Magazine | October 4, 2010, Issue

Moot Causes

Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, by Stuart Buck (Yale, 272 pp., $27.50)

Where did the idea come from that, if a black student studies hard in school, he is “acting white”? Stuart Buck — a Harvard Law graduate who is currently a doctoral fellow in the education-reform department at the University of Arkansas — has written a thoughtful and provocative book in answer to this question.

Acting White is straightforward and jargon-free. It first reviews the solid empirical evidence on the existence of the “acting white” accusation, and on the real harm it does to students. Then it provides a fascinating historical narrative: what segregated schools were like for blacks; how desegregation frequently ended not in their integration but in their closing, and in the firing of black teachers and black principals; and how the “acting white” charge did not exist before, but quickly grew after, schools desegregated. Buck observes that, during the Jim Crow era, the people who accused smart black kids of trying to be white were not those students’ peers, but white racists.

Buck demonstrates that black students’ rejection of academic achievement as acting white grew out of their rebellion against the white schools in which they found themselves after desegregation. And it makes sense. While underfunded, Jim Crow schools had principals and teachers who shared their students’ skin color, enjoyed the support of the students’ parents, and were held in high regard by the black community. They were also dedicated to their students and insistent that they work hard. But with desegregation, the black students found themselves in an unwelcoming environment: one in which the white students did not like them, and in which the white teachers frequently manifested the soft bigotry of low expectations (and sometimes even outright hard bigotry).

The author is not suggesting that desegregation was a bad idea; we can be reasonably certain of this because he says so on every other page. His point, rather, is that it is unwise to ignore “cultural factors” in academic performance — and “unintended consequences” in public policy.

Buck’s thesis is powerfully argued and scrupulously referenced. (An additional historical footnote: The author Zora Neale Hurston had misgivings about desegregation, for reasons along the lines Buck discusses.) It is made even more convincing by the author’s willingness to acknowledge countervailing evidence, and instances in which — of necessity — he has relied on anecdotes rather than statistical data.

So the book is well worth buying and reading. But there is an important problem with it: It is not until page 153 of the 162 pages of text that the author addresses the obvious question of “what can be done” — and, as it turns out, that is just as well, since this prescriptive part of the book is also the weakest.

The “tentative suggestions” offered are 1) allowing black students “to choose an all-black environment that includes black teachers and principals”; 2) “single-sex schools”; 3) “do[ing] more to recruit and encourage blacks — especially black males — to go into teaching”; 4) “special programs [that] might be able to counteract bad peer pressure”; and 5) “eliminat[ing] individual grades” so that, “instead, students would compete against other schools in academic competitions” (with, perhaps, “cash rewards for grades on a group basis”).

Buck acknowledges that his last two suggestions are largely untested and “radical,” respectively. Let me also suggest gently that there are legal problems with the balkanizing approach of assigning students to schools or classes on the basis of skin color, and with singling out particular racial groups for favorable treatment in job training, to say nothing of discriminating against women in that training. Also, it’s not clear why a black teacher who urges study won’t now be viewed as an Uncle Tom, since high-achieving black students experience that same accusation.

The argument that a person of a particular race might serve as an especially strong role model has been explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court as insufficient to justify racial discrimination. And I think most Americans would be uncomfortable with the suggestion that a student cannot have a role model of a different skin color from him or her. As George W. Bush once cheerfully noted, when he was growing up he didn’t want to be president — he wanted to be Willie Mays.

#page#The lameness of Buck’s prescriptions underscores an obvious question he does not address: Sure, blacks in the Sixties may have been unhappy with the newly integrated schools they were sent to. But why are so many blacks today willing to accuse their hard-working classmates of acting white — and, more to the point, able successfully to intimidate them? Buck mentions the likely cause in a few places, but fails to come to grips with it: Seven out of ten blacks today are born out of wedlock.

Suppose your twelve-year-old son came home and announced that it would compromise his racial authenticity were he to study hard and get good grades, and that he will therefore concentrate on misbehaving in class. Or, more realistically, suppose you simply saw that he was balking at homework and getting poor grades, with or without an excuse. What would your reaction be? More to the point, what would the reaction of Dr. Cliff Huxtable be?

Dr. Huxtable would explain, with as much patience as he could muster, that not studying is unacceptable and that the “acting white” justification for not studying is idiotic nonsense: Even if your teacher is a white racist, son, you should not — will not — slack off. Such instinctive rebellion, even if understandable, is obviously irrational.

The problem is that Dr. Huxtable is nowhere to be found in most black households. The fact that, as Buck points out, the acting-white malady apparently affects boys more than girls further suggests that the absence of strong fathers is a big part of the problem.

By the time school desegregation really got going — with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave the U.S. Department of Justice authority to sue the hundreds of school districts that had ignored the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education — the breakdown of the black family was well under way. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report was leaked in 1965.) My guess is that, without this breakdown, the “acting white” phenomenon would never have caught on to the extent that it has.

Which raises, again, the question of what is to be done. Since illegitimacy is, at its heart, a moral problem, black churches should probably play a leading role. Biology being what it is, it is also probably more fruitful to attempt to persuade females than males to change their behavior. The point can certainly be made to a young woman that having children without being married is not in her — or her child’s, or her boyfriend’s, or her community’s — best interest. And bearing and fathering children out of wedlock (which is becoming much more common among nonblacks, too) must be restigmatized in our culture.

There are three basic parts to a school-age child’s environment: his home and parents, his school and teachers, and his friends. In all three, black children are, in general, at a woeful disadvantage. More than 70 percent are born out of wedlock; they disproportionately attend failing public schools; and, on top of everything else, their friends tell them that studying hard is “acting white.”

If you take the long view, and look at relations between the races in 1650, 1950, and 2010, it is hard not to be happy and optimistic. But we have to face the fact: There still remains a significant problem in American race relations, and it is rooted in illegitimacy. The challenges of assimilating Latino and Asian immigrants lack anything like the intractability of black problems. Illegitimacy must bear much of the blame not only for black educational outcomes but for other disparities — in crime, unemployment, you name it — that, in turn, feed what remains of racism. In short, it is the American domestic social problem.

– Mr. Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

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