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.