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Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Acting White," Part II

This is the second post about my book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, published by Yale University Press on May 25, 2010.

As an initial matter, it might be useful to clarify the following.  Segregation was like a cancer. But a powerful anti-cancer drug may have side effects -- such as crippling nausea. You have to try to address the side effects, not sweep them under the carpet simply on the ground that anything is worth it to fight cancer. Nor, in the case of medicine, would anyone suggest that trying to address a side effect means that one is in favor of cancer. 

But in the case of public policy, people act as if the world is entirely black and white.  If you support a policy, it's all benefit and no cost; while an opposed policy is all cost and no benefit. Few political writers take a nuanced view of their subject: "This policy would deliver substantial and meaningful benefits, but the cost is even higher," or "the costs of this policy will be brutal, but the benefits are great enough to be worth it."

As a result, whenever readers come across someone who claims that a particular policy (say, desegregation) came at a substantial cost, many will immediately assume that the writer is an opponent of the policy. Knowing this tendency to misread and misinterpret, I made sure throughout the book to point out that desegregation was an overall benefit, and that I'm merely describing one bad side effect that should be addressed. 

Now on to the substance: When did "acting white" arise?  I found unanimous agreement among commentators and interviewees that it arose at the same time as desegregation, in the mid-1960s. 

The stage was set for this attitudinal shift once desegregation undermined one of the traditional centers of the black community: the school. In the segregated schools, black children had consistently seen other blacks succeeding in the academic world. The authority figures and role models–that is, the teachers and principals–were virtually always black.

A typical description of those days: “It was like a family. You knew all the children. You knew their parents, and they all had gone to the same school. We didn’t have the same resources that the white students had, but we had teachers who made sure you did the very best you could with what you had.” Another former student in a black school recalled, “They encouraged the fainthearted, and boosted the ego of the underachiever.” And the best students in black schools were black as well.

All of this ended with desegregation. Many black schools disappeared altogether: school boards all across the South closed or demolished black schools in pursuit of desegregation (or occasionally kept the school open while changing its name and status, so as to erase its historical connection to the black community). In North Carolina, for example, out of 226 all-black high schools in 1964, only 13 survived a mere 8 years later. Unsurprisingly, the number of black principals also dropped from 226 to 15.

Take Second Ward High School in Charlotte, NC. One resident told author David Shipler, “The principal was like our grandfather, an authoritative figure. . . . We didn’t have the best materials, but we had the best nurturing.” Says another graduate: “I don’t advocate segregated schools today. But there are attributes of that time that need to be in place today. Our teachers, they’d look at you, almost as if they were wanting to will a good education into your head.”

Figure 5.2

But Second Ward was demolished under a desegregation plan in Charlotte, and the black students were dispersed to white schools. Students were devastated. Said one person: “An institution was being closed. And not necessarily for progress, but because of integration. . . . Well, it was heartbreaking. It really was. It really was.” Another person said, “We thought that it was the utmost in betrayal.” A former teacher from Second Ward later said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

Posted by Stuart Buck on June 6, 2010 at 02:09 PM | Permalink

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Comments

How does "Acting White" relate to resegregation? Did Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" that continues to this day contribute to "Acting White"? With regard to describing "Acting White" as a "side effect," is it possible that it results from factors beyond the "medicine" of desegregation?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jun 6, 2010 3:55:47 PM

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