How To Understand “Acting White”

Could desegregation have caused the culture of academic underperformance?

Some black students in the 1990s had a derisive name for their peers who spent a lot of time studying in the library: incog-negro. The larger phenomenon is all too well-known. Many blacks—especially black young men—have come to the ruinous conclusion that academic excellence is somehow inconsistent with their racial identities, and they ridicule peers for “acting white” if they hit the books instead of the streets after school. The usual explanations for this self-destructive attitude focus on the influence of dysfunctional cultural norms in poor minority neighborhoods: macho and “cool” posturing and gangster rap. The usual prescriptions emphasize exposing poor black kids to better peer influences in integrated schools. Indeed, the implicit promise of improved attitudes through peer association accounts for much of the allure of public-school integration.

But suppose integration doesn’t change the culture of underperformance? What if integration inadvertently created that culture in the first place? This is the startling hypothesis of Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Buck argues that the culture of academic underachievement among black students was unknown before the late 1960s. It was desegregation that destroyed thriving black schools where black faculty were role models and nurtured excellence among black students. In the most compelling chapter of Acting White,Buck describes that process and the anguished reactions of the black students, teachers, and communities that had come to depend on the rich educational and social resource in their midst.

Buck draws on empirical studies that suggest a correlation between integrated schools and social disapproval of academic success among black students. He also cites the history of desegregation’s effect on black communities and interviews with black students to back up a largely compelling—and thoroughly disturbing—story. Desegregation introduced integrated schools where most of the teachers and administrators were white and where, because of generations of educational inequality, most of the best students were white. Black students bused into predominantly white schools faced hostility and contempt from white students. They encountered the soft prejudice of low expectations from racist teachers who assumed blacks weren’t capable and from liberals who coddled them. Academic tracking shunted black students into dead-end remedial education. The effect was predictably, and deeply, insidious. The alienation typical of many young people of all races acquired a racial dimension for black students: Many in such schools began to associate education with unsympathetic whites, to reject their studies, and to ostracize academically successful black students for “acting white.”

Like the Moynihan Report’s account of the “tangle of pathology” that kept black families mired in poverty, the “acting white” thesis has been attacked as an insult to black culture, an instance of blaming the victim. In taking on not only black culture but also school desegregation—the defining achievement of the civil rights movement—Buck is sure to be tarred as a callous bigot by uncharitable critics. But he tiptoes through the minefield with nuance and compassion. He credibly (and repeatedly) insists that he supports school desegregation but wants to be forthright about its unintended consequences, so we can find ways to contain them.

Buck proposes a grab bag of alternatives to insisting on blanket integration. His approach is attractively pragmatic and results-oriented. “[W]e should be tolerant of educational experimentation,” he writes; “it’s not as if our nation’s inner-city public schools have a stunning record of success that would thereby be jeopardized.” For the most part, his specific proposals are familiar. For at-risk kids, Buck endorses everything from vouchers to exclusively black-male charter schools to the novel idea of replacing individual grades in integrated schools with academic competitions between teams of students.

Buck’s practical, close-to-the-ground approach is a useful historical reminder. If school desegregation contributed to the alienation of black students, poor implementation must bear much of the blame. Many school districts resisted desegregation and worked to undermine it. The federal courts that imposed and oversaw desegregation were ill-equipped to manage the complexities of school administration—as at least one judge acknowledged. J. Braxton Craven, who heard the litigation leading up the court’s important decision in Swann v. Mecklenburg County School District, wrote that “[a]dministrators, especially if they have some competence and experience in school administration can likely work out … the problems of pupil and teacher assignment in the best interests of all concerned better than can any District Judge operating within the adversary system.” Constitutional imperatives didn’t seem to allow for pragmatic compromises, such as allowing districts to keep the best black schools open when the alternative was long-distance busing into unwelcoming white schools.

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. The root cause lies in the depth and pervasiveness of inner-city poverty. Buck argues that poverty can’t be the cause of “acting white” because “blacks in the Jim Crow era … pursued education eagerly even in the presence of far more dire poverty. If poverty … caused the ‘acting white’ criticism, it surely would have shown up long before the 1960s.” But the problem isn’t just objective poverty. It’s also social isolation, which worsened dramatically at precisely the time Buck says the acting-white problem emerged.

Today’s black underclass may not be as poor as many blacks were in the 1950s, but its isolation from the mainstream and from positive role models is actually worse. As Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has shown, the concentration of poverty in inner cities became a crisis in the decades after the civil rights movement, as suburbanization and the decline of manufacturing hollowed out inner cities and as the most successful and talented blacks pursued newly available opportunities outside segregated ghettoes. The inadvertent result was a “brain drain” and a diversion of resources away from many black neighborhoods and black institutions. Those blacks left behind in inner cities faced anemic local economies, weakened social networks, withered institutions, and failing schools. These larger economic and demographic shifts disrupted black communities and displaced black role models, creating “super ghettos” of unprecedented isolation, joblessness, and social dysfunction.

So even if school desegregation hadn’t shuttered many promising black schools, the rest of the civil rights revolution would still have undermined them. In the segregated job markets, many of the most talented blacks became school teachers and principals in black schools; after the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, they moved into more lucrative jobs in racially integrated firms and businesses. The costs of school desegregation that Buck identifies—the disruption of nurturing all-black institutions and communities, racial antagonism, mutual distrust, and black alienation in white dominated settings—are among the unintended consequences of desegregation generally. If many children growing up in these neighborhoods think of education as the exclusive domain of whites, that’s because they think of almost every mainstream aspiration as the exclusive domain of whites.

Buck describes the legacy of desegregation as ironic, but there’s an unintended irony in the book’s focus on school desegregation itself. Despite its status as the defining achievement of the civil rights movement, public-school desegregation is, for most practical purposes, dead. Since the Supreme Court’s 1991 decision in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, the federal courts have rushed to lift desegregation orders and many once-integrated schools are now steadily resegregating. America’s public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1988, and they are becoming ever more segregated with each passing year. In Parents Involved in Public Schools v. Seattle School District(2004), the Supreme Court invalidated the modest and voluntarily adopted public-school desegregation plans of two formerly segregated districts, a decision that will accelerate resegregation nationwide.

If school integration really did account for the onus put on academic achievement by too many black students, there might be some small redeeming virtue in this reversal. But it didn’t, and there isn’t.

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