As the white adoptive parent of two black children, Harvard Law graduate Stuart Buck began to read about education and race and became intrigued by the “acting white” epithet sometimes directed at at high-achieving minority students.
That personal interest grew into a professional one that culminated in a book due out in May, “Acting White, the Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.”
A doctoral student in education at the University of Arkansas, Buck says his research led him to a surprising conclusion, that the “acting white” criticism had its roots in desegregation that wrenched black students from schools and communities they knew and threw them into new schools where they were often reviled, shunned and underestimated.
“The analogy I would draw is treatment for cancer,” said Buck, speaking by phone from Arkansas. “Segregation is like a cancer that we had to get rid of, but the treatment that saved our lives had unintended side effects.”
While black students often attended segregated schools that lacked the resources of white facilities, Buck says the schools served as the connective tissue in a community that historically valued education.
“In segregated schools, black children had consistently seen other blacks succeeding in the academic world,’’ he says. “The authority figures and role models — teachers and principals were all black. And the best students in the schools were black as well.”
While black parents welcomed integration, they had hoped for a merger of black and white schools. Instead, they witnessed the destruction of black schools and the erasure of the culture, community and closeness that the schools had created. Their children marched off to white schools where they experienced hostility and were tracked into lower-level classes. In his research, Buck found many examples of where even new facilities that had housed black schools were abandoned because white parents weren’t willing to send their kids to black schools.
“They did not want to send white schoolchildren into black schools, to be taught by black teachers and disciplined by black principals,” he says.
A University of Georgia and Harvard Law graduate, Buck cites Butler High School in Gainesville, which was built in 1962 but closed seven years later as part of the desegregation plan.
Black principals were demoted or fired, and teachers made to feel unwanted in the integrated settings. Buck notes that Gainesville had 115 white teachers and 70 black teachers in 1966. Three years later, 22 black teachers remained.
The loss was significant to the city’s black students because black teachers usually lived in the same community, knew the families of students and delighted in their successes.
There was an affection that was not easily replicated with white teachers who did not live in the same communities, attend the same churches or shop in the same stores.
In losing their school, Gainesville’s black students lost their mascot, their school colors, their yearbook and newspaper. Buck says the uprooting of black students from familiar and supportive environments was made even more difficult by the reception in their new schools.
Buck draws on news accounts of the era in which white students commented, “This is our school and they are just going to have to adjust.” White female teachers, raised to fear black men, were not comfortable teaching black high school boys.
Buck cites the research showing that capable black students are still less likely to be in advanced classes than white peers. Either out of overt racism or “liberal guilt,” Buck says white teachers did not hold black students to high expectations.
Once reassigned to desegregated schools, black students “were sitting in a classroom with mostly other black students in what they believed to be the ‘dumb’ class, watching as the white students headed to the ‘smart’ class down the hall,’’’ writes Buck.
Dispirited, black students began to associate achievement with white students and ostracize peers who joined the white kids in the ‘‘smart’’ classes down the hall.
Among the research that Buck mentions: The findings of Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. that while the popularity of white students rises with grade-point average, black children become less popular the better their grades.
He cites the experience of Ron Kirk, the first black mayor of Dallas, who recalled getting beat up at his newly integrated junior high school for being black and again in his neighborhood the same day for not being black enough.
Buck believes it is important to understand anti-school attitudes because he believes that students must be willing partners in education. “From youngest ages, children love learning, but something happens around 10, 11 or 12,” he says. “We have to understand why it is that children, black or white, don’t want to learn.”