'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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