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Desegregation’s unintended consequence

Guest Blogger

It seems horribly unfair and contrary to all the good intentions of school desegregation: black kids who do well in class get accused of “acting white.” Stuart Buck explores the roots of this contentious phrase in “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation,” recently released by Yale University Press. Buck, an honors graduate of Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. student in education policy at the University of Arkansas, explains that despite its noble impulses desegregation often destroyed black schools and placed black kids in an uncomfortable, white environment. The result: if you excelled, you were acting white.

Boys watch the demolition of the Second Ward black high school in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo courtesy of the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County)

By Stuart Buck

Some black schoolchildren seem to think of academic achievement as “acting white.” A recent 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.”

The president and the first lady have both attested to the acting white phenomenon, and Roland Fryer (a black economist at Harvard) found in a nationwide database that black – but not white – students became less popular if they achieved a GPA over 3.5.

Acting white has been discussed so often that it no longer seems surprising. But it should.

If we look at the historical record, there is no evidence that black schoolchildren in the days of slavery or Jim Crow accused a studious schoolmate of acting white. When did it start?

In my book, I argue that the acting white attitude can be traced to the school desegregation efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. To be sure, school desegregation was morally correct and was an overall benefit. But the best medicine can have an unfortunate side effect, and in this case the side effect was alienating some black children from the world of school.

How could this be? Desegregation was implemented mostly by white-controlled local school boards, who had no desire to uproot their own children and send them to a black school, particularly given that black schools were seen as inferior. Thus, they often desegregated by closing or even demolishing black schools.

When black schools were closed, black children often ended up in schools that were hostile to their presence, that were controlled mostly by white teachers and principals, and in which the advanced classes were often dominated by white students. Black principals, who had been crucial academic role models in the lives of many black students, were often fired or demoted (in North Carolina, for example, the number of black principals dropped from 226 in 1963 to a mere 15 in 1973).

Many black people recall that they were first accused of acting white or “trying to be white” during desegregation. Among many examples in the book, a Florida woman who had been the first to desegregate a local school as a child told me, “In my opinion, [acting white] didn’t start until desegregation. There were no whites to ‘act like’ before desegregation.”

What can be done about it now? I have no silver bullet answers: indeed, as a parent of young children, I know that it’s difficult to change your own child’s attitude about homework, let alone anyone else’s.

But what might help would be a more diverse set of teachers and principals (black boys sometimes have trouble identifying with teachers who are overwhelmingly white and female). In addition, higher academic achievement in the early grades could prevent the typical situation in high school or middle school where white students dominate the advanced or AP classes, leading some black children to perceive those classes as white.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 10, 2010; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: school desegregation; academic achievements of black students  
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Interesting article, but how many black students actually believe this, and does it hinder their own initiative and achievement in school? That would be difficult to measure. Hopefully some data appears in the book, otherwise this is all just anecdotal. Yes, it is important for black students to have black teachers to emulate, but if the teachers can't teach, what good does that do the students? I'd like to see the results in the DC public schools after Ms. Rhee cleans house. Will it actually improve the schools?

Posted by: pookey12 | August 10, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

A book written by a white man, of course, who probably never even grew up around a sizeable population of black people. Just writing what he heard through media, herasay, and a few token black people.

I think this whole "acting white" if a black child succeed in school is blown out of proportion. As a young black female, I made good grade in school and was never told that I acted white because of my success in school. Rather, that phrase is used by black kids to decribe another black child who may talk properly, listen to artists who aren't black, hangs around and date non-black peers. My sister have never been told she acted white because of her success. My brother, on the other hand, have been told he acted "Asian" because his social group of friends are majority East Asians.

There is a similiar description within Asian people and it's called "Twinkie." (Yellow on the outside [skin], [act] white in the inside.) However, it's not used for successful Asian kids, rather those who prefer to socialize with white kids.

You see, it's all about who your inner circle of friends are, the music you listen to, and how you talk. In other words, the image one projects is judge. That's when kids get the "Oreo" or "Twinkie" label by other kids.

This is just another feeble attemp to keep a dumb stereotype alive and well.

Posted by: Soguns1 | August 10, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Anecdotal evidence. Good point, pookey12. That's what I truely believe. A few here and there doesn't make it a common phenomenom. For kids, it's all about the IMAGE a child projects before they go labeling people.

And to the author, Stuart Buck, I'll like to see some cites that you claim that President Obama and his wife said they have been accused of acting white while growing up.

Posted by: Soguns1 | August 10, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Pres. Obama, speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2004: "Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, 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."

Michelle Obama, as described in a Newsweek story from last year, "Michelle shared her own modest background and described the ridicule she faced from neighborhood kids for 'acting white' when she got good grades. 'To have her sit right before us like that and seem so real and sincere was like a movie or something,' says La Tisha Butler, 17. 'We were all tripping because she said getting good grades wasn't acting white.'"

Posted by: StuartBuck | August 10, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I still attest to the fact that it takes more than just making good grades for a black student to be labeled as "acting white" by his/her peers. Perhaps he/she speaks properly and/or rejects rap music along with the good grades he/she recieves.

Have you ever walk through the halls of prodomentily black schools and talk with black students how they recieved such a label and the black students who have used the labels on others?

I can tell you that the black students labeled as an "Oreo" (the cookie) or "acting white" recieved that label because: he/she primarily dated white people, had an inner circle group of friends who were white, listened to rock or metal music, or wore clothes deemed to be "non-black" such as clothing brands like Abercrombie & Fitch or American Eagle. I can take it even further that a child who recieves the label because he/she played lacrosse, talks like a California valley girl, or embraces the punk/emo/gothic/skater subculture. It could be a variety or a combination of any of these.

I think you'll would find that the issue here is not as shallow as a black child making food grades to recieve such a title. Books like this that rely on anecdotal evidences, old stereotypes, and have shallow research are at best, throwing gasoline to a dying candlelit flame.

Posted by: Soguns1 | August 11, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

@soguns1. You are mistaken. The author of the review is white, but the author of the book is black. My own experience is with black children of American Foreign Service Officers. The International Schools they attend overseas are quite egalitarian and acepting. They are frequently accused of "acting white" or "talking white" when they return to predominantly black or integrated schools in the US. The phenomena exists and it will be the responsibility of the black community to find a solution.

Posted by: univertel | August 12, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I did a google search of the author, and if correct, he is a white male.

I realize that the terms "acting white" is a phenomema that exists in the black community. However, the point that I am trying to get across is that it is not so easily used to describe a black child whose only "acting white" attribute is that he/she is successful in school.

I know-it's only been less that 10 years since I've graduated high school.

Posted by: Soguns1 | August 12, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Soguns1 I see your point, but you need to take it a step further. You say they are told they act white if they "he/she primarily dated white people, had an inner circle group of friends who were white, listened to rock or metal music, or wore clothes deemed to be "non-black" such as clothing brands like Abercrombie & Fitch or American Eagle.

They get these "characterisitics" by being in classes with predominantly white kids. And these classes are predominantly advanced or talented and gifted classes.

So you see, "Desegregation’s unintended consequence" is not people saying that you're acting white. The true cost is that it separated smart black kids from the other black kids early in life, so much so that by the time they graduated the smart black kids and the not-so-smart black kids can't relate to each other.

This is the true curse of desegregation.

Posted by: brice333 | August 12, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Note: "Desegregation’s unintended consequence. hind sight is 20/20. Looking back at the civil rights movement the intentions were supposed to benefit all citizens. It is clear that those most affected were not consulted as to what would be in their best interests. It is heartbreaking to see a school demolished, and dreams shattered. As a nation we have not truly embraced our humanity, nor have we white, black, asian, hispanic and others accepted those who are different from us. Different but equal has not entered the mindset of many, many Americans. I believe we are a work in progress, and that work begins with the man/woman/teen/child in the mirror.

Posted by: kathleen_savvides | August 14, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

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