The Origins of the ‘Acting White’ Charge

School integration yielded a disturbing by-product: a psychological association between scholastic achievement and whiteness.

Students sit in an integrated classroom at Anacostia High School, in Washington, D.C., in 1957.
Students sit in an integrated classroom at Anacostia High School, in Washington, D.C., in 1957. (Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress via Reuters)

Classroom integration wasn’t an entirely positive development for black educational prospects. That argument, completely out of vogue, needs airing amid our reacquaintance with the busing controversy of 50 years ago. When Senator Kamala Harris exposed Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing in the early 1970s, progressives congratulated her—and that’s understandable. Busing fostered the integration that many districts resisted even after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine, which had condemned so many black kids to substandard schooling. Thorough studies have confirmed that busing improved the scholarly performance of countless black kids.

Certainly, the underfunded one-room schoolhouses in the old South had to go. Something else that has to go too, though: the idea that any black student is only being properly served if white kids are studying next to him. That misimpression, fostered by the school-integration movement, has yielded a disturbing by-product: a harmful psychological association between scholastic achievement and whiteness.

Many on the left dismiss as a racist fable the notion that black teens often say their nerdy peers are “acting white,” bristling to even read it mentioned in pieces like this, claiming the whole scenario has been refuted. Deniers even lit into President Barack Obama for his famous line about the black kid with a book in his hand being called “white.”

In fact, this charge grew out of the integration era, as Stuart Buck documents in Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.

Many black students placed in previously all-white schools encountered white teachers either overtly or covertly hostile to their presence, at best thinking of them as hopeless prospects for success. Many of the white students, while hardly as starkly belligerent toward them as the sneering kids in photographs of Little Rock Central High School, were distinctly unwelcoming to the new black kids in countless ways.

This will surprise few of us today, and it was hardly limited to the South: Recall the famous shot of the angry white woman at the meeting on busing in Boston. The pique she displayed did not magically evaporate once black kids were settled into these white schools—it became the substrate of the black kids’ new schoolroom experience, week in and week out. That kind of rejection can make a person disidentify from a whole environment, and one result was a sense that school was for white kids, something outside of the authentic black experience.

Over time, open white resistance to black kids in these schools receded as attitudes on race changed. However, a cultural meme casting school as “white” had set in and has become self-perpetuating since. The “acting white” charge can thrive even in extravagantly funded schools where nonwhite teachers are as exquisitely sensitized about racism as humans can be, quite unlike the nasty, dismissive teachers that black kids encountered decades ago.

It may seem counterintuitive that the “acting white” meme would persist beyond what caused it. But this is how cultural memes can work. A useful analogy would be the wariness some black people retain even today of hospitals, a legacy of the Tuskegee experiment, during which researchers left black men’s syphilis untreated. A meme can be especially tenacious when it is useful for other purposes. Teens of all stripes seek ways of defining their subgroup, fostering a sense of group membership, and even of acting out. In black-teen culture, one way of doing this is to embrace the idea that studying is “white.”

Sure, white kids get made fun of for being nerds, too. But as Kimberly Norwood has deftly gotten across in her study of the “acting white” charge, it’s one thing to be called a nerd, another to be told you are disqualifying yourself from your race. That lends a particular sting.

Those who deny the continued association of whiteness and school note, for example, that black kids do not say outright to interviewers that they devalue school, consider it “white,” or dislike smart black peers. Studies show that if you ask black kids whether they value school, they say yes. But issues of racial identity are subtle. The sociologists, educators, and journalists who point to studies like this would laugh out of the room a paper claiming that you can identify, for example, people’s inner racism by asking them about it.

More useful is a rarely addressed study by Clifton Casteel from 1997, in which white eighth and ninth graders tended to say they did homework for their parents, while black kids said they did homework for their teachers. That is, they had a quiet sense that school was not for what “we” are at heart. Or, Harvard’s Roland Fryer has shown that while the number of white kids who report another white kid as a friend increases with that kid’s GPA, the number of black kids who report another black kid as a friend increases with GPA at a much lower rate, and then plummets after 3.5. Fryer even notes that it is specifically black kids who give evidence of putting in special effort who have fewer friends, not the ones who manage to excel while making it look easy.

Add to this body of research the decades of journalism on how black kids are tormented as “white” for liking school, up to the present day. John Ogbu wrote a book carefully documenting the association in Shaker Heights, Ohio. After I wrote a book in 2000 with a chapter addressing it, I received—unsolicited—well over 100 letters from black people explicitly attesting that they were teased as “white” for liking school, many saying that their grades went down as a result, as well as from concerned teachers wondering what to do about black kids telling them that this charge was being lobbed at them. One letter-writer said black kids called him a “nerd” in the early 1960s because he liked school, but that they called his younger siblings “white” for the same reason by the end of that decade.

Deniers like to cite a study by Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr., and Domini Castellino, who found that the “acting white” charge mostly flares up in integrated schools “in which socioeconomic status differences between blacks and whites are stark and perceived as corresponding to patterns of placement and achievement.” But why dismiss something that happens only with kids in integrated schools? If anything, this study neatly confirms the “acting white” phenomenon. To wit, black nerds get called “white” when white kids are around to furnish a basis for the comparison; the problem arises amidst integration.

The weight of studies, reports, and testimonials on “acting white” is so crushing that the indignant resistance from some can seem almost peculiar. It is rooted in a discomfort with a black problem being traced to something other than racism, with a sense that black kids are being pathologized, as it is often put. However, these people need not worry that the “acting white” issue interferes with their paradigm. The sense of school as “white” was sparked quite directly by racism—such as that of the whites famous for their opposition to busing.

None of this is to imply that the continuing white-black educational-achievement gap is the result of black kids calling each other names, or to minimize the very real effects of funding disparities, historical inequities, and the like. My point is simply that school desegregation made a lot of black kids see school as “white”—which can perhaps be classified as collateral damage, given the educational improvements it lent to so many others. However, such an unpleasant and counterproductive side effect is a useful lesson, prodding us to focus not only on desegregation but on making all-black classrooms good ones.

Underlying all the praise directed at Senator Harris is the quiet assumption that something is fundamentally wrong with an all-black classroom. Is there? After emancipation, ex-slaves clamored for education. Much of the civil-rights mission of the late 19th century was centered on building schoolhouses for black people. Even in 1899, students at all-black Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., were outscoring white students across town, while all-black schools in many other cities were similarly excellent. Black Brooklynites had P.S. 91. You would never know from the situation depicted in the fourth season of The Wire that in the old days, black kids in Baltimore had the top-class Frederick Douglass High.

By no means were these flagship schools the whole picture of black education before Brown; legal segregation was an urgent civil-rights crisis. Still, all black must not necessarily mean all bad.

Data are piling up on what makes for a good school, and racial diversity is not the best, let alone the only, answer. Reading should be taught via phonics, not “exploration.” Teach for America has gathered data revealing just what makes for a good teacher, even to poor students, including careful attention to the abilities of each student, fostering parental involvement, and the “I do, we do, you do” method of imparting skills (first via demonstration, next involving the whole class, then assigning each student to do it alone). Education must focus less on sociopolitical ideology and more on the nuts and bolts of schoolteaching, such as creating a curriculum and maintaining order. Teachers’ unions should be more open to longer school days. The idea of school ending for the summer so that kids can help their parents with the harvest must be rethought, of course, which also underscores the importance that schools always be air-conditioned.

President Obama condemned “the slander that says that a black youth with a book is acting white.” But that slander didn’t exist in the old days and need not exist today. We just have to get past an unintended variant kind of slander—assuming that a black youth has a book because he goes to school with whites. Desegregation forever, indeed—but let’s not forget that lots of learning can go on in all-black schools as well.