Is it possible that school desegregation actually hurt African American students? That's the argument Stuart Buck advances in a new book called Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, sparking earnest debate among reviewers and bloggers.* He suggests that desegregation is part of the reason for the "acting white" phenomenon, part of a destructive anti-academic culture he identifies among black students where black teens accuse those who try too hard at school of "acting white." But is there enough evidence of an anti-academic sentiment among black students? And does that really mean segregated schools would be better?

*Update: Stuart Buck clarifies in the comments below that he is not arguing that desegregation had a net negative effect on African American students, but rather that "desegregation was an overall benefit with one unfortunate side effect." For more, see this post by WNYC's Celeste Headlee.

  • 'Acting White' a Problem, But Is It Really the Fault of Desegregation?  Richard Thompson Ford, reviewing Buck's book for Slate, approves of several of Buck's points, but says Buck is "neglect[ing] 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." In a Bloggingheads discussion with John McWhorter, he suggests that it's "not just poverty but the concentration of poverty, the hollowing out of many inner city neighborhoods, the exodus of the black middle class from those neighborhoods ... those phenomena I think are more likely culprits for the general depressed academic performance among African Americans, which is of course a problem even in segregated schools."

  • 'Sometimes I Wish I Had Gone to a Segregated School,' says John McWhorter in response. In a review for The New Republic, McWhorter approvingly notes the points of Buck's argument he finds persuasive. As he says to Ford, "one might have the sense that there's a problem with black kids and school and that that's the way it's always been ... this has something to do with either culture of it's something about black culture ... but what's interesting is that if you talk to black people that are older than that ... that didn't happen in 1950." He also responds to Ford's suggestion that this is about class rather than race: "it's not necessarily the kids in the schoolyard in south side Chicago," he says, that are calling each other white for studying. Rather, "it's the black kids who know white kids who seem to take this on ... I saw this happening ... where income was hardly the problem." He also says that "the white kids think of whiteness as corny [too] but they can think of it as corny while also thinking 'I better hit the books.'"
  • What If It's About Association, Not Academics?  Gene Denby at The American Prospect notes that "in integrated schools, black students are less likely to be placed in Advanced Placement classes and more likely to be placed in remedial ones." Thus, "black kids who are academic will be spending most of their school days and class time in the company of nonblack kids." He wonders if these black kids are "being told they're acting white ... because of the company they keep" rather than the classes they take, though those end up amounting to one and the same.
  • This Is a Lot of Anecdotal Evidence, protests Jamelle Bouie, responding to McWhorter and Buck. "There simply isn't much broad empirical evidence for the claim that black students in integrated settings have a racialized antipathy toward educational achievement." To counter anecdotes, he offers his own:
As a kid, my black classmates regularly teased me for "dressing white," "talking white" and "acting white." And it hurt, a lot. It's tempting to think that I was teased out of jealousy or disdain, but in retrospect, it's obvious that those kids were simply being kids, and teasing me because I stood out in the most glaring ways: I spoke differently, I dressed differently, and spent my extracurricular time in the library on the debate team. I was a nerd, and those kids responded accordingly. Was this unpleasant? Absolutely. Was it evidence of a debilitating black pathology? Not at all.
  • But Statistics Show Black Students Are Doing Better Now  "If we're talking about actual performance (as opposed to 'culture') then black kids appear to be doing better than ever these days," observes Matthew Yglesias. "What's more, the gap between black kids and white kids has narrowed," and the only reason it isn't even narrower "is that white kids are also doing better than ever." Desegregation, on balance, is looking pretty good, he thinks.
  • A Segregated Education  Even Richard Thompson Ford, supports experimenting with inner city schools, and The Atlantic's Megan McArdle runs with the idea a bit. Gender-segregated schools are often proposed as a solution to the problem of middle school girls defining themselves too much by femininity instead of humanity, she notes. But with race, she points out, "even if you support the idea in theory, in practice, the problems are daunting.  I'm not sure such a school would be legal; and one worries that even if allowed to operate, it would be starved of resources." National Review's Reihan Salam nevertheless thinks those in the McWhorter-Buck camp are thinking about this the right way: " let's not assume that all-black schools are necessarily a bad thing; rather, let's create room for more educational experiments."