Ronald Fryer. Courtesy of the American Economic Association (Craig Huey)

As a child, Roland G. Fryer Jr. often visited his great-aunt and -uncle's house in Daytona Beach, Fla. They had pancakes there on weekends -- fried in the same pan in which the couple made crack out of water, baking soda and cocaine they'd bought in Miami. It was a family-run criminal enterprise, and Fryer's great-uncle would live out his years in prison.

As for Fryer, he won an athletic scholarship that turned into a meteoric academic career and a professorship at Harvard University. On Friday, he received the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, which is given to the economist under the age of 40 who has made the most significant contribution to the field. Many of the medalists have gone on to win Nobel awards.

As an economist, Fryer knows he is an outlier. Eight of his 10 closest childhood friends went to prison or died young. One of his favorite cousins was murdered after finishing his sentence for taking part in the Daytona Beach gang.

To the courts, they were criminals, but Fryer loved and respected them. Those emotions forced him to reckon with society's injustices, he told Wonkblog in an interview Wednesday. (Read the full transcript.)

"You start to think, how do we create the right structures -- because birth is an accident; neither me nor my cousins asked to be born into Daytona Beach’s issues -- how do you create structures so that people don’t just beat the odds, but so that you change the damn odds?" he said.

"It’s not, like, a 'them' thing, for me. This is my family, dude."

"Acting white"

Fryer has considered a number of answers to his central question, many of them controversial.

His research focuses on race and education, and he's examined whether charter schools can meaningfully improve student achievement, and whether paying students for hard work results in better grades.

Some of Fryer's most ingenious, surprising and polarizing work has found that black and Hispanic students with high levels of academic achievement have fewer friends. The research appears to confirm what some parents of high-performing children say: that when their kids get good grades, their classmates tease them for "acting white."

Fryer experienced the phenomenon himself. One afternoon in his freshman year of high school, Fryer said, he was in the locker room before basketball practice when his coach was trying to figure out who would be academically eligible to play on the team.  "How're your grades doing?" the coach asked a couple of teammates. "How're your grades doing?"

Then the coach turned to Fryer. "He taps me on the shoulder and says, 'I know you’re doing fine,' and he moves onto the next guy," Fryer recalled. "I wanted to be treated like everybody else in the locker room. I didn't want to be singled out as anything."

Later, Fryer sought out his coach. "I don't want to get crap from the guys about this," he told him, "so just ask me the same questions you ask everybody else, and I can say, 'Yeah, I think I’m doing O.K.' "

Fryer's first paper on the subject was released in its first draft in 2005, just three years after he received his PhD from Pennsylvania State. The paper cited President Obama's remarks at the Democratic National Convention the year before, a speech that established the Illinois senator's national profile before he ran for the White House.

"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," Obama said.

In his research, Fryer and his collaborator Paul Torelli examined the results of a national survey of more than 90,000 students in middle school and high school in 1994 and 1995. The survey asked students to list their friends, allowing the economists to reconstruct the students' social groups at the time and determine how popular each student really was. They assigned each student a rating, summarized by the "popularity index" in the chart below, based on how many classmates listed him or her as a friend, how many friends he or she listed, and how popular his or her friends were themselves .

The study, in particular, looked at how students gained or lost friends of the same race depending on academic performance, in order to figure out whether members of that race were more or less likely to have friends if they did better or worse in school.

In general, the study found that students with better grades were more popular. But that was not true for the highest-performing African-American students, those with grade-point averages of at least 3.5 (B+/A-). These students had somewhat fewer black friends than students with somewhat lower grades.

Most black students received a B average or lower, and among that group, better grades meant more friends. Hispanics, by contrast, were apparently forced to choose between their grades their friends even if they had a lower level of academic achievement. The more Hispanic students' grade-point averages exceeded 2.5 (C+/B-), the less popular they were.

All of the students in the survey, including all grade-point averages, had an average of 4.4 friends of the same race or ethnicity. Yet among those students with a 4.0 grade-point average, white students had 1.5 more friends of the same race than African Americans and three more friends than Latinos.

These students did have more friends of other races, but fewer friends overall. The graph below shows the effects of grades on Fryer and Torelli's ratings of popularity.

Roland G. Fryer, " Acting White ," Education Next (2006.)

Diversity's downside

Fryer wasn't just interested in studying U.S. schools, and around the world, he said, you can find cultural and ethnic groups of people who stigmatize their the most successful members.

"This was not just about blacks and whites in the U.S.," Fryer said. "This was about the Buraku outcasts of Japan, who have a long record of holding people back. This was about the Maori of New Zealand."

Still, his work has troubling implications for the American education system.

Fryer and Torelli also found that the effects were most pronounced among boys at schools with large numbers of both white students and students of color. The economists suggest that when students frequently interact with people of a variety of races and ethnicities, they are inclined to define themselves along those lines. "There can be significant pressure in racially heterogeneous schools to toe the racial line," they write.

They find less evidence that students with better grades are less popular in schools that are predominantly one race, and no evidence where schools are predominantly black.

"In my view, the prevalence of acting white in schools with racially mixed student bodies suggests that social pressures could go a long way toward explaining the large racial and ethnic gaps in SAT scores, the underperformance of minorities in suburban schools, and the lack of adequate representation of blacks and Hispanics in elite colleges and universities," Fryer wrote in a version of his paper published in 2006.

"Society must find ways for these high achievers to thrive in settings where adverse social pressures are less intense. The integrated school, by itself, apparently cannot achieve that end."

A debate about race

Those words appeared in print after Obama's remarks at the convention had reopened a passionate debate about "acting white." The president has continued to receive criticism from those who say he is essentially blaming children of color for worsening the academic performance of their peers by bullying the most talented students.

These critics say that "acting white" is a myth, pointing to polling data showing that young people of color view academic success favorably, and that smart white students are just as uncool.

"The problem with the Acting White Theory is that it promotes the misconception that black students underachieve because of their corrupted attitudes," Ivory Toldson, a professor of education at Howard University, wrote in The Root in 2013.

"Meanwhile, many black students are relegated to under-resourced schools, and they lack motivation because of low expectations from teachers and school leaders, unfair discipline and fewer opportunities for academic enrichment."

Fryer and Torelli could not prove that students of color were rejecting their peers with higher grades, and other research questions that explanation. There may be some other reason for the differences between the races among academically successful students.

Fryer, though, pointed to a surprising experiment recently conducted by Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of California, Los Angeles and Robert Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania. The pair offered a group of mostly Hispanic juniors in Los Angeles high schools a chance to take an SAT preparation course for free.

Some of the students were told that their classmates would know if they participated, and they were significantly less likely to sign up. The experiment suggests that young people's concerns about how they're seen by others really can discourage them from putting in the coursework that could help them get ahead.

"It's still an open topic," Fryer said. "I still think there's a lot of work to be done."

In particular, he said, it's unclear how much these interactions affect academic achievement. "Acting white" may not be a myth, but there are also other reasons for the large gap in test scores between white students and their classmates.

The causes of that disparity are something of a mystery to researchers, who have long been trying to work out just how poverty is passed down from generation to generation -- and why, sometimes, it isn't.

Only after he began his academic career did Fryer start asking these questions himself.

"As a kid growing up, I wasn't sitting there, going, 'This is a bad thing.' I was just hanging out, man," Fryer said. "I didn't realize I grew up poor until I got to Harvard and I realized, 'Ooh, that was bad.'

Now Fryer has a toddler of his own, and sees his own childhood differently.

"Is that the environment I'm raising my 2-year-old in?" he asked. "No, of course not. My 2-year-old starts Mandarin immersion in the fall."