My acting white posts (here and here) inspired some thoughtful and nuanced responses, which are all available below the original posts.

I wonder whether we are all to quick to accept Fryer’s central conclusion, though. He says:

My analysis confirms that acting white is a vexing reality within a subset of American schools.

But when you look more closely at Fryer’s evidence, it isn’t so clear. The basic thrust of Fryer’s findings are that black students get more popular with their peers as their grades rise. This is true up to a 3.5 GPA. So, even at integrated schools, blacks with a 3.5 GPA (which is pretty good stuff, even if not at the very top of the class) are more popular than those with lower grades. Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t that show the opposite of the acting white thesis?

Here’s how Fryer puts it (slightly edited):

Although African Americans with GPAs as high as 3.5 continue to have more friends than those with lower grades, the rate of increase is no longer as great as among white students.

The experience of black and white students diverges as GPAs climb above 3.5. As the GPAs of black students increase beyond this level, they tend to have fewer and fewer friends. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer friends of the same ethnicity than a white student with the same GPA. Put differently, a black student with straight As is no more popular than a black student with a 2.9 GPA, but high-achieving whites are at the top of the popularity pyramid.

So, what’s the upshot of all of this: white students get more popular as their grades approach 4.0, but that is not true for blacks, at least in integrated schools. That supports the acting white thesis. But the fact that black student popularity grows as their GPA’s approach 3.5 seems to cut in the other direction. Taken together these 2 findings suggest that the relationship between grades and status among your peers is quite complicated–certainly more complicated than the simple claim that black kids denigrate academic achievement as acting white.


One of the things I find most frustrating about the acting white discussion is the suggestion that schools are simply victims of the phenomenon. Too often acting white is presented as something that undermines the work of the school, but is beyond the school’s influence. It is surely true that there are larger societal and popular culture forces at work–and that too often these forces tell African-American kids that academic achievement and being black do not belong together.

But what about schools? What can schools do? I wrote in my last post about the way my own Roosevelt High School celebrated athletic success more consistently than academic accomplishment. That is too often the norm.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Schools can choose, and some do, to celebrate hard work and success in the classroom. The results can be powerful. I was reminded of this when I came across an e-mail written to staff by a former Maya Angelou teacher, Colin Bane. In the e-mail below, Bane describes the first time he attended “Family Night” at Maya.

A few months after I started teaching at MAPCS in the Spring of 1999, I remember bringing Jen and several close friends along to my first Family Night so they could catch a glimpse of the students whose lives had become so inextricably tangled up in my own. The school was even smaller then, and all of the students, tutors, faculty, parents, and friends gathered in the lobby on benches designed for elementary school kids, their knees up near their chests as they leaned forward in anticipation of the celebration. Whatever images or preconceived notions my friends may have had in their heads of “at-risk,” “inner-city,” or “court-involved,” students were quickly dispelled.

First, the names of every student who had completed the term were read, and there was raucous applause for each and every student in the room… simply for making it through. Staff were recognized, and the students screamed for each faculty member as if they were celebrities. They went nuts in support of their tutors, then their families, then just nuts in general for having made it through a year together.

But when awards were given out for things like Dean’s List and Perfect Attendance, each winner got a true rock star reception. My creative writing students from the first class I ever taught each read their poems, and the response was overwhelming. By the time Ms. Russell was done reading her tribute to Phil, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. I sat there, beaming with pride, tears streaming down my face, clapping like a madman.

The love and support and positive vibe in the room was unlike anything in my own experience as a student, and it cemented my resolve to work with these young people.


It is a moving account of how a community can come together to celebrate students success in the classroom, and how doing so can have an impact on peer culture. I especially like the bit at the end where Colin writes about Ms. Russell, the mother of Phil, one of the first students to graduate from Maya. I still remember when, after the first Family Night our first year, Ms. Russell told me and David she wanted to organize parents to speak at the next Family Night. They would each get up, with their child on the stage, and the theme would be: “you make me proud when . . . ” Ms. Russell told us that for her and many of the other parents and guardians, it had been a long time since they could finish such a sentence. Now that their teenagers were in school for long hours surrounded by caring staff, the parents could be proud, and should talk about how, in front of their kids.

Now, I don’t want to pretend that this sort of culture is easy to create, or maintain. When there are other demands on teachers and school leaders it can be hard to set aside the time to organize effective events like these. But when done right, the rewards are enormous.

Acting White–Is it Real?

February 19, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the question of race, academic achievement, and culture. Remember Barack Obama’s address to the 2004 Democratic convention, where he says we need to fight the “acting white” phenomenon:

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that 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.

I like Obama and what he stands for, but I never liked this line. From the day I first heard the “acting white” thesis, I thought it was false. The thesis claims that black children denigrate academic achievement and accuse those who succeed in the classroom of “acting white.” I thought that many promoting the idea (but not Obama, who explicitly does not say this) must have simply been trying to blame the victim, to come up with some explanation for the academic achievement gap that took the onus off of the state and society.

In other words, we don’t need better schools, with high-quality teachers, good facilities, rigorous curricula and high-expectations. We don’t need to examine the wider economic and social context around schools–such as health care, just policing, quality housing, and a healthy environment. We just need the kids to stop tearing each other down when one of them starts studying hard. That line of argument seemed both wrong and damaging, I thought.

One of the reasons why the thesis seemed false is that it was flatly inconsistent with my own schooling experience. (Even though we know we should not generally excessively from our own experiences, it sure is hard to do.) Living in Atlanta for grades 8-12, I was in mostly black schools, drawing from low and moderate income communities. My schools were not very good as judged by test scores or reputation, and lots of kids were not studying much or thinking about life after high school. It was a prime location for the acting white thesis to play out, if it really existed.

And yet, there was none of that. Being at the top of the class was certainly not as cool as being the top athlete. And the school was party responsible for reinforcing this hierarchy. There was a shocking difference in quality between the athletic awards dinner and the academic awards meal, and the weekly pep rallies before football games had no equivalent on the academic side. Despite all that, being smart and studying hard were not ridiculed, and did not make you unpopular.

Perhaps most significantly for the thesis, the idea that studying hard was “acting white” is something that was literally never mentioned. In the rare instance where the nerd critique was offered, it was just that, stop being a nerd. But it had nothing to do with race. Indeed, since most of the school was black, most everybody at the top of the class was black, so it probably never would have crossed our minds to associate being at the top of the class with being white.

So that was my experience. But over the years, when I have discussed the issue with other African-American friends, I have gotten widely divergent reactions. Some agree with me; many, however, say that acting white was a real thing for them. So I needed to rethink my objection. Maybe Obama and co. are right.

Roland Fryer, at Harvard, has written about the phenomenon in Education Next, and his conclusions are fascinating. One of his main points is that acting white is less of an issue at mostly black schools such as mine.

I also find that acting white is unique to those schools where black students comprise less than 80 percent of the student population. In predominantly black schools, I find no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity.

Fryer’s conclusions are unsettling for people like me, who generally support that race and class integration. While there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that race and class integrated schools are better, Fryer’s evidence does raise a qualification worth considering.

So I welcome comments on this topic. Based on your experience, is acting white real? And is it less powerful in schools that are mostly or all black?

It is increasingly apparent that the D.C. Council, chaired by Vince Gray, is going to give Mayor Fenty what he wants. In one form or another, he’ll get control of the schools. Everyone has their own view on this matter. I think reasonable minds can disagree on this, but for me, a better governance structure is a necessary condition for fixing D.C. schools. It is not alone sufficient—it is no panacea. But it is a necessary step.

Ok, then what? A lot of people will want to focus on direct schooling reforms—things like accountability, professional development, special education (until that is fixed nothing else can be solved), and teacher and principal quality. That stuff is hugely important, for sure.

I want to talk about something else, however–something that can be done at the same time as these schooling reforms. I propose that the Mayor, his education team, and Gray announce a city-wide call for public support of D.C. schools. I don’t have a catchy title—the communications gurus can come up with one—but the basic idea is this.

First, follow up on Colby King’s excellent suggestion in yesterday’s Washington Post. In a truly inspired column, King wrote:

This is African American history month. Fenty and Gray should make history.

They should convene an emergency session with the heads of organizations such as the Links, AKAs, Deltas, Zetas and Sigmas and other professional and social women’s groups with rich experience in dealing with young women. Bring in Brenda Miller, ministers and college presidents. Tap the leadership of active high school alumni associations, such as Dunbar and Roosevelt’s.

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Last week I posted this comment after attending a Center for American Progress panel on teacher compensation practices. One of the panelists, Nancy Van Meter of the American Federation of Teachers, had this to say in response:

Before we even get to the question of your question “whether merit pay offers the biggest bang for the buck” — I think we need to ask how much bang for the buck it gets period. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed that the paper we discussed provided no evidence on whether the plans succeeded in attracting and retaining teachers, nor did it provide evidence that it resulted in improved student achievement.

Frankly, I was surprised by the paper’s implicit assumption that public schools can and should draw lessons from the compensation systems of privates and charters…that privates and charters are more successful than publics in raising student achievement and recruiting and retaining more effective, qualified teachers. In fact, as I explained, the evidence from the most recent research shows just the opposite — on average. I don’t dispute that there are high performers in every sector — public, private and charters. I strongly believe we can learn a lot from successful charters and privates — but based on the evidence presented in this paper, not in this area.

As I said at the event, there are scores of public schools where performance pay and skills-and-knowledge-based pay are being developed and implemented — some poorly (see Houston) and some well (see Denver, Cincinnati, Douglas County, CO). Public school districts are more likely to look at what other similar districts are doing successfully than to look at the private Salem Academy or High Tech High charter school because districts have to grapple with issues of scale and replicability in ways that don’t confront private schools or small chains of charter schools.

I think Center for American Progress would do a service for all if in a future paper it explores the best models of redesigned compensation systems regardless of what sector they come from– private, charter, public. As you point out, James, it’s not clear that any of the mechanisms are in place to evaluate the effect of the examples presented in the CAP paper. It will be unfortunate (though not unsurprising) if the push for performance pay/merit pay/etc continues with no evidence from any plans showing improved teacher recruitment and retention; improved instruction or gains in student achievement to back up claims.

Paul Butler, a former prosecutor, now law professor, and regular contributor to Blackprof, spoke to NPR’s Ed Gordon regarding crime and incarceration in the black community (audio here). The conversation was over a year ago, but I listened to it again recently and was reminded that Butler’s analysis and recommendations stand the test of time. Butler argues that since black people are disproportionately represented as victims and defendants in the criminal system, what black people have to say about what we should do about crime deserves special consideration.

I have long been saying this about black youth–black youth are disproportionately victimized by criminals and by police abuse, so we should listen to what they say about policing and crime prevention. If we do it right, they can be effective advocates for safer communities and more just policing. For more on this, see Community Policing and Youth as Assets on my homepage (warning, the article is long).

Of course, the black community is hardly monolithic. But there is wide agreement on a number of the points Butler makes: we need increased economic investments to raise employment opportunities, educational investments that increase the number of kids who graduate from high school, and community-wide investments in mentoring for teens and health care for infants. Butler also talks about what individuals can do in their own neighborhoods and communities. It is 11 minutes, and worth a listen.

For more on how hard it is to do merit pay in such a way that all stake-holders perceive as fair, check out this article (subscription required) from Education Week on the-fall out from the Houston initiative.