"Acting White."

Over at The New Republic, John McWhorter lavishes praise on Stuart Buck's book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, which probably isn't terribly surprising. The thrust of Buck's book -- that blacks lag in educational outcomes because of a dysfunctional pathology that demonizes academic excellence -- has been McWhorter's pet cause for years. The idea that black kids who get good grades are accused of "acting white" gets so much play that it's taken as a given -- Barack Obama even went to that well at a campaign stop at a black church that was seen as dog-whistling to conservatives -- and McWhorter spends much of his review bristling at the idea that this alleged phenomenon is overstated, or even completely made up.

Despite McWhorter's protestations, though, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this meme, and Buck's reading of it in particular. Buck has said that he learned of this phenomenon after he and his wife adopted black children, and other white adoptive parents had also said that their children were teased by black kids for acting white. I don't mean to trivialize how unsettling this must have been to those parents, and how much it hurts for those kids to have their blackness called into question. But why is it a shock that black kids who are raised by white people might face extra hurdles in being accepted by other black kids? And if Buck's kids are indeed academic standouts, why attribute the taunts to the fact they're achievers and not, you know, because their parents are white? This is a pretty telling conflation, I think.

But setting aside Buck's particular situation, we know that in integrated schools, black students are less likely to be placed in Advanced Placement classes and more likely to be placed in remedial ones. Black students are also more likely to be punished more harshly for the same infractions committed by whites. A consequence of that disparity means that black kids who are academic will be spending most of their school days and class time in the company of nonblack kids. Again, it's not clear that those kids are being told they're acting white because they're in AP classes and not because of the company they keep.

The "acting white" idea, not coincidentally, is embraced by conservatives who are most interested in explanations for lower black educational achievement that are not structural but cultural. This idea has serious policy implications -- McWhorter calls for black schools where black achievement will not be demonized, but others have used it to argue for charters and "school choice" -- even as the scale of this supposed phenomenon remains impossible to quantify, since so many of the arguments for the "acting white" phenomenon are anecdotal.

-- Gene Demby

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