In many areas of life, different racial groups in the U.S. achieve unequal results. African-Americans earn less, are more likely to be in prison, are more often ill etc. So it’s no surprise that there’s an achievement gap in education as well.
At nine months old, there are no detectable cognitive differences between black and white babies. Differences emerge as early as age two, and by the time black children enter kindergarten they are lagging whites by 0.64 standard deviations in math and 0.40 in reading. On every subject at every grade level, there are large and important achievement differences between blacks and whites that continue to grow as children progress through school. Even accounting for a host of background factors, the achievement gap remains large and statistically significant. (source)
While the education gap seems to be closing, it remains wide. It’s likely that other multicultural societies face the same kind of problem. Racists have an obvious explanation: racial inferiority! Anti-racists have an equally obvious but more convincing explanation: racists! But apart from the effects of lingering racist discrimination there’s also a more interesting cause of the education gap: the stigma of “acting white“, causing minority students to suffer from the negative prejudices of their ethnic peers. Roland G. Fryer has looked at this, and found that it can explain a lot.
“Acting white” is a kind of negative peer pressure. Black peer communities impose costs on those members who are perceived to be “acting white” (or are trying to “act white”). The criticism of “acting white” and the costs imposed on those who are believed to “act white” lead to the avoidance of behavior that is seen as the traditional prerogative of whites. The avoided behavior can be quite harmless, for instance wearing clothes of a particular brand that is believed to be typical of whites, or giving your children certain “white” names. But the avoided behavior can also undermine people’s education, for example when people are discouraged to use standard English, to read books or to achieve high grades. (And even the seemingly harmless habit of giving your kids “black” names can result in harm. It’s known, for instance, the employers regularly discriminate people with “black” names while processing job applications).
The individuals exposed to all these kinds of negative peer pressure have a disincentive to invest in their education. They deliberately underachieve in order to avoid social sanctions. Naturally, the degree of the disincentive depends on the nature and the level of the costs imposed: those costs can be the threat of rejection, ridicule etc. Different people will suffer different costs and will perceive the gravity of the costs differently, but as long as there is a perceived trade-off between acceptance and authenticity on the one hand and achievement on the other, there will also be an achievement gap.
Fryer measures the impact of the stigma using social popularity, number of friends and friendship patterns plotted against school grades. His results clearly show an inverse relationship between grades and popularity for non-whites.
Not surprisingly, the effect of “acting white” is more severe in integrated schools than in predominantly black schools. The reason is the higher level of competition between communities and the perceived threats between groups:
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. (source)
This explanation of the causes of the “acting white” stigma, based on the desire of groups to preserve their identity in the face of external threats to their internal coherence, is more convincing that the two major alternative explanations:
- Blacks have developed a culture of investing themselves in alternative pursuits rather than in education because historically academic achievement was the prerogative of whites. This explanation reeks of historical determinism.
- Blacks have developed a culture of “victimology” and deliberately engage in cultural sabotage. This explanation can be perceived as racist.
“Acting white” explains a lot but surely not everything. It’s likely that the racial poverty and income gaps also contribute to the education gap, as do patterns in family structure, incarceration rates of black fathers, school quality etc. Stereotype threat can also play a part. As well as some good ol’ racism, of course.