Thursday, November 03, 2005

Race, Education, and Society

I got some interesting commentary on my Race LASIK article. To recap briefly, the argument is that our society isn't color-blind, that racism still exists, and that as a result efforts to remedy racial discrimination and disparities need to be color-conscious. My friend Mark Olsen seems a bit confused about what I'm advocating here though. He just says that governmental legislation won't fix the problem of racism. That may or may not be true--I really don't talk about governmental intervention at all. Certainly, I suspect that I would like government to take a more active role in this problem than he is (if for no other reason than that the free market is manifestly a failure in dealing with this issue), but the post itself is studiously neutral on specific remedy plans.

Mark also points me to a post by LaShawn Barber to buttress his point about the "structural" and "social" aspects of the question. Again, I'm a bit perplexed as to how this undermines what I say about race, as my post explicitly argues that racial disparities are the result of social forces. However, I think Barber is really far off the mark in her particular evaluations. Here's how she starts:
A few years ago, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume insisted that there should be more blacks on TV. Too few colored folks on the idiot box was hurting black kids' self-esteem.

Reasonable people, myself included, thought the man was out of his mind. Children of all colors should be watching less or no TV, not more, especially when a persisting achievement gap leaves black kids, on average, four years behind their white peers by the time they graduate from high school.

This is a gross distortion of Mr. Mfume's position. Nobody wants children watching more TV. Certainly, Mr. Mfume's request for more black persons on TV (aside from being presented as criminals, where they have a near-monopoly) doesn't make any judgment on whether children should see more TV or less. Furthermore, the way blacks are presented on TV has impacts that stretch well beyond self-esteem. I've previously cited UCLA Law Professor Jerry Kang's article "Trojan Horses of Race" on this topic. What he shows is that the way people (specifically, minorities) are presented in the mass media has empirical and statistically significant effects on how black people are viewed in society at large. He titles the article "Trojan Horses of Race" because he claims that the subtle priming effect of television presentations acts like the internet virus of the same time. It smuggles in negative effects that embed themselves deep within our psyches, without us knowing about it and under the auspices of innocuous material. Again, this isn't mere speculation on Professor Kang's part, but backed up by a literal mountain of empirical data that I have yet to see effectively countered. So unless Ms. Barber can tell us how to get America at large to stop watching TV, Mr. Mfume's point still holds.

Ms. Barber also says that black leaders should advocate more vociferously about issues like education. I've noted before that education advocacy has consistently been at the top of the NAACP's agenda. If we don't hear about it, perhaps that's because the right-wing media would rather present those pressing for racial progress as a bunch of whiny leftist radicals who hate white people, than actually engage with black leaders who make reasonable public policy proposals which might (gasp) have to be enacted. Regardless, something is getting lost in translation here, because black leaders are aggressive on education and yet conservative critics keep on saying they're not.

Barber continues with the specific problems she sees as barriers to black youth achievement:
Much has been and will continue to be written about why black children lag behind their peers academically. Is the "acting white" syndrome to blame? Perhaps it's family structure, or rather the lack of family structure. While too many people prefer to blame government for their ills, most of our troubles begin at home.

To the former "act white" claim, I point you over to Darren Hutchinson:
[C]onservatives love to point out the "acting white" stereotype that some blacks who achieve academic success have encountered. Does this mean that blacks view academic success as nonblack -- or is it a racialized way of calling smart kids "nerds" -- which seems to evaporate any distinction between blacks and other racial groups on this issue. The smart as "geek" stereotype seems to transcend racial boundaries, even as it manifests itself in racial terms (e.g., "acting white").

At a very basic level, youth in any society of any race don't like the smart kids (believe me, I know). The difference is that a white kid who goofs of, doesn't pay attention in school, and makes fun of all the "nerds" goes to the local state university (sob). The black kid who does all that ends up going to prison. Clearly, systematic youthful discrimination against smart people isn't enough to stop success (either by the discriminaters or the discriminated), so this explanation falls out.

To the latter "family structure" claim, I'll concede it is relevant (though not exclusive), but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Yes, many urban black families have no father figure. But we can't make that point without asking another question: where did all the father figures go? They didn't just disappear. Answer: they're disproportionately in jail because our criminal justice system seems to target young black men like heat-seeking missiles. Ms. Barber would come back by saying that this just shows black community dysfunction, but that doesn't explain all of it. Our society (again, empirically) sanctions crimes associated with blacks more than it does those associated with whites (even though--on both a per capita and gross level, "white" crimes are more damaging to society economically and body count-wise. See Richard Delgado, The Rodrigo Chronicles, 272-74). It is more likely to arrest black law-breakers than white law-breakers, more likely to prosecute black arrestees than white arrestees, more likely to convict black defendants than white defendants, and will punish black defendants more harshly than white defendants. This is controlling for variables such as repeat offenses, as well as the issue of proportion. To be frank, our society stacks the deck against young black males. Read this Reihan Salam article and tell me differently. To excerpt briefly:
I'm sympathetic to those who argue that we need to ban marijuana as a public health strategy. Otherwise, every shiftless American youth will spark up while watching the Cartoon Network in the wee hours, sending U.S. productivity spiraling down to levels not seen since the Bronze Age. I get the picture. Unfortunately, banning marijuana, and squandering our human resources by incarcerating 30 percent of black men under 40, is a "luxury" we can't afford.

He's right, and one cannot address the problems Ms. Barber herself claims are critical without also addressing this issue as well. Summary: We can't complain about the absence of black men from black families if we're throwing them all in prison.

Ms. Barber "wagers" that the majority of under-performing black students come from poor "welfare-dependent" families (whom she further asserts "definitionally" aren't hard-working. I'll admit some may not be--but definitionally seems an utterly unwarranted slap at the many Americans who try but can't break out of poverty because our system doesn't give them the means). Based on my reading of the literature, this isn't true--black students underperform white students even controlling for economic class. She should be a bit less certain of herself, perhaps she'd learn something.

In any event, the point of my previous article still stands. Racism exists, and more than that, is alive and well. It can't be ignored, minimized, or denied. It has to be addressed full on. Nobody, not Mark, not Ms. Barber, not any of the conservative bloggers I read, none of them has given any substantive refutation of the mountain of empirical data that exists and I've provided to warrant this point. While certainly there are factors in the black community that could be improved (like in any community), any response to racial disparities in America that ignores the continued effect of racism is blind and doomed to failure.


Russell said...

So you don't think the high numbers of young black men in prison has anything to do with young black men being proportionally more likely to commit violent crime than other groups?

Girl next door said...

Great post! I agree with your views. Racism is an issue a lot of people dismiss when they're not subjected to it. It is not just an individual construct, but also a structural one.