An Antidote to the 'Acting White' Phenomenon: Segregated Schools?

Back in the day, African-American kids didn't think it was a crime to be young, gifted and black.


The response to my Bloggingheads conversation with Stanford Law's Richard Thompson Ford on the ''acting white'' issue is making me feel old.

My entree into the race debate was in my 2000 book, Losing the Race, where I argued that a crucial reason for the gap in scholarly performance between even middle-class black students and white ones was that to be Young, Gifted and Black is often to also find oneself tarred as ''acting white'' by black peers.

As I described in my review of Stuart Buck's fine new book on the subject at The New Republic, it surprised me when many objected that the ''acting white'' business wasn't even a reality. Many seemed to think that to focus on it would encourage whites to just give up on helping black kids do better in school.

Yet right after that, the Bushies' No Child Left Behind focused on the achievement gap. Since then, the issue has been front and center in discussions in a way that would have seemed like science fiction as recently as, say, 1995, when the topic was largely discussed only at conferences. I thought in 2010 we were ready for a more honest discussion.

Maybe not as much as I thought. The blogtalk over the Bloggingheads discussion is reminding me of those days just past Y2K. The key rub seems to be pathology. Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect demonstrates this, recounting being teased for ''acting white'' in school and concluding, ''Was this unpleasant? Absolutely. Was it evidence of a debilitating black pathology? Not at all.''

But with political terminology, we have to be careful of how words creep away from their original meaning. In race discussions, pathology now carries an air of accusation. But in its core sense, pathology just means that something is a problem: A medical pathology is just a disease. Some pathologies may occasion blame, such as lung cancer in a smoker. But only some of them; lupus and warts are pathologies too.

So is it a ''pathology'' that black teens often call it ''white'' to like school? Yes. But not in a way that carries criticism. It's a problem, with a cause rooted in -- and I imagine that this will make many comfortable -- racism.

Buck's book valuably documents that black kids only started calling each other ''white'' for liking the books in the late '60s. With desegregation, many black schools were shut down. That meant that black students had to go to white schools -- and black students caught hell from whites less than happy to have them around.

But yes, it's more of a problem to think of school as "white" than to just think of it as uncool. "I was a nerd, and those kids responded accordingly," Bouie recounts. But this neglects the added sting of also being accused of hating your own people. My mother, good nerd that she was in Atlanta in the '40s, was teased as a "walking encyclopedia" by her black peers. But no one accused her of thinking she was white. None of those '40s Atlanta kids would have imagined saying that. The reason is what Buck devoted his book to: "Think you're white?" for liking school is something new in the black community.

No one needs to wonder why black kids don't do well in terrible schools, of course. A bone I had to pick with Rich Ford was that he thought that Buck missed the point that alienation from society was the reason black kids are turning away from the books. But the reason the ''acting white'' business is interesting is that it happens mainly among black kids in better schools -- sadly, the integrated ones.