Travis Hirschi (R.I.P.) and “Acting White”

January 12, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The day I heard that Travis Hirschi had died was the same day I read this Vox article  by Jenése Desmond-Harris about “acting White.” I sensed a common element, but what was it? Both Hirschi and Desmong-Harris were questioning widely held ideas. Hirschi had thown down challenges to the criminology theories that dominated the latter part of the 20th century,* and Desmond-Harris was trying to debunk the widespread idea – even Barack Obama seems to have accepted it –  that Black kids who did well in school were often rejected by their peers, who accused them of acting White. But the similarities were more specific than just skepticism about the conventional wisdom. What they were both skeptical about was the idea of cohesive “oppositional” cultures.

Hirschi’s “control theory” of delinquency emphasized what he called the “social bond,” a social and psychological connection between the individual and conventional society that restrained impulses to break the rules. An important element of that bond was “attachment” to other people and to institutions like school. This seems sort of obvious. Common sense tells us that the closer a kid is to parents, peers, or teachers, the less likely he is to commit crime. But what about “delinquent peers”?  Here common sense tells us attachment is no longer a damper on crime. The closer a kid is to peers who commit crimes, the more likely he will be to commit crimes.

Hirschi rejected that idea. It derived from a romanticized picture of youth gangs as hives of solidarity and mutual support, something like the Jets and the Sharks of “West Side Story.” But in Hirschi’s view, real gang members were no more likely to have solid friendships than they were to break out singing “Tonight” in tune and in unison while doing tightly choreographed dance numbers on the streets of New York. In the real world, delinquents were, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, “detached drifters.”  Detached from others and from social institutions, they drift, often into scenarios that are self-defeating and sometimes criminal 

Desmond-Harris’s article similarly questions the picture of a Black student subculture solid in its opposition to the oppressive and White-dominated institution, the school. She says that although it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence – “African Americans who say they were good students in school and were accused of acting white” – there’s little in the way of good systematic evidence. She quotes Ivory Toldson, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, criticizing Roland Fryer’s article, “Acting White: the Social Price Paid by the Best and Brightest Minority Students” (here ).

the most popular black students in his study were the ones with 3.5 GPAs, and students with 4.0s had about as many friends as those with 3.0s. The least popular students? Those with less than a 2.5 GPA.

It seemed that the "social price" paid by the lowest-achieving black students was actually far greater than the price in popularity paid by the highest academic achievers.

It’s not quite as simple as that, as the graph from Fryer’s paper shows.

Turning “attachment to peers” into something you can actually measure poses some real problems, and any method will be subject to criticism. Still, I think Hirschi would feel vindicated by Fryer’s data. The effect is especially strong among Whites, but for both Whites and Blacks, kids who get lower grades have fewer friends.

Disaffection (lack of attachment) seems to be general. Attachments, whether in school or in friendships. require some self-control. Kids who act impulsively and unpredictably are not going to do well in either setting.  So the kid who is not much invested in school is the kind of kid it’s hard to be good friends with. The detached drifters may sometimes for oppositional cultures and groups, but these are weak substitutes for friendship groups that conventional teenages form in their conventional world. 

* Hirschi’s criticism of then-current theories was most explicit in A General Theory of Crime (1990), with co-author Michael Gottfredson. If you were in criminology, it was a book you couldn’t ignore. I remember one session at a crim conference in the early 90s where Rich Rosenfeld presented some data he and a colleague had from research in progress. I have no recollection of the topic (homicide maybe) or the findings, but they were somewhat puzzling. In the Q&A, when someone asked Rosenfeld about this he said, “We don’t even have a theory Hirschi and Gottfredson wouldn’t like.”

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