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From the July/August 2007 Issue

No Hesitations

A child of violence and poverty, ROLAND FRYER of Harvard goes where other economists fear to tread.


Black children do worse in school than white children. It’s a phenomenon economists have been trying to understand for decades, and they have blamed it on everything from upbringing to racial bias in testing. Only a few have dared to consider genetics as a factor. Among them is Roland Fryer, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard and a fellow at the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research. Fryer is himself an African American.

He has been analyzing the intellectual differences between black and white children for three years, and he has not shied away from looking at the possibility that genes play a role. “I go where the data lead me. Period. No hesitations,” Fryer says. Steven D. Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago whose best-selling book Freakonomics launched a new genre of popular writing about the field, has coauthored five academic studies with Fryer, whom he credits with raising questions about race that other scholars won’t touch. “Genetics is certainly the toughest. Academics who say there are genetic differences between the races pay a huge price,” Levitt says. “Culture is hard, too. People who say black culture is getting in the way of black progress pay a price.”

Fryer is undeterred. He and Levitt wrote a paper entitled “Testing for Racial Differences in the Mental Ability of Young Children,” analyzing test results for the mental function of kids ages one and three. They found that while black children lagged their white counterparts at three, there was little difference in mental function at age one. Until that point, the data had shown black children lagging white children at all ages.

“Our data showed that either there are no genetic differences, or, if there are, they emerge later in life,” Levitt said. “This paper is a perfect example of what Roland is all about. It was his idea to ask a good question. And honestly? We didn’t care what the results were. I think he and I both agree that it’s better to know the facts.”

Fryer and a colleague looked at whether attending
a historically black college oruniversity hurts one's earnings ability.
Back in the 1970s, it did not, but by the 1990s, it did.

It wasn’t the first time that the pair courted controversy. In May 2004, they published a paper in The Review of Economics and Statistics that found that the test scores of black kindergarteners and first-graders might be lower because they attended poorer-quality schools. That notion was buttressed by the finding that blacks in private school do particularly well. But in a later study, published in the American Law and Economics Review, Fryer and Levitt analyzed test scores for students up to third grade and found that even when black and white children sat in the same classroom, blacks sometimes performed worse. It suggested that the home environment, and not the school, might be hurting academic performance among blacks.

Fryer finds that others—in his field and outside it—do not always share his interest in following the data, no matter where the numbers lead: “Sometimes people have got this fixed idea, and they don’t care what data you bring to the table.”

In addition, says Michael Greenstone, 3M Professor of Economics at MIT, even in cases where other people are asking these questions, Fryer “is answering them in a much more scientific way.” Greenstone’s own work with Fryer, which has not yet been published, asks whether attending a historically black college or university hurts one’s earning ability. The two economists found that back in the 1970s, it did not, but by the 1990s, there was a substantial wage penalty for those graduating from black universities.

Greenstone also points to a paper entitled “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names,” which Fryer wrote with Levitt. In the paper, which appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Economics three years ago, they looked at 16 million births in California and found that commonly black names like DeShawn and Tyrone were likelier to be chosen by blacks living in disadvantaged neighborhoods—and that the neighborhoods, rather than the names themselves, were responsible for the fact that people with those names end up lower on the economic ladder.

If anything, the authors write, black names may actually help steer applicants into successful interview situations—though for a distressing reason: the names provide a convenient way for racist employers to avoid calling black applicants for interviews at all.

Fryer’s own life story is a powerful reminder that adverse circumstances aren’t automatically limiting. It begins in a poor neighborhood of Daytona Beach, Florida. His mother left Fryer and his father when Roland was about three years old. Fryer spent many of his childhood summers with other relatives, some of whom ran a crack operation in their home. One afternoon when Fryer was 12, four members of the family were arrested on drug charges. One died in prison; another was murdered not long after being released. By 13, Roland himself was dealing marijuana and carrying a gun. But at 15, after being mistaken by police for a crack dealer and interrogated for hours at the station, he decided it was time for a change. He began to take his studies seriously.

“I did not want to end up like everyone around me: people with extraordinary talent that was never realized,” Fryer said.

After graduating high school, Fryer whizzed through an economics degree from University of Texas at Arlington in two and a half years. He went to graduate school at Penn State University and finished his dissertation, “Mathematical Models of Discrimination and Inequality,” in just three years. Now 29, he has more than a year’s experience on the Harvard tenure track, offices in four different buildings, and a team of 20 undergraduates working for him.

Fryer’s success runs counter to many of his own findings, which are variations on the same theme: where you’re from correlates strongly with where you wind up.

In a study that appeared in the journal Education Next in 2006, Fryer looked at the phenomenon of “acting white”—a perceived social dynamic where “minority adolescents who get good grades in school enjoy less social popularity” than whites who get good grades. To test for the effect, he looked at a nationally representative sample of 90,000 students from seventh through 12th grade; the kids were asked to list their friends. Fryer calculated how often each one was listed by her classmates. He then compared each student’s popularity with her grades. His findings provided objective confirmation that, indeed, a social penalty exists for “acting white.”

'The most depressing thing about affirmative action
is that, state by state, we're narrowing its focus, and
we don't even know if it's good or not.'

In another paper, Fryer worked with Levitt and University of Chicago colleagues Paul Heaton and Kevin Murphy to build a “crack index” from publicly available statistics such as arrests and emergency room visits. The study found that in the 1980s, the proliferation of crack led to more homicides among young blacks. Then, in the 1990s, crime abated. Was the reason, as some observers have claimed, a decline in crack use? No, concluded Fryer and his colleagues. Instead, they found that the market structure for crack stabilized, with suppliers agreeing to share turf. As a result, violent crime related to the business itself fell.

Fryer has also written four papers on affirmative action with economist Glenn C. Loury of Brown University, who is black. The pair criticized what they termed affirmative action “myths,” such as a belief that racial preferences can create opportunities without having any corrosive effect on incentives. He has little patience for ideologues—on either side—who take a view before they see the evidence. “I have no opinion one way or another. It’s like asking a physicist what he feels about gravity…. Why don’t we just go measure it?”

Fryer argues that what the affirmative action debate needs is a consistent definition. Vagueness, he says, makes it harder to reach objective verdicts about specific programs. “The most depressing thing about affirmative action is that, state by state, we’re narrowing its focus, and we don’t even know if it’s good or not,” Fryer says. “What happens if, five years from now, someone has a beautiful idea about how to actually measure it?”

What makes Fryer’s work novel is the broader context he uses to understand and explain his findings, says David Austen-Smith, an economist and political science professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “He just has a tremendous command of the sociological literature on race and peer pressure, and all of those related issues.”

Fryer is driven to improve the lot of American blacks. “I have an opportunity here, and I might be able to do something. There are many, many smart people in this building behind us,” he says, gesturing at a Harvard economics edifice. “They can do many, many things. But understanding the condition of being black in America?” That’s something for which Fryer is uniquely qualified.

Caren Chesler is a writer based in New York.