The 'Acting White Theory' Doesn't Add Up

Show Me the Numbers: Why the academic achievement gap is not rooted in black anti-intellectualism.

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The graduating class of Livingston High School prepares for commencement June 3, 2008, in New Orleans. (Mario Tama/Getty)

(The Root) -- Do black students purposefully underachieve because they attribute being smart to "acting white"? For more than a decade, academics, policymakers and cultural critics have publicly chided black children for having an anti-intellectual attitude, based on the "Acting White Theory."

The Acting White Theory originated in the 1980s with Dr. John Ogbu's ethnographic research and is commonly used to explain present-day "achievement gaps" between black and white students. Today the Acting White Theory has its own Wikipedia entry and was mentioned by then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2004, when he said, "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."

The Acting White Theory seems to have particular cachet among flatulent (in the sense of being pompously and portentously overblown) black people who feel a certain disdain toward the less refined (pejoratively "ghetto") aspects of the black community. Many of them have been called "sellouts," which reinforces a key tenet of the Acting White Theory. Other scholars, such as Edward Rhymes and Michael Eric Dyson, push back against the theory. In his book Acting White? Rhymes states: "Somehow many African Americans (usually the affluent, disconnected ones) have swallowed this misconception about African-American youth being anti-intellectual and anti-education. This ideology concerning nerds and geeks did not originate in the African-American community, but in predominantly white, middle-class, suburban communities."

The Acting White Theory is difficult to assess through research. Many scholars who claim to find evidence of this theory loosely interpret their data and exploit the expert gap to sell their findings. One of the best examples of this is Roland G. Fryer's research paper (pdf) "Acting White: The Social Price Paid by the Best and Brightest Minority Students."

Here Fryer uses the Add Health data to demonstrate, in a nutshell, that the highest-achieving black students had fewer friends than high-achieving black students. In his study, black students with a 3.5 GPA had the most friends of all academic levels, those with a 4.0 had about as many friends as those with about a 3.0 and those with less than a 2.5 had the fewest friends of all.

Overall, contrary to the study title, Fryer's research clearly demonstrates that the "social price" paid by the lowest-achieving black students is far greater than the so-called price paid by the highest-achieving black students. Moreover, methodologically, the study has to make the ostensible leap that the number of friends a black student has is a direct measure and a consequence of acting white. Interestingly, Fryer used the same mammoth dataset that Satoshi Kanazawa used to pseudoscientifically "prove" that black women (actually teenage girls) are less attractive (actually rated less attractive by adult raters of an unknown racial background) -- but I digress.

Beyond the confirmation bias and social anecdotes, many studies, including a recent study by Tina Wildhagen in the Journal of Negro Education, disprove the Acting White Theory. In my own research (pdf), I have noticed a "nerd bend" among all races, whereby high -- but not the highest -- achievers receive the most social rewards. For instance, the lowest achievers get bullied the most, and bullying continues to decrease as grades increase; however, when grades go from good to great, bullying starts to increase again slightly. Thus, the highest achievers get bullied more than high achievers, but significantly less than the lowest achievers.

Another concept that is firmly established in educational research literature is the "attitude-achievement paradox." For more than three decades, researchers have found that black students consistently exhibit more positive attitudes about education than white students, contrary to their lower levels of academic achievement.

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