Rod Dreher

actingwhite.jpgOne of the most remarkable books I’ve read in ages is “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation” (Yale University Press). Its author is Stuart Buck, a Harvard-educated lawyer who is now working on his Ph.D. in education. Stuart is also a friend of mine, and one of the most intelligent and decent men I know. “Acting White” is a meticulously documented study of the phenomenon observed among African-American students, in which academically accomplished black students are often accused of being traitors to their race (“acting white”) because of their good grades and study habits. Here’s the description of the book’s content:

Commentators from Bill Cosby to Barack Obama have observed the phenomenon of black schoolchildren accusing studious classmates of “acting white.” How did this contentious phrase, with roots in Jim Crow-era racial discord, become a part of the schoolyard lexicon, and what does it say about the state of racial identity in the American system of education?
The answer, writes Stuart Buck in this frank and thoroughly researched book, lies in the complex history of desegregation. Although it arose from noble impulses and was to the overall benefit of the nation, racial desegegration was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It frequently destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals who could serve as role models, and made school a strange and uncomfortable environment for black children, a place many viewed as quintessentially “white.”
Drawing on research in education, history, and sociology as well as articles, interviews, and personal testimony, Buck reveals the unexpected result of desegregation and suggests practical solutions for making racial identification a positive force in the classroom

“Acting White” was a revelation to me. I had no idea, no idea at all, what the black community suffered with integration. I hadn’t even thought about it, because it seemed to me that to entertain that thought was to in some sense grant legitimacy to segregation. Of course that’s nonsense, and the taboo around the topic kept me from seeing that both can be true: that segregation was an evil that had to end, and that black communities paid a terrible price for it. “Acting White” explores that price, and explains a particularly nasty legacy of the change: the stigmatization of educational achievement among black secondary school students.
Stuart — whose blog is here — graciously agreed to do an e-mail interview with me about the book. It ran long, so I’m going to break it into three parts, spread over today and tomorrow. I strongly urge you to stick with the entire interview, and indeed to buy the book, which the African-American linguist John McWhorter strongly endorses. The first question I asked Stuart was about the difficulty of taking on such a radioactive topic, especially as a white man:

Over and over in “Acting White,” you make it clear that you are not supporting segregation, or trying to minimize its moral horror. It’s clear to the reader that you fear being misinterpreted. Why?
People are very one-sided in how they approach political issues. For example, people who support universal health care will tend to argue that we’ll both cover 47 million more people and save money at the same time, while people who oppose universal health care will argue both that it costs too much money and that it will diminish the quality of care so much that it won’t benefit anyone.
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. I therefore took pains to ensure that no reader could possibly make such an assumption. This was particularly necessary given that race can be a third rail of policy discussion . . . no matter what you say, someone will find a way to demonize you for it.
I would put it like this: 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. At the same time, I didn’t want any reader to think that because I pointed out a side effect, I was somehow in favor of cancer.

I then asked Stuart: What first interested you, a Southern white man of the post-integration era, in the “acting white” phenomenon? And why should people care about it?
His answer begins:

I first got interested in the “acting white” phenomenon when my wife and I adopted a black baby boy six years ago. In our readings on interracial adoption, many children adopted by white families were later accused of acting white or trying to be white.

(Interview continues below the jump)

(Stuart Buck, continued)
Around the same time, our nation observed the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and I came across a retrospective article by the journalist Jonathan Tilove. Tilove wrote of a perspective that I hadn’t heard before:

But to many, Brown – handed down May 17, 1954 – was also a dirge for something precious and irreplaceable: a network of black schools almost sacred to those they served and wholly devoted in their belief in black ability and pursuit of black advancement.
“Brown was turned against us. We lost our schools,” says Elias Blake Jr., who graduated in 1947 from Risley High School in Brunswick, Ga., and credits it with transforming him from an indifferent student, sights set no higher than a job at the local hotel, into someone who became valedictorian of his college class and ultimately president of Clark College in Atlanta.
Absent from the standard telling of Brown, the superior education that many black schools provided is a source of fierce pride for alumni, and the subject of a growing body of scholarship. . . . It is a remarkable tale of how black communities, under the thumb and under the radar of oppression, created schools that imbued black children with a sense of confidence and possibility in the very midst of a system determined to limit them.
. . . . Brown’s most profound irony may be that answers to closing the achievement gap lie buried in the history of the schools that Brown’s implementation destroyed. Glittering amid the ruins, the answers are straighforward: Dedicated teachers. Strong principals. Order. Discipline. High expectations. Community and parental support. What is astonishing, Siddle Walker says, is how many black children attended schools during segregation that delivered on these objectives, and how few do so now.

I started to put two and two together . . . . could it be, I wondered, that undermining the black school contributed to the feeling in some quarters today that education is “acting white”?
How do we know that the “acting white” phenomenon only arose during the integration period?
As I freely admit in the book, we don’t have perfect evidence here. No one was doing nationally representative surveys on “acting white,” and there could be lots of “acting white” sentiments that were uttered but never recorded.
All of that said, I think there’s a strong case that “acting white” began with desegregation. First, as far as I could tell, black people who went to school before desegregation have testified unanimously (whether in autobiographies, newspaper articles, or personal interviews) that “acting white” was a completely foreign concept in their school days. After all, why would a child whose most-admired peers and mentors within the school were black think of any type of school behavior as “acting white”?
Second, there are many personal stories of “acting white” occurring along with desegregation, as black children were put into an environment perceived as controlled by whites. Among many examples in the book, author Kitty Oliver notes that “there was a time when black students wouldn’t dare tease a student, but rather would applaud them for their achievements.” But then, “desegregation created a clearer division of white and black. Once black and white students started attending school together, the association shifted and black students began to tease one another by pushing their smart peers into the ‘white’ category.”
What I found fascinating and poignant was how many students on the front lines of desegregation faced criticism back home in their black neighborhoods. Leo Hamilton, one of the first to desegregate a school in Baton Rouge, says: “We were at a school where people didn’t want us there. But, you had a problem in the neighborhood because you didn’t go to school with these [black] people anymore, and there was a group of people . . . who resented the fact that . . . you were at school with those white folk. ‘What, you want to be white? You can’t come to school with us?’ So, you had to deal with these idiots at school. Then, you have to come home to deal with all these other idiots who were against you because you weren’t in school with them, and you were all of a sudden trying to be white.”
Ron Kirk, who later became the first black mayor of Dallas, was one of the first to integrate a junior high school in Austin, Texas. As he puts it, “After a day of all of us struggling to make this whole desegregation thing work, we would walk home and run into neighborhood friends, and they would ridicule us and want to fight us because we were going to school with white kids. So in the course of a single day we might get beat up because we were black, then get beat up again because we weren’t black enough!”
It was remarkable to me, reading your book, to come across the testimonies of African-Americans who had gone to segregated schools, and who remembered with great love the institutional role their schools played in their communities — something that disappeared with integration. And some of the stories blacks quoted in your book tell about how emotionally searing it was to have those schools destroyed or otherwise taken away from them, were not only surprising, but also heartbreaking. Why have these stories been suppressed all these years — and what can we learn from hearing them today?
Let me give an example of what you’re talking about here. Second Ward school in Charlotte had been important to the black community there. A former student said, “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.”
That school was demolished during desegregation, as can be seen in this poignant picture:
Students were devastated by the closing of the school. 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 said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”
I’m not sure these stories have literally been suppressed as much as they’ve been ignored. I found plenty of such stories, but they tend to appear in relatively unnoticed local newspaper articles, interview transcripts from university “oral history” programs, and the like.
Why don’t we pay more collective attention to these stories? Probably because it upsets the traditional narrative wherein everything that happened under segregation was unremittingly evil while desegregation via Brown v. Board of Education was a national triumph. When we as a society have settled on a narrative with clear good guys and bad guys, we don’t like to be bothered by nuance and complexities.
[Part Two of this interview to come later today on this blog.]

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus