When minorities are accused of “acting White” by other minorities, tension and pain pierces both sides of that bloody coin of the cultural realm. Elijah Anderson presses that hot button in his excellent book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, published in 1991, where he dissects the “code differences” between “decent” Blacks and “street” Blacks:

….street oriented people can be said at times to mount a policing effort to keep their decent counterparts from “selling out” or “acting white,” that is, from leaving the community for one of higher socioeconomic status. This retaliation, which can sometimes be violent, against the upwardly mobile points to the deep alienation present in parts of the inner-city community. Many residents therefore work to maintain the status quo, and so the individual who tries to excel usually has a great deal to overcome.

Last week there was a new report on this issue from Harvard University economist Roland Fryer who found a statistical method for evaluating peer recognition and success for minorities in school. Fryer amassed a massive 90,000 student sample of 7-12th graders who were asked about their friends.

By comparing perceived peer popularity against hard grades, Fryer found “acting white” was a problem but not one that equally touched all minority students. If a minority student in a private school had good grades, popularity did not decrease with success.

Black students in mostly Black public schools did not lose popularity when they had good grades. It appears Fryer, unlike Anderson before him, discovered minority decent success in school does not always translate to dissing in the street. Fryer, who is Black, found there was a growing problem at integrated public schools.

Black students with B or higher average grades ended up with fewer friends while White students became more popular with their peers when their grades rose. Hispanics had it hardest — if they averaged a C- or above their peer popularity dropped the most.

Fryer believes the problem is not one of skin color, but of economic status — higher grades mean interacting with other students with higher socio-economic status and that established higher-achieving group has not historically consisted of minorities. Fryer contends disparity between behavior and economic status causes a rift within minority students who wish to achieve, but who also want to remain loyal to their home culture.

That tension — the human want to find success and acceptance without appearing disloyal — cleaves minority students who are too often forced to leave behind their cultural values and play along with a majority power that accepts their achievements but silently disapproves of the disloyalty to their culture of origin. The unfortunate, but common, result is minority students who pay a social price for getting good grades now risk not achieving the promise of their lives later.


  1. My brother’s peer group in high school felt pressure to not succeed academically. It wasn’t a race-related pressure and it wasn’t a social-economic issue either. He and all of his peers were from solidly middle class white families in the midwest.
    For some reason, he and his friends adopted the idea that doing well in school was being “a prep.”
    Being “a prep” meant selling out and conforming to society. His peers wanted to break the rules and follow their own desires, rather than society’s.
    It was a weird combination of hippie idealism mixed in with a “heavy metal” outlook on life. “The world was going to blow up in a nuclear war, so why bother paying attention in high school,” was their mantra. “Or, there will be a revolution that will radically change society.” I remember hearing them talk about some sort of “harmonic convergence” in the mid-1980s.
    They were stoners with just enough education to make them dangerous to themselves.
    My brother tired of school and ended up dropping out. He ran away to California for a while until his money ran out. He ended up getting his GED when he realized most employers wouldn’t hire a high school dropout.
    He’s now working in a factory where workers use a time clock and can’t leave their positions without permission. You have to ask someone if you need to use the bathroom.
    Unfortunately, not following the rules early in life leads to a future life of being dominated by “the man” in a low paying job with limited autonomy.

  2. I’ll bite this since no one else wants to. Having a shaded color of skin in America is a brand and it isn’t one anyone is buying. To have these things studied and set down in stone is fine but it doesn’t change the reality or the living. Understanding isn’t enough. The homes who hell you don’t care about any of this. They just want you to stay where you are so an eye can be kept on your uppity ass and if you dare to move or sidle up you are slapped down and unless you’re rich with $10 million in your pocket your choices are to fight your street and die in your gutter or pretend here there and always that you belong when you know your skin is the only thing people are judging and deciding against you.

  3. Chris — Your take on this topic is unique and I wonder if your brother got stuck in a specific generational rebellion from which he had no interest in escaping? Your final sentence is sobering and scary — how close are each of us from that horrible living death of life on the line?
    Karvain! — There’s a Spam problem going on where Akismet is flagging all comments and holding onto them and it has taken me most of the morning to figure out what’s going on — so sorry for not getting Chris’ comment posted here live so you’d have it to comment against as well… What you say is brutally real and absolutely on the mark in my experience and I thank you for speaking up to share your comment. You need money to move out of the situation but few ever get the kind of big cash that allows them to stay away forever. So a repeating cycle of despair and trying to get out promises only suffering and few ever feel any enrichment from living.

  4. My brother was probably caught up in “Gen-X” malaise and didn’t realize he didn’t have to believe what people were saying in the media about the world and our generation. People in the 80s were always saying the children of the late 60s and 70s were slackers and lazy. There was a lot of pessimism about the world at that time because of the threat of nuclear war, the environment, etc. I remember people saying our generation would be the first that wouldn’t surpass their parent’s accomplishments. Of course, all of that was untrue.
    I think my brother’s case was also a function of taking an easy way out — hanging out with friends and crashing on their sofas was seen as being easier than going to school or working. He was smart enough to have done well in school. He just chose not to apply himself.
    A complicating factor was that he had received a large settlement in an auto accident case that allowed him to think he’d have an endless supply of money for the rest of his life. Spending your principal ensures that money won’t last forever. Look at all of the lottery winners who blow through their money in a year or less.
    My brother sought short term gain and lost in the long run.
    Being stuck in a dead-end job and not having the means to ever escape would be a living death.
    I remember working at a grocery store when I was in college and thinking I’d never be able to survive working there for 20 years. It wasn’t hard work, but it takes a toll on the people who work those kinds of jobs.
    I knew lots of people who drank to escape or developed bad attitudes about life. There often wasn’t a lot of joy, even despite efforts of the management to do things to make the employees happy. There were ways to advance within the store’s corporate structure, but people often didn’t want to take the risk.
    They saw life in negative terms because goals for wealth and material success were elusive for people earning around the minimum wage or slightly above.
    We need to train our youth to be leaders, instead of followers so that they can withstand peer pressure to sink to the lowest common denominator.
    If we taught our kids leadership skills, independence and critical thinking, it would solve many problems people face because they feel helpless or just go along with the crowd.
    It might also make them dangerous to the status quo.

  5. Karvain, your last sentence is like poetry.
    The impact to me is not just in the words, but the rhythm of the words that evoke feeling.

  6. What you say makes a lot of sense. When I was at Columbia my mentor talked about the 1968 riot on campus:
    He also told us how the battle cry for the kids in the 1960’s was “Kill Your Parents” because they were the “real party in power” and that was a frightening notion for children and older adults.
    Having a stratum of young people who were angry and hurt and looking for a vicious method of expression for their frustration led to a lot of terrible confrontations on campuses all across the nation from Columbia to Rutgers to Kent State and even at the Rolling Stones’ murderous concert at Altamont.
    I feel for your brother. You know in his bones he understands his gave up his honor for blood.

  7. David:
    I make a statement by not having an avatar. 🙂
    One of the little discussed areas in race relations is racism within a minority race, or between minority races in America.
    Lee Mun Wah, of Stir Fry Productions, is a skilled speaker from Oakland/Berkeley who explores such issues in a lecture and small group format. We had him come to speak to our school about ten years ago in response to the Rodney King/Los Angeles riots. Your post today brings up the issue from a slightly different angle.
    Among Asian Americans, there is a divide between American born Asians (like myself) and recent immigrants from Asia. Some disparaging comments are that recent immigrants are FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat), while American borns are Bananas (yellow on the outside and white on the inside). I remember in high school being told that if I were to date a certain young woman, that I should watch out because she was an “FOB.” I’m embarrassed now, because I did not choose to date her, not thinking for myself.
    When I was in high school in the 1970s, growing up in Stockton, California a blue collar town, the Asian students would socialize with African American students (back then, “Black students.”) We shared music, a sense of kinship, and a very specific cameraderie from jointly feeling outside of the mainstream “white” culture of our school. I no longer am in touch with young people of our current generation, being older, but I suspect that the closer friendships between Blacks and Asians no longer exist like a generation ago. I think something is lost.
    Ironically, I do still feel a kinship with African Americans of my generation (in their forties) because of my experience in high school. I can’t really put it into words, but it is simliar to the kind of shared reality when you and a stranger are from geographically the same place and you share a kinship.
    Asian Americans are called these days a “model minority” and I hate that. I hate that because I am used as a symbol by the establishment to put down my ethnic brothers and sisters who are not Asian.
    (Now if my use of the word “establishment” does not date me as a child of the 1970s…)

  8. Thank you for sharing your generational markings of culture, Jeff. It was a wonderfully warm and informative read.
    You remind me to look back at how New York minority culture was fixed when we first moved to New York nearly 20 years ago.
    Minorities in New York stuck together in the late 80’s. The Deaf are a big minority, so they share a lot of common needs and goals with the Black and Gay communities: Discrimination, equal access to services, proper political representation. Together the good fight was fought and if you were a minority in New York you knew the other minorities had your back even if you didn’t share the same disability, skin color or sexual preference. It was a wonderful feeling of inclusion for many minorities who had come to New York to escape the repressive tendencies of smaller towns to “just shut up and fit in” with the majority power.
    A few years later things began to change. The disabled became more and more protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Black community began to gain mayoral power in David Dinkins and in stronger neighborhood representation in the form of stalwarts like C. Virginia Fields as Manhattan Borough President. The Gay community was singularly demolished, isolated and even more marginalized by AIDS and their “Act Up” battle cry began to get extremely specific and rightly self-preserving in nature and need.
    So, as you suggest, there has been not only a shattering of the minority interest — especially evident in New York over the past 20 years — but there is also an intra-minority stratification that plays out at great cost. The boldest and most descriptive example I can offer is this breakdown of one big minority interest into its history of splinters across the past two decades:
    Deaf Women
    Black Deaf Women
    Gay Black Deaf Women
    All those splinters had their own groups for a moment in time and then they splintered into more and more pinpoints of purpose. Once you break into a smaller splinter you never move back to a more general one.

  9. it’s nice to see this discussion . i have nothing profound to add to it. it’s something that needs to be discussed, though.

  10. Hi Carrie!
    Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. The fact you felt enough to drop in a thought is satisfying and profound in the act itself.

  11. Hi Carrie!
    Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. The fact you felt enough to drop in a thought is satisfying and profound in the act itself.

  12. the topic of race, acting white, if someone grows up in the ghetto and makes a life outside of it is in itself a good acomplishment. do they have a responsibility to help others still stuck in the ghetto or is the objective to make it and show people you made it and leave it at that? do they have a moral responsibility to help their former neighbors or is the fight and struggle up to them?

  13. You ask a great question, billy, and welcome to Urban Semiotic!
    I’m not sure of the answer.
    What do you think?
    What does your experience tell you?

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