Acting White – Solutions to the Puzzle

A few days ago, I wrote about a paper by Ron Fryer and Paul
Torelli (click here for the post). To sum it up, they found that white student GPA correlates positively
with popularity, black student popularity peaks with a GPA of about 3.5 and
Hispanic popularity peaks at about 2 to 2.5 GPA. My question to the readers:
why the marked difference between Blacks and Latinos?

I was deluged with emails. So let me start by thanking all
the Marginal Revolution readers for sending their thoughts! Even if I haven’t
gotten around to responding to every email, please know that I read them all
and learned quite a bit.

In general, there were two sorts of emails – personal
recollections and attempts to explain the phenomena. Among the former, many support that for the idea that there is an acting white penalty. At the very least, the "acting white" accusation is very real for many people. One
person wrote that although s/he earned a modest 2.1 GPA in their final year in
high school, s/he was till accused of acting white by peers. A teacher in a
mainly Hispanic high school told me that success for many children of
immigrants is defined in rather modest terms, and that striving for college and
advanced education was out of the norm.

Now, let’s turn to some proposed explanations. One popular
answer was that each ethnic group has different GPA distributions and that
people become unpopular as they deviate from the group average. It is certainly
true that GPA varies from group to group, but the mean white GPA is not 4.0 –
the height of popularity for white students. It is also true that in data that
Fryer and Torelli use black and Hispanic GPA are about the same at 2.5 (check out page 51). So the “deviate from
the mean” explanation only fits Hispanics, but not the other groups examined.

Another batch of emails suggested that a shared Spanish
language, close social networks and tight families might mean that Hispanics
are better at monitoring each other than Blacks. If a Hispanic student wants to
do well in school, they have to master English. It’s pretty easy to know if
someone speaks English with any degree of fluency. OTOH, Black students already
know English. I can imagine that an ambitious Black student could do pretty
well in school and not attract attention. They “fly under the radar,” in the
words of one MR reader. However, once you get a super high GPA, you get lots of
public recognition in school (honor roll, advanced courses, etc.) and it’s
harder to evade the “acting white” tag.

A couple of readers felt that the statistical finding for
Hispanics was misleading. They suggested that it was important to discern
between fluent English speakers and mainly Spanish speakers. Assimilated
Hispanics, they thought, might resemble White students and what Fryer and
Torelli report only pertains the least assimilated, where there would of course
be unusually strong in-group pressures for conformity. There might be some
credence to this; Fryer and Torelli don’t include English fluency as control

So thank you to all who emailed! As you can see, I enjoyed
the email enormously and I think we have some tips on solving this puzzle.


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