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Studying's reward: stigma

A new study supports the idea that minority students are penalized by peers for doing well in school, what is called "acting white."

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2005

Cornel Commedore can't forget the sting.

Because he studied hard at Blake High in Tampa, fellow black students called him "white boy" and "preppie." When he raised his hand in class, they asked, "Why are you acting white?"

Commedore said the insults hurt, but didn't deter him. He graduated fourth in his class in 2000 and earned a management information systems degree from the University of South Florida.

But Commedore also said he has black friends who buckled, who "tried to fit in so much with the crowd that they changed. ... They no longer did good in school."

For years, educators have cited the stigma of "acting white" as a factor in the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students. But there was little evidence beyond stories like Commedore's, and a couple of studies even suggested it was myth.

Now comes a new study by a Harvard economist who says his analysis of friendship patterns shows minority students do pay a high price for academic success.

Roland G. Fryer found the acting-white stigma is most prevalent in racially mixed schools and most potent among black and Hispanic males. In many schools, he says, it could be a leading factor behind anemic test scores and poor graduation rates.

"If minority students today deliberately underachieve in order to avoid social sanctions," he wrote in the fall issue of Education Next , a magazine published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, "that by itself could explain why the academic performance of 17-year-old African-Americans ... has deteriorated since the late 1980s, even while that of 9-year-olds has been improving."

Fryer's results could give ammo to those who suggest minority students will perform better in segregated schools - an argument likely to emerge in Pinellas County in 2007, when the school district revisits its thorny and integration-driven choice plan. But Fryer, who is black, said the evidence doesn't lead him to that conclusion yet.

The study shows a potential downside to integration, "but we don't know exactly what the mechanism is driving this," he said last week. "We need to think about precisely why we're seeing it."

The term "acting white" emerged in the mid 1980s after a study of a Washington, D.C., high school found black students ridiculing academic success. Another study in the late 1990s found many black students consider enrollment in honors classes to be white behavior, right up there with speaking "proper" English and wearing shorts in winter.

The stigma isn't unique to African-Americans. It has been noted by ethnographers in cultures as diverse as the Maori of New Zealand and Italian immigrants in Boston, Fryer writes. But in recent years, it has struck a chord as part of a national debate over the achievement gap.

"Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach our kids to learn," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during a speech at last year's Democratic National Convention. "They know that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television set and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

Fryer said the debate was "ripe territory for a math geek like me."

He crunched data from something called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which is based on a nationally representative sample of 90,000 students in grades 7-12. The study asked students to list up to five of their closest friends.

In the late 1990s, two other studies used the same database and concluded the acting-white stigma was urban legend. But those studies relied on what students reported about their own popularity. And students don't often admit they're unpopular.

Fryer, a 28-year-old Florida native and rising star at Harvard, thought counting how many times a student's name appeared on other students' lists would be more accurate. Then he linked popularity to grades.

It comes down to the dynamics of group identity, Fryer said. When a minority group fears the loss of successful members, it will "penalize" peers who

act different.

The results differed greatly by school type.

In integrated public schools, Fryer found little difference among ethnic groups between grades and popularity for students with lower grade point averages. But when GPAs reach 2.5 and beyond, white students with good grades become more popular, while minority students become less so. The dropoff is greatest for Hispanics.

In private schools and predominantly minority public schools, Fryer found no such trend.

The difference comes down to the dynamics of group identity, he said. When a minority group fears the loss of successful members, it will "penalize" peers who act different.

Fryer can testify personally. As a star football player in high school, he was the one hurling the you're-acting-white insults.

"I basically wanted more kids on the football field," said Fryer, whose late-blooming academic career was profiled in the spring in the New York Times Magazine . "It's not something I'm particularly proud of."

Emanuel Lucas said the theory rings true with his experience at Durant High in Plant City, which has a high percentage of Mexican-American students like himself. Other students "feel threatened by your striving for excellence," said Lucas, who graduated with a 4.6 GPA and is a USF freshman.

Under the resulting peer pressure, some Hispanic students quietly excel in class but "act tough" when interacting with less successful peers, Lucas said.

"They don't want to be judged as being smart."

Fryer's study is drawing national attention - and its share of criticism.

Some observers say popularity is not a good way to measure peer pressure. Some say Fryer is blaming the victim.

Still others worry that the focus on "acting white" will divert attention from perhaps bigger factors behind the struggles of minority students, such as poverty, or biased teachers or a corrosive popular culture.

"Most of the kids listen to that and shrug it off," said Watson Haynes, president of the Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free St. Petersburg.

Still, many students and educators welcome a debate.

"In my generation, if we made honor roll ... we were lauded as heroes," said Randy Lightfoot, who is black and the social studies supervisor for Pinellas schools. Now "it's a badge of honor" among some students to get F's.

"It's like they underachieve and brag about it," agreed Jarred Carter, a senior in the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg.

Carter, who was also a starting linebacker on Lakewood's football team, said black peers razzed him more in elementary school, when he was in the gifted program. Now the barbs don't come as often, but sometimes other black students will say, "The CAT kids, they think they're better than other people," he said.

Lakewood is about 40 percent black. The CAT program is 8 percent black.

The school's black enrollment is capped because of the choice plan. Designed to promote racial diversity, the plan has irked parents, black and white, who object to long bus rides.

Louis Murphy, a St. Petersburg pastor who is considering opening a black private school, said Fryer's findings back up the feelings some black parents have about integrated schools - that they do more harm than good.

In a predominantly black school, he said, "you have more positive people - peers and instructors - that's outweighing the negativity."

Fryer said "acting white" is a bigger burden for minority males, especially black males. That finding is in sync with data showing black males, as a group, score particularly low on standardized tests and drop out at high rates.

"It's a maturity issue," said Omarra Gordon, a black senior at Pinellas Park High. "Girls know who they are. Boys are still trying to figure it out."

Commedore, the Blake High grad, said the acting-white stigma forces many black males to bridge two worlds. In predominantly white professional settings, some of his college-educated friends "speak professional," he said. But among black friends "a lot of them find themselves reverting back, to be down with the crew."

He said he decided long ago, "You can't be both."

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.

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