Acting White

Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation

Stuart Buck
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npp4n
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  • Book Info
    Acting White
    Book Description:

    Commentators from Bill Cosby to Barack Obama have observed the phenomenon of black schoolchildren accusing studious classmates of "acting white." How did this contentious phrase, with roots in Jim Crow-era racial discord, become a part of the schoolyard lexicon, and what does it say about the state of racial identity in the American system of education?

    The answer, writes Stuart Buck in this frank and thoroughly researched book, lies in the complex history of desegregation. Although it arose from noble impulses and was to the overall benefit of the nation, racial desegegration was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It frequently destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals who could serve as role models, and made school a strange and uncomfortable environment for black children, a place many viewed as quintessentially "white."

    Drawing on research in education, history, and sociology as well as articles, interviews, and personal testimony, Buck reveals the unexpected result of desegregation and suggests practical solutions for making racial identification a positive force in the classroom.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16313-1
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-8)

    “Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” Barack Obama said in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, “and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Michelle Obama, according to a May 2009 report inNewsweek, “described the ridicule she faced from neighborhood kids for ‘acting white’ when she got good grades” as a child.

    The Obamas are far from alone in their observations....

  5. 1 DOES “ACTING WHITE” OCCUR?
    (pp. 9-26)

    Many people think that the “acting white” phenomenon is just a myth. For example, Michael Eric Dyson, the University of Pennsylvania professor and public intellectual, claims in his bookIs Bill Cosby Right?that “acting white” is the “academic equivalent of an urban legend” that is “rooted in a single 1986 study of a Washington, D.C., high school.”

    Indeed, some think that the “acting white” thesis is dangerous. Dyson argues that the “social mythology of low black academic desire” serves only to “deprive black students of an equal education.”¹ A piece in theNew York Times Magazineclaims that “the...

  6. 2 WHY SHOULD WE CARE? HOW PEERS AFFECT THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
    (pp. 27-40)

    The reason that we might worry about “acting white”—just as we might worry about anything that impedes educational progress—is that there is a disconcertingly large achievement gap between black students and white students. The average black high school senior in America is performing at about the level of white eighth graders.¹ According to recent scores from the National Center for Education Statistics, black students scored around 25–30 points lower on standardized reading tests in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades.² Similarly, the average black student’s SAT score in 2006 was 200 points lower than the average white...

  7. 3 THE HISTORY OF BLACK EDUCATION IN AMERICA
    (pp. 41-53)

    History seems an imprecise subject at best. Even when historians are studying a narrow question that, at least in theory, could be pinned down to an exact number, there often is not any way to be sure you have an accurate answer.

    Take literacy rates. If you want to know the literacy ratetoday, you can look at a government study that gave a literacy test to a representative sample of people, and scored their answers on a scale of 0 to 500.¹ One can quibble with the methodology, but that kind of study gives us a finegrained view of...

  8. 4 WHAT WERE BLACK SCHOOLS LIKE?
    (pp. 54-72)

    Before I explain what was lost when schools were desegregated, we have to discuss one more question: What were black schools really like in the decade before that happened?¹

    Segregation was a monstrous moral evil, one that shortchanged the black population in too many ways to detail here. We are all familiar with the tales of how black schools through most of the Jim Crow era were starved for resources.² Black schools often consisted of dilapidated clapboard shacks, with perhaps a pot-bellied stove for heat in the winter. An elderly teacher from Atlanta recalls, “That school was in such bad...

  9. 5 THE CLOSING OF BLACK SCHOOLS
    (pp. 73-98)

    During school desegregation, black schools all across America were closed or drastically redesigned (for example, a black high school might have been converted into an integrated elementary school). As a result, the safe and sheltering environment of black schools—once the center of the black community—disappeared. In their place was the integrated school, which was more unfriendly to black students, and less likely to feature black role models of academic success. As a result, black students became alienated from the world of school. They began to think of the school as a “white” institution.

    The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision...

  10. 6 THE LOSS OF BLACK TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS
    (pp. 99-115)

    Dr. Evelyn Granville received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale in 1949. She finds it upsetting that black students today are criticized for “trying to be white” if they work hard in school, Granville says. “I was trying to be like my teachers”—that is, her black teachers in the segregated schools she had attended in Washington, D.C.¹

    But with the closing of black schools, most black students had to answer to white teachers and principals. As a result, black children were even more alienated from the school environment. No longer were they taught by black adults who had served...

  11. 7 THE RISE OF TRACKING
    (pp. 116-124)

    The term “tracking” refers to the way schools group students into classes according to ability.¹ Although tracking had been used in public schools for many years, it became a racially tinged process after desegregation.² Ironically, the use of tracking was contemplated by Thurgood Marshall. In his argument before the Supreme Court inBrown v. Board of Education, he was asked whether black children could achieve at the same level as white children. Marshall answered in his typical colloquial style: “Simple, put the dumb Colored children in with the dumb White children, and put the smart Colored children with the smart...

  12. 8 WHEN DID “ACTING WHITE” ARISE?
    (pp. 125-146)

    The past few chapters have explained why desegregation set the stage for the “acting white” criticism to emerge in the school setting. This chapter shows that “acting white” did indeed start with desegregation. “Pioneers”—or the first black children to integrate local schools—often faced criticism from their black peers for “acting white.”

    I admit right off the bat that the evidence in this chapter is anecdotal. It would be wonderful if someone had thought to do a survey every year over the past century, asking a random sample of black people nationwide about the “acting white” criticism in education....

  13. 9 WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
    (pp. 147-162)

    This book will be controversial in some circles, if only because I say that “acting white” exists and should be taken seriously. To some people, it is borderline racist to suggest that any cultural factors might contribute to the fact that black students lag far behind white students. What’s more, if you say that some black students think of studiousness as “acting white,” it is as if you have accused black students of bizarre and nonsensical behavior. These critics appear to believe that “acting white” must be downplayed or denied at all costs, because if it did exist, it would...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 163-214)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 215-258)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 259-261)