Being president, Barack Obama commands the attention of all Americans when he addresses matters involving war, the economy, the budget and immigration. But being the first black president, he has a unique authority to address matters of race, particularly in addressing black listeners.
He did that the other day speaking at a town hall meeting, an event connected to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a public-private program to help young minority males. Praising America’s ideals of diversity, he lamented, “Sometimes African-Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of ‘acting white’ … where, OK, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black … that has to go.”
It’s not a new message, and it’s one with considerable resonance among African-Americans. Actor and comedian Bill Cosby has decried “boys attacking other boys because the boys are studying, and they say, ‘You're acting white.’”
Filmmaker Spike Lee told a college audience: “When I was growing up, we never, ever, never ridiculed someone because they were a good student. Your generation, they now equate intelligence with acting white and ignorance with acting black, and they wear it like a badge of honor.”
The complaint is not universally accepted among African-Americans. Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic magazine says of his youth, “I certainly heard ‘nerd’ a lot, but not ‘acting white.’”
Phillip Jackson, head of Chicago’s Black Star Project, which works to promote strong families and schools, dismisses the president’s comments as “a useless characterization of adolescent behavior.” Obama, he believes, would be better off focusing on bigger problems facing black teens, such as job discrimination.
Nor is anti-intellectualism unique to blacks. At all-white high schools, it’s a pretty universal fact that jocks rank higher on the popularity scale than members of the science club. “Ivy Leaguer” is not always a compliment in any American ethnic group.
As obstacles to black achievement go, this one may not rank high. But it’s a genuine problem, which is why Obama is not alone in raising it. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote that when he spoke to a mostly black audience of high school graduates recently, “I felt a moral obligation to set their minds right on ‘acting white’ or ‘wanna-be white’ before they headed off to college. The insult is as short-sighted as it is ignorant.”
In the real world, the insult has tangible effects. Harvard economist Roland Fryer did a study of high school students that found that whites gain considerably in popularity as their grade point averages rise, but “for black and Hispanic students there is a drop-off in popularity for those with higher GPAs.”
He concludes that “social pressures could go a long way toward explaining the large racial and ethnic gaps in SAT scores, the underperformance of minorities in suburban schools and the lack of adequate representation of blacks and Hispanics in elite colleges and universities.”
Poverty, crime and lack of economic opportunity, of course, play bigger roles in the achievement gap. But no group gains by denigrating behavior that is conducive to its own achievement.
That’s why it’s valuable for the most powerful black man in the world to remind young African-Americans how he got where he is: not by blindly imitating whites, but by refusing to let himself be limited by labels.