Acting White—Or Acting Smart? Stuart Buck's New Book Can't Explain Education Gap

It's widely argued that the reason that blacks tend to perform poorly in schools and jobs is their fear of being accused by other blacks of "acting white." Thus in the current issue of The New Republic, linguist John McWhorter, the celebrated black intellectual associated with New York's Manhattan Institute, lauds the new book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation by Stuart Buck (who is white—see picture.) McWhorter argues, "Much of the reason for the gap between the grades and test scores of black students and white students was that black teens often equated doing well in school with 'acting white.'"[Guilt Trip, June 24, 2010]

In an interview with Buck about his book, Rod Dreher defines "acting white" as when "academically accomplished black students are often accused of being traitors to their race ('acting white') because of their good grades and study habits."

Buck's main argument: blame black underperformance on the paradoxical consequences of integration. He explains:

"An integrated school can often appear to black students to be controlled by whites, or to be run in a way that benefits white students. Thus, the black student who tries to curry favor from the white authorities is seen as saying, 'I'm better than you.'"

Buck declares:

"… I think there's a strong case that 'acting white' began with desegregation. First, as far as I could tell, black people who went to school before desegregation have testified unanimously (whether in autobiographies, newspaper articles, or personal interviews) that 'acting white' was a completely foreign concept in their school days. After all, why would a child whose most-admired peers and mentors within the school were black think of any type of school behavior as 'acting white'?"

In Race and Education, 1954-2007 U. of Delaware historian Raymond Wolters also pointed out the disruptions imposed upon black schools by desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. But Wolters made clear, however, that one major cause of the decline of black communities was black flight—middle class African-Americans fleeing contact with poor blacks.

Are blacks held back by fear of "acting white"?

No doubt this is often true. Yet the benefits that whites bestow upon blacks for acting reassuringly white (for example, the White House itself) are so lavish that it's hardly certain what the net effect is. As Buck admits, when unsuccessful blacks denounce successful blacks for "acting white," there's an obvious whiff of sour grapes about the proceedings:

"Indeed, in one of the earliest scholarly accounts of 'acting white,' one of the poorer black students was remarkably frank about how he viewed the more accomplished black students in his class: 'There're just a few of these Uncle Toms at school, these are the goody-goody guys. Maybe I say this, though, because they're doing a little bit better than I am. And maybe I'm a little bit ashamed of myself because I'm not doing as good as they are in school, and I'm jealous. Maybe that's why I think of them as Uncle Toms.'"

One peculiarity of this popular "acting white" theory: there is significantly stronger evidence that a lack of intellectual ambition holds back otherwise capable Hispanics (especially Mexican-Americans) than that it debilitates African-Americans. But that never seems to come up in public discussion—probably because, as I've argued before, Anglos just find blacks much more interesting than Latinos.

Google finds 14 times as many pages featuring the phrases "African American" and "acting white" as it does "Mexican American" and "acting white." An expensive Harvard study by celebrity black economist Roland Fryer intended to confirm the "acting white" hypothesis by showing that black students lost friends as they earned higher grades actually wound up demonstrating that this problem is much worse among Latinos.

Contrary to the claims of John McWhorter, African-American culture isn't particularly anti-intellectual or anti-education ... at least relative to the average black IQ of 85, some 15 points below the white average. [VDARE.com Note: Via Amazon.com's search inside feature, we find that no mention of this IQ gap—indeed, the letters IQ appear only twice in the book. Test gap? Check. Stereotype Threat? Check.  Parenting? Check. IQ? No.] For example, think of how many black intellectuals you can name? Probably quite a few. (You can start with McWhorter.)

In contrast, how many Mexican-American intellectuals can you recall? (Sure, there are Mexican intellectuals—but they don't move to America.)

Even if you cast your mind back a century, in 1910 there were two nationally prominent African-American intellectuals: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

Each advocated impressive albeit contrasting ideologies. Du Bois endorsed legal equality for the black elite—the "Talented Tenth", as he called them. In contrast, Washington contended that building human capital among the black masses was key to their moving up from sharecroppers to factory workers.

The federal government could help blacks, Washington noted, by limiting immigration. (See Washington's once-famous 1895 speech to white industrialists, "Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are," asking them to hire black Americans rather than immigrants for their factories.)

An example of black ambition relative to Mexicans: taking the Law School Admissions Test might seem like a pretty white thing to do. Yet blacks do it vastly more than Mexican-Americans: in 2006, 11,288 blacks took the LSAT compared to only 1,789 Mexican-Americans. On a per capita basis, young blacks were four times as likely to take the LSAT as young Mexican-Americans.

The problem is that so many blacks took the LSAT that their average score fell at only the 12th percentile of the white distribution. In contrast, so few Mexican-Americans attempted the LSAT that those who did would have averaged at the moderately mediocre 29th percentile among whites.

White Americans constantly fret over whether black self-esteem is endangered by the mere mention of IQ gaps, but worry far less about the danger of overestimating how smart they are. Yet, that can lead even genuinely if modestly talented individuals into a disastrous career cul-de-sacs. For example, 53 percent of blacks who begin law school never pass the bar exam, compared to only 24 percent of whites. In contrast, Hispanics are less likely to waste time pursuing degrees they aren't cut out for.

In fact, the anti-educational bias in Hispanic culture certainly does keep down a fair number of Hispanics who really do have the brains to make use of education.

For example, Latinos who grow up in the U.S. have at least as bad a high school dropout rate as blacks, according to Nobel Laureate James Heckman's 2007 study. Yet their IQ scores average about five points higher. P.L. Roth's 2001 meta-analysis of 39 studies covering a total 5,696,519 individuals in America found that the white-Hispanic gap appears to be only about 65% as large as the notoriously unmentionable white-black gap.

In other words, while the Hispanic IQ glass is almost two-thirds empty, it's also over one-third full. So, why isn't the Latino high school graduation rate better?

The likelihood that Latinos have the brainpower to accomplish more than they are currently is actually pretty good news, because they already outnumber blacks in the U.S.  If this country is going to stay solvent over the next generation, especially if immigration policy remains jammed on full throttle, Latinos are going to have to earn a lot more income, so they can pay a lot more taxes.

But will they? Unfortunately, nobody knows how to motivate Latinos to stick with education.

Mexican-Americans tend to see pursuing education as being disloyal to la familia and La Raza. Mexican ethnic pride correlates with Mexican lack of education. PBS commentator Richard Rodriguez, who has been perhaps the most distinguished Mexican-American public intellectual ever since he published his gracefully written memoir Hunger of Memory way back in 1981 (i.e., there's not much competition), argues:

"Americans like to talk about the importance of family values. But America isn't a country of family values; Mexico is a country of family values. This [America] is a country of people who leave home."

My theory: I suspect that class matters. Before McWhorter's turning point year of 1966, African-Americans had been in America long enough for a class structure to emerge, with people of mixed-race descent largely on top. And the "one drop" rule for defining who was black typically kept them black.

In contrast, the Mexican-American population is constantly being replenished by immigrants from the lower reaches of the Mexican class pyramid.

Moreover, the racial barriers in America have always been low enough that the more successful and ambitious Mexican-Americans tend to marry Anglos. For example, a recurrent theme in Joseph Wambaugh's long string of novels about the Los Angeles Police Department, from 1971's The New Centurions through 2009's Hollywood Moon, is the ambiguously Latino character, somebody whose ethnicity could arguably be either Mexican or Anglo.

Thus, particularly in California, there hasn't been much of a Spanish-speaking upper class to refine manners since the 1840s. And those role models who have existed have been unfortunately influenced by the fatalism and indolence of Spain.

McWhorter writes:

"I even sense from the testimonials I have received that if one particular year could be pegged as the time in which 'You think you're white making those grades?' 'tipped' as a community commonplace, it would be 1966—perhaps because this was the year that 'black power' ideology went mainstream in the black community."

The birth of the Black Pride movement around 1966 meant that the African-American Talented Tenth switched from emphasizing their cultural whiteness to emphasizing their cultural blackness: there was now good money to be made in acting black.

But this meant that the manners of the black masses were no longer upbraided by starchy black upper class role models, like Carlton Banks on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

For example, one of the main characters in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full,is mild-mannered Roger White II, a black lawyer and Stravinsky devotee. He is known to his Morehouse college fraternity brothers, including the mayor of Atlanta, as Roger Too White. By the end of the book, even Roger Too White has figured out that the real money and power in modern Atlanta is in representin'.

White people will pay well to employ blacks who can act white—but as long as whites and blacks insist on assurances that the blacks are "authentic", racial tensions will continue. 

And the black-white educational performance gap is likely to continue even longer.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]