James,

In your initial posting about “acting white,” you expressed a suspicion that “many promoting the idea . . . 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.”

I think there’s a story here. In 1986, when Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu published the Urban Review article cited by Roland Fryer, they insisted that their analysis had wide-ranging policy implications. A recognition of black students’ “oppositional cultural frame of reference” did not absolve state or society, school or community, of their obligation to act in ways that would improve these students’ life chances:

As this analysis clearly demonstrates, the first and critically important change must occur in the existing opportunity structure, through an elimination of the job ceiling and related barriers. . . . Barring changes in the opportunity structure, the perceptions, behaviors, and academic effort of black adolescents are unlikely to change to the extent necessary to have a significant effect on the existing boundary-maintaining mechanisms in the community. . . . Second, educational barriers, both the gross and subtle mechanisms by which schools differentiate the academic careers of black and white children, should be eliminated.

Third, and particularly important in terms of our analysis, the unique academic learning and performance problems created by the burden of acting white should be recognized and made a target of educational policies and remediation effort. Both the schools and the black community have important roles to play in this regard. School personnel should try to understand the influence of the fictive kinship system [symbolizing “a black American sense of peoplehood in opposition to white American social identity”] in the students’ perceptions of learning and the standard academic attitudes and practices or behaviors expected. The schools should then develop programs, including appropriate counseling, to help the students learn to divorce academic pursuit from the idea of acting white.

By 2002, when Ogbu published his study of black students and their families in Shaker Heights, Ohio, his views appear to have shifted in some respects. “No matter how you reform schools, it’s not going to solve the problem,” he told The New York Times [subscription required]. “There are two parts of the problem, society and schools on one hand and the black community on the other hand.” In 1986, Fordham and Ogbu presented school reform as a social and moral imperative; in 2002, Ogbu cautioned against putting too much faith in it. And though the Urban Review article assigned distinct roles to schools and to the black community, it didn’t give the impression — as I think Ogbu did in 2002 — that they would address “the problem” from opposite sides of a boundary, in isolation from each other. To me, this way of dividing the world seems profoundly misguided. Family Night at Maya Angelou taught us a different lesson.

Two final notes:

(1) As you will see, the Times in 2002 also interviewed Signithia Fordham, who expressed her fears that “the acting-white idea has been distorted into blaming the victim. She said she wanted to advance the debate by looking at how race itself was a social fiction, rooted not just in skin color but also in behaviors and social status.”

(2) Ogbu, who with Fordham had called for the elimination of the “gross and subtle mechanisms by which schools differentiate the academic careers of black and white children,” may not have been aware of the extent to which those barriers have persisted in Shaker Heights. But a recent article in our local free newspaper sets the record straight.

Best,
Arthur Evenchik

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