--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.
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[Find out The Truth about "Acting White".]
Or The Problems of Roland G. Fryer “Acting White” Study[This is the third part of a second open letter to John McWhorter, author of Winning the Race.]
If one accepts the findings of the Roland G. Fryer “acting white” study then the group with the most intense fear of being perceived as “white” for having high academic achievement is Hispanics. Whites in private schools have the second strongest fear of “acting white.” Blacks would come in third with the mildest fear of “acting white.” I raise these points because I doubt that white private school students are afraid of “acting white.” The closer one examines the study, the more problems appear.
In 2005, Roland G. Fryer, Jr. and Paul Torelli circulated a paper titled “An Empircal Analysis of ‘Acting White’” through the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and Fryer published a version of the paper for more general audiences titled “Acting White” in Education Next. The research received a great deal of media attention and it was treated as conclusive proof that the “acting white” phenomenon is a serious problem among black students. But if one reads the study carefully and especially the more academic version circulated by NBER one comes to very different conclusions.
The “acting white” phenomenon was defined in Fryer and Torelli’s study as when there are racial differences in the relationship between grades and “spectral popularity index scores.” It is important to note that the analysis is based on spectral popularity scores not actual accusations of “acting white.”
If we accept Fryer and Torelli’s assumptions and evidence then it appears that in majority black schools, black students cease to be as popular as white students after a B+ GPA. We can only dream of the day that most black students have B+ GPAs. This has to be seen as a very, very mild case of “acting white.”
The problem for black students appears to be more severe in integrated schools because in integrated schools after a C GPA, black students are not as popular as white students. This still makes the problem fairly modest because the vast majority of black students attend segregated schools. Additionally, although black students in integrated schools have lower popularity index scores than whites, their popularity index scores still increase slightly up to a B+ GPA. (See image below. Click on image for a better view.) So, if popularity affects black student achievement, even in integrated schools they still have an incentive up to a B+.
Grades and “Popularity” in Integrated SchoolsBut even these very modest claims of the Fryer and Torelli study are suspect since Fryer and Torelli’s spectral popularity scores may not even measure popularity. This question arises when we examine the findings for whites and Hispanics more closely.
Because of the way Fryer and Torelli define “acting white,” they actually end up using white students as the standard even when their findings indicate that the white students do not appear to be valuing education very highly. This makes literal sense for examining a fear of “acting white,” but if one thinks anti-intellectualism is a problem, it should be a problem when whites are anti-intellectual also.
If we put aside Fryer and Torelli’s nonwhite-only definition of the “acting white” phenomenon and simply say that we expect there to be a positive relationship between spectral popularity scores and grades for all groups, popular assumptions about education are turned upside down. With this simple universally-applied definition, Hispanic students are the most anti-intellectual group. Hispanic popularity scores decline dramatically after a C+ GPA in public schools and after a C- GPA in private schools. I am not aware of anyone theorizing that “acting white” is worst among Hispanics compared to other groups.
White students in private schools also appear to be rather anti-intellectual according to Fryer and Torelli’s spectral scores. In private schools, white spectral scores peak at about a C- and then decline. See the figure below. (Click on the image for a better view.) The trend line for white private school students clearly differs from that of white public school students, but Fryer and Torelli's definition requiring racial differences allows them to ignore this fact. If white private school students were black public school students, however, the authors would declare them to have a severe C- case of "acting white."
The Most Popular Whites in Private Schools Have C- Grades!?!Approximation of white public school scores on private school graph.
So, if we accept Fryer and Torelli’s evidence then anti-intellectualism is most rampant among Hispanics, and the second biggest problem occurs among white students attending private schools. If black leaders and public intellectuals really want to lecture groups based on Fryer and Torelli’s research then they should be lecturing Hispanics and whites in private schools. Because this is where according to the research the most serious “acting white” problems lie.
I do not recommend this course of action, however, since I have serious doubts that Fryer and Torelli’s spectral popularity scores measure what the researchers think they measure.
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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.
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