Ivy League Maverick
Harvard researcher Roland Fryer (’98 BA) elicits praise and criticism for this unconventional approach to racial inequality
Roland G. Fryer Jr. is not afraid to tackle subjects that make most people uncomfortable. Just look at the research he’s turning out while serving as a junior fellow at Harvard University’s Society of Fellows: the effect of attending historically black colleges and universities, color-blind affirmative action, an empirical analysis of "acting white," the impact of salt sensitivity on racial differences in life expectancy, and the causes and consequences of distinctively black names.
Dr. Fryer, a 1998 magna cum laude graduate of UT Arlington, goes after these issues with the straight-ahead rationalism of an economist. He takes social phenomena and discards the anecdotes to generate theories that explain why, for example, a million black males are under lock and key on any given day or why the average black 17-year-old reads at the proficiency level of the average white 13-year-old.
"I’ll put anything on the table—discrimination, racism, black behavior, genetics, everything—and come at it scientifically with data and knock them off one by one," he says. "If racism is to blame, then it will still be on the table when we’re done analyzing it. If it’s not, it won’t. It’s just that simple."
Fryer has used this way of thinking to counter long-held beliefs about affirmative action, to estimate the impact of crack cocaine in inner cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s and to explore the test-score gap between black and white students in their first four years of school. Overwhelmingly he has found that a variety of influences contribute to the black-white economic and social divide.
It is here that Fryer’s work is most publicized—he has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Business Week—and criticized. Some black economists say he overcomplicates the issues by dismissing discrimination and racism as a cause. Fryer responds that these accusations are shortsighted.
"When it comes to the various social statistics that explain black underachievement, it may be that they can be laid at the feet of discrimination. I doubt that is the entire reason, but I’m willing to consider it. What I urge people to do is just read the papers. Regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, they can probably find a paper I’ve written that pushes whatever thing they want to push. I have no politics, and I think that is evident when you read the work."
Other critics simply accuse him of selling out the black race.
"I’ve read on blogs and elsewhere that I’m Uncle Tom. That’s a convenient way for anyone who doesn’t agree with me to paint me. People have told me I’ve sold out. But if they’re not looking for the truth regarding the black condition in America, then I say they’ve sold out."
To look at Fryer, you’d think he stepped out of the middle-class suburbs. He wears button-down shirts and Brooks Brothers suits if the occasion requires. Fact is, Fryer’s uniform and his self-proclaimed “nerdy professor” persona mask a past he’d prefer not to revisit.
It can’t be ignored, however, as it is a driving force behind his intensity to find answers to the question of why so many blacks are not succeeding and to explain something he has wanted to know since his teens—something purely personal.
"I had a lot of friends who I thought were incredibly talented, who were really smart and had a lot of innate ability, but just didn’t get it. A lot of what I do may be out of pure guilt. Why me? Why did I get out when a lot of my friends never did?
"To put it simply, I was doing some bad things as a kid and as a teenager. Then I had an incident with the police. At that point, I just decided I didn’t want to end up as a statistic, like a lot of my friends were ending up. From that point on, I walked the straight and narrow in terms of the things I was doing in high school."
Fryer graduated from high school in 1996 and entered UT Arlington at age 17 on a basketball scholarship. He never played a single minute in a Mavericks uniform. Instead, he embraced academics, joining the Honors College, whose dean helped find him an academic scholarship.
"I fell in love with learning," said Fryer, who studied economics in the College of Business Administration. "I fell in love with the way economists think about problems and the cold-blooded, no-nonsense rationalism of it all."
He also found positive role models, including a statistics professor who turned Fryer on to the idea that science could explain social issues.
"He would pose little puzzles. For instance, when does it make sense to play the lottery? He challenged me to think, statistically, about the world around me."
Fryer’s second mentor was Joseph Moore, Verizon director of human resources for engineering and planning. Fryer interned with the company (then GTE) through a program called INROADS that trains minority youth for careers in business and industry.
"One thing I admired about Roland was that he didn’t lead with something all too prevalent in his generation: individual victimization," Moore said of their first meeting. "I realized immediately I wanted to work with him. I found him to be very atypical for youth his age. He was extremely mature, at only 17, and had a very good feel for what he wanted to do in life."
Fryer worked as many as 70 hours a week for GTE, presenting a one-day course he created called "Leadershops." He devised handouts and exercises and visited high schools in Texas and Missouri to teach others what he had learned about getting into college and succeeding.
"The problem of my own youth was never knowing what the real competition was all about," he says. "This is something that plagues a lot of people, irrespective of the color of their skin. Suppose you’re a kid and you’re really trying to do a good job, and you live in Oak Cliff or on a ranch in West Texas. How do you know how to measure yourself? You could be winning the race in your school, but that’s not the real competition. You always feel like you’re running—not knowing where the competition is. That’s the real struggle.
"For the first time in my life, I can see the competition. They’re out in front of me, but I’ve finally run out of the fog."
He is currently working at Harvard as a full-time researcher in the university’s prestigious Society of Fellows—a fellowship that has seen the likes of Noam Chomsky, B.F. Skinner and Steven Levitt.
On average, he works more than 80 hours a week, starting before 7 a.m. each day. He rides 10 miles on his bike and works out prior to going to the office five days a week. He usually makes it home for dinner, then works until 10:30 or 11 each night.
Fryer, 28, has been married for four years to Lisa, who is studying for her master’s degree in education. She wants to be a teacher. They both want children—four or five—who they can wake up in the middle of the night just to say, "I love you." For now, they have a bulldog named after the economics building at Harvard—Littauer.
Fryer has one more year left on his research fellowship—“one more year in paradise,” he says—and will then work full time at Harvard as an economics assistant professor. He will continue to do research and to pursue the scientific investigation of race and racial inequality.
"This is me; this is what I love to do. I love discovery. I love the idea that you can be stumped for hours and then it somehow becomes clear. I don’t know what the answers to racial inequality are, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life using all of my energy, talent and data I can muster to try and figure it out."
— Becky Purvis