There is a problem. On that, nearly everyone agrees. But to what forces should one attribute the black-white achievement gap? Sometimes it seems everyone has a confident opinion. Explanations for the persistent gap in education achievement between African-American and white students range from a decline in personal responsibility among black Americans, to unenlightened education policy, to lazy teachers, to entrenched poverty.
This brief from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School concerns itself with one of the most sensitive and most ubiquitous explanations for the black-white gap in school achievement: the so-termed “burden of acting white.” For more than two decades, a range of people— pundits, educators on the ground in urban schools, and academics in the ivory tower— have contended that for the black student, the punishment for educational success is social ostracism among one’s black peers. Thus, the theory goes, high performing black students, fearing the charge of “acting white,” will refrain from excelling. It is a powerful idea. However, after more than twenty years since its scholarly introduction, there is still no broad consensus as to whether or not such a phenomenon accounts for any portion of the black-white achievement gap.
Simply put, some people argue that an “acting white” mindset is rampant among black youth, especially among young men, and that such attitudes are a major cause of differences in school achievement between black and white students. Others disagree, pointing to data that seem to dispel such ideas. This research brief attempts to summarize the literature and objectively discern whether or not the fear of “acting white” is a phenomenon hampering the eradication of the black-white achievement gap. What we find, not surprisingly, is that the
data remain deeply inconsistent on this question. Careful consideration of existing evidence cannot support the conclusion that the “acting white” phenomenon does not exist. Neither, however, does existing evidence support the widely held notion that the “acting white” phenomenon as described in the research literature explains any portion of the black-white achievement gap.
The research literature on this question is instructive nonetheless. It leads to clear and useful recommendations for educators who work with African American youth; national, state and local policymakers; and members of the media who have the power to shape and moderate discourse and debate on race, youth and education in the United States.
Before we synthesize the “acting white” research, let’s first map out the much-maligned achievement gap that the fear of “acting white” purportedly explains. During elementary and secondary school, blacks, overall, score lower on mathematics and reading tests than their white counterparts. Even comparing children with similar test scores one or two grades earlier, blacks score lower in mathematics and reading than white children. There is, for instance, a black-white achievement gap in reading for students in the second grade even between students who scored similarly one year before. Likewise, there is a gap for children in the fifth grade for children with similar math scores two years prior and in the ninth grade for children with similar math scores two years before that. There is a congruent pattern in achievement gaps for reading scores.
Other data hint that the achievement gap in mathematics might narrow during elementary school years and then widen during junior high school ending with little movement during high school. The black-white reading gap also differs over time, but not consistently. In general, data intimate that the black-white achievement gap widens as students proceed from elementary to secondary school.
Generally, people on the right tend to lay blame for the achievement gap at the foot of black America’s collective doorstep. A breakdown in the black household and a culture that deemphasizes educational achievement, some commentators claim, engendered this gap. The same commentators often also blame the nation’s educational establishment. Conservative commentators, especially, fault what they consider the ineptitude of public school educators, including teachers’ unions who, the right claims, block education reform.
The arguments from the left, however, are more complex. While often acknowledging that communities of color, collectively, have agency over their children’s scholastic success, more progressive commentators reserve ire for inadequate schooling opportunities and/or the larger social conditions of increasing poverty, rising economic insecurity and other ills, such as racial and economic segregation and mass incarceration, that affect families, children and the schools they attend. In essence, the conclusion from the left is that black students don’t get an equal opportunity; they aren’t given the resources or provided the conditions required for them to reach their full potential.
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