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[Part One of this interview can be seen here.]
A continuation of my interview with Stuart Buck, author of “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation” (Yale University Press):
It is an article of faith among many well-meaning liberals that black kids from impoverished backgrounds will do better in school when matched up with white kids from more privileged backgrounds. But your chapter on tracking cites research showing that the opposite occurred — that black kids tended to perform more poorly when mixed with whites. Explain why this is.
At the same time, there are good reasons to think that simply mixing children of different abilities into the same school may not benefit the less-prepared children. I imagine myself placed in a classroom full of nuclear physicists analyzing the most complex topics in their field — would I magically rise to the occasion and start reciting equations that I cannot now even imagine, or would I start to doubt my very self-worth in the company of people who, at least in this particular subject, were so far ahead of me?
Even worse, what would happen if I were placed into the “slow” physics class that was obviously meant for beginners, while the real physics students were all down the hall? I would start to think that I didn’t really belong with the real physics students, that they were in a world separate and apart from me.
I would contend that this is exactly what happened during and after desegregation. It isn’t surprising that if you put most black students in a classroom that they all perceive as the “slower” classroom, and put many white students in a classroom perceived as “smarter” or “advanced” or “gifted,” then that will cause many of the black students to doubt their abilities and to perceive that academic achievement isn’t something that they are expected to achieve.
Moreover, what happens if you are sitting in a roomful of black students, and one of them leaves to go join the white class down the hall? People start to say, “Why is she leaving us behind? Does she think she’s white?” Just as with the elimination of black schools, the classification of white students as “smart” hammered home the message: “Academic pursuit is for whites, not for you.”
This isn’t just my own speculation. Out of many examples discussed in the book, a report on early desegregation in Louisiana noted, “Ability grouping ‘has knocked the ambition out of the children . . . When I try to tell some of my own children to work, they won’t, because they know they’re in the lowest sections and the school expects them to be bad.’ Black students themselves say they find being assigned to low sections so degrading that they would prefer outright segregation.”
The loss of social trust between black parents and students, and the integrated schools, brought to my mind the recent highly controversial research done by Robert Putnam, in which he found that the greater the ethnic and cultural diversity, the lower the social trust within a community. This goes against what many of us like to believe, but your review of research done on school integration would appear to validate Putnam’s insight. Right?
[Interview continues after the jump]
This opportunity for racial mistrust opened a gap between the school and much of the black community. As one teacher from Virginia put it, “The relationships between black teachers and parents and the support we used to enjoy aren’t like they used to be. And as a result children–black children– are suffering.” Or as a teacher in Chicago put it, “I can remember I made a stray mark on a test once. To the kids this meant racial prejudice. One stray mark on a piece of paper and three hundred years of discrimination comes up in your face. You’ll break your neck for those kids, but they’ll never really trust you. No matter what you do, to them you are still white.”
Putnam is to be congratulated for doing something that is extremely rare among social scientists: publishing work that he had hoped wasn’t true. [As an aside, readers should be wary of the fact that social scientists so often find that their own pre-existing beliefs just happen to be confirmed by the evidence.]
As to your point, it is a near-universal observation that black parents deeply trusted the black school. For example, at a black school described by Jerome Morris of the University of Georgia, one of the teachers was a godmother to certain students; other teachers lived in the black community and knew the “parents and grandparents on a personal basis,” thus making them “comfortable calling or visiting the families” if a student acted up at school.
This trust, however, began to break down once black children were in white-controlled schools. For example, if you’re a black parent, and you hear from a black principal that a black teacher has had problems with your son talking back, you have no reason to think that racism is involved. But if you hear from a white principal that a white teacher saw your son get in a fight, you may have more trouble trusting that the principal and teacher are being totally fair.
As ugly as the “acting white” slur is, you say it’s normal. Why?
Human beings are usually tribal. We like to associate with people who are similar to ourselves. As Gordon Allport says in his classic work The Nature of Prejudice, “Everywhere on earth we find a condition of separateness among groups.” Thus, we have the proverb, “Birds of a feather flock together.” The entire history of the world shows that people of different races and nationalities are often hostile towards one another, even over cultural or ethnic differences that are completely imperceptible to outsiders.
Groups often enforce the boundaries between themselves and another group — especially one that appears threatening — by demanding that same-group members comply with the right social norms. If you belong to a group of hardcore punk rockers who think that mainstream music has sold out to corporate interests, and you start waxing eloquent about your love for American Idol or Britney Spears, you are in for some skepticism. If you attend a revival at a Pentecostal church wearing a perfectly modest swimsuit, people will not approve.
Why? Because by the way that you act, talk, and dress, you are signaling something to other people. By doing something that is contrary to the group’s typical behavior, you are signaling that you do not care about the group’s opinion, and ultimately that you do not care about belonging to the group. In fact, people usually resent the dissenting group member even more than a complete outsider. Heretics are more of a threat than non-believers.
For hundreds of years, blacks were forced into a position of subservience to white people — most dramatically in the case of slavery, but also in the years of legally-mandated segregation and Jim Crow laws. As a result, the black community in America has tended to be of two minds toward the white community. On the one hand, whites were viewed as the oppressors, as the slave-owners, as the privileged. On the other hand, whites were often envied for their superior wealth, clothes, education, station in society, and innumerable other advantages. This created a deep and historic antagonism towards those blacks who sought to advance their own privilege by associating with oppressive whites, such as “house slaves” or “Uncle Toms.”
The same antagonism was present at the time of desegregation, and lingers to some extent today. An integrated school can often appear to black students to be controlled by whites, or to be run in a way that benefits white students. Thus, the black student who tries to curry favor from the white authorities is seen as saying, “I’m better than you.”
Indeed, in one of the earliest scholarly accounts of “acting white,” one of the poorer black students was remarkably frank about how he viewed the more accomplished black students in his class: “There’re just a few of these Uncle Toms at school, these are the goody-goody guys. Maybe I say this, though, because they’re doing a little bit better than I am. And maybe I’m a little bit ashamed of myself because I’m not doing as good as they are in school, and I’m jealous. Maybe that’s why I think of them as Uncle Toms.”
The fear of trying to be “better” than your peers could cause an “acting white” effect even without express peer pressure. As Ronald Ferguson of Harvard points out, “students who have the skills to perform at high levels sometimes hold back [voluntarily] because their friends are struggling and they want to fit in. . . . Consider two friends walking on the street, urgently en route to an important destination. The slower walker is not in good physical condition. He does not appear to be able to keep up if the friend who is more fit were to accelerate. A decision by the faster friend to hold back in this situation–to keep walking slowly–would seem completely reasonable based on feelings of empathy and social attachment. Active peer pressure, stigmas, or stereotypes are not required for such voluntary inclinations toward accommodation to operate.”
As a result of white flight, many urban schools are now effectively 100 percent minority, usually some mix of black and Latino. Shouldn’t we expect minority students to do much better, then, in the absence of whites? But they are not. Why not?
Today’s inner-city black schools — such as in Washington, D.C. — often perform very poorly. But I am not arguing that any school that is predominantly black (or predominantly white, for that matter) will automatically be a good school. There are many other factors that affect whether or not a school achieves good results — the quality and experience level of the teachers, the quality of the principal, the curriculum, parental involvement, parental socioeconomic status, neighborhoods, and so forth. An impoverished and gang-ridden inner-city school in the 21st century is not going to be able to imitate the vibrant black community of the 1950s or 1960s, simply by virtue of having a student body that is mostly one race.
[Part Three coming tomorrow.]