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Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation Hardcover – May 25, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Buck, Arkansas University doctoral fellow in education reform, enters the black-white achievement gap debate with a review of anti-academic attitudes among some black students, who dub school achievement as acting white; he finds its roots in what was lost when schools were desegregated. Buck fears misinterpretation (no one should read this section as suggesting that we should go back to segregated schools) as he delineates the costs of losing the schools as community centers, the concomitant loss of black teachers and principals as academic role models, and the detachment of black parents and students. Desegregation, he argues, then set the stage for the 'acting white' criticism to emerge in the school setting, as black students met hostile receptions from white students and teachers. Buck's proposed solutions are implausible—and almost risible: one, since humans are tribal, some students should be in an all-black environment that includes black teachers and principals, the other to replace individual grades with regular interschool competitions, supplemented by small rewards for winners on a group basis. Overstuffed with evidence showing he examined literally thousands of sources over the past several years, the result is a repetitive mélange of education philosophy and anecdotal history. (June)
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The bulk of this book is concerned with explaining how education came to be associated with "acting white." Throughout most of black history in America, education was highly valued and the charge of "acting white" was mostly made by white racists. Buck's surprising finding: the "acting white" charge is a phenomena that grew out of desegregation. Buck is not, however, criticizing desegregation. On the whole it was a beneficial movement. However, the way desegregation was carried out turned out to be harmful to many in the black community, especially in the south. Black schools were torn down and black teachers and principals were fired or demoted. Students were bussed away from their homes to predominantly white schools where they faced discrimination and viscous harassment. Lacking black role models and forced to seek the approval of white teachers and administrators, these students and subsequent generations came to view the whole process of education as a white enterprise and to attack those who tried to succeed in this new educational environment.
Buck does a good job of demonstrating that the "acting white" charge grew out of desegregation. The question remains, though, how do we solve the problems it creates? Although the entire achievement gap cannot be attributed to the charge that those who pursue an education are "acting white," this widespread attitude is a contributing factor as President Obama, among others, has acknowledged. Buck examines several solutions from black charter schools to the radical proposal that school districts do away with grades (ending competition between students within a school) and replace them with academic competitions between schools (who will get the higher test scores, perhaps). The latter proposal has the benefit of creating a community out of a diverse student population in much the same way that sporting events like high school football do. For such a proposal to work, schools would need to be even more integrated than they are now. It would also require a massive rethinking of our goals and approach to education. But school districts can take immediate steps to ameliorate this situation. Many districts, rather than creating all black charter schools are instead experimenting with the Sankofa program within integrated schools. I've observed Sankofa classrooms and they are immensely effective in generating student engagement. But the most important thing educators can do is to recognize the reality of the "acting white" charge and, however uncomfortable it may be, consider the ways they might contribute, albeit unwittingly, to it. This book is a good place to start.
In no way, shape, or form, should it be believed that Buck makes segregation into some golden age that was ruined by integration. Rather, he states that in such difficult times, the African-American communities of the South rallied around education in a way that modern, integrated schools do not. In a way, he states, integration threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is only after we recognize these problems that we can hope to develop solutions to the achievement gap in American education.
This book is a must read for historians, sociologists, educators, community leaders, parents, and policy makers, as failing to learn this history and its unintended consequences only dooms us to repeat it.