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