« Paging Dr. Mengele: Medical Experimentation and the CIA Detainees | Main | The "lost Thurgood Marshall interview" »

Monday, June 07, 2010

"Acting White," Part III

This is the third post about my book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, published by Yale University Press on May 25, 2010. In this post, I briefly explain why desegregation would have led some black students to feel alienated from the "white" world of school.

After desegregation, many black children were taught by white teachers who disliked them, did not care about their success, underestimated their capabilities, or–at the opposite extreme–coddled them out of guilt. Even when the white teachers did everything right, the black schoolchildren still, for the first time, faced the possibility of seeing “school” as a place where success equaled seeking the approval of whites.

Black schoolchildren, now dispersed into formerly all-white schools, suddenly had to deal with unfriendly classmates on a day-to-day basis. School was no longer a place where black children could avoid interacting with racist people. As John McWhorter points out, the “demise of segregation” helped “pave the way for the ‘acting white’ charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white ones in larger numbers than ever before, which meant that whites were available for black students to model themselves against.”

Many desegregated schools also made greater use of academic “tracking,” which kept most of the better-prepared white students in a separate class from the black students. This too reinforced the message that academic achievement was reserved for whites. By contrast, as Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman explains, “in the context of a segregated school, it was a given that the high achieving students would all be Black. Academic achievement did not have to mean separation from one’s Black peers.”

Thus, as Harvard economist Roland Fryer points out, one’s attitude toward education can now function as a racial signal. A black student who is too eager in class may be seen as trying to curry favor with the mostly white teachers. And where the advanced classes or academic clubs are predominantly white, the black student who takes advanced classes or joins an academic club is seen as having preferred the company of whites over blacks. In other words, just by the fact that desegregation brought black and white students into contact with one another, it became possible for either blacks or whites to view the other race as outsiders in the school environment, and to start punishing children who spent too much time crossing the boundary lines between races.

There is nothing unusual in this: Humans are tribal creatures. It is a universal human trait for group members to expect loyalty to the group, whether the “group” involves employees of a particular corporation; Democrats or Republicans; literally thousands of religious sects and denominations; citizens of a particular country, state, or town; fans of the Yankees or any other sports team; or a nearly infinite range of groups based on all sorts of characteristics. It was an unfortunate side effect of desegregation that this universal human expectation–“be loyal to our group, or else”–showed up in schools.

Posted by Stuart Buck on June 7, 2010 at 02:09 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Acting White," Part III:


The comments to this entry are closed.