I don’t often violently disagree with Nicholas Gruen. But in a recent Troppo post he argues that disadvantaged groups like America’s black population are held back by their culture not just by a lack of opportunity. As evidence of this Nicholas points to a recent NBER paper by Roland G. Fryer and Paul Torelli. I think Nicholas misinterprets the findings and in doing so further stigmatises black Americans.
Fryer and Torelli find that black and Hispanic students who earn high grades are less popular with other students while white students face no social penalty for success. It seems as if high ability black and Hispanic students are holding themselves back in response to peer group pressure.
For Nicholas this raises a more general question "…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"? He goes on to say:
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.
The major problem with Nicholas’s interpretation is that it’s not supported by the study he cites or by the researchers who conducted it. In an article for the Hoover Institution’s Education Next Roland Fryer sets out his hypothesis:
In an achievement-based society where two groups, for historical reasons, achieve at noticeably different levels, the group with lower achievement levels is at risk of losing its most successful members, especially in situations where successful individuals have opportunities to establish contacts with outsiders. Over the long run, the group faces the danger that its most successful members will no longer identify with its interests, and group identity will itself erode. To forestall such erosion, groups may try to reinforce their identity by penalizing members for differentiating themselves from the group. The penalties are likely to increase whenever the threats to group cohesion intensify.
Fryer’s hypothesis is quite different to Nicholas’s. In another paper on ‘acting white’ co-written with David Austen-Smith (pdf) Fryer makes it clear that "nothing should be ascribed to the inherent values, preferences, or ideologies of particular groups who are plagued by this insidious form of social interaction."
In contrast to Fryer and his co-authors, Nicholas argues that ‘black culture’ places less value on educational achievement than the dominant culture. Supporters of ‘culture of poverty’ theories often argue that, in the past, oppression and discrimination made success difficult or impossible for some groups. Since members of the oppressed group couldn’t succeed against the dominant group’s norms of success they created their own norms — norms they could successfully adhere to. By creating an alternative set of norms and values it was possible to retain self-respect in a hostile society. The trouble comes when the barriers to achievement are lifted and opportunities become more equal. According to this version of the culture of poverty thesis, oppositional norms and values linger on long after the barriers to opportunity have crumbled. They linger on because they have become embedded in the culture, not because they are a rational, self-interested response to the environment.
If this was what was happening with the students in Fryer and Torelli’s study you’d expect to find the strongest effect in schools with fewer cross-ethnic friendships — schools where black students were least likely to form friendships with white and Hispanic students. In these schools black students would be most firmly embedded in ‘black culture’ and most exposed to oppositional norms. This isn’t what Fryer and Torelli found. Fryer reports that:
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!
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 under-achievement was the result of conformity with black cultural norms you might expect the effects be most intense in segregated environments. If you wanted to see authentic Greek culture in action you’d go to Greece not Melbourne. In the same way you’d expect to see the most authentic expressions of ‘black culture’ in black-only social environments.
Another problematic finding for Nicholas’s thesis is 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 friendships if ‘black culture’ was to blame?
One of the most damaging and insulting things that advantaged groups do to disadvantaged groups is to blame their status on culture. The idea is that if only blacks, migrants or indigenous people would give up their own cultural identity and adopt that of the dominant group, then their disadvantage would evaporate. These explanations are often well-intentioned but whatever the intent the effects are the same.
Fryer and Torelli’s ‘acting white’ hypothesis makes no claims about black culture. And for it to work it must assume and underlying disadvantage — a disadvantage that needs to be explained through some other mechanism. If black and Hispanic students as a group were able to achieve at the same level as white students the problem wouldn’t arise. Fryer doesn’t claim that blacks and Hispanics have a cultural preference for low academic achievement.