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
) 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.`"
June 24, 2010]

In an interview with Buck about his book, Rod Dreher

"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.`"

Buck declares:

"… I think there`s a strong case that
`acting white` began with

. 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
Delaware historian

Raymond Wolters also pointed out
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
poor blacks.

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
example, the
House itself
) are so lavish that it`s hardly certain
what the net effect is. As Buck

, when unsuccessful blacks

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. B
that never seems to come up in public discussion—probably
because, as I`ve
, Anglos just find blacks much more interesting
than Latinos.

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

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.
[ Note:
search inside feature, we find that no mention of this IQ
gap—indeed, the
IQ appear only twice in the book.
Test gap?
Stereotype Threat
? Check. 

? Check. IQ?

For example, think of how many

black intellectuals
you can name?
quite a
. (You can start with


In contrast, how many Mexican-American intellectuals can you
recall? (Sure, there are

they don`t
move to America.

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

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

. Yet their IQ scores average about five points
higher. P.L. Roth`s 2001

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,
because they
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
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),


"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 [
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
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,

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

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."

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

this meant that the manners of the black masses were no
longer upbraided by starchy black upper class role models,
Carlton Banks

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

example, one of the main characters in
novel A Man in Full,is
mild-mannered Roger White II, a black lawyer and
devotee. He is known to his

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.

[Steve Sailer (email
him) is

movie critic

The American Conservative

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