A study looking at “the social cost to academic achievement”

A psychologist writing in the Washington Post suggests that a new study sheds light on this long-standing issue raised by sociologist John Ogbu about high-achieving minority students who are accused of “acting white.” This study of 13,000 students was recently published in the latest issue of Child Development:

The study took measures at two time points and examined the change in social acceptance across the year. The question of interest is whether students’ academic achievement (measured as grade point average) at Time 1 was related to the change in social acceptance over the course of the year.

For White, Latino, and Asian students, it was—positively. That is, the higher a student’s GPA was at Time 1, the more likely it was that his or her social acceptance would increase during the coming year. It was not a big effect, but it was present.

For African American and Native American students the opposite was true. A higher GPA predicted *lower* social acceptance during the following year. This effect was stronger than the positive effect for the other ethnic groups.

Thus, it seemed that the simpler version of the “acting white” hypothesis was supported.

But the story turned out to be a bit more complicated.

Further analyses showed that there was a social penalty for high achieving African Americans *only* at schools with a small percentage of black students. The cost was not present at high-achieving schools with mostly African-American students, or at any low-achieving schools.

At the same time, there was never a social benefit for academic achievement, as there was for White, Latino, and Asian students.

So it sounds like the context of the school matters quite a bit: when African-Americans are a minority in the school, then high achieving Black students are penalized while this is not the case in majority African-American schools. In these majority/minority schools, African-Americans and whites (and others) are directly in opposition and the high-achievers get caught in the middle.

I wonder if there is a “tipping point” in schools where high-achieving African-Americans move from being called out for “acting white” to being accepted. Does the school need to be 40% African-American or higher? The problem may be that there are relatively few schools with somewhat equal mixes of races. We see tipping points in other areas: in neighborhoods, whites start moving out when the Black population reaches about 15-20% and in churches, it is difficult to keep whites in church once the percentage of Blacks reaches a similar amount.

I’d be curious to see what the authors suggest could be done to counteract this trend.