NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 27, 2005

There is a well-publicized aspect of Black adolescent peer culture in which Black teen-agers ridicule others for behaviors regarded as characteristic of whites -- referred to as "acting white." This is a form of peer pressure that is thought to discourage academic achievement. It includes, for example, ridiculing an interest in making good grades.

A primary obstacle to the study of "acting white" has been the lack of quantitative measures of the phenomenon. However, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to construct an index that measured the popularity of students based on friendship networks within the schools surveyed. This allowed them to objectively measure the student's social status ("popularity"), along with parental characteristics, academic achievement and so forth.

According to the researchers:

  • Among white teenagers, a correlation exists between higher grades and popularity.
  • Popularity among their peers also rises along with grades for black and Hispanic teenagers; but above a certain achievement level, the trend reverses.
  • For blacks, popularity peaks at a GPA of 3.5 (B+) and then declines; a black student with a 4.0 average, or straight As, has about as many black friends as a black student with a 2.9 GPA.
  • The threshold for Hispanics is much lower; popularity begins to decline at a GPA of 2.5 (C+), and a Hispanic student with a 4.0 average is less popular among other Hispanics than one with a 1.0.

These losses are not offset by cross-racial friendships; higher grades appear to cost blacks and Hispanics white friends as well, say the researchers.

Researchers found the phenomenon mostly in public schools in which blacks are less than 20 percent of the students, but non-existent among blacks in predominantly black schools or those who attend private schools.

Source: Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Paul Torelli, "An Empirical Analysis of 'Acting White,'" Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2005.

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