If only they’d stop being so black, says Gruen

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.

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Des Griffin
Des Griffin
15 years ago

It is always worrying when economists wander off to areas which they don’t necessarily know much about and draw conclusions from a few statistics. Surely Gruen knows that this is an area of enormous debate and considerable research. An outstanding article on the subject is “Must Schools Fail?” by Richard Rothstein in the New York Review of Books Volume 51, Number 19 “

Chris
Chris
15 years ago

There seems to be an assumption here that to criticize a particular aspect of a group’s culture is to to criticize it as a whole. And that to change one aspect means that the group would have to totally abandon all of their cultural preferences in exchange for another groups culture.

I don’t think its unreasonable to believe that all cultures have aspects which are undesireable. And decades of oppression would probably leave most most groups with cultural norms which cause social problems.

In many cases, in integrated schools racial groups are going to stick together which may explain why the effect of “acting white” is more visible there. In non integrated schools, there is more chance of having a critical mass of students who are more interested in academic achievement and are able to form their own group.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Don,

Hang on, hang on, hang on.

I can see how what I wrote was read in the way it was, but I wasn’t seeking to errect some monolithic ‘black culture’ which explains black disadvantage and which (therefore?) needs to be got out of black people. I used the expression “the culture of groups that do badly in our society”. I did also use the expression ‘black’s culture’ a little later in the post, but had no intention of implying what you take me to be implying. We all have to use words, and they’re very imperfect instruments.

The idea I was trying to convey – and did speak to – is cultural adaptations amongst those who don’t do well in the society. Elsewhere I made it clear that I saw this as not exculsively black, or working class or whatever – as I saw it occuring in front of my own eyes, with a certain psychology driving it, rather than any class or racial characteristics.

I said virtually nothing about the policy implications of these phenomena, other than that they made one much less optimistic, that they suggested progress would often be difficult.

It didn’t seem to me to be appropriate to talk about policy implications since I didn’t know much about the area. But since you’ve suggested that I really want these people to be less black, or to have less black culture, (and thrown in your own suggestion that more blackness might be in order) let me say that I think both approaches would involve wild extrapolation from the data.

By way of illustration if I’d guessed at some solution it would involve strategies in schools trying to target the problem (which is stigmatisation of certain kinds of achievement). That might be done with more, less or no change in the degree of integration or acceptance of other aspects of ‘black culture’. (There I go again!). And as I said (and in a way was more interested in, because it is closer to my own experience) the phenomenon of peer group hostility to high achievers from a culture of low achievement is quite apparent (or was when I looked round at school) without race coming into it.

I think it is unfortunate that the debate gets so quickly drawn into left/right cliches oriented around integration versus self-determination, more and less black culture. It isn’t addressing the specific problem and keeps us all comfortable lobbing grenades into opposing trenches.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

FWIW, I read Nicholas’ post and have no doubt that what he’s trying to do is wrestle with some difficult issues in good faith, but conversely I think Don’s critique of the interpretation of the data is valuable.

There you go, conciliatory niceness instead of stoushing :)

David Tiley
15 years ago

But.. but.. people have analysed peer group pressure to explain why girls do better than boys at school. If you are a short, clumsy nerd like me, you have direct experience of peer group values at school in just this way.

So yes, it is a truism to say that dominant cultural values in adolescent communities work against gratification-delaying success. Those groups can be constituted around whatever poles are available, based on class and gender and ethnicity. Whatever is around – cars works pretty well in some communities. You would not assume that race has any special role, would you?

Given that we know the power of peer group pressure – particularly if that pressure is media validated as the US culture of rebellion is – it would be interesting to look at the role of parents. It used to be fashionable to argue that British working class communities wanted their kids to “know their place”, and to get a trade, thus resisting a post war trend to meritocracy. So if you think that a locally dominate race-based culture is doing this, it should be detectable through the influence of parents on kids.

I guess with no proof that the opposite is true. That parents encourage their kids to succeed, no matter which race-based culture we are talking about here. The ethnic group can be important because the community has a large number of dysfunctional families, subject to historical poverty traps etc etc etc.

So what we could be talking about is the extent to which parents manage to keep their kids on the straight and narrow of achievement. We all know in our families how many factors affect that.

After all, we could look at the amazing way in which the athletic achievement of the children of middle class families falls off in the last two years of high school. We wouldn’t even waste the brain space to propose that this is a function of being White.

But it surely does show that these parents control their kids, locked in very closely with schools focused on uni entry scores.

This is not some namby-pamby attempt to say that race or collective cultural self-belief doesn’t matter. Instead, I am playing with the idea that the mechanisms of peer group influence depend on many things more important than the behaviour or beliefs of certain ethnicities, even though they play into those notions. Gangsta rap is a good example.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Yep, I agree with you David. Race gets tangled up in there, as you would expect – everything gets tangled up in the story. But race wasn’t really the point of my post, but rather its prompt. After all, I’m not very familiar with the issues raised by race in US high schools. But I know about peer group pressure.

Someone once explained how George Orwell could write so well about totalitarianism without having lived in a totalitarian country. The answer – he went to Eton didn’t he?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

And not just Eton — the BBC during the war. At the time his wife Eileen was working in the BBC’s Censorship Department. He’d have seen propaganda first hand.

In 1942, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell wrote in his diary “We are all drowing in filth… I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the earth”.

David Tiley
15 years ago

Let’s not forget Burma and Catalonia. He got some great triangulation on the problem.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Well yes, but I’ve worked in places that were as bad as the BBC in WWII (I venture to suggest) but the place that gave me insights into totalitarianism was being an adolescent at high school.

Andrew Leigh
15 years ago

As a latecomer to this debate, my quibble is not with Don and Nicholas, but with Des. Economists have a lot to add to this area – first, their use of formal models helps a lot in thinking systematically about the problem (I’ve listened to plenty of sociologists and economists talk about this, and it’s amazing how much a few lines of algebra can help focus one’s thinking). And second, econometrics does much better at thinking about problems like selection effects and interaction effects than sociology (the Rothstein/Ogbu approach is predominantly descriptive). The adage that “sociologists come up with great questions, economists come up with great answers” is an overstatement; but it does contain a kernel of truth.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Yikes, Andrew!

In defence of sociology – Ogbu is an anthropologist and lots of sociologists do numbers too :)