Isolation: an Alternative to the “Acting White” Hypothesis in Explaining Black Under-Enrollment in Advanced Courses

Summary and Key Findings

  • Explanations for the perpetual underrepresentation of black students in advanced classes often point to cultural gaps (e.g. a lack of grit, an undervaluation of education, a fear of “acting white”). However, an alternate hypothesis exists.
  • The authors propose a novel model in which students gain peer group acceptance through shared interactions, either through leisure time or class time. This acceptance, however, is predicated on the presence of the peer group in these environments.
  • Students who have many peers in advanced courses experience an incentive to enroll in those classes; others–including black students who are historically underrepresented in these advanced courses–face disincentives to enroll.
  • Black students “must choose between taking advanced courses and facing isolation or declining to take advanced courses to avoid that isolation.”
  • In short, the disparate starting conditions that black and white students encounter–a product of the long-racialized nature of education in America–directly hinders the ability of black students to catch up.

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