Americans embraced these "white" activities, Fordham and Ogbu argued, they risked sanctioning by the group.

According to Fordham and Ogbu, activities defined as white at Capital High included speaking standard English, listening to white music (including going to a Rolling Stones concert at the Capital Center), going to the opera or ballet, working hard to get good grades in school, having cocktails or a cocktail party, and being on time. They go on to profile individual students and discuss the strategies that students used to negotiate the desire to do well and the demands of their peers. The central point, though, was that some part of African-American kids' poor performance is explained by their attempts to cope with the "burden of acting white."

The conclusions Fordham and Ogbu drew, however, stand in stark contrast to those traded in the media. They concluded:
The first and critically important change must occur in the existing opportunity structure, through an elimination of the job ceiling and related barriers. Changes in the opportunity structure are a prerequisite to changes in the behaviors and expectations of black adolescents.
Fordham and Ogbu also saw a role for schools and communities to play. They wanted schools to acknowledge the effects of this burden on their students and design programs accordingly.

Tomorrow, I'll review the empirical evidence on "acting white" that has accumulated since 1986.


Stuart Buck said...

One point about Ogbu's theory: It's not clear how the "job ceiling" -- bad as it is of its own right -- would affect the attitudes of schoolchildren. When Laurence Steinberg and his colleagues surveyed some 20,000 students, they found — to their surprise — that there were “no ethnic differences in the extent to which youngsters believe that getting a good education pays off," and that "although African-American and Hispanic youth earn lower grades in school than their Asian-American and White counterparts, they are just as likely as their peers to believe that doing well in school will benefit them occupationally.” Laurence Steinberg, Sanford M. Dornbusch, and B. Bradford Brown, “Ethnic Differences in Adolescent Achievement: An Ecological Perspective,” American Psychologist 47 No. 6 (1992), at p. 726. (Earlier this year, Steinberg told me that there is still no empirical support for the notion that a job ceiling accounts for any disparate attitudes in schoolchildren.)

Double H said...

There has been a lot of scholarship in response to Fordham and Ogbu. I like the work of Prudence Carter regarding the accumulation of black social capital as a counterpoint because she points out how black youth have a social economy that is operating that is not necessarily in opposition to academic achievement. The book is called Keepin' It Real. Carter is now at Stanford.

eduwonkette said...

hi stuart and double h,

stuart, i agree with you - i haven't read that study, so thanks for the ref. double h, i agree that carter offers some important clarifications - see #2 in the new post.

all the best,