Yet today, the “acting white” criticism that was once occasionally used by racist whites has been adopted by some black schoolchildren. That is the central mystery that this book addresses: what happened between the nineteenth century and today?
The answer, I believe, springs from the complex history of desegregation. Although desegregation arose from noble and necessary impulses, and although desegregation was to the overall benefit of the nation, it was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals and teachers who could serve as role models, and brought many black schoolchildren into daily contact with whites who made school a strange and uncomfortable environment that was viewed as quintessentially “white.”
All of this occurred in part because 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. And the best students in black schools were black as well.
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). 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.
Some people might rationally wonder whether I oppose desegregation. Why else would I take the time to highlight problems with desegregation rather than focus on some other aspect of education?
I believe strongly in integration as a moral ideal. The message that I intend to convey is not that desegregation was a bad idea, not that the people who pursued desegregation were foolish or misguided, not that desegregation is something that we should consider reversing. Desegregation was unquestionably the right thing to do, and it benefited many black Americans by bringing them into the mainstream of American society.
At the same time, nothing in life is free. Anything that is valuable and worth achieving comes at a price. Intellectual honesty obligates us to weigh—and consider how to mitigate—the costs imposed by our preferred policies, rather than sweeping the problems under the rug. The costs of desegregation included the destruction of black institutions, the trauma experienced by some black children, and the overall effect on black attitudes toward education. While the benefits of desegregation outweigh the costs, this book is not intended to focus on the benefits (which are amply discussed elsewhere). Rather, it is intended to consider how the costs arose and whether we might reduce or eliminate them.
Still, the “acting white” accusation seems more devastating than the “nerd” or “geek” labels. As one black scholar pointed out, a student who is accused of acting white is “essentially being told they do not belong in the black race,” and acting white “is the most negative accusation that can be hurled at black adolescents.”
Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson famously argued that black performance in school or on academic tests may be depressed by “stereotype threat,” which is a student’s fear of confirming the negative stereotype that blacks are not as smart as whites. In other words, if a black student sits down to take a test and then starts to be nervous about failing to perform well, that nervousness could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thus, whites were very nervous about the possibility that educated blacks would start to become politically powerful.43 In 1903, a Tennessee newspaper editorialized: “At present there is no danger from the Negro. The question that demands answer from us and which clouds the future like a monstrous pall is ‘Are we not by educating the Negro sowing the seeds of a dangerous force that will one day arise and make demands with which we cannot comply?’”
As I have reiterated many times, I am not arguing for the return of segregation in any fashion. Integration does have many advantages—most importantly, bringing black children into the American mainstream, and potentially forcing legislatures to fund schools on a more equitable basis. These advantages almost certainly outweigh any of the detrimental effects of “acting white.” That said, it may be the case that some students would thrive if allowed to choose an all-black environment that includes black teachers and principals. As John McWhorter points out, “Black children often can be weaned off of that acting white tendency in small all-minority schools.… When you have a school with, you know, at most a few hundred students, most of them or all of them black, and you have teachers who are deeply committed and set high standards, then you see that there is a representative number of excellent black students and a lot less of the idea that to do well in school is to step outside of your culture, because after all, in such schools there are no white people to define yourself against.”