Are All-Black Schools a Good Idea?

The answer seems an obvious “no,” but it depends on how the question is understood.

The question isn’t “Was desegregation a bad idea?” The answer to that is clearly a resounding “no.” But in his new book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, Stuart Buck (white guy, if that matters) argues that segregation was like a harmful cancer to which desegregation was the chemical cure. But cures often have harmful side effects that must be addressed and dealt with.

The “side effect” in question is what’s called the problem of “acting white.” John McWhorter (black guy, if that matters), who’s written about this problem before, reviews Buck’s book and talks a bit about the phenomenon in detail.

In 2000, in a book called Losing the Race, I argued that much of the reason for the gap between the grades and test scores of black students and white students was that black teens often equated doing well in school with “acting white.” I knew that a book which did not focus on racism’s role in this problem would attract bitter criticism. I was hardly surprised to be called a “sell-out” and “not really black” because I grew up middle class and thus had no understanding of black culture. But one of the few criticisms that I had not anticipated was that the “acting white” slam did not even exist.

I was hardly the first to bring up the “acting white” problem. An early description of the phenomenon comes from a paper by John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in 1986, and their work was less a revelation of the counterintuitive than an airing of dirty laundry. You cannot grow up black in America and avoid the “acting white” notion, unless you by chance grow up around only white kids. Yet in the wake of Losing the Race, a leading scholar/activist on minority education insisted that he had never encountered the “acting white” slander—while shortly thereafter describing his own son doing poorly in school because of precisely what Ogbu, Fordham, myself, and others had written about. Jack White, formerly of Time, roasted me in a review for making up the notion out of whole cloth. Ogbu (with Astrid Davis) published an ethnological survey of Shaker Heights, Ohio describing the “acting white” problem’s effects there in detail, while a documentary on race and education in that town explicitly showed black students attesting to it. Both book and documentary have largely been ignored by the usual suspects.

It’s an interesting notion, and the idea seems plausible to me (I’m a white guy, if that matters). Many schools in the country that are all-black have outperformed segregated schools in their respective areas, and the same theory has been applied to all-girl schools. When black students and white students are mixed, the black students have a tendency to stick to their own, trying to emphasize their black identity to avoid being ostracized by people of their own race. Similarly, in a co-ed schooling environment, once puberty hits, girls start to see themselves more as girls and less as people, and girls are supposed to be “compassionate and sensitive” rather than smart.

Even granting the “acting white” problem as a valid concern, I’m not so sure that all-black schools would be the best way to address it. Instead, there needs to be a re-vamping of the black image and a change in black identity in America. Just turn on BET for an hour and you’ll see what I mean.

Until blacks no longer feel pressured to “act black” when they’re in a mixed environment and develop a way of identifying themselves that isn’t dependent on being different from another race, it seems likely that the problems will only get worse.

One thought on “Are All-Black Schools a Good Idea?

  1. You are ignorant enough to think that BET represents black culture? Don’t you think that centuries of legalized slavery and white supremacy may have effected the ideals some black people? Check your own history before you start spouting nonsense especially when it supported by a money seeking racial opportunist like John McWhorter. A dude who could not take peer criticism in academia so he gave it up to write drivel and make millions at a right wing think tank.

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