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How Something Good Turned Bad

For blacks, anyway - The use of "acting white" to scare potentially high-achieving black students away from studying hard and getting high grades is a social phenomenon with deep cultural roots,and acknowledging its power over student achievement is a critical first step for moving forward. Meanwhile, the first study to scientifically test the effect of religion on racial prejudice has found that fundamentalist Christians are more prejudiced against black people than non-religious people.

Researcher Stuart Buck has discovered that some black children have thought of doing schoolwork as "acting white" since the 1960s, and a recent study shows that black students with higher grades lose popularity. He links this attitude to desegregation, and says, "Desegregation undermined one of the traditional centers of the black community: the school. After many black schools were closed and their students were dispersed into formerly all-white schools, "black schoolchildren, for the first time, faced the possibility of seeing 'school' as a place where success equaled seeking the approval of whites."

Before desegregation, the authority figures and role models of black students were also black, and the best students in black schools were black as well. But in newly integrated schools across the South, black teachers and principals were often fired or demoted, and many black children were placed under the authority of white teachers and principals who disliked them or underestimated their abilities. Black students who had led extracurricular clubs, played on teams, acted in plays and campaigned for student government at all-black schools lost opportunities to lead or participate in integrated schools. The solution is not to return to the days of segregated schools, but Buck suggests expanding the effort to recruit blacks, especially black males, into teaching. This could include privately funded scholarships and efforts aimed at encouraging black males to study education.

And what is the real bloodline, anyway? Most American blacks have a hard time tracing their roots. A recent psychological study revealed that the most vocal Christians are the most prejudiced. First the researchers subliminally "primed" college students with Christian concepts like "heaven," "faith" and "cross," which flashed on their computer screens for less than half a second, too briefly to be absorbed by their conscious minds. Then the participants' attitudes toward African-Americans were assessed using both subtle and overt measures. Psychologist Wade Rowatt and his team found when the participants were primed with Christian religious concepts, it increased subtle and overt prejudice toward African-Americans.

Even more alarming are the results of another poll showing that whites who are strong supporters of the tea party are apparently less committed to freedom and equality in general than those who oppose or are unenthusiastic about the movement. Political scientist Christopher S. Parker says, "Our survey suggests that among tea partiers, there's less dedication to certain civil liberties."

Racism moves subtly into politics when we consider that Rand Paul, who won the Republican Senate primary last week in Kentucky, criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964, due to the injustice of imposing non-discriminatory practices on private businesses, although he hastily asserted that if he served been a senator in 1964, he would have voted for the law. Even the William F. Buckley Jr., who was opposed to the Civil Rights Act, finally admitted it was necessity. In the May 23rd edition of The New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus quotes him as saying in 2004, "I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary."

But while there are subtle indications that the US may be returning to the racial inequality of the past, at least psychologically, black high school students don't agree with this idea. A new national survey of high school students' attitudes toward the US economy shows more than two-thirds of African-American teenagers believe they'll be more prosperous than their parents. In contrast, a little more than a third of white students believe their standard of living will be better than their parents.

And when it comes his study of racial prejudice, Rowatt says, "What's interesting about this study is that it shows some component of religion does lead to some negative evaluations of people based on race. We just don't know why."

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