The Price of Acting White

By Richard Morin
Sunday, June 5, 2005

" 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."

-- Barack Obama, keynote speech, 2004 Democratic National Convention

It may be even worse than Obama imagined: It's not just black children who face ridicule and ostracism by their peers if they do well in school. The stigmatizing effects of "acting white" appear to be felt even more by Hispanics who get top grades.

At least that's the claim of Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. and graduate student Paul Torelli, who have mined an unusually detailed data set on teenage students to study the relationship between performance and popularity in public and private schools.

As commonly understood, acting white is a pejorative term used to describe black students who engage in behaviors viewed as characteristic of whites, such as making good grades, reading books or having an interest in the fine arts.

The phenomenon is one reason some social thinkers give to help explain at least a portion of the persistent black-white achievement gap in school and in later life. Popularity-conscious young blacks, afraid of being seen as acting white, steer clear of behaviors that could pay dividends in the future, including doing well in school, Fryer said. At the same time, the desire to be popular pushes many whites to excel in the classroom, enhancing their future prospects.

Certainly that's what the data suggest is happening, Fryer said. Among white teens, Fryer and Torelli found that better grades equaled greater popularity, with straight-A students having far more same-race friends than those who were B students, who in turn had more friends than C or D students. But among blacks and especially Hispanics who attend public schools with a mix of racial and ethnic groups, that pattern was reversed: The best and brightest academically were significantly less popular than classmates of their race or ethnic group with lower grade point averages.

"For blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5 [a B+ average], then the slope turns negative," Fryer and Torelli wrote in a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. A black student who's gotten all A's has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a straight-A white student. Among Hispanics, there is little change in popularity until a student's average rises above a C+, at which point it plummets. A Hispanic student with all A's is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and has three fewer friends than a typical white student with a 4.0 grade point average.

Fryer and Torelli based their conclusions on a federally funded survey of 90,118 junior high and high school students in 175 schools in 80 communities nationwide during the 1994-95 school year. The resulting data set contained a wealth of information on each student, including the number of friends they had and who those friends were. To prevent an inflated tally, the researchers counted students as friends only if each listed the other as a friend.

The researchers used this data to construct a social status index based on the number of friends of the same race that a student had in the school, adjusted for the popularity of each friend. Thus, someone who had lots of unpopular pals was rated lower than someone whose shorter list of friends might include such typically sociable types as cheerleaders or the student body president.

Digging deeper, they found that their overall results did not change significantly when they examined all of a student's friends, regardless of race. High-achieving Hispanics and blacks also had fewer friends, even when there was a relative abundance of same-race friends with similar GPAs in their classes.

They also found that more blacks "acted white" in schools where less than 20 percent of the students were African American, while hardly any did in predominantly black schools or in private schools. "These findings suggest the achievement gap is not about cultural dysfunctionality," Fryer said, and that contrary to conventional wisdom, the phenomenon may be more prevalent among blacks living in the more affluent suburbs than among those living in the inner city. (There were no majority-Hispanic schools in the study.)

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