American Excellence: Do Labels Like 'Uncle Tom' or 'Acting White' Stifle High Achievement?

03/28/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2011

In the spirit of the NCAA college basketball tournament, ESPN aired a documentary on the bittersweet careers of University of Michigan's "Fab Five." During the documentary, former Michigan star, and current Huffington Post contributor, Jalen Rose expressed his feelings about his team's rivalry with Duke when he said, "For me Duke was personal. I hated Duke and I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms." Rose's comments became fodder for those looking to emphasize the growing income and education gap amongst African-Americans. But what many have seen as a time to highlight interracial divisions may distract from further debate on the impact being called "Uncle Tom" has on over half America's child population. In a country aiming to compete with the world for the future, what impact does being called an "Uncle Tom" or "white boy/girl" has on academic achievement in America?

For those minorities who have reached some level of academic achievement, there is a chance they have been ridiculed by someone at least once. For many of us, the key to persevering through the gambit of name calling in the name of academic achievement was a strong self-image instilled way before we entered school. Unfortunately, the stigma associated of high achievement is intergenerational. I can remember sharing my acceptance letter to the U.S. Peace Corps with an older family friend. I was surprised when he commented, "Oh, so you going to do that white stuff." Like Rose, this family friend's first reaction to something he had little personal experience with was to label it foreign.

In 2008, Vanderbilt University's Peabody College undertook research into the growing academic achievement gap between Black and white students. The research also examined why Black students were under-represented in gifted programs. The report posits that "part of the achievement gap, particularly for gifted Black students, is due to the poor image these students have of themselves as learners." In a survey of 166 Black 5th- through 12th-graders identified as gifted, students described "acting white" as speaking properly, being smart or too smart, doing well in school and taking advanced courses. Of the respondents, 60 percent reported knowing someone who had been teased or ridiculed for doing well in school, while 42 percent reported being teased for this reason themselves. Sociologist John Ogbu made a related claim in his book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: a Study of Academic Disengagement, concluding that Black students' own cultural attitudes hindered academic achievement and that these attitudes are too often neglected. The study of social acceptance and academic achievement has left many with more questions than answers. Is this a phenomenon specific to the African-American community? How much impact does the stigma of "acting white" actually have on children?

In their study, An Empirical Analysis of "Acting White," Roland G. Fryer, Jr. of Harvard University and Paul Torelli suggested that the affect of being labeled an "Uncle Tom" or "acting white" had the greatest impact on both Black and Hispanic students at high achievement levels, as compared to their white classmates. In his study of more than 90,000 junior high and high school students from 175 schools, Fryer said "Among whites, higher grades yield higher popularity." Fryer reported that for Blacks and Hispanics, higher achievement was associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5 and 2.5. In other words, a Hispanic student with a 4.0 GPA is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and has 3 fewer friends than a typical white student with at 4.0 GPA. For Black Americans, the number of friends they have increases as their GPA increases until it exceeds 3.5 when he/she begins to lose friends. There are many theories that may explain away the drop off, but the idea that the number of friends continues to increase for whites until they reach 4.0 can not be overlooked.

Opponents of social acceptance's impact have a viable argument when emphasizing the need to distinguish between students resenting achievement and resenting behaviors that are associated with achievement. For example there may be students who are called "Uncle Tom" or "acting white" because of their dress or choice of music, and not because of their grades. On the other hand, many of the other characteristics students associated with "acting white" (e.g. raising one's hand in class, taking advance placement courses) are also characteristics associated with high academic achievement.

In his speech to the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, then-State Senator Barack Obama challenged America to break down artificial divisions that limit America's potential. And nowhere was that sentiment more expressed than when he said, "children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Obama could have very well been speaking of his own childhood struggle, a struggle he would experience again in 2008 when his Ivy League education and international childhood caused some to call him "out of touch." Can a country that derides high achievers as "Uncle Toms", "acting white," or "out of touch" truly compete in a global economy?

In the wake of Obama's speech there was little reference to the aforementioned section, but to some the limits placed on children and the limits they place on one another is the single greatest hurdle to American excellence. As America debates school reform, collective bargaining, and school budgets it can be agree that the debate would be moot as long as high academic achievement is viewed as foreign to over half the student population. What a society rewards reflects what they hold dear and what they value. America and its future leaders would be in a better position to compete with the world for the jobs of tomorrow if parents and peers rewarded academic achievement with the same passion they rewarded the winner of the NCAA Tournament.