Bryan Caplan  

Ostracism for "Acting White": Is It Really "Unavoidable"?

It will be a great day when... Regressions By Popular Demand:...

There seems to be a lot of demand for me to blog some of my Harford-related regressions on black versus white returns to education. I'll try to satisfy this demand early next week. For now, though, I want to complain about another problem with Harford's chapter on "rational racism."

Harford goes over some compelling evidence that black-on-black social sanctions for "acting white" are real. But then, he argues that what seems like pointless cruelty is not only "rational," but also "turns out to emerge from Von-Neumann style mathematics as unavoidably as the poker bluffs of chapter two":

If you're on the left, the "acting white" slur is the response of a scarred psyche to a racist society. If you're on the right you might prefer to speak of a victim complex. It takes an economist to realize that the ostracism inherent in "acting white," while tragic, is perfectly rational.

Here's why. To a typical white student, studying hard does not offer an escape route from the society that surrounds him. His parents, extended family, and peers are holding down the kinds of jobs that come from an education. But as long as African Americans remain disadvantaged and clustered together in ghettos, a black student who studies hard is acquiring the ability to escape from poverty, crime, and deprivation - and from those around him. That may not be popular. People don't like to see their friends developing escape plans; even the option to escape makes us nervous.

Harford has an interesting analogy: If your boss finds about that you're studying for a career change, he's not going to give you a lot of responsibility. Who knows how long you'll be around? Harford then explains that ostracism of people looking for an "out" is hardly unique to blacks:
Fryer points to analogues of "acting white" in communities as diverse as the British working class (that certainly matches my experience at school), Italian immigrants in Boston's West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and... Japan's lowest caste.
This all sounds great, until you realize that there are plenty of cultures that don't work this way! Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were part of the working class when they arrived. But almost all of the social pressure in Jewish culture was to do well in school and make a better life, not remain in the working class. The same goes for earlier waves of Asian immigration. Japanese-American gardeners of the sixties encouraged the next generation to do well in school and move up; that's why I've haven't heard anyone talk about a "Japanese gardener" for twenty years, even though they were ubiquitous when I was a kid.

You could say: "Jewish students who studied hard weren't persecuted by their Jewish peers because they wanted to escape together." But that just pushes the question back a step. Why do some groups plan common escapes, while others lash out at anyone who wants to leave?

In short, it looks like we have multiple equilibria. If members of your group plan on moving up, social sanctions encourage you to try, leading to progress; if members of your group don't plan on moving up, social sanctions encourage you not to try, leading to stagnation. Giving kids the cold shoulder for acting white is one of many possible outcomes, not an "unavoidable" implication of game theory.

The interesting question is why the progressive equilibrium prevails in some cases but not others. And frankly, Schelling points aside, game theory has very little to say about this. When economists seriously try to explain the differences between e.g. Jewish and black culture, they quickly turn into cultural historians - and start having the left-right argument ("Racist society!" "No, victim complex!") that Harford wants to bypass.

P.S. My favorite work by an economist on cultural differences remains Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
anonymous writes:

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It's not that they're lashing out at the desire to "move up," it's that they're angry about the explicit rejection of a cultural value, i.e., "not caring about school." "Not caring about school" is valued among many American social groups, irrespective of race. It affects males more than females, and is associated with the the nerd-jock dichotomy so prevalent in high schools.

I believe that the ostracism for "acting white" is just an exaggeration of this already existing phenomenon, combined with the fact that "whiteness" can be easily applied to a different way of speaking that happens to be associated with education. In other words, "acting white" = "acting like a nerd."

Tom West writes:

You know, since probably everybody here can predict what Steve Sailer comment here is going to say, I'm almost tempted to post it for him just to imagine his reaction... :-)

But I won't. Suffice it to say that if Steve was (will be?) accurate, then cultures would essentially remain static forever. But they don't. Values change over a generation or two. Today's IQ tests barely determine today's culture, and they certain don't determine tomorrow's.

TGGP writes:

Acting white is old school. Now it's "acting asian".

Thomas Sowell gives some excellent examples of cultures changing in his book "Black Rednecks and White Liberals": the Scottish and the Japanese. Both did so by imitating the English. That's the real reason to cry at Heathrow.

Troy Camplin writes:

It's not a racial issue, but rather an issue of psychosocial complexity. Those who are at one level may not find education important, and be so group-oriented that they lash out at those who move up in complexity. Jews were at a level of complexity that valued education (and have been for a long time), so they worked to get educated. Read Beck and Cowan's "Spiral Dynamics"

RL writes:

Bandwagon, I'm not sure your explanation stands:

"It's not that they're lashing out at the desire to "move up," it's that they're angry about the explicit rejection of a cultural value, i.e., "not caring about school." "Not caring about school" is valued among many American social groups, irrespective of race. It affects males more than females, and is associated with the the nerd-jock dichotomy so prevalent in high schools."

Yes, but this dichotomy is INTRAethnic, not INTERethnic. Here what needs to be explained is why the "jocks" compose such a large body of the black race that acting "nerd" is a seen as a rejection of the race. The Irish, traditionally, have not excelled in school either, but no one says an Irish man who studies hard is "acting white".

poetryman69 writes:

there is a reason why you do not wnt to derive your ethos and your life plan from your peers and the street. they will inevitably strive for the lowest and the least. the least common denominator. that which any thug could excel at without much effort. to fix this problem every young male should be under constant adult supervision until he is of age. this goes double for young males in single parent homes.

waldo writes:

Unlike horses, with people you can usually tell the winners at the starting gate. There is a flip-side to this pygmalion. I have a friend who is a 5th grade teacher and she is astounded at the emerging number of white students who are "acting black." She said they assume the language, mannerism, and posturing that will somehow justify their neglect and devaluation of schoolwork. I'll have to ask her if they are ostracized by the white students that are still acting white.

Dain writes:


I think Bandwagon is more correct than you might think.

When the country's "race" discussion included more or less only Poles, Irish and English, it was obvious that once you put a hat and suit on any of the above they are rather interchangeable - at least without hearing them speak, etc. But over one's own lifteime those more superficial traits can be remedied. So it stands to reason that the charge of "acting white" wouldn't stick, thus "acting nerdy" instead. Black people have an obvious physical distinction with allows for the charge of racial treason to stick more easily.

Big ups to the Tom West comment.

Some could get a lot of mileage out of starting a Fire Joe Morgan-type blog just to debate Steve Sailor.

James A. Donald writes:

Mexicans constitute an intermediate case. There is an active poltical minority, influential at universities and within the Democratic party that is violently opposed to acting white - that is to say, opposed hard work, eduction, thrift, speaking english, and so forth, but the silent majority of Mexicans think them crazy, or completely fail to comprehend what they are about. The great majority take the American dream entirely for granted, and if their leadership was to plainly call them race traitors, they would think the leadership mad.

There are certainly a lot of groups that penalize members for pursuing the American dream, but most groups do not - so it is not inevitable, rather it is pathological.

Steve Sailer writes:

"We hate it when our friends become successful
And if they're Northern, that makes it even worse"

By The Smiths, lyrics by Morrissey

Steve Sailer writes:

British yout', especially the boys, have been trending anti-school for a generation or so. In Britain, there's opened up a big gender gap in school achievement test scores between white girls and white boys. Similarly, the crime rate, especially things like burglary and drunken assault, is much higher among working class young white males in Britain than among their distant cousins in the American white working class.

Steve Sailer writes:

One interesting difference between blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. is that blacks actually have a more intellectually-oriented cultural. For example, while Hispanics who speak English average better than African-Americans on school achievement exams, Hispanic high school dropout rates among those who grew up in American are no better and appear to be a little worse, according to James Heckman's recent paper. Same for college.

Every big book store has an African-American section these days, but very few have a Latino equivalent (unless they have a shelf of Spanish-language books). The number of black commentators is vastly larger than the number of Spanish surnamed commentators, many of whom, such as Geraldo Rivera and Matthew Yglesias aren't exactly 100% Latino.

Whenever you see an interview on TV with inner city black children, they all say they want to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer.

So, it appears that Latino culture in America doesn't push its children hard enough to get on the college - white collar track, so you end up with Hispanic guys fixing cars who could be engineering them if they were pushed as kids toward academic achievement. In contrast, African-American culture tends to push its children too hard to get on the college - white collar track, the "Yale or Jail" syndrome, with lots just dropping out of productive life because the idea of a lifetime of blue collar work is considered shameful.

Troy Camplin writes:

There is a serious problem in this culture regarding all of our attitudes toward blue collar work and workers. And our schools perpetuate it, being organized as they are for college prep or nothing. If you're not going to college (and even if you are most of the time), high schools are practically of no use -- they don't teach you anything at all anyone could possibly use. Unless, again, you are going to college.

N.Ramagopal writes:

In India there is a perception that students belonging to the "upper castes" perform better than those of the "lower castes". Whether or not this is borne out by empirical facts, what is important is that unlike in the U.S where many black students ostracize blacks who study well, in India the students of the lower castes who excel are not ostracized for "acting upper caste." In fact, many lower caste people are "acting upper caste" not only in their academic life but in their social life also, in the process adopting some undesirable aspects of higher caste Hindus culture.

Plain Truth writes:

The fact of the matter is that the ostracizing of a member of the black community who "acts white" by other members of that community stems from either the conscious or the subconscious view of the white population as an enemy, or at best, a rival by those doing the ostracizing.

Leaving race out of the picture, this situation can be compared to the entirely more innocent situation of opposing cliques within a high school. A member of clique A begins to act like clique B, and is therefore cast out of clique A because of this traitorous display.

While this scenario doesn't apply to the entire black community, the ones who reject, criticize, abuse and ostracize fellow blacks who they determine to be "acting white" do so because--whether they're aware of their motive or not--they view it as a betrayal.

aarin writes:

Instead of reading an article for this periodical analysis I attended the 7th annual ASET conference. At the conference there were several speakers, I listened to one of the speakers Dr. Dwight Lee. During his presentation about economics he talked the Fiscal Policy which is the setting of the level of government spending and taxation by government policymakers. Lee mentioned the “Invisible Hand” which is known as individual freedom. Lee also talked a lot about the Great Depression because of it being one of the most important events in economic history. But the main focus of Lee’s presentation was about Milton Friedman. He talked about how Friedman was a “freedom fighter” and the contributions he made toward economics and the different theories.
Lee discussed many different economic concepts throughout his speech. Even though he never put it into these terms, Lee talked a lot about the 9th and 10th principles of economics. The 9th principle is prices rise when the government prints too much money. This principle mainly explains the different examples of inflation and how inflation develops. “What causes inflation? In almost all cases of large or persistent inflation, the culprit is growth in the quantity of money” (Principles of Macroeconomics). The 10th principle is society faces a short-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. This principle is about how raising prices and more hiring means lower unemployment. Lee when talking about Friedman believing in the stagnation theory which is an increase in both employment and inflation at the same time. Lee states that, “when prices drop the economy starts to grow again after a recession” “Dr. Dwight Lee”
At first to be completely honest I just attended the conference for extra credit but in the end actually liked the speaker I listened to. Lee talked about things that I was learning in class which made me look at things in a different perspective than what I had read in the book. Lee’s style and the way he presented him self was interesting for several reasons. I felt that Lee would explain theories and talked about Milton Friedman in a story way. I also liked the way that Lee would give out a lot of information but then break it up with a joke or remark to kind of reset your way of thinking so that you wanted to keep listening to what he had to say instead of staring off into space.

What are any thoughts about taxation by government policymakers?

Like Milton Friedman do you believe in individual freedom?

Hans Seggelke writes:

I have studied and know many people of different origins; All in all where they come from and what nationality, race, religion or household they come from has nothing to do with why or why not someone will go forward to pursue a goal/avenue. Immigration is the key in all of this, without immigration there would be no goal or avenue to exploit (e.g. someone coming to US).

I myself come from a different country other then the United States. I come here because having a degree/experience based out of the United States says more then majority of any other country. I choose to wake up every morning and futher my knowledge because I want to support a family and have a distinguished life. Some people believe this and others may not. If one person wishes to further themselves they are not going to do it half-way(or at least I would hope). This is the personal aspect of moving forward in life to be successful.

I have had the great pleasure of having friends from many different cultures as noted above. I do not agree that nationality, race, religion or type of household that someone may come from; Depicts what they are ambitious about in life at all. I have a Jewish friend that has no effort in life or goals, a American friend that just cannot seem to make up his mind on what he wants to do in life, last a middle eastern friend that does not much of anything. Still all of them seem to get by and have a great life, just because someone is not following the path of their nationality, race, religion or household does not mean that it is because they refuse to or cannot. They simply could just not have a drive to do so.

All in all I have to agree with you that Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America. Is far better and gives a deeper intake for people. He covers a broad band of immigrants such as Africans, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Puero Ricans, Mexicans and Jews.

Amy writes:

Professor Caplan,
I only recently came across your discussion on statistical discrimination.

There's now lots of data suggesting that education pays off for blacks.

However, one point is worth making: if blacks don't get quite as much bang for their buck from education as whites, there's a ready explanation for this -- and it's not discrimination. Extra years of education might yield less for blacks because blacks and whites with the same years of education are not comparable. On average, blacks with a high school degree read at the level of whites in 9th grade. What employers actually care about is ability, not years of schooling. Ability/achievement is what predicts job performance. Ultimately, therefore, the proper "supply side" control is not years of education, but underlying cognitive or educational attainment. The more important question is: when those cognitive inputs are controlled, do blacks do as well as whites? Papers by Farkas and colleagues strongly suggest that they do.

Amy Wax, University of Pennsylvania Law School

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