'Acting white'

Stuart Buck‘s new book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, is out today. While desegregation was the right thing to do, Buck writes, it destroyed schools that had been centers of black aspiration and pushed black students into white schools where they were treated as outsiders. Working hard, achieving and pleasing teachers became seen as “acting white.”

While some deny that “acting white” is a real problem, Buck cites research showing that high-achieving black students are stigmatized by other blacks in racially balanced middle and high schools, but not in all-black schools.

A Harvard Law graduate, Buck is now working on a PhD in education at the University of Arkansas. As the white adoptive parent of two black children, he chose to focus on the pressures faced by high-achieving minority students, he told Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Once reassigned to desegregated schools, black students “were sitting in a classroom with mostly other black students in what they believed to be the ‘dumb’ class, watching as the white students headed to the ‘smart’ class down the hall,’’’ writes Buck.

Dispirited, black students began to associate achievement with white students and ostracize peers who joined the white kids in the ‘‘smart’’ classes down the hall.

What to do? Buck suggests making greater efforts to recruit black teachers, especially males, who can provide positive role models for students. He supports programs aimed at black students, such as the Village, which gathers black high school students to discuss academic achievement and culture, and the DuBois Society, which supports academic excellence.

He also thinks all-black and single-sex charter schools, such as Little Rock’s new Urban Collegiate Public Charter School for Young Men, can create communities that value academic achievement. (Schools for “boys of color” focus on creating a sense of “brotherhood” and challenging negative stereotypes, reports a new study. Academic achievement is not higher than in coed schools.)

Buck’s most radical idea is to eliminate or minimize grades, which put students in competition with each other, in favor of competing against other schools in debate, math, science, drama, music, etc.  On his web site, he writes:

(Sociologist James) Coleman observed that while students regularly cheer for their school’s football or basketball team, they will poke fun at students who study too hard: “the boy who goes all-out scholastically is scorned and rebuked for working too hard; the athlete who fails to go all-out is scorned and rebuked for not giving his all.”

. . . Coleman theorized that athletes are not competing against other students from their own school. Instead, they are competing against another school. And when they win a game, they bring glory to their fellow students, who get to feel like they too are victors, if only vicariously. But the students in the same class are competing against one another for grades and for the teacher’s attention. Naturally, that competition gives rise to resentment against other children who are too successful (just as students will hate the football team from a crosstown rival).

In Silicon Valley, Hispanic students who do well are called “schoolboy” or “schoolgirl,” which is a put down. (Nobody says “acting white,” because the top performers tend to be Asian.) I saw Downtown College Prep, the Our School high school, create a college-prep culture. Students cheered each other at weekly assemblies for raising their grades, making honor roll and doing homework. The school is nearly all Hispanic: The good students and the bad students come from similar family backgrounds.

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  1. georgelarson says:

    “Coleman theorized that athletes are not competing against other students from their own school”

    I was not an athlete in school and things may have changed, but I thought students who tried out for athletic teams competed to get on the team and also competed to be actual players and starters in a real game rather than bench warmers who just participated in practice. The point is that the team must work together to win and not sabotage each other to do better than everyone else.

    I attended a largely white high school in the 60s where doing well in school made me a target for ridicule. I wasn’t even very smart, just doing the assigned work was enough to become a target. Of course, it was not called acting white.

  2. School is designed by people who did well in K-12 schools, got accepted to good colleges, did well in their undergraduate studies, got accepted to grad school, earned doctorates in Education and landed tenure-track faculty positions or attended law school and became legislators. These people have spent nearly their entire lives in school. These people are good at school. They consider college professors and politicians the highest forms of life on Earth and imagine that everyone wants to be an academic. The goals toward which they invite students to work and the incentives they offer are foreign to many normal children. You cannot eat a transcript.

    Training an artistically or mechanically inclined child for an academic career using a transcript as the incentive is like teaching a cat to swim using carrots as the reward.

    Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery, black or white, male or female, young or old. The thick-headed, shuffling, Stepin Fetchit field-hand stereotype reflects the rational response to compulsory labor. If, no matter how hard you work, you receive at the end of the day to the same bowl of mush and sleep in the same bed of straw, why exceed your quota? If exceeding your quota on Monday only means that your overseer will beat you Tuesday through Saturday if you do not meet his newly raised expectations, why exceed your quota? If your barrack-mates will beat you for raising the overseer’s expectations of their effort, why exceed your quota? If some other slave puts your skin at risk of the lash by raising the overseer’s expectations, why not straighten the fellow out?

    You want productivity from the US school system? Mandate that schools offer all courses credit-by-exam at any time and allow students to use the time they earn as they wish. Mandate that all schools offer an exit exam (the GED will do) and subsidize post-secondary tuition or employment at any qualified private-sector employer, from the fraction of the taxpayers’ K-12 budget that taxpayers would have spent on school, of any student who completes requirements before age 18.

    Students will work for freedom.

  3. Just another symptom of how anti-intellectual our society has become since the 1920’s. It’s not just the black and Hispanic subcultures that are anti-intellectual; it’s the majority of Americans. The more you know, the more evil and manipulative you *must* be, so you must be stopped! Or at least held at arm’s length.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but it makes me sad to see what’s happening to K-12 schools, vocational colleges, and universities in the United States. Instead of heading towards ‘Star Trek’, our society is heading towards ‘Idiocracy’…

  4. … and, at the same time, what you wrote (or quoted) is totally true, too! Academics that assume that everyone wants to be academic is just as much of a problem as people being ostracized for enjoying learning at all. There’s got to be a balance in there somewhere.

    And that’s actually a great solution for the K-12 schools! 🙂

    Like my father once said, “It takes just as much learning to be a U.S. Navy Seal as it does to be a physicist. It’s just a different kind of learning, for people who enjoy doing different kinds of things.”

    He also once said, “It’s OK to like football and Star Trek at the same time.” 😛

  5. Sorry ’bout the botched italics. Nothing in there is a quote, except where I quote myself. I said all this before.

  6. Cynical says:

    And a most excellent quote it is, Malcolm.  I also like “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.”

    I have worked for freedom (community college class, finish the work at your own pace).  But this can’t happen in public schools in the US, because too many jobs and bureaucratic empires hinge on having full classes.  The bypass process would be sabotaged in too many ways, partly because we have no good way to measure accurately what students have learned.  Final exams and GEDs don’t measure much.  The process of creating the substitute exam would be politicized, stonewalled and poison-pilled.

  7. Cynical,

    Myron Lieberman predicted that legislators would enact school choice policies when entitlement committments (social security, Medicare, Medicaid) compelled serious budget adjustments. Governments at all levels have made more promises than they can keep. The tax code and pension guarantee programs give to private-sector corporations a strong incentive to purchase labor with impossible promises of future compensation. The debt overhang is now far larger that Professor Lieberman could have forseen when he made his prediction. Change will come.

    Someone (Churchill?) once said that Americans could always be trusted to do the right thing…after they had exhausted all other options. Tax increases will drive productive activity off the books or overseas. Tax collectors and budget administrators who seek savings will not resolve the revenue shortfall seeking quarters under sofa cushions. They will have to consider big ticket budget programs. K-PhD schooling is one of the largest items on the government’s budget.

    Of course, the decision-makers who got us into this mess still occupy their positions, but they will soon run out of options. The government will default, either openly repudiating its entitlement promises, disguising a default by keeping dollar-denominated promises in inflated currency, or reneging on its promise of lifetime employment for pubilc-sector workers. I predict a mixture of all three. Since foreigners do not vote, I predict a large measure of inflation, as politicians decide to screw the Chinese who hold US debt. I would much prefer reducing public-sector employment and expanding on-the-job vocational training, but politicians will weigh voting blocks.

  8. I’ve never seen any evidence that the race of the teacher makes any difference. The teacher is still the adult and authority figure; teenagers take their behavior cues from peers, not us. Anyway, all the stuff he is proposing has been tried before to mixed success. My department did all this 25 years ago and wrote a book about it.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    The acting white thing is discussed in John McWhorter’s “Losing the Race”, when he went to school at Shaker Heights, which was not a newly-integrated school, but instead an affluent, integrated community.
    See also Ogbu on the same subject.

  10. Vandal…”Just another symptom of how anti-intellectual our society has become since the 1920’s”

    I’m not sure our society *has* become more anti-intellectual. When my father was working on a farm, a long time ago, many of the other workers mocked his intent to go to college. And if you read things from the 1940s and 1950s, you’ll likely see some sneers about “eggheads.”

    On the other hand, though….Tom Watson Jr, longtime head of IBM, wrote about a friend who came from a rough coal-mining background and rose to high executive position. Watson asked the man how he had done it, and he responded that his recipe was (a)read the classics, (b)listen to classical music, (c)buy clothes at Brooks Brothers.

    It seems unlikely that classics-reading and classical-music-listening would be part of a self-improvement program today.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d be inclined to say that society has become considerably less interested in faux-intellectuals.
    Which, of course, alarms the faux-intellectuals.
    Who, of course, blame those they no longer impress for being anti-intellectual.
    Now, I know all of this contradicts the fact that Obama got elected.
    Can’t explain it.

  12. Tom Watson Jr.’s friend is awesome.

    The sad truth is that 80% of the world’s population simply doesn’t care. They’re not curious about the world they live in, or what’s out there. They don’t care about the state of the society they live, or in what direction it’s going. They don’t even care about what their leaders do that effects their everyday lives. They just don’t care.

    Give them their bread and circuses, their beer and football, some action (gladiator fights –> movies), and some sex, and the whole world could fall apart at their feet and they wouldn’t know it or care.

    Then, among that 20% that do know what’s going on, do have a clue, half of them are trying ot use that 80% to do their bidding, to take over the world, and the other half are actually trying to make the world a better place. So, about 10% of the human population is holding all of human society together.

    This was true in ancient Rome, it’s true today, and it’ll be true when we have Federation starships exploring the Galaxy. 80% of everyone simply won’t know and won’t care.

    And, the core debates in education really always comes down to this question: What do we teach those 80%, how do we get them to at least care enough to learn something, and how do we make sure they’re employable and useful enough to have jobs so they won’t riot over not being able to afford their beer, football, movies, and sex?


  1. […] Joanne Jacobs takes a look at Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. […]

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