Daniel Willingham writes at the Washington Post about whether criticism from peers affects the performance of black students. The study looks at white and black students, but the emphasis in this article should probably be on the black students, since those are the people that education reformers are trying to help close a decades-old “achievement gap.”

Is there a social cost to academic achievement? In other words, do adolescents punish high achievers by calling them nerds?

At the roughest cut, the answer seems to be “no.” Academic success seems to go hand in hand with social success—it’s not a sizable effect, but it is present.

A more fine-grained theory has it that the answer to that question varies with ethnicity. Sociologist John Ogbu suggested that involuntary minorities—African American and Native Americans, who did not come to mainstream America willingly—have a collective identity that is opposed to mainstream culture.

Adolescents from these cultures will, the theory proposes, deride high-achieving peers for “acting white.” Academic success will be seen as rejecting one’s own culture in favor of the dominant culture.

Is there any truth to this hypothesis?

The evidence has been mixed. Studies going back to the mid 1980’s (when the hypothesis was first suggested) have sometimes reported supportive evidence, and other times have not.

Some researchers have suggested that the results have been inconsistent because the theory oversimplifies. Low achievement is not a cultural norm.

According to one alternative, adolescents suffering discrimination reject the values of the dominant culture, even though it incurs a cost to them. Accusing high-achievers of acting white is actually a response to discrimination, and so is present only where discrimination is present.

A third theory suggests that long term discrimination makes people want to abandon the expectations associated with the stereotype. If African-Americans are stereotyped as academically under-achieving for long enough, they eventually respond by devaluing academic achievement.

So these latter two theories suggest that the “acting white” phenomenon is context specific. It is a response to discrimination and so we might expect it to be absent in schools with large minority populations.

Until now, most studies have taken place in one school, or perhaps several schools. To test the predictions, we would need to examine large numbers of students in many different contexts (that is, different schools).

Such a study has at last been published.

It used a sample of over 13,000 students, averaging about 15 years old. Social acceptance was measured with a simple 4 question interview that asked whether they felt socially accepted, and the frequency with which they felt lonely, felt disliked, or felt people were unfriendly to them.

The study took measures at two time points and examined the change in social acceptance across the year. The question of interest is whether students’ academic achievement (measured as grade point average) at Time 1 was related to the change in social acceptance over the course of the year.

For White, Latino, and Asian students, it was—positively. That is, the higher a student’s GPA was at Time 1, the more likely it was that his or her social acceptance would increase during the coming year. It was not a big effect, but it was present.

For African American and Native American students the opposite was true. A higher GPA predicted *lower* social acceptance during the following year. This effect was stronger than the positive effect for the other ethnic groups.

Thus, it seemed that the simpler version of the “acting white” hypothesis was supported.

But the story turned out to be a bit more complicated.

Further analyses showed that there was a social penalty for high achieving African Americans *only* at schools with a small percentage of black students. The cost was not present at high-achieving schools with mostly African-American students, or at any low-achieving schools.

At the same time, there was never a social benefit for academic achievement, as there was for White, Latino, and Asian students.

These more fine-grained analyses were not possible for the Native American students, because the sample was too small.

So what are we to make the of “acting white” phenomenon?

A single study is never definitive, but this study indicates that academic success is not universally taken by African American adolescents as a sign of rejecting African American culture. It is specific to particular contexts and is plausible a response to discrimination.

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