'It's a way of taking politics, emotion, and anecdotes out of the analysis of racial inequality'
Harvard News Office
Roland G. Fryer Jr. is a brave man.
An economist and self-described math geek, Fryer plunges fearlessly into the roiling waters of racial inequality, often surfacing with findings that contradict conventional wisdom, political correctness, and even his own life experience.
"I take stubborn old questions of racial inequality that have been around for decades and decades and try to use simple mathematics to be able to answer those questions," says Fryer, assistant professor of economics and a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. "It's a way of taking politics, taking emotion, taking anecdotes out of the study of racial inequality."
Fryer's research probes issues so burdened with politics, emotion, and anecdote that many academics pass them by. Is black culture a cause or consequence of racial inequality? Can crack cocaine be blamed for the nationwide dive in black health and economic outcomes in the late 1980s and early '90s? Is color-sighted affirmative action more efficient than color-blind affirmative action?
And, recently, are black youth faring worse than whites in school because of the social stigma around "acting white"?
Black Americans acting white
Underlying the hotly contested acting white phenomenon, which Fryer explores in a to-be-published paper co-authored by Harvard graduate student Paul Torelli, is the assumption that blacks do not value education.
"I thought that was crazy," says Fryer. "I didn't think there were racial differences in how people value education. I mean, black people were being lynched to be able to try to learn how to read 300 years ago."
Armed with a massive new data set, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or Addhealth, and some powerful mathematical tools such as spectral graph theory, Fryer launched an empirical study of acting white that aimed to quantify what historians and sociologists, ethnographers and politicians had been observing and speculating about for two decades.
Not only did Addhealth boast a large sample - more than 90,000 junior high and high school students from 175 schools around the country - it provided detailed information on friendship networks within schools. This friendship data allowed Fryer to construct an objective measure of social status, something missing from previous studies of acting white. One such study, which negated the existence of the acting white phenomenon, relied on the self-reported popularity of its subjects, a method Fryer describes as worrisome. "Asking 12-year-olds how popular they are is tantamount to asking them how much sex they're having. You're going to get an answer, but it's probably not going to be the right one," he says.
Fryer's empirical analysis found - contrary to the popular beliefs of many - that a stigma attached to "acting white" does exist. In integrated schools, black students' popularity rose with their grade point averages but declined when their GPAs rose above 3.5. The disconnect between popularity and academic success was even more dramatic for Hispanics, whose popularity took a sharp dive once grade point averages reached 2.5.
Yet the research also found something that confounds many of the popular assumptions about acting white: In predominantly black schools and integrated private schools, black students' popularity kept pace with their GPAs. Acting white is nearly nonexistent in those situations.
This finding dispels the notion that black students don't value education and ridicule those who strive for academic success, says Fryer. "If you thought that the entire achievement gap was due to acting white, you're wrong. It can't explain why black kids in all-black schools aren't performing well," he says. "However, if you're wondering why black kids in Brookline don't do well ... this could indeed be it."
What is the "blackest" thing we can do? Blame the white man, wait on our front porches for the mailman to bring us a 'Reparations Check' or get serious about higher education?