In his speech at the Democratic convention four years ago, Barack Obama memorably challenged the myth that holding a book is “acting white.” Now that he’s been elected president, he might actually be able to do something about it.
Black students are too often scorned by their peers as “thinking they’re white” for making A’s, and many let their grades slip in order to have black friends. Some educators and academics dismiss it as an unimportant thing to focus on when addressing black-student achievement. Some sociologists have even claimed that the whole “acting white” notion is a myth by showing that black students who make good grades also say that they are popular. But as Harvard economist Roland Fryer puts it, “Asking teenagers whether they’re popular is like asking them if they’re having sex.” Fryer’s work has shown that black students do in fact have fewer social connections the higher their grades, to a much greater extent than white students.
The problem dates from desegregation. Black teens only started calling each other “white” for liking school in the mid-sixties. Feeling unwelcomed by the white students they were now suddenly going to school with, black kids started identifying school as “other.” Recently, teachers and black parents have been addressing the acting-white problem, but it’s hard. Teenagers have a variety of identities open to them for trying on anti-Establishment postures. White kids can be stoners or goths. Black kids can be “nonwhite.” As of last Tuesday, however, there’s a new weapon, and it’s Barack Obama himself. Whenever a black nerd gets teased for thinking he’s white, all he has to say is four words: “Is Barack Obama white?”
It remains to be seen what an Obama presidency will mean for the nuts and bolts of education policy. But those four little words could do more to improve black-student achievement than any number of new charter schools and reading tests.