When People of Color 'Act White'

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Commentary on Race

Ever wonder if a distinctively "black" name hurts a child's chances of landing a good job later in life? Or what grade average an African-American teen can earn before his peers shun him for "acting white?" Ed Gordon talks with Harvard University economist Roland Fryer about his research on minorities "acting white."

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Ever wonder if a distinctively black name hurts a child's chances of landing a good job later in life or why some African-American teens who get good grades are shunned by peers for, quote, "acting white"? Welcome to the world of Harvard economist Roland Fryer. The targets of this 27-year-old's research already have the academic world taking note. Fryer's interest in the convergence of race and economics is more than academic. It's personal.

Mr. ROLAND FRYER (Harvard Economist): I'm after a very selfish quest. I want to understand why the people that I grew up with, the people I love, the people I still interact with today don't have outcomes that you'd expect. And so it's not really a fascination with race per se. It's more so trying to understand what type of factor, social, economic, etc., putting everything on the table, are holding a vast majority of the blacks in this country behind.

GORDON: Like many African-Americans, unfortunately you did not have an easy climb up the mountain. Give us a thumbnail sketch of your childhood if you will.

Mr. FRYER: I was raised by my father; essentially met my mother--whe was around when I was very little, but I don't remember--when I was about 21 years old. It's a very strange life experience to get off a plane and look around and try to figure out which one is your mother and didn't really concentrate much on academics in high school or junior high school. In fact, I thought school was a little silly because the teacher would tell you things like, `Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492,' and then three weeks later, she would ask you the same question. So I would tell teachers, `Isn't this a bit silly? You just told me the answer three weeks ago.' So I didn't do much in terms of schooling until I got into college and got fascinated with mathematics and studied mathematics and economics as an undergraduate and then went on to Penn State and the University of Chicago to get my PhD in the next three years.

GORDON: What was it, do you believe? Was there a particular turning point for you that caused you to, quote, "see the light"?

Mr. FRYER: Yeah, there certainly was. I was into doing some pretty bad things as a kid and I was pulled over by the police and kind of a strange interaction ensued, and at that point, I decided no more of this type of life. I don't want to end up like a lot of the people that I had seen growing up around my neighborhood who had incredible talent but for whatever reason didn't reach their full economic or social potential and I just didn't want to be one of those guys.

GORDON: I still say that race is America's greatest taboo, that we don't typically talk about race in real terms in mixed company. Do you believe that to be the case?

Mr. FRYER: Unfortunately I think it is the case. It certainly doesn't happen always, but in my experience, not only in mixed company but even in the company of people of our own race a lot of times we don't talk honestly and openly about the things that are hindering blacks in America. And that's what I'm all about frankly.

GORDON: Do you believe that we can't because it is still painful for so many people?

Mr. FRYER: The conditions are still painful. I think the bigger item is the politics of race. I think people are sitting on respective sides of the fence and yelling at each other instead of trying to understand facts. See, I think we've got to have the following tag line or mantra which is science before politics in matters of race. These things can be studied scientifically and we have to do so to make progress.

GORDON: And you have done so, but let me ask you one other thing before we get into some of the specifics that you've looked at and that is I'm curious your take on the Cosby, some people say now, fiasco, his conversation about race and whether or not we are dealing with, as you suggested just moments ago, ourselves in a truthful manner.

Mr. FRYER: I just find it a bit odd frankly to make these kind of speeches but really have no programmatic kind of ideas of how to move forward. It's one thing to say, `We've got to get better.' It's totally something different to say, `We've got to get better, and here's how and here's the money so that we can do it.'

GORDON: Do we need as a community to start to have open dialogue, if not with others, within ourselves and do you see particularly in today's world a black America at being at somewhat a crossroads in terms of being able to further themselves successfully?

Mr. FRYER: I'm not sure about the crossroads. That's a tough question, but I am sure that we have to have open dialogue. So absolutely. One of the nice things about what Bill Cosby is doing is he's getting the message out there that, `Let's change the dialogue about race.' I think that's a good idea. I mean, facts are our friends. If people don't know the facts, if people don't know that the National Association of Education Progress reports that black 17-year-olds read at the proficiency level of white 13-year-olds, they have to understand that. Now just describing the facts doesn't assign blame to either party, but why not understand the facts so we know what we have to attack?

GORDON: Speaking of that, one of the research papers that you've put out, May 2005, speaks to an issue that African-Americans have grappled with for quite some time, the title: An Empirical Analysis of, quote, "Acting White."

Mr. FRYER: Yes.

GORDON: Talk to me about, A, the research and why you decided to do this and what you found.

Mr. FRYER: The reason I decided to do this is because it's a very, very hot issue in the public eye. And really there's been lots of research, but it was started by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu in their analysis of a fictitious high school called Capital High. The high school was real, the name is fictitious. Then several years later, Phillip Cook and Jens Ludwig wrote a paper where they looked at self-reported measures of popularity; that is, you actually ask kids, `How popular are you?' And they found that there was really no difference in black and white kids who achieved very highly in this self-reported measure of popularity.

Now asking a 13-year-old boy how popular he is is paramount to asking him how much sex he's having. I mean, you're going to get an answer. It's probably not going to be the right one, OK? And so when I stumbled across this data set, it just opened up an incredible opportunity. I actually studied this thing, quote, "scientifically," closed quote, which is they actually had friendship networks in schools. So instead of asking someone, `How popular are you?' you could just simply count and see how many friends they had in the schools and how their friendship networks varied as in relation to their GPA. And what we found is that for black students, higher grades gained you modestly higher popularity up until grade point average of about 3.5 and then it decreased thereafter. And surprisingly at least to me going in is that Hispanics, it goes up into about a 2.5 and then their decrease is even more substantial than blacks.

Now I want to be very careful. Our paper says nothing about ostracism. It doesn't say that they're being beat up, or like Will Smith walking home in West Philadelphia with his books in pizza boxes because he didn't want people to see him studying. Our study really says nothing about that. Really we're only about the racial differences in relationship between popularity and academic achievement.

GORDON: Yet, one can make a creative leap and assume as you all will not in these papers but those of us who will read in layman's terms, try to figure it out, we'll be able to assume and discern from these numbers if you will that in too many African-American neighborhoods and quite frankly other minority neighborhoods, there is this instance of the want for education, the quest for learning to be equated to, quote, "acting white," and this has done a disservice to many young African-Americans in this country. Why do you think that that phenomenon continues in today's world? We've talked about it for some time.

Mr. FRYER: I think it's a really simple type of social interaction and it's not race specific. There's nothing unique about blacks here. I think if you went to lower Illinois and you looked on in those type of rural communities, you'd see a very similar thing which is students really have to struggle with two audiences. One, they want to get a good job later in life, but, two, they have to satisfy their peer group and their social environment around them. So if you get high education, then you're going to signal to an employer that you're going to be a competent employee. However, that may signal to your peer group that you don't expect to be around long. So it's this two audience signaling tension that I believe produces the empirical results we find in our paper.

GORDON: Let me ask you about something else that's unique to research, I think, but certainly not unique or atypical again in conversations that our community has around the breakfast table or at the family barbecues in the summer is something that was published in August of 2004 in The Quarterly Journal of Economics and that was a study of the cause and consequences of a distinctively black name. So if you name your child Laquita, Lakeisha, Ladonda, you take your pick, how much did you find that really affected their movement in life?

Mr. FRYER: I actually found it didn't affect their movement at all. Now I know your listeners may be going back on their chair saying, `What? This guy's full of it.' But let me explain. What we see is that names like Lakeisha, LaQuanda, Aiesha, Edda, all those types of names are certainly correlated, associated with poorer outcomes, living in lower income areas of a city, etc., etc., but the question we were really interested in--this is me and Steven Levitt--was the extent to which giving your son or daughter a distinctively black name would actually cause them to have worse outcomes.

So what we did was we looked at all of the birth records in California, a little over 16 million names, and compared someone who was born in a very similar hospital in a very similar area of the city with very similar parents. But one kid got the name Lakeisha and the other little baby girl got the name Emily. And what we found is that 20-some-odd years later, Emily and Lakeisha were doing very similar in terms of their economic and social outcomes, in terms of whether or not they were likely to be unmarried mothers, the median income of their ZIP code, education, etc., etc. So our conclusions were that names aren't actually causally affecting blacks but they are certainly associated with lower outcomes.

GORDON: So if you name your daughter Lakeisha or Linda or Condoleezza, it really is what you set her up with that will provide her success or not.

Mr. FRYER: That's exactly right. And, you know--that's right. So, you know, when I told my grandmother about this study, she said, `Well, yeah, but still, people are going to kind of look at them funny if they're named Lakeisha, Lwanda.' And I said, `Well, that's the whole point. We should be looking at them funny if their mothers aren't educating them and raising them in the right environment, not if they're giving them distinctively black names,' because the black names don't matter so much in terms of their outcome but the type of home environment and the type of, you know, emphasis, etc., they put on parenting and education. Those things actually do matter.

GORDON: And that being said, I'm sure at some point in time in her life, someone looked at Oprah strange when they announced her coming into the room. So...

Mr. FRYER: I still do.

GORDON: Yeah, but you can change things. Well, Mr. Fryer, thank you so much for spending some time with us and talking with us about your findings and all that is going on. And if what we read is to be believed, we will be hearing about you for a mighty long time.

Mr. FRYER: I'm just getting started, but thanks for having me on.

GORDON: Roland Fryer is an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University.

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