Stuart Buck on “Acting White”

by Robert Pondiscio
June 1st, 2010

With his frequent insightful comments, Stuart Buck of the University of Arkansas has become a familiar name to regular readers of this and other prominent education blogs. His first book, just published by Yale University Press, has been discussed at Joanne Jacobs and on Rod Dreher’s blog at Beliefnet. I’m pleased Stuart has agreed to blog about it this week on the Core Knowledge Blog — rp.

In this post and the one following, I will describe the thesis of my book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, published by Yale University Press on May 25, 2010. Much thanks to Robert Pondiscio for allowing me to blog about it here.

“Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” Barack Obama said in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, “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 eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” A May 2009 report from Newsweek noted that Michelle Obama “described the ridicule she faced from neighborhood kids for ‘acting white’ when she got good grades” as a child.

The Obamas are far from alone in their observations. Many people in recent years–most famously, Bill Cosby–have pointed out that black children often seem to think of schoolwork as a “white” activity. Anecdotal evidence abounds in newspaper articles and on the Internet. One black valedictorian in Virginia, for example, told a newspaper that “as I’ve gone through my whole school career, people have called me white because I’ve made good grades and didn’t conform to the stereotype.”

As well, many academic studies have shown that some black children think of doing schoolwork as “acting white,” and a study by Roland Fryer–a black Harvard economist–shows that black children nationwide become less popular if their grade-point average rises above 3.5.

“Acting white” has been discussed so often in the popular press that it no longer comes as a surprise. But it should. If we look at the historical record, there is no evidence that black schoolchildren back in the days of slavery or Jim Crow accused a studious schoolmate of “acting white.” To the contrary, white people occasionally accused educated blacks of trying to be white. A Northerner who had moved to Georgia after the Civil War noted that “in the days of Slavery, the masters ridiculed the negroes’ efforts to use good language, and become like the whites.”

Yet today, the “acting white” criticism that was once occasionally used by racist whites has been adopted by some black schoolchildren. This is a mystery, is it not? What happened between the nineteenth century and today?

The answer, I believe, springs from the complex history of desegregation. Although desegregation arose from noble and necessary impulses, and although desegregation was to the overall benefit of the nation, it was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals and teachers who could serve as role models, and brought many black schoolchildren into daily contact with whites who made school a strange and uncomfortable environment that was viewed as quintessentially “white.”

Numerous scholars and commentators have observed that the “acting white” criticism arose during the 1960s–precisely the time when desegregation actually happened. Indeed, many black people recall that they were first accused of “acting white” or “trying to be white” during the desegregation experience.

Among many examples in the book, author Kitty Oliver notes that “there was a time when black students wouldn’t dare tease a student, but rather would applaud them for their achievements.” But then, “desegregation created a clearer division of white and black. Once black and white students started attending school together, the association shifted and black students began to tease one another by pushing their smart peers into the ‘white’ category.” Bernice McNair Barnett, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recalls that she was “isolated and cut off from the world of my former Black peers (who saw my school desegregation choice as ‘trying to be White’) as well as my new White peers (who were both hate filled bullies and otherwise good hearted but silent bystanders).”

The stage was set for this attitudinal shift once desegregation undermined one of the traditional centers of the black community: the school. In the segregated schools, black children had consistently seen other blacks succeeding in the academic world. The authority figures and role models–that is, the teachers and principals–were virtually always black. A typical description of those days: “It was like a family. You knew all the children. You knew their parents, and they all had gone to the same school. We didn’t have the same resources that the white students had, but we had teachers who made sure you did the very best you could with what you had.” Another former student in a black school recalled, “They encouraged the fainthearted, and boosted the ego of the underachiever.” And the best students in black schools were black as well.

All of this ended with desegregation. Many black schools disappeared altogether: school boards all across the South closed or demolished black schools in pursuit of desegregation (or occasionally kept the school open while changing its name and status, so as to erase its historical connection to the black community). In North Carolina, for example, out of 226 all-black high schools in 1964, only 13 survived a mere 8 years later. Unsurprisingly, the number of black principals also dropped from 226 to 15.

Take Second Ward High School in Charlotte, NC. One resident told author David Shipler, “The principal was like our grandfather, an authoritative figure. . . . We didn’t have the best materials, but we had the best nurturing.” Says another graduate: “I don’t advocate segregated schools today. But there are attributes of that time that need to be in place today. Our teachers, they’d look at you, almost as if they were wanting to will a good education into your head.”

But Second Ward was demolished under a desegregation plan in Charlotte, and the black students were dispersed to white schools. Students were devastated. Said one person: “An institution was being closed. And not necessarily for progress, but because of integration. . . . Well, it was heartbreaking. It really was. It really was.” Another person said, “We thought that it was the utmost in betrayal.” A former teacher from Second Ward later said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”

After desegregation, many black children were taught by white teachers who disliked them, did not care about their success, underestimated their capabilities, or–at the opposite extreme–coddled them out of guilt. Even when the white teachers did everything right, the black schoolchildren still, for the first time, faced the possibility of seeing “school” as a place where success equaled seeking the approval of whites.

Black schoolchildren, now dispersed into formerly all-white schools, suddenly had to deal with unfriendly classmates on a day-to-day basis. School was no longer a place where black children could avoid interacting with racist people. As John McWhorter points out, the “demise of segregation” helped “pave the way for the ‘acting white’ charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white ones in larger numbers than ever before, which meant that whites were available for black students to model themselves against.”

Many desegregated schools also made greater use of academic “tracking,” which kept most of the better-prepared white students in a separate class from the black students. This too reinforced the message that academic achievement was reserved for whites. By contrast, as Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, “in the context of a segregated school, it was a given that the high achieving students would all be Black. Academic achievement did not have to mean separation from one’s Black peers.”

Thus, as Harvard economist Roland Fryer points out, one’s attitude toward education can now function as a racial signal. A black student who is too eager in class may be seen as trying to curry favor with the mostly white teachers. And where the advanced classes or academic clubs are predominantly white, the black student who takes advanced classes or joins an academic club is seen as having preferred the company of whites over blacks. In other words, just by the fact that desegregation brought black and white students into contact with one another, it became possible for either blacks or whites to view the other race as outsiders in the school environment, and to start punishing children who spent too much time crossing the boundary lines between races.

There is nothing unusual in this: Humans are tribal creatures. It is a universal human trait for group members to expect loyalty to the group, whether the “group” involves employees of a particular corporation; Democrats or Republicans; literally thousands of religious sects and denominations; citizens of a particular country, state, or town; fans of the Yankees or any other sports team; or a nearly infinite range of groups based on all sorts of characteristics. It was an ironic byproduct of desegregation that this universal human expectation–“be loyal to our group, or else”–showed up in schools.

Stuart Buck is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, he has published scholarly articles in Phi Delta Kappan, Harvard Law Review, and elsewhere.

6 Comments »

  1. Stuart,

    Your thesis sounds very plausible to me.

    However, I strongly suspect there’s a good deal more at work here. In my mostly-white public middle school in Northern California, there’s a strong anti-achievement ethos among the white kids. A more popular ethos would be “acting ‘ghetto’”. In the all-Hispanic high school where I used to teach, the American-born kids scorned academics; the Mexican-born kids were much more serious. In the Bay Area today, the predominantly Chinese and South Asian districts far outstrip white-majority districts on standardized test scores. There’s something about American culture that seems to undercut academic achievement. Today I showed my students part of Spellbound, the documentary that profiles a handful of kids who made it to the finals of the national spelling bee. Two of the kids profiled were of Indian descent. I detected many murmurs of mockery regarding these nerdy kids. It makes me wonder if the new “acting white” will be “acting Asian”.

    Comment by Ben F — June 1, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  2. I could not agree more, Stuart. Recently one of my African American students was acting goofy in the hallway, when I asked him to calm down and quiet down, one of my other African American students said, “See Mrs. K I don’t act all black like that.” A bit taken aback, I asked L what he meant, and he said, “I would rather act white than act black like that fool.” I quickly remarked that acting mannerly was not a black or white “thing,” and that it was quite ok to act with dignity and still be proud of his African American heritage. However, I could still see from his behavior that he didn’t quite believe me.

    Comment by Shannon K — June 1, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

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  5. The MEDIA. The most powerful form of education in America. That’s what else is at work. There is no reinforcement of the pleasures of an active mind….

    Comment by DM — June 9, 2010 @ 11:18 am

  6. [...] Stuart Buck on Acting White [...]

    Pingback by IN THE NEWS (2010 ARCHIVE) | UARK – DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION REFORM — September 4, 2012 @ 12:44 am

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