Acting tough, acting white: the culture of the disadvantaged and the perpetuation of disadvantage?

David Gruen (distantly related by fraternity)1 sent me the following abstract from a recent NBER working paper. In it some econometrics is done on a phenomenon that (I believe) was first discussed seriously in American sociology in the mid to late 50s (you’d expect economics to be one of the last disciplines to catch onto it, but in these days when Nobel Prizes are handed out for ‘behavioural finance’ and Steve Levitt is lionised for turning up no end of interesting (and sometimes socially important) statistical results, it’s open slather, and the economists are econometrically testing their little heads off.)

The issue is, to what extent does the culture of groups that do badly in our society hold them back as opposed to a simpler kind of (mostly material and institutional) lack of opportunity. The study relates to the effect of peer presssure on academic achievement by blacks in schools, but for me it’s a prompt to much more general issues.

1This comment signifies nothing other than my preparedness to unashamedly plagiarise. I once heard Molly Missen in a debate in which she described herself as distantly related to Senator Alan Missen by marriage.

Here’s the abstract.

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 “particularly 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.

As with all things to do with equality of opportunity this is heavily contested ground. My own presumption when approaching such things is that the culture of those who do badly is likely to have a lot to do with their doing badly. This doesn’t generally lead me to the conclusion that I don’t want to (or my society shouldn’t) do more to assist. Nor does it (necessarily) undermine my sympathy. In the example cited below, blacks’ culture is not only an understandable adaptation to the difficulties that blacks face. I fully respect their defence of their own dignity in developing a culture which values things other than what the dominant culture deems they have failed at.

Apart from asserting their dignity, the culture of oppressed classes has created glorious new cultural possibilities. We owe almost all popular music beginning with the blues or negro spirituals if you want to go back further though to rap. (Either that or maybe blacks really have just got more rhythm.)

Be that as it may it’s important to understand the role of culture in differing social and material outcomes because without such an understanding those seeing current outcomes as problems to be solved (which they may well be) might be more inclined to think that they’re easy to solve. They’re usually far from easy. Culture is self-replicating and often tenacious.

The issue seems to me to be ubiquitous. One issue that was raised by at least one woman in comments on my posts on the gender division of household labour was how much interaction between women can perpetuate various things that feminists are unhappy about? And of course the phenomenon can operate along lines of class, gender, race or any other thing that divides people. In the case of the phenomenon identified below, I noticed it in my own schooling quite independently of race (or necessarily class) that kids who didn’t do well gravitated towards the cliques which had cultures which didn’t value that kind of achievement (and no-doubt causation also ran the other way).

Anyway, the finding that private schools overcome the culture problem is not that surprising. The presence of kids in private schools suggests that at least their parents have bought into the idea of success as defined by the dominant culture and they’ve put their money where their mouth is which gives them further incentive to try to prevent their kids screwing up their efforts and the kids will generally get the message that it’s serious that sacrifices have been made and therefore are worth making to do well as the world sees it.

Of course it’s both encouraging and depressing. Encouraging because it suggests a way out of the ghetto to those with parents who have the income and/or can manage the sacrifice of the private school fees. Deeply depressing because the pool of despair may well grow deeper for those left behind.

Anyway, I’d be interested in others’ views on the many issues raised.

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Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Nicholas, I’ve just done a quick literature search which suggests that educational psychologists and sociologists have been highly critical of the “Acting White” thesis – on both empirical and conceptual grounds. I don’t have time at the moment to read the articles properly, so I’ll just note that at the moment. I’ve taken the liberty of emailing you a few of the papers.

15 years ago

Cultural and institutional factors are very much under the microscope at the moment and the only reason that more attention has not been paid to them in the past has been the unhelpful nature of most sociological theories.
David McClelland pursued a remarkable program of cross cultural research on entrepreneurship and economic development that he reported in his book The Achieving Society. This is the table of contents.
Another helpful link

Ron Brunton
Ron Brunton
15 years ago

Nicholas, Are you familiar with the book by the black Berkeley academic John McWhorter, ‘Losing the race: self-sabotage in Black America’, which discusses what he calls ‘the cult of anti-intellectualism’ amongst other contributors to academic under-achievement among blacks? It came out about 5 years ago, and despite generating a lot of controversy in the US, seemed to be ignored here, even though it contained much of potential relevance to Aborigines in Australia.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

No, not that it’s entirely imagined, Nicholas.

A quick read of the articles suggest that the thesis as originally articulated (by an anthropologist) rests on something called “cultural ecology theory” – some are sceptical of that. Others point out that there is empirical evidence that this differs according to income, and that Black girls are read out of the picture as research tends to focus on Black boys (the former do much better at school), and some query – again on the basis of their own empirical studies – whether or not it captures all Black peer groups.

Anyway, I’m not saying the phenomenon doesn’t occur. Just that we shouldn’t accept it uncritically and should be open to empirical evidence that modifies it, and look to possible flaws in the theoretical assumptions.

As to my own experience, I went to primary school in a middle class Brisbane suburb in the 70s which was as far as I recall 100% white and almost entirely Anglo/Scottish in ethnicity (all the kids with Irish surnames went to the Convent!). My mum moved when I started high school to what was then a more working class suburb, and the High School I attended had a couple of Indigenous students, and significant populations of Italian and Vietnamese kids. The Vietnamese kids weren’t at all integrated into the school culture, and people used to dislike the fact that they did well at maths. As to “toughs”, there wasn’t any ethnic difference as far as I could see. The whole school ethos was very blokey and the pinnacle of achievement was to be on the A Grade Rugby League team. So there was certainly that phenomenon happening. I managed to bridge the divide in Grade 11 by starting to go out to nightclubs with some of the footballers and demonstrating that I could outdrink them. This made up for my lack of sporting prowess and my surfeit of academic prowess. So I had a very good social life in Grades 11 and 12.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

"I fully respect their defence of their own dignity in developing a culture which values things other than what the dominant culture deems they have failed at."

Nicholas, take another look at the Fryer and Torelli study — I don’t think the data supports your interpretation.

If ‘black culture’ placed a negative value on academic achievement then you’d expect the effect to be strongest in schools with fewer cross-ethnic friendships — schools where black students were less likely to form friendships with white and hispanic students. In these schools you’d expect that black students would be more firmly in the grip of ‘black culture.’ But this isn’t what Fryer and Torelli found.

In this paper Fryer reports that "Black and Hispanic students with a GPA above 3.5 actually have fewer cross-ethnic friendships than those with lower grades". Why would high achieving black students have fewer non-black and friends if ‘black culture’ was to blame? And why this finding:

Blacks in less-integrated schools (places with fewer than expected cross-ethnic friendships) encounter less of a trade-off between popularity and achievement. In fact, the effect of acting white on popularity appears to be twice as large in the more-integrated (racially mixed) schools as in the less-integrated ones. Among the highest achievers (3.5 GPA or higher), the differences are even more stark, with the effect of acting white almost five times as great in settings with more cross-ethnic friendships than expected. Black males in such schools fare the worst, penalized seven times as harshly as my estimate of the average effect of acting white on all black students!

And what about the finding for segregated schools. Fryer says that "acting white is unique to those schools where black students comprise less than 80 percent of the student population. In predominantly black schools, I find no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity." If this was about conformity with ethnic culture wouldn’t the effects be most intense in segregated environments?

Your interpretation of the findings suggests that policy makers should try to integrate black students into the mainstream culture — to try to persuade them to stop being so ‘black’. It seems to me that Fryer’s interpretation leads in the other direction. He argues that the underlying cause is that other black students fear that high achieving students will will no longer identify with the group’s interests and the black identity will erode.

If you accept Fryer’s interpretation the best solution is to take steps to strengthen group cohesion — to make sure that high achieving students retain their black identity. The answer is more black culture rather than less.


[…] In the researches set off by Don Arthur’s critique of my article on ‘acting tough’ I came upon Keiran Healy’s excellent review on Crooked Timber of Steven Levitt’sFreakonomics. I’d actually raved about the symposium they’d held at the time, but reserved Healy’s review for subsequent reading