"Acting White" Just Standard Bullying, Racialized.

With the release of Stuart Buck's book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, there's been some interesting discussion over whether there is actually racialized antipathy toward educational achievement among young African Americans -- the basic premise of Buck's book. At The New Republic, John McWhorter agrees, and at Slate, Richard Thompson Ford seems to agree, too. Here at TAPPED, guest blogger Gene Denby disagreed, arguing that accusing high-achieving black kids of "acting white" has more to do with social markers than academic achievement.

I'm with Gene; as a nerdy black kid who was accused of "acting white" on a fairly regular basis, I feel confident saying that the charge had everything to do with cultural capital, and little to do with academics. If you dressed like other black kids, had the same interests as other black kids, and lived in the same neighborhoods as the other black kids, then you were accepted into the tribe. If you didn't, you weren't. In my experience, the "acting white" charge was reserved for black kids, academically successful or otherwise, who didn't fit in with the main crowd. In other words, this wasn't some unique black pathology against academic achievement; it was your standard bullying and exclusion, but with a racial tinge.

What's more, it seems that Buck, McWhorter, and Thompson are working under the assumption that this stigma is at least somewhat responsible for poor academic performance among black kids. If we are going to assume these taunts evince some unique black pathology, then it's worth actually looking at the data on black educational achievement. Matthew Yglesias checks out data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and finds that since 1978, the "math gap" between black and white students has steadily closed:


This isn't a direct rebuttal of Buck, McWhorter, or Thompson, but it should cast doubt on the idea that desegregation has somehow been worse for black educational achievement. Desegregation has had its problems in implementation, but the resources made available by desegregation have done a lot to improve educational outcomes among African Americans. One last thing; in his review of Buck's book, Thompson writes this:

But Buck's focus on schools neglects the bigger picture. The power of the epithet "acting white" is just one manifestation of a belligerent youth subculture among poor blacks that rejects mainstream institutions generally. "Acting white" is to education as "stop snitching" is to law enforcement: an attitude of aimless and self-destructive opposition, borne of deprivation, alienation, and despair.

How is this any different than the "belligerent youth subculture" among some poor whites? Or the "belligerent youth subculture" among some poor Latinos, or the "belligerent youth subculture" that emerges when any group is distinctly isolated from economic opportunity? My problem with these discussions is that they seek -- inadvertently or otherwise -- to pathologize the experience of some African Americans, blind to the fact that these are problems common to a whole host of socially and economically isolated groups. In this at least, poor African Americans aren't exceptional, popular opinion notwithstanding.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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