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An Empirical Analysis of 'Acting White'

by Roland G. Fryer and Paul Torelli. Reading for week of November 29, 2005.

There is a debate among social scientists regarding the existence of a peer externality commonly referred to as 'acting white.'  Using a newly available data set (the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health), which allows one to construct an objective measure of a student's popularity, we demonstrate that there are large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement, our (albeit narrow) definition of 'acting white.'  The effect is intensified among high achievers and in schools with more interracial contact, but non-existent among students in predominantly black schools or private schools.  The patterns in the data appear most consistent with a two-audience signaling model in which investments in education are thought to be indicative of an individual's opportunity costs of peer group loyalty.  Other models we consider, such as self-sabotage among black youth or the presence of an oppositional culture, all contradict the data in important ways.

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