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.


Bouie objects: ''There simply isn't much broad empirical evidence for the claim that black students in integrated settings have a racialized antipathy towards educational achievement.'' But that simply isn't true. For one, a key study by Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr. and Domini Castellino showed precisely this, that charges of ''acting white'' were most common in integrated schools large enough to have a robust black cohort.

Not to mention that we have an entire ethnography on the topic; Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu's book on Shaker Heights, Ohio, dissected how middle-class black students there regularly pull down one another's grades because of the ''acting white'' notion. Harvard economist Roland Fryer's work on "acting white" charges clinches the case. He showed that in a massive sample, black teens were less likely to be popular the higher their grades were — and no, this was not just the plight of the American nerd, because the proportion was much higher than among whites and Asians.


Now, does this ''prove'' that the ''acting white'' charge has a decisive impact on scholarly performance? Perhaps not perfectly — but after all, what could? And what is proof?

I have received countless testimonials, unsolicited, from teachers and students attesting that being called white often makes black kids start slacking off in school. The Tyson, et al. study also even mentions a teacher attesting to this. Buck collects many more examples. His and mine — plus others from figures as diverse as The New York Times' Bob Herbert and erstwhile National Urban League head Hugh Price — are not, I know, a statistical survey.


But how many testimonials would I have to receive from black boys in a given city about the police giving them hell on stop-and-frisks to justify calling for a civil rights investigation? Let's face it — to many, about five testimonials would be enough. Upon which I assert that the ''acting white'' charge is indeed a problem. A pathology, even. It requires attention.

What kind? Surely not just giving up on black students. My reason for calling attention to the ''acting white'' charge is that it makes more attractive the prospect of more all-black schools.


As such, we must beware the tack that Matthew Yglesias takes, showing that National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in math have narrowed between black and white students since 1978. Yglesias calls this evidence that desegregation, which has increased during that period, must be OK. And sure, it can be. But it's well-known that the coalescence of black and white students' performance scores largely got stuck as of the early '80s. Note how the gap in 1999 was 32 percent, when it was 33 percent back in 1982. Or, why was there more of a gap in 2004 than way back in 1986?

This is a case for desegregation? I suggest not. A recent Brookings Institution report argues that community services were not significant in improving the performance of kids at the Harlem Children's Zone's school. The school is doing pretty much as well as fantastic black charter schools like the nearby KIPP academies that Canada has consulted for advice.


That is, if we are concerned about a perfectly innocent pathology among black teens, one strategy is to speak up for black kids going to schools where everybody looks like them.

It shouldn't be the only strategy. But to dismiss the ''acting white'' topic as ''black bashing'' or as a distraction from the endlessly futile discussion over school funding neglects the full range of the evidence. It also requires standards of proof that no one would think of if we were talking about how to prevent more cases like Oscar Grant's and to settle for the catharsis of singing of ''desegregation,'' when sometimes, oddly enough, it's the last thing smart, young black kids need.


John McWhorter is a Columbia University lecturer and contributing editor for The New Republic and City Journal.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. 

Share This Story

Get our newsletter