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
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."
main argument: blame black underperformance on the
paradoxical consequences of integration. He
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.`"
"… 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
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
Raymond Wolters also pointed out the
imposed upon black schools by desegregation in the wake
Brown v. Board of Education.
But Wolters made clear, however, that one major cause of the
decline of black communities was
flight—middle class African-Americans fleeing contact
blacks held back by fear of "acting white"?
doubt this is often true. Yet the benefits that whites
bestow upon blacks for acting reassuringly white (for
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
"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
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
before, Anglos just find blacks much more interesting
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.
search inside feature, we find that no mention of this IQ
gap—indeed, the letters
IQ appear only twice in the book.
Stereotype Threat? Check.
Parenting? Check. IQ?
For example, think of how many
black intellectuals you can name?
few. (You can start with
Even if you cast your mind back a century, in 1910 there
were two nationally prominent African-American
Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
advocated impressive albeit contrasting ideologies. Du Bois
endorsed legal equality for the black elite—the
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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?
likelihood that Latinos have the brainpower to accomplish
more than they are currently is actually pretty good news,
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
la familia and
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),
"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."
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
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,
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
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."
birth of the Black Pride movement around 1966 meant that the
African-American Talented Tenth switched from emphasizing
cultural whiteness to emphasizing their cultural
blackness: there was now good money to be made in acting
example, one of the main characters in
Wolfe`s novel A Man in Full,is
mild-mannered Roger White II, a black lawyer and
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
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
And the black-white educational performance gap is likely to
continue even longer.