Monday, July 05, 2010

Review in Slate

Stanford's Richard Thompson Ford has a review of my book in Slate today. Even though he ultimately disagrees with my book's thesis, the review is as fair and thoughtful as an author could hope.

He ascribes the "acting white" phenomenon not to school desegregation, but to the social isolation that often occurred as an unfortunate byproduct of the civil rights movement more broadly:
Today's black underclass may not be as poor as many blacks were in the 1950s, but its isolation from the mainstream and from positive role models is actually worse. As Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has shown, the concentration of poverty in inner cities became a crisis in the decades after the civil rights movement, as suburbanization and the decline of manufacturing hollowed out inner cities and as the most successful and talented blacks pursued newly available opportunities outside segregated ghettoes. The inadvertent result was a "brain drain" and a diversion of resources away from many black neighborhoods and black institutions. Those blacks left behind in inner cities faced anemic local economies, weakened social networks, withered institutions, and failing schools. These larger economic and demographic shifts disrupted black communities and displaced black role models, creating "super ghettos" of unprecedented isolation, joblessness, and social dysfunction.

So even if school desegregation hadn't shuttered many promising black schools, the rest of the civil rights revolution would still have undermined them. In the segregated job markets, many of the most talented blacks became school teachers and principals in black schools; after the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, they moved into more lucrative jobs in racially integrated firms and businesses. The costs of school desegregation that Buck identifies—the disruption of nurturing all-black institutions and communities, racial antagonism, mutual distrust, and black alienation in white dominated settings—are among the unintended consequences of desegregation generally. If many children growing up in these neighborhoods think of education as the exclusive domain of whites, that's because they think of almost every mainstream aspiration as the exclusive domain of whites.
This is a compelling argument. Nonetheless it still seems hard for me to see how social isolation would necessarily cause some children to think that high achievement in school is somehow "white." For that to happen, I think you need a situation where most of the teachers are white and/or where the advanced classes are mostly white. Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli's empirical work did find that the "acting white" effect (that is, the popularity penalty experienced by black students with high grades) is "non-existent" in all-black inner city schools -- which, to be sure, remain disadvantaged for many other reasons.



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