Racism (15): Does the Stigma of “Acting White” Explain the Racial Achievement Gap in Education in the U.S.?

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.

The Causes of Poverty (35): The Membership Theory of Poverty

When you read about the causes of poverty you’ve probably convinced yourself that there are causes, and that the poor don’t have only themselves to blame. What you’re most likely to find are the following causes:

  • culture
  • geography, climate, resources (most notably in the work of Jeffrey Sachs)
  • institutional, political and governmental causes (e.g. the resource curse, the role of the rule of law and economic freedom etc.)
  • education
  • sociological causes (e.g. family structure)
  • etc.

It’s less common to find discussions about group affiliation as a cause of poverty. The group membership theory of poverty states that some people are poor because of the dynamics of the group(s) to which they belong. The groups may be residential areas (“ghettos”), schools, ethnic groups, workplaces etc. Poverty in this sense is “contagious”, hereditary, and self-perpetuating. It’s an example of a poverty trap.

This membership theory of poverty has a certain intuitive appeal to it. Group membership influences individual behavior and individual outcomes in various ways, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see that it influences economic status as well.

How do groups exert a negative influence over their members’ economic status? Peer pressure plays a role. The choices of some members of the group become the “natural” thing to do. The desire for social acceptance can force individuals to mimic their peers. Something similar occurs with role models. The behavior of older group members or members with some form of authority becomes standard behavior. Furthermore, when people witness high rates of failure among members, this will negatively affect their aspirations and effort. Finally, social and economic activities are highly complementary. When few group members start businesses for example, few other members will have the opportunity to work for them or trade with them. Conversely, when many members engage in economically destructive activities such as crime, other members may have no other economic opportunity than to collaborate.

You may ask, if groups are so bad, why don’t people just get out? Of course, it’s not always as easy as that. When you live in a crime infested ghetto, you don’t just move uptown. People will need some form of help. In order to break negative group dynamics, you can either work on these dynamics themselves (provide better education, crime protection, economic opportunities, affirmative action schemes etc.), or you can try to influence the prior group affiliation. How do people end up in a harmful group in the first place? There may be some room for government intervention. There’s the example of school desegregation through busing in the U.S. (not highly successful however). Governments can also tweak their social housing policies. Such policies are often called associational redistribution. One should be careful, however, not to cause harm elsewhere. There’s still a right to freedom of association and a right to privacy. Governments shouldn’t mess too much with group membership.

If you want to read more about the membership theory of poverty, I recommend two papers by Steven Durlauf, here and here. Those papers also contain an overview of the empirical evidence.