Studying’s Reward: Stigma

Ron Matus, St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 5, 2005

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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