The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black economics medalist on ‘acting white’: ‘I didn’t want to be singled out as anything’

Ronald Fryer. American Economic Association.
Placeholder while article actions load

Roland G. Fryer Jr. is the first black economist to win the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, awarded annually by the American Economic Association to the economist under the age of 40 who has made the most significant contribution to the field. In an interview with Wonkblog, Fryer dicussed his research showing that black and Hispanic students with higher grades are less popular at school. Many critics say that youths of color who study hard are teased by their peers for "acting white," so Fryer's work on the subject, like much of his research, has been controversial. (Read Wonkblog's short profile of Fryer.)

Fryer also talked about criminal justice, the riots in Baltimore, and his own difficult upbringing. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

What drew you to investigate "acting white"?

I was really, really interested in how it seemed, anecdotally, that some groups seemed to celebrate success and push their members out. Other groups seemed to potentially discourage success, and I wondered what could produce that type of thing. I thought about this more generally. This was not just about blacks and whites in the U.S. 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. I remember in graduate school putting together this list of groups. I've just been kind of fascinated with what’s going on, and how you can potentially, as an economist ,we’d say, break that equilibrium, where people are holding people back.

You’ve got these groups of people around the world, and there’s documentation that they’re behaving in what seems like an irrational way from an economic point of view. That’s an interesting puzzle to try to figure out.

That’s the whole point. I would love to have these people’s "willingness to pay" to keep their success private for all these groups all around the world. [In other words, how much would you be willing to pay] so that your friends don’t know, so that your neighbors don’t know, how hard you’re investing in your own human capital? That would be wonderful.

I really want the willingness to pay measures, and then correlate those with academic achievement, and then design the interventions to change the willingness to pay. When a lot of people do this stuff in the news or whatever, it’s so politicized and political, it’s like, "You think it exists. That's blaming the victim!" [I have] exactly zero interest in that. I think this is a really important economic problem. I’m just trying to bring our tools to bear to see if we can make some progress. It’s just really that simple.

There may be private schools, like Windsor or whatever in Boston -- I bet their willingness to pay to keep it private might be negative. Maybe they want it public. Then, what kind of social conditions or whatever correlate with differences in willingness to pay? You see, we’ve gone way away from race, now. This is not about race anymore. This is just trying to understand the phenomenon.

When I was a kid, I remember going to basketball practice, must have been sixth period, end of the day. We’re sitting there, and we’re all putting our shorts on and changing. The coach comes in, 'cause it’s the end of the first six weeks, and he wants to know, essentially, who’s going to be eligible to play. So he asks a couple of the guys, "How are your grades doing? How are your grades doing?" He taps me on the shoulder and says, "I know you’re doing fine," and he moves onto the next guy.

And I told him, "Hey coach, don’t do that." I wanted to be treated like everybody else in the locker room. I didn’t want to be singled out as anything. I was just saying "I don’t want to get crap from the guys about this, so just ask me the same questions you ask everybody else, and I can say, 'Yeah, I think I’m doing O.K.' "

That’s why I thought of writing this theoretical model, in which there was this trade off. It was almost like you were signaling to different audiences. Education was, in the model, very helpful for firms to understand that you’re a high potential person, but it also had a countersignal, potentially, to individuals, and group participation in certain neighborhoods. Then I wanted to estimate how important it was.

Is it important, in terms of academic achievement?

We don’t know. Frankly, we had a bunch of anecdotes but we really don't have very good data.

One of the big puzzles to me empirically has been that since the 1980s, the premium on skill has increased dramatically, the wages. The importance of skill has gone way up. It’s a puzzle, as to why the returns to skill increase a lot, and yet investment doesn’t increase. If you see that the returns to education are similar for different racial groups, yet the investment is not the same, there must be a market failure, an impediment there, and that was also part of the reason I thought, 'Maybe this is important.' We just don’t know. We don’t actually know, and it would be good to know.

Could it be that some kids are spending more time studying because they're unpopular to begin with? In that case, their studying more or less wouldn't affect how their peers see them that much. Is the relationship you identify causal?

I’m not like some others who say it's almost causal. That’s like being almost pregnant. It's possible, but I'm not sure.

On that point, I think that this new work by Leonardo Bursztyn is quite remarkable, offering these students in L.A. the opportunity to have an extremely valuable SAT prep program. Some of them were told it was public. Some of them were told it was private, and it had huge differences in take up when it was private. I mean, that’s just incredible.

I still think there’s a lot of work to be done, in particular, to do two things: number one, to design experiments like Leonard's that will help us understand the magnitude of the problem, because we still don’t know, and two, and this is far more important, if it is a problem, what type of interventions might actually help overcome this problem?

It’s still an open topic. We still need more experiments, and what I’m even more excited about is potential interventions that would help. If those experiments show that’s it’s not a problem, great! It’s not a problem. Let’s move on to the next thing. It’s not religion for me. I’m just trying to understand what some of the impediments are to the production of human capital. I mean, I’m not running for elected office, I mean, I couldn’t even win my local PTA election, I’m sure. I’m just trying to understand the results.

What are your feelings this week about the prize? I’m curious -- it’s a major award.

The shock is still lingering. I’m just -- I don’t know how to explain how happy I am for the field of race, education, you know, social interactions, identity. There’s a lot of us who are doing work on topics like gender economics and race and education, that, recently, are the purview of economists, but historically have not been. I’m just so thrilled, that an award like this can go to that field. That’s just really awesome. I sent a bunch of emails on Friday to folks who work in the field, saying, "This is ours, and this is a moment for all of us to be happy."

And there’s a lot of work to do, but, stuff like this tends to inspire more students to get involved -- fresh approaches and new creative ideas. And if we’ve learned anything about this particular field, we need those. The stuff that’s going on in Baltimore and across the country -- this problem is not over, and just yelling back and forth about our personal opinions, if there can be something less than useful, that’s less than useful.

We need to have facts and analysis in a place where, when there’s a vacuum, anecdotes fill the space. Now, [are facts and analysis] going to stop the riots? Of course not, but I’m sure there are a bunch of us who want to really understand the problem at a deeper level right now than we’re able to.

Tell me about your time in Daytona Beach as a child, and your great-uncle, who died serving a sentence in prison for dealing crack.

I spent summers there with my grandmother who was an educator for 37 years and taught sixth-grade English language arts. Obviously I spent time with my aunt. They lived two blocks over. My grandmother was a southern grandmother, and you always gave respect to your relatives. Nearly every time we went somewhere in the car, we'd stop by their house and said hello. My cousins were there.

As a kid growing up, you don’t think the way adults think about these neighborhoods. As a kid growing up, I wasn't sitting there, going, "This is a bad thing." I was just hanging out, man. I didn't realize I grew up poor until I got to Harvard and I realized, "Ooh, that was bad." If you know me, I don’t sing a woe-is-me story. Is that the environment I’m raising my 2-year-old in? No, of course not. My 2-year-old starts Mandarin immersion in the fall.

It wasn’t just my uncle who went to prison. It was that whole side of the family. It was my great-aunt, my cousins, one of my favorite cousins, and it was mandatory sentencing, so they got 15 years. One of them, when he got out, was murdered. Yeah, it’s been tough. On the other hand, understanding that people that you love and -- you know, I looked up to my cousins a ton, man; they were so much cooler than I was -- understanding the people that you believe are really smart, really creative, that they had life outcomes that looked like that, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to you.

So 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.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this post did not make clear that the John Bates Clark medal, awarded annually for the most significant contribution to the field of economics, is restricted by age. The winners must be under the age of 40.