Are black students really afraid of 'acting white'?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--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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[This piece originally appeared in the Daily Voice.]

Nothing succeeds like stereotypes. Anti-black stereotypes are especially powerful. Take, for example, the now popular claim that black students don't value education. This claim has been repeated over and over again in spite of the fact that there is a mountain of evidence against it.

In 1986, in an Urban Review article, two scholars studying a Washington D.C. high school claimed that black students did not achieve academically because of a fear of being perceived as "acting white." People pounced so quickly on this idea that they failed to realize that the researchers did not actually present any black students who said they were afraid of being called "white."

Of the eight students discussed in the article, four indicated that they were worried about being called "brainiacs." The other four raised other issues. A fear of "acting white" was the researchers' highly debatable interpretation of what was going on, but it was not a direct quotation.

Many white students have been called "brainiac," "nerd," "geek," and similar names by other white students. It is unfortunate that students tease and bully each other. But this is not "a black thing." The real question therefore is whether academically-oriented teasing is more common among black students than among whites. There is no convincing evidence that this is the case. A 2003 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, for example, found equal levels of concern about school-related teasing among black and white girls.

What about pro-school attitudes? Contrary to the popular stereotype, much of the evidence suggests that black students value education more than whites. The same year the Urban Review article was published, the Monitoring the Future survey found that 74 percent of black high school seniors believed that getting good grades was of "great" or "very great importance," but only 41 percent of white seniors felt as strongly. Half of black seniors reported that knowing a lot about intellectual matters was of "great" or "very great importance," but only one-fifth of white seniors felt the same.

Other and more recent surveys have had similar results. A 2006 survey by Public Agenda found that black students were more likely than white students to believe that "increasing math and science education would improve high school." The Higher Education Research Institute's 2006 survey of college freshmen found that the majority-black students at historically black colleges were more likely to aspire to obtain a Ph.D. than college freshmen generally.

Different organizations asking different questions of different black students at different times have all come to the same conclusion: black students value education. Despite the fact that these surveys are based on interviews of hundreds of black students from nationally-representative samples, none of them has been deemed as newsworthy as that study with four students worried about being called "brainiacs."

I can imagine some critics arguing that it doesn't matter what black students say, what matters is what they do. They might point out that black students have lower levels of academic achievement than white students. This is true, but it is only a part of the achievement story. One has to look at the trends in academic achievement, not just the one-time snapshots.

Since the 1970s, the best standardized tests have shown a greater increase in black students' scores than in white students' scores. The long-term trend National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math test for eight graders, for example, shows a 14 point gain for white students but a 34 point gain for black students. There remains a large gap in scores on this test, but it was 20 points larger in the 1970s.

There are similar results for the long-term trend NAEP reading test, for the National Assessment of Adult Literacy test, the General Social Survey vocabulary test and other standardized exams. If black students are rejecting education left and right, why are their test scores increasing?

What the current academic research shows is that much of the black-white achievement gap exists prior to first-grade, many years before academic teasing begins. This gap is due to broad social and economic disadvantages among black families in comparison to white families. The gap grows during school years because these disadvantaged black students then attend schools of lower quality than white students.

Adults concerned about raising black student achievement have two options: we can get back into the civil rights business of confronting the social and economic inequalities that produce the achievement gap or we can cling to convenient stereotypes and keep on blaming black students. Blaming black students certainly means less work for us.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.