Stuart Buck has a startling explanation for Acting White. 

Reading between the lines.
July 5 2010 6:47 AM

How To Understand "Acting White"

Could desegregation have caused the culture of academic underperformance?

(Continued from Page 1)

But Buck's focus on schools neglects the bigger picture. The power of the epithet "acting white" is just one manifestation of a belligerent youth subculture among poor blacks that rejects mainstream institutions generally. "Acting white" is to education as "stop snitching" is to law enforcement: an attitude of aimless and self-destructive opposition, borne of deprivation, alienation, and despair. The root cause lies in the depth and pervasiveness of inner-city poverty. Buck argues that poverty can't be the cause of "acting white" because "blacks in the Jim Crow era … pursued education eagerly even in the presence of far more dire poverty. If poverty … caused the 'acting white' criticism, it surely would have shown up long before the 1960s." But the problem isn't just objective poverty. It's also social isolation, which worsened dramatically at precisely the time Buck says the acting-white problem emerged.

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.

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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.

Buck describes the legacy of desegregation as ironic, but there's an unintended irony in the book's focus on school desegregation itself. Despite its status as the defining achievement of the civil rights movement, public-school desegregation is, for most practical purposes, dead. Since the Supreme Court's 1991 decision in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, the federal courts have rushed to lift desegregation orders and many once-integrated schools are now steadily resegregating. America's public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1988, and they are becoming ever more segregated with each passing year. In Parents Involved in Public Schools v. Seattle School District(2004), the Supreme Court invalidated the modest and voluntarily adopted public-school desegregation plans of two formerly segregated districts, a decision that will accelerate resegregation nationwide.

If school integration really did account for the onus put on academic achievement by too many black students, there might be some small redeeming virtue in this reversal. But it didn't, and there isn't.

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