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Why Do Journalists Love Shaky Science on Race?

Let me preface this post by saying that I am predisposed to believe that peer effects influence students' success. But I am consistently frustrated that journalists pick up, run with, and extrapolate from poorly executed studies on the topic of "acting white" or "acting Black." Let's walk through two examples from the last month:

1) I've now seen two articles on this mess of a study published in Professional School Counseling. The articles feature headlines like, "Having a best friend of a different race can make a big difference in the academic achievement of black and Hispanic high school students, according to a University of Arkansas study." The study compared the achievement of students with same-race and different race best friends, and found that kids with different race best friends do better in school.

Never mind the well-known finding in the friendship selection literature that birds of a feather flock together - that is, kids self-select into friendships. Is it any wonder that kids choose friends of similar achievement levels, and that given current distributions of achievement and patterns of tracking and school segregation, higher achieving African-American and Hispanic kids are probabilisitcally more likely to choose a different race best friend if they are selecting friends with similar achievement levels?

Yet the authors appear totally oblivious to the causal inference problems raised by their study, and are ready to design interventions around these findings: "The researchers suggested that school counselors 'could create opportunities for students to interact with other students from different racial backgrounds in the hopes that they might develop friendships over time.' Peer mentoring programs could be one way to introduce struggling students from various racial groups to academically successful students of other racial groups." I'm all for creating spaces to nurture interracial friendships (though this is hard to do when kids attend racially isolated schools?!), but I wouldn't hold my breath on their achievement effects.

2) Consider the Ed Week article, Gifted Black Pupils Found Pressured to Underperform, which leads with, "Gifted black students who underperform in school may do so because of peer pressure to 'act black,' according to new research published this month in the journal Urban Education." (HT: Robert Pondiscio) The study, based on surveys of 166 gifted black students, asked students whether "they have ever heard the phrases 'acting white' or 'acting Black,'" among other questions.

Given how widespread pop conversations about these terms have been for the last 25 years, the authors unsurprisingly found that students associate the phrase "acting White" with school achievement, intelligence, and positive school behaviors and attitudes; most attribute acting Black to negative school achievement, low intelligence, and poor behaviors and attitudes. Furthermore, based on questions about being teased, the authors contend that gifted black students face peer pressure to perform poorly. The study did not link students' attitudes to student achievement, and did not compare these gifted students' experiences with high-achieving white students' experiences (who also report high rates of teasing - see here and here). Furthermore, the authors did not ask these students about their own racial identities, which are more likely to be associated with their own achievement. Yet the authors conclude with confidence, "this can and does contribute to the achievement gap." But the authors conducted no analyses linking achievment to students' attitudes about acting white or black!

We could invoke the standard explanation that journalists don't understand research, but there is plenty of research (bad and good) on structural causes of achievement gaps (i.e. boring stuff like prenatal care) that receives much less coverage. Journalists need a story that gels with the commonly accepted narrative about inequality, which focuses on individual responsibility for success and failure (see Americans' Attitudes on Inequality). Culture is much easier to write about than structure - the reasons why black kids show up to kindergarten .4-.6 standard deviations behind white kids don't translate into a chatty crowd-pleasing story about why school isn't cool (HT: Joanne Jacobs).

What do you think? Are "acting white/acting black" stories over-reported?

From my experience as a former teacher of primarily low-income black and Hispanic students, I have to say that I noticed a definite negative attitude toward school and academic achievement in minority peer culture. They also often held negative attitudes toward school authority figures, including teachers.

However, I never personally witnessed black students teasing another student for "acting white" (with those exact words). It was more of an overall negative attitude. These students also seemed to see less of a connection between academic achievement and later financial success than their suburban peers.

However, for all of their negative peer influences, I believe that deep down most of these students really wanted to succeed, and were embarrassed when they received poor grades or failed state achievement tests. It's a shame we can't translate that attitude into more concrete scholastic achievement.

No one is saying that you can't talk about "structure," whatever that means, or about the initial achievement gap seen in kindergarten. But by the same token, that achievement gap grows throughout the school years, and it goes against everything we know about human nature (or that we can remember from our own childhoods) to suggest that peer attitudes don't make any difference.

These stories are certainly a lightening rod--and they support some rampant mythology about why its gotta be anything else but the stuff that we could change in school.

A good context for examination is Ronald Ferguson's work, which is pretty extensive and has focused for some time on the factors that impact achievement of African-American youth--particularly middle class (where that excuse is removed). He, I believe, finds little difference in the aspirations or the value attached to education (it may even be higher among blacks--cannot recall). He does find some disparity with regard to the amount of "effort" that goes into things like homework, where the young blacks report a higher level of effort with a smaller payback.

Stuart, I'm not questioning that peers matter, as I say in the first sentence - but rather pointing out that terribly executed studies on this topic seem to make their way into the media, and it's a disservice to this line of research to tout their findings as evidence of this phenomenon.

Fair point. But if I recall, your previous series on "acting white" suggested that it's a "fiction," which strikes me as a very selective view of the evidence. Indeed, that view rested on what seems to be the same fault of which you complain here -- it treated "acting white" as having been shown to be a "fiction" by a study that relied on self-reported information (Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey), a book by Prudence Carter that rested on interviews with 56 black kids in New York (no claim that they were randomly selected), and by a limited ethnography in North Carolina that didn't even ask kids about "acting white" at all!

These things may be labeled "studies" but they are no less anecdotal than the news story to which Joanne Jacobs linked.

Actually, I think the "school isn't cool" attitude transcends race -- though perhaps among minority kids it's phrased in terms of race, and among white kids it's phrased in terms of dorkiness.

Rachel--so black kids think white kids are dorks?

I don't think "dorkiness" is a white or black thing. Any student seen to be actively trying to achieve in school (doing their homework, asking questions) is considered a "dork" by their peers. This is at least the case in the school I work in: predominantly white, but very...rural.

In my experience in the classroom teaching low-income African-American and Latino students for over a decade I have seen some of this mentality, but not as much as some would have us believe. Granted, all schools in all cultures have their "nerds" who get teased for being overly wonky or bookish, but the "acting white" phenomenon is overblown. I fear that it has had legs for so long because it agrees with the stereotypes white people hold of what black kids are like.

Of even greater importance is the fact that a strong classroom culture, and particularly a strong school-wide culture, can diminish and possibly even eliminate such anti-intellectualism. There's an extent to which kids will be kids, but a school with a strong culture of academics has a dramatic impact on how its students talk about learning.

Let me agree with the others who've said that anti-school sentiments prevail across all racial and ethnic groups.

Stuart, yes, I still contend that the key predictions of Ogbu and Fordham's theory have little empirical support (see http://eduwonkette2.blogspot.com/2007/11/evidence-is-there-acting-white.html), which is not inconsistent with my view that peers matter. What I'm contesting is that "the burden of acting white" explains a significant portion of the black-white achievement gap, and Fryer's work supports this view. From my previous post:

Fryer found that for the average black student, eliminating the popularity/GPA relationship would actually increase the black-white test score gap. (This is because black students with low GPAs are more popular than white students with low GPAs.) For black students with GPAs of 3.5 or greater, eliminating the popularity/GPA relationship would explain 11.3% of the black-white achievement gap.

One more thing I forgot - Stuart, you suggest my previous post provided a selective view of the evidence - can you say more about which studies I'm missing?

1. Fryer's work probably provides a lower bound, as he defines "acting white" as only the drop in popularity experienced as GPA rises above 3.5. His method doesn't speak to whether there are kids who currently get a 2.4 but who could have gotten a 3.4 if they had really tried (and I'm not aware of any empirical methodology that can really measure the full extent of that phenomenon -- which doesn't mean it doesn't exist). Fryer himself isn't very comfortable with estimating an effect size there.

2. Here are some of the studies that have examined the "acting white" phenomenon. Some are case studies or ethnographies; probably none approach the exacting rigor of a randomized survey. But then, a lot of kids wouldn't be honest in answering a randomized survey, and the rest probably wouldn't be able to articulate their inner motivations, which is what leads me to believe that "acting white" -- or cultural attitudes in general -- has a larger effect than anyone could ever empirically pin down. How do you ever measure, "What could this kid have accomplished in an alternate universe in which his peers acted differently?"

Nobody is saying that "acting white" is the whole explanation. At the same time, NOTHING is the whole explanation -- for example, if you control for poverty, there's still an achievement gap. Does that mean no one is ever allowed to talk about poverty? Obviously not. It doesn't make any sense to suggest that we can't talk about factors that are 10% or 20% of the achievement gap, because then we literally couldn't talk about anything at all.

The references:

Donna Y. Ford, “An Investigation of the Paradox of Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students,” Roeper Review 16 no. 2 (1993): 78-84.

Donna Y. Ford, “Determinants of Underachievement as Perceived by Gifted, Above-Average, and Average Black Students,” Roeper Review 14 no. 3 (1992): 130-136.

Donna Y. Ford, “Underachievement Among Gifted and Non-Gifted Black Females,” Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Winter 1994/1995: 165-175.

Jan Collins-Eaglin and Stuart A. Karabenick, “Devaluing of Academic Success by African-American Students: On ‘Acting White’ and ‘Selling Out.’” Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, Georgia, 12-16 April 1993.

Laurence Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need To Do (New York: Touchstone, 1996). This book reports the results of a multi-year study that surveyed some 20,000 high school students as well as hundreds of parents and teachers. Quote: “we heard variations on the ‘acting White’ theme many, many times over the course of our interviews with high school students.”

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson and Anne E. Velasco, “Bring it On! Diverse Responses to ‘Acting White’ among Academically Able Black Adolescents,” in Beyond Acting White: Reframing the Debate on Black Student Achievement, Erin McNamara Horvat and Carla O’Connor, eds. (Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2006).

Ronald F. Ferguson, “New Evidence on Why Black High Schoolers Get Accused of ’Acting White’,” at p. 2, available at http://agi.harvard.edu/events/download.php?id=104.

Annette Hemmings, “The ‘Hidden’ Corridor,” High School Journal, 83 no. 2 (Dec. 1, 1999): 1.

Angela M. Neal-Barnett, “Being Black: New Thoughts on the Old Phenomenon of Acting White,” in Forging Links: African American Children, Clinical Developmental Perspectives, Angela M. Neal-Barnett, Josefina M. Contreras, & Kathryn A. Kerns, eds. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), p. 82;

Tarek C. Grantham and Donna Y. Ford, “A Case Study of the Social Needs of Danisha: An Underachieving Gifted African-American Female,” Roeper Review, 21 no. 2 (1998);

Grace Kao, “Group Images and Possible Selves Among Adolescents: Linking Stereotypes to Expectations by Race and Ethnicity,” Sociological Forum 15 no. 3 (2000): 407-30;

Amanda Datnow and Robert Cooper, “Peer networks of African American students in independent schools: Affirming academic success and racial identity,” Journal of Negro Education 66 no.1 (1997): 56-72.

Karolyn Tyson, “The Making of a ‘Burden’: Tracing the Development of a ‘Burden of Acting White’ in Schools,” in Beyond Acting White: Reframing the Debate on Black Student Achievement, Erin McNamara Horvat and Carla O’Connor, eds., (Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2006), p. 57.

David A. Bergin and Helen C. Cooks, “High School Students of Color Talk About Accusations of ‘Acting White,’” The Urban Review 34, no. 2 (2002): 113-134.

And there's the first academic work to discuss "acting white," although not in precisely those terms. Frank A. Petroni, Ernest Hirsch, and C. Lillian Petroni, 2, 4, 6, 8: When You Gonna Integrate? (New York: Behavioral Publications, 1970). This book was by sociologists who studied a desegregated school in depth; the book was named after a pro-desegregation chant. There are numerous passages like the following: "derogatory attitudes are particularly noticeable toward blacks, who . . . try to compete with white students for academic honors, school offices, and roles in extracurricular activities. . . . The black student who enters these activities is called a ‘white nigger’ or an ‘Uncle Tom’ by other blacks.”

I'm enjoying much of this discussion. But, what is the purpose of this discussion?

Please think of all of the great novelists, White and Black, who have explored the nuances of race in America.

Perhaps the purpose of this discussion is to determine whether the great writers were racists?

As absurd as that would be, isn't there an implicit debate here, of whether or not teachers are racist?

Education is as complex as all of humanity. I have had so many conversations about these issues with students. Ordinarily, we solve the world's problems in no time flat. But when discussing the legacy of oppression, race, family, poverty, values etc., danged if we can't ever find answers. But as long as we're talking, its all good.


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