Desegregation’s unintended consequence
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.
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.
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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