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Guilt Trip

In 2000, in a book called Losing the Race, I argued that much of the reason for the gap between the grades and test scores of black students and white students was that black teens often equated doing well in school with “acting white.” I knew that a book which did not focus on racism’s role in this problem would attract bitter criticism. I was hardly surprised to be called a “sell-out” and “not really black” because I grew up middle class and thus had no understanding of black culture. But one of the few criticisms that I had not anticipated was that the “acting white” slam did not even exist.

I was hardly the first to bring up the “acting white” problem. An early description of the phenomenon comes from a paper by John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in 1986, and their work was less a revelation of the counterintuitive than an airing of dirty laundry. You cannot grow up black in America and avoid the “acting white” notion, unless you by chance grow up around only white kids. Yet in the wake of Losing the Race, a leading scholar/activist on minority education insisted that he had never encountered the “acting white” slander—while shortly thereafter describing his own son doing poorly in school because of precisely what Ogbu, Fordham, myself, and others had written about. Jack White, formerly of Time, roasted me in a review for making up the notion out of whole cloth. Ogbu (with Astrid Davis) published an ethnological survey of Shaker Heights, Ohio describing the “acting white” problem’s effects there in detail, while a documentary on race and education in that town explicitly showed black students attesting to it. Both book and documentary have largely been ignored by the usual suspects.

Stuart Buck at last brings together all of the relevant evidence and puts paid to two myths. The first is that the “acting white” charge is a fiction or just pointless marginal static. The other slain myth, equally important, is that black kids reject school as alien out of some sort of ingrained stupidity; the fear of this conclusion lies at the root of the studious dismissal of the issue by so many black thinkers concerned about black children. Buck conclusively argues that the phenomenon is a recent and understandable outgrowth of a particular facet of black people’s unusual social history in America—and that facet is neither slavery nor Jim Crow.

As Buck notes, anecdotal accounts from blacks attacked for thinking they are “white” now constitute a crushing volume of testimony in countless newspaper articles over decades (as well as in the hundreds of unsolicited attestations I have received since Losing the Race). As Buck acknowledges, the plural of anecdote is not data, and yet we can be assured that certain parties would consider much less than this volume of testimonies of racist “slights” as invaluable evidence that America remains a deeply racist country.

Yet, over the past several years, a few academic studies have claimed that the “acting white” notion is a hoax, on the basis of the fact that black students who do well in school self-report being as popular as other black students. That is, apparently, they are not being rejected as “thinking they are white.” In that vein, one can only wonder what the people who wrote the studies against the importance of the “acting white” charge would think of studies “demonstrating” that Tea Partiers are not racist by simply asking them whether they think black people are inferior. In any case, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer has shown that when ninety-thousand students’social lives were analyzed according to friend networks, high-achieving black students have many fewer friends on average than high-achieving students of other colors.

Buck’s book gathers what I suspect is almost every relevant description or treatment of the “acting white” charge. No one could come away from his discussion believing that the issue is fictional or even unimportant. There is no other conceivable black problem for which such a weight of personal reportage and sober analysis over decades would be dismissed as an illusion. Any further such claims must now be judged as based at best on ignorance of the existence of Buck’s book, and at worst on a studious refusal to engage with it.

Why, though, do so many sane people treat any identification of this painfully obvious problem as if it were a moral outrage? The resistance is based on a tolerated cognitive dissonance: black kids telling each other to fail has no significant effect on performance, but the occasional racist “slight,” no matter how questionable or abstract, must be psychologically damaging enough to justify racial preferences in college admissions even for the children of PhDs. This is not necessarily a matter of being addicted to the victim complex. People of this frame of mind often worry that if the Establishment gets too comfortable with thinking that black students call each other “white” for liking school, then efforts to close the black-white score gap will be discontinued, and people may start believing that black students are just too dumb to be worth any further effort.

Buck’s historical chronicle demonstrates that the “acting white” charge dates only as far back as the 1960s, which is much too recent to qualify as a demonstration of blacks’ intelligence level or as an indication that black American culture has been opposed to “book learning” for the four hundred years of its existence. I even sense from the testimonials I have received that if one particular year could be pegged as the time in which “You think you’re white making those grades?” “tipped” as a community commonplace, it would be 1966—perhaps because this was the year that “black power” ideology went mainstream in the black community. Buck pulls back the camera and documents how we got from Brown v. the Board of Education to “acting white” just twelve years later.

Traditionally, anti-intellectualism was distributed in black American culture precisely the way it was distributed in general American culture, imputed partly to class and partly to individuality. During and after the Civil War, blacks were starved for education, and the idea that loving to learn was “white” was unknown. As the chaplain of a black Civil War regiment recounted, “A majority of the men seem to regard their books as an indispensable portion of their equipments, and the cartridge box and spelling book are attached to the same belt.” One Alabama observer recounted a rally to raise money for a schoolhouse: “One old man, who had seen slavery days, with all of his life’s earnings in an old greasy sack, slowly drew it from his pocket, and emptied it on the table,” saying “‘I want to see the children of my grandchildren have a chance, and so I am giving my all.’”

After this, there was no achievement gap of note between blacks and whites. Unsurprisingly, blacks who went to under-funded backwater schools tended not to come out as learned citizens. But when conditions between blacks and whites were equal, there was no problem. Thomas Sowell has noted that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst admitted thirty-four blacks between 1892 and 1954, and seven (more than a quarter) were Phi Beta Kappas. Up through the 1950s and beyond, black public schools were often excellent, as fondly recalled today by older blacks perplexed at the “acting white” charge. The most famous example was Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., where, in 1899, students outscored all-white schools in standardized tests.

It was the demise of segregation, of all things, that helped pave the way for the “acting white” charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white students in larger numbers than ever before. White students were often openly hostile, and white teachers only somewhat less so. Black teachers and administrators from the old black schools often lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, black students started modeling themselves against white ones as a form of self-protection. This dovetailed nicely with the new open-ended wariness of whites that was the bedrock of “Black Power” identity.

As Buck rightly notes, humans seek group identity, and black teens passed on a sense that black identity did not include “white” scholarly achievement even as the old-fashioned bigotry receded. Hence the “acting white” charge now flung in plush schools like those in Shaker Heights, where racist hostility from whites is an affair of the past. Subtle interracial tensions surely exist—but students of other races cope with them without developing a sense that they are rejecting their heritage by making A's.

The tendency to reject the “acting white” charge as a myth is based on what we might call compassionate denial. It may seem to many that the problem is so subject to misinterpretation by whites that it would be better to pretend it doesn’t exist. Yet too often this compassion leads us, in our quest to help black students, to focus upon false leads and efforts that are more symbolic than constructive. Buck proposes that the roots of the “acting white” charge point us to two possible solutions for closing the black-white scholastic gap. The first is the elimination of grades in favor of having whole schools compete against one another, but this will take us only so far. Besides the unlikelihood of its adoption nationally, it would leave the possibility that black kids in integrated schools would continue to fashion themselves as a subgroup apart.

It is crucial to note that Roland Fryer’s work, as well as some of the studies claiming that “acting white” charges do not matter, have shown that the problem is largely limited to precisely the integrated schools, where there are white students for black ones to define themselves against. And this leads to Buck’s second suggestion, which runs up against the deeply entrenched impulse to decry “segregation”—namely, the establishment of all-black schools.

Buck does not mean that the notoriously lousy all-black inner-city schools should be our model for success. But in the increasing numbers of all-black charter schools, as well as public ones turned around by dynamic principals, students calling one another “white” for liking schools is as unheard of as it was in the black schools of yesteryear. Our visceral recoil today at any conception of an all-black school as reminiscent of shabby one-room schoolhouses in the segregated Deep South must be discontinued.

Buck’s terrific book is longer on analysis than prescription; but its analysis comprises such invaluable history, and so deftly counters any fears underlying the pretense that the “acting white” charge is fictitious, that I cannot imagine we will soon see another book so utterly necessary on what used to be called the Race Question. Buck has cleared the ground of many illusions and innuendos, and this can only help us to get closer to a solution for the vast problem that still remains.

John McWhorter teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.