Acting White

Black and Hispanic students who earn high grades face social costs in terms of their popularity.

In the United States, the academic achievement of the average black child lags that of the average white child at kindergarten entry and the achievement difference grows throughout the school years. A typical black 17 year old reads at the same level as a typical white 13 year old. On the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the average black student scores more than a standard deviation below the average white student. Crafting effective public policies to address the achievement gap requires understanding its causes. Various possibilities have been advanced, including differences in family structure and poverty, differences in school quality, racial bias in testing or teachers' perceptions, genetics, and differences in peer culture, socialization, or behavior.

In An Empirical Analysis of "Acting White" (NBER Working Paper No. 11334), co-authors Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli find that black and Hispanic students who earn high grades face social costs in terms of their popularity. Fryer and Torelli define "acting white" as any "statistically significant racial differences in the relationship between [student] popularity and grades." Participants in student focus groups say that a number of behaviors are condemned as "acting white," including enrollment in honors or advanced placement classes, speaking proper English, wearing the wrong clothes from the wrong stores, or wearing shorts in the winter.

To quantify "acting white," the authors construct a popularity index using data from the Addhealth survey, a nationally representative sample of 90,118 students in grades 7 through 12 in the school year 1994-5. Addhealth interviewed the same students in 1995, 1996, and 2002. Along with collecting information on parental education, socioeconomic status, school characteristics, and grade point average, the survey asked students to list up to five friends of each sex, ordered from their best friends to more casual acquaintances. Fryer and Torelli's popularity index assigns popularity to a student based the number of students who list them as a friend, weighted by the popularity of each student. The weighting scheme ensures that if two students (A and B) have the same number of people who list them as friends, then student A will have a higher popularity index if his friends are more popular, meaning that more people list them as friends.

The resulting popularity indexes demonstrate that "the relationship between social status and achievement is categorically different between racial groups, a difference that is robust to changes in specifications, data sub-samples, and definitions of social status or achievement." At a GPA of roughly 2.5, racial differences begin to emerge, and Hispanic students lose popularity rapidly. Popularity peaks at a GPA of about 3.5 for black students. Whites continue to gain popularity as their grades increase. The social cost of "acting white" is more severe for black males than for black females. It is larger for blacks in public schools, but nonexistent for blacks in private schools, "a finding that may partially explain why black kids in private schools do especially well." Finally, the burden imposed for "acting white" is greater for students with more interracial contact. Blacks in more segregated schools "incur less of a tradeoff between popularity and achievement." The toll for "acting white" is "particul arly salient among high achievers and those in schools with more interracial contact."

The authors find that two of the most common explanations for black underachievement -- that white society holds talented blacks back so much that they develop coping devices that limit their striving for academic success, and that blacks sabotage their high achieving peers -- fail to explain the fact that academically excellent students of all races retain their popularity at segregated and private schools. Fryer and Torelli conclude that the patterns in their data accord best with a model in which investments in education are thought to be indicative of an individual's opportunity costs of peer group loyalty

-- Linda Gorman

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