Freakonomics: “The Plight of Mixed Race Children”

by Latoya Peterson

I love Sudhir Venkatesh but I am starting to fucking hate the Freakonomics blog. Especially when they decide to touch race.

Mixed race people, step right up to be essentialized into neat little patterns of behavior!

In a recent paper I [Steven D. Levitt] co-authored with Roland Fryer, Lisa Kahn, and Jorg Spenkuch, we look at data to try to answer that question. Here is what we find:

1) Mixed-race kids grow up in households that are similar along many dimensions to those in which black children grow up: similar incomes, the father is much less likely to be around than in white households, etc.

2) In terms of academic performance, mixed-race kids fall in between blacks and whites.

3) Mixed-race kids do have one advantage over white and black kids: the mixed-race kids are much more attractive on average.

The really interesting result, though, is the next one.

4) There are some bad adolescent behaviors that whites do more than blacks (like drinking and smoking), and there are other bad adolescent behaviors that blacks do more than whites (watching TV, fighting, getting sexually transmitted diseases). Mixed-race kids manage to be as bad as whites on the white behaviors and as bad as blacks on the black behaviors. Mixed-race kids act out in almost every way measured in the data set.

Holy bucket of stereotypes, Batman! Number three is really killing me though – how the fuck did they measure that? By panel survey? Researchers opinion on hotness? Comparison to a eurocentric beauty standard? (According to the study, the person doing the at home interviews was the sole judge of hotness.)

I was wondering what economic theories they used to get to this point, but surprise – there ain’t none!

We try to use economic theory to explain this set of facts. I can’t say we are entirely successful. If we had to pick an explanation that best fits the facts, it would be the old sociology model of mixed-race individuals as the “marginal man”: not part of either racial group and therefore torn by inner conflict.

Other gems from the study:

We reinterpret and formalize the marginal man hypothesis using a simplified two sector Roy model (Roy 1951), in which all adolescents face pressure to conform to peer norms. For mono-racial adolescents, this norm is determined by their race: black adolescents adhere to black norms and white adolescents adhere to white norms. Mixed race children have a choice, they can choose to associate with black children and adopt their norms, befriend white children and adopt their norms, or both. It is this outside option that gives mixed race adolescents a higher cost of group acceptance, resulting in them choosing riskier behaviors to gain such acceptance. The key distinction between a Bernheim-type conformity model (Bernheim 1994) and the Roy model is that the former predicts that mixed race children who mostly interact with whites will adopt white behaviors, whereas mixed race children whose peer groups are mostly black will act black. In contrast, in the Roy model, when there are few blacks around, mixed race children can have a comparative advantage in black behaviors, inducing them to act particularly “black.”

—p. 5 – 6

Behavior at school by mixed race adolescents generally mirrors that of blacks, except with regard to exerting effort and skipping school – two dimensions on which mixed race children are significantly worse than blacks. The bad behavior of mixed race children stands out even more clearly outside of school. With the exception of watching television (which blacks do more of), mixed race adolescents are the worst or essentially tied for worst on every other behavior considered. This is true whether the risky behaviors are those more common to whites (e.g. drinking and smoking) or to blacks (e.g. sex and violence).

—p. 14

It is important to note that when there are few blacks present, the costs of acting black for mixed race adolescents is lower. For example, fighting is one aspect of behavior more associated with blacks than whites. If blacks are more experienced fighters than whites, than it is less costly for a mixed race child to prove he can fight when the only opponents are whites.

— p. 21-22

Now, if our last site survey is correct, our readers who identify as mixed race should be in the high hundreds to low thousands. So, I want to hear from y’all. Is Steve Levitt’s theory right, and you really are all a bunch of attractive, fight-happy, hard drinking, cancer stick sucking, television junkies awaiting your clinic results? Or is there something more at play here?

Oh wait, y’all don’t count. According to this NY Times commenter:

Its interesting to note that those that take exception to the data, are those posting on an economics blog on the New York Times site. Probably not the reading material of choice of the mixed race (or white, black, or asian for that matter) kid in Rikers.

— Posted by Gary

I guess mixed people have their own version of the Talented Tenth.

(Thanks to Jason for the heads up!)

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

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