At 13, he [Roland Fryer] forged his birth certificate to get a job at McDonald’s. When he could, he told me, he stole from the cash register. He sold counterfeit Dooney & Burke purses out of the trunk of his car — a tricked-out 1984 Monte Carlo that he wasn’t nearly old enough to drive legally. With a friend, he recounted, he would go into Dallas, buy a pound of marijuana for $700 and sell it back in Lewisville for $1,400. He carried a .357 Magnum and one night, in a fight outside a Citgo station, almost used it on a white man. ”I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said now as we idled in the parking lot of that same Citgo station. ”I always think I’m supposed to be dead, not alive, much less at Harvard.”

This is from Stephen J. Dubner, “Toward a Unified Theory of Black America,” New York Times, March 20, 2005.

On Friday, the American Economic Association announced that it was awarding the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal to Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. The medal was first awarded to Paul Samuelson in 1947 and then to Ken Boulding in 1949 and Milton Friedman in 1951. It is awarded to “that American economist under the age of forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge”. It was awarded only every two years. In one year in that sequence of odd-numbered years, 1953, it was not awarded at all. Starting in 2009, it was awarded every year. Not surprisingly, the list of past awardees reads like a Who’s Who of economists, almost all American. Even those who few were not American did almost all their work in the United States.

I’m not well informed about Fryer’s work, but I’m better informed than I was on Friday. Here are two highlights from his and Paul Torelli’s “An Empirical Analysis of ‘Acting White'”, NBER Working Paper No. 11334, May 2005.

First, their definition of “acting white:”

In this paper, we focus on a highly controversial and well-publicized aspect of Black peer culture–the existence of a peer externality commonly referred to as ‘acting white.’ ‘Acting White’ describes a set of social interactions in which Black adolescents ridicule other black adolescents for investing in behaviors characteristic of whites (having an interest in ballet, raising their hand in class, or making good grades, e.g.). A primary obstacle to the study of ‘acting white’ has been the lack of quantitative measures of the phenomenon. We focus on racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement, our (albeit narrow) definition of ‘acting white’.

Second, their findings:

Our empirical analysis of ‘acting white’ uncovers a rich set of new facts. In
contrast to the previous literature (Cook and Ludwig 1997), Figure 1A demonstrates that there are large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement. Among whites, higher grades yield higher popularity. For Blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5, when the slope turns negative. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a white student with a 4.0. Among Hispanics, there is little change in popularity from a grade point average of 1 through 2.5. After 2.5, the gradient turns sharply negative. A Hispanic student with a 4.0 grade point average is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and has 3 fewer friends than a typical white student with a 4.0 grade point average. Put differently, evaluated at the sample mean, a one standard deviation increase in grades is associated with roughly a .103 standard deviation decrease in social status for Blacks and a .171 standard deviation decrease for Hispanics. For students with a 3.5 grade point average or better, the effect triples.

Although I haven’t studied Fryer’s work extensively, I have studied the drug war and I’ve been paying more attention in the last few years to our legal system, which can easily put a young person into a lifetime of horror for one or two bad mistakes early in life. In his teens, Fryer made a few such mistakes, as the opening paragraph makes clear. I don’t defend his stealing from a cash register or selling counterfeit purses. I do defend his forging a birth certificate because it was likely to get around child labor laws. I also defend his right to sell marijuana. One can easily imagine any of these [other than the forging of the birth certificate] getting him in serious trouble. Ironically, the one that would probably have given him the longest prison sentence is the crime with no victims: selling marijuana to willing buyers.

Defenders of the drug war should answer this question: Are you glad that Roland Fryer didn’t go to prison for a long time for dealing drugs? Do you think he should have?