Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Economic History of Acting Black (?)

Roland Fryer and David Austen-Smith have a very intriguing article entitled "An Economic Analysis of Acting White" (QJE, 2005). In the article, they document the tension between signaling to the job market and signaling to peers. The simple story is that, for example, you may feel ostracized by peers for doing well on an exam even though this type of good performance may help you in the labor market down the road. When I was in high school, this was an important phenomenon which kept a lot of talented people from doing their best. (My high school had, in my opinion, a very low graduation rate.)

I'm currently reading Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll. Wald documents American of popular music in the U.S. (I haven't got to the part where the Beatles wreck things.)

During the ragtime period (ranging from the 1880's through the 1920's depending on what source you look at) composers like Scott Joplin and Kerry Mills wrote dance music that became the foundation of many social dances of the period. This was also an important time for immigration to the U.S. and presented many moves by immigrants to assimilate into American culture. Since European immigrants were coming from a culture that emphasized folk music/dances and had less in common with the white upperclass in the U.S., acting black became a means for new immigrants to fit in socially and become parts of the communities in which they lived. Citing Wald,
Acting black became an ethnic lever, a way for Jews, Irish, and Central and Southern Europeans to assimilate into the white mainstream. (p. 30)

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