Maclean’s Interview: Roland Fryer

Economist Roland Fryer talks to Kate Fillion about blacks, whites, Obama and the persistence of inequality

Roland Fryer

Q: Every article and press release about you mentions that you’re 30, and the youngest African-American ever to get tenure at Harvard. And because of a magazine article a few years back, some really personal details—your parents’ failings, your own youthful drug dealing, your beloved great-aunt and uncle running a crack cocaine business—are now public. Do you wish that weren’t the case?

A: I’m so glad it’s out there. Obama did this as well. If you get it out there, I think the American public is . . . “forgiving” isn’t the right word, I don’t know if I need to be forgiven for anything, but now I don’t have to hide anything. And it actually makes me relate to the kids [I study] in inner-city schools in a real way; a lot of them are dealing with the issues, unfortunately, that my background describes.

Q: What do you make of the fact that Obama recently called himself a “mutt,” but is rarely referred to in the media as mixed-race?

A: Same thing with Tiger Woods. This has been happening in American media for many years, that if you’ve got a certain amount of black blood in you, you’re considered black. My grandfather on my mother’s side was, I believe, either mixed himself or a white man, and everyone calls me black. I think this is just what they called, back in the day, the one drop rule.

Q: In the U.S., the median black household income is about US$32,000, compared to about US$50,000 for whites. There’s an achievement gap, academically, between black and white kids. Young black men are more likely to be in prison than college, and on average, blacks die five years earlier than whites. Why does racial inequality persist?

A: That’s the million-dollar question. The truth is, we don’t know. Some will say it’s discrimination, some will say it’s the historical legacy of slavery, some will say it’s because of the culture and behaviour of people now. Genetics is another theory. I try not to make any large generalizations. What my research does is to put all these theories on the table and try to eliminate them, one by one. The scientific method allows the data to do the talking and our biases to be kept to a minimum.

Q: You’re an economist and the CEO of the new Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard, which is all about scientific rigour and has attracted multi-millions in funding. It’s hard to believe a research and development agency for education didn’t already exist.

A: It’s funny you say that, because every other company that tries to appeal to 12- and 13-year-olds has huge buildings full of R & D people! Nike, Motorola, MTV—that’s basically where I got the idea from.

Q: You’ve said education is “the civil rights battleground of the 21st century.” What are the battle lines?

A: I think battle lines are drawn [around] who the sacred cows in the system are going to be. For me, there’s only one sacred cow: the children. I don’t know if unions are the problem, but I am not wed to unions. I don’t know if the current curriculum is the problem, or if the structure of the school day or how we organize the days across the year are the problem, or if 30 kids in the classroom is good, but I’m not wed to any of that. My only constituency is children. We have 15 million kids in the United States who are not reading at grade level.

Q: Let’s talk about the racial achievement gap. In a study a few years ago, you decided to test the argument that perhaps blacks are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence, and found that no, black and white babies are about equal. When does a testing gap begin to appear?

A: Age 2 or 3, we don’t know why. It could be things like nutrition. We know, for example, that diet differs substantially between racial groups and especially among income groups. We also know that reading to your kids and doing mathematical puzzles with your kids at age 2 to 3 matters a lot. A complicated genetic story that doesn’t appear early but somehow appears late could be another reason there’s an achievement gap around age 3.

Q: Was socio-economic class a mitigating factor?

A: It was a mitigating factor, but there’s a big misconception out there that somehow income is more important than race for these test scores, and it’s just not true. Typically in these studies, socio-economic status would knock out about one-third of the gap; the two-thirds remaining is wholly a function of race.

Q: As black kids grow up, what happens to that difference you see at age 3?

A: It expands. Year by year, black kids fall behind their white counterparts, regardless of socio-economic class.

Q: By high school, how big is the achievement gap?

A: Huge. Graduation rates are wildly different; in urban areas, around 50 per cent of our kids are graduating, and when you look just at black males, the percentages are even less. And in the SATs, essentially the entrance exam to our elite universities, there’s barely any overlapping distribution of scores. It’s a little over one standard deviation difference between blacks and whites.

Q: In a study that looked at more than 90,000 kids, you found that black kids who get good grades are less likely to be popular than their same-race peers who get middling grades. Why is there social punishment for what you call “acting white”?

A: Scientifically, I don’t know the answer, but my hunch is that it stems back to the fact that in the ’50s, all the successful blacks—the lawyers, doctors, dentists—lived in the same neighbourhood [as less successful blacks did] because unfortunately, there weren’t that many other opportunities. With civil rights and the Fair Housing Act, you start to see successful blacks move out of the neighbourhood, so education became a predictor of whether or not you were going to be around. I think there’s just been this “Are you with us or against us?” kind of mentality, and I don’t think we’ve fully gotten beyond that. If you go to all-black schools in places like Harlem, for example, you don’t find this “acting white” effect [where high-achieving students are less popular]. Where there’s integration, that’s where we find “acting white” to be most salient.

Q: So do black kids do better overall in all-black schools? Or is it just that you don’t see this “acting white” effect, so kids with good grades are popular?

A: Exactly, you don’t see this effect. Very important distinction, because people have taken my work and argued for segregation, and that was not my intention! Unfortunately, the typical all-black school is also a more impoverished school, so we don’t know, all else equal, if having same-race kids together is a good idea. It would be a wonderful thing to test.

Q: Did you ever experience social repercussions for doing well academically?

A: Of course. I was a football player, and the coaches used to come through and ask all the players, “Hey, how you doing on your grades?” In Texas, as well as many other states now, if you didn’t pass your courses, you couldn’t play. I remember the coach coming around one time in high school and saying, “I know your grades are okay” and he went on to ask someone else. I told him, “Hey, don’t single me out!” I tried to be an athlete and kind of a class clown, to try to take away from the academics. I can also remember accusing people of acting white not only because of education but the clothes they wore, the music they listened to—I mean, if you listened to country music, you were definitely acting white in our high school—which I’m not proud of but it’s true.

Q: Now you’re studying pay-for-performance, this idea of giving kids cash rewards or cellphone minutes if they get good grades. Is one of the animating principles of that research to rebrand academic achievement and make it cool?

A: That was a by-product. The program really was built because when I first showed up at Harvard it was like landing on the moon. I was worried I was not going to be good enough, academically, because I went to public schools, a public college, and here I was, showing up as a professor, supposed to teach kids who’d been in private schools since they were born. It turned out that I just wasn’t ready culturally. When I went to my first dinner party—of mylife!—I saw 10- and 12-year-old kids from the host family sitting around the table. They could see that everyone around the table was held in high esteem they had garnered through education. When the party was over and I was back in my car, I thought, “This isn’t fair. We didn’t have these examples to light the way.” Not just within my own family, but within my own extended network of interactions, I didn’t have an example of, “Look, you can go on to college, and here’s what you’re going to get.” So I started thinking about how we can make education more tangible for kids, and make it pay off a little earlier than 10 years down the road.

Q: So do incentives work?

A: The New York pilot is a two-year program, and we’re just starting in D.C. and Chicago, so we don’t have any formal results to report yet. But the kids are engaged, and they’re reporting in D.C. that parents are showing up to PTA night more to argue about kids’ grades—I think that’s a great by-product—because they’re being rewarded based on their grades.

Q: How much resistance was there from educators and parents to the idea of rewarding kids for their grades?

A: The vast majority of the resistance came from higher-educated, more affluent families that weren’t in the schools we were actually going to. CNN did a poll, and 70 per cent of blacks thought this was a good idea, and 50 per cent of whites did. Part of the resistance echoes part of the [problem] with public education: we consult mainly adults, and do things that are comfortable for adults. I think if the answer lay there, we’d already have found it. One thing we’re trying to do at EdLabs to push the envelope is to ask children how schools can better serve them. And the most important thing [about pay-for-performance] is that I never met a kid who didn’t like it. Though in D.C. a few weeks ago, there was a kid who surprised me. He said, “I don’t think we should be paid for school. I think I should pay to come to school, because it’s such a valuable resource.” I was so impressed. An hour later, we were giving out the first cheques in the auditorium, and this kid’s name was called, so I put his cheque in my pocket. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “You told me you didn’t believe you should be paid, so I’d like to honour that.” He looked at me in a way that only a 13-year-old could, and said, “I never said that!”

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