On Being Retro

From "H.R. Pufnstuf," Gold Key Comics, April 1971

A page from a kids’ comic book,  1971…a single, marvelous page illustrated in a way that brings home the gendered nature of American work in that era. For boys, a future in drafting. For girls, jobs as librarians. Interesting, too, that we can tell at a glance that this is an artifact of an earlier era. From the typeface to the clothes, details date these images. 

What’s more, there are assuredly more female draftspersons and male librarians now than there were when this comic was published. If this same page appeared today with the genders reversed we might notice something a bit unusual, but the images would not ring false.

And yet, in the past  few weeks, attending a range of educator events focused on expanding STEM opportunities in the U.S.,  I’ve heard remarks  about gender differences that would not have been out of place when this comic book hit the newsstand.  Old presumptions about identity in America endure even in settings dedicated to ending discrimination in education and hiring.  Different competencies and opportunities are still easily connected to different genders, races and ethnicities in our culture.  For example, in workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in higher education, I’ve lately heard such characterizations of housework (mentioned as a kind of labor appropriately left up to wives);  engineering (described, as a career option, with exclusively male pronouns),  and the history of engineering (noted as a surprising choice of subject matter for a female social scientist, or, and I quote, “…for a girl.”).

Any of those comments could also have been made in 1971, and they probably immediately strike a lot of us as being on the more retro end of things.  Perhaps more subtle are the comments that could only have been made in our post-civil rights era.  For instance, I recently heard an engineering  instructor, eager to draw in under-represented groups, nonetheless claim that explicit mentions of race or gender relations in an engineering classroom of 2010 will “stigmatize women and minority students all over again.”  He was concerned that conversations about student identities might also lead minority STEM students to feel that their only role within the university is to fulfill unwritten quotas.  From this vantage point, attention to minority experiences may be  just fine when it arises outside of the lab or classroom or office (as perhaps was not widely the case before 1970 or so),  but still creates problems when it arises within those spaces.

The idea that a dominant majority culture plays a role in legitimating those very spaces of STEM practice? Defining eligibility for and occupational equity in STEM fields? Perhaps protecting its own privileges in the process?  Not things that can easily be discussed in settings that customarily claim to exclude matters of identity.  And if whiteness generally goes unmarked in places of science and engineering, non-whiteness is at the same time selectively deployed.  I have heard several university administrators  invoke the documented entrance of more Asian and South Asian students into STEM fields in recent years as evidence that science and engineering are essentially merit based. But such ascriptions of ability, group-based with little thought as to how we define groups, or ability for that matter,  are perhaps part of the problem.

 Again, every one of the speakers I’ve cited here wants to support fairness and inclusivity in STEM.  How do we increase our reflexivity, so remarks like these can be seen as holding back that kind of progress?

We need to shed a bright light on race and gender discrimination, not cast that subject as a distant, historical concern.  A step in this direction would be for me to respond to well-meaning but discriminatory remarks right when I hear them in STEM workshops, rather than be flummoxed into complicit silence until I reach the safety of a blog screen.  Probably, the difficulty of confronting such ideologies within their institutional homes itself bears historical analysis.  Not least important: My role as a participant-observer in these events is murky, my own race and gender hugely meaningful.  But in any case, social awkwardness,  other- or self-imposed, showed itself to be a powerfully conservative social force when I looked back on my silence…a silence both retro and regrettable.

Peel Me a Grape: I’m a Professor

At an academic workshop a few years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a Volvo that said “Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine.”  I fretted. This is just the kind of thing that makes people assume that all professors spend their summers swilling sauvignon on Martha’s Vineyard (the bumper sticker on the Tercel next to it, “I Brake for Hallucinations,” didn’t help much…I just figured folks would know that was a grad student’s car).  It isn’t true. At least, not every summer: A  heavy teaching load has kept me from this blog for the last couple of months, finding little time for anything besides prep, teaching, and grading.

Stepping out of the classroom this week as the summer quarter ended, into a much cooler Philadelphia, I happily encountered a day-long conference on Drexel’s campus hosted by the Pennsylvania unit of the National Diversity Council.  We heard consultants, corporate diversity officers, and CEOs describe best practices in a wide range of settings such as hospitals, financial firms and manufacturing concerns.  All were working hard to increase numbers of women and under-represented minority employees (“diversity”), and to bring a wider range of opportunities to those employees through changes to hiring and promotion practices (“inclusion”–together referred to as “D & I”).  The many practicalities involved in this work added up in my mind as the meeting went on:  All of these people were striving daily to overcome embedded prejudice, but also to establish strategic plans, set up new policies, create channels of communication, and garner resources.

It was moving and gratifying when the day’s keynote speaker, Cornel West, rousingly praised these diversity professionals.  He labeled their work as essential to the reform of race relations in America and in a globalizing corporate world…and as work that is nearly always hard and sometimes thankless.

As the event unfolded, I saw my own day-to-day work, the historical analysis of workplace racism,  as not only far less pressured than corporate diversity work, but as farther from my activist aims than I’d realized, if only for its lack of practical emphasis. As a social scientist studying workplace diversity in America, I need not produce “results”–measurable increases in minority participation–in any direct way. Presumably, I can criticize prevailing  employment or educational practices  while offering few constructive alternatives  because I  will have contributed to equitable reforms just by sharing my analytic findings.  That’s how social science and humanities expertise works. But then again, I thought as I listened to these  corporate diversity specialists, geared towards much more concrete results, where does my kind of expertise leave its traces? How do we know it IS working?

As I mulled this problem,  I started paying closer attention to the nature of corporate diversity work and its outcomes, its metrics for success.  As speaker after speaker laid out means of achieving greater diversity in corporate America, a single idea held center stage for them: We must make corporate employers see how a diversified workforce is crucial for business as we know it.  We must connect the idea of a diverse workforce to legitimate corporate functions. For example, speakers suggested, a diversity of product ideas  can serve expanded cultural and ethnic markets.  Further, wide-ranging cultural competencies will enable  a company to deal more effectively with non-US or non-European clients and markets. These and other such points, we heard,  will lead corporate executives and board members to see not just the value but the necessity of pursuing D&I goals.

It all made sense. I could see how these arguments would bring hardheaded business owners and financial analysts into the fold, leading to more opportunities for under-represented groups in industy. But thinking with a historical perspective, I had a gnawing sense that this approach may hold only limited potential for enacting diversity and inclusion.  Perhaps the very concreteness of its metrics, centered on business productivity and profit, was actually making it harder, not easier, to see some features of corporate D&I initiatives.

Hadn’t we learned long ago that these very corporate functions—the  expansion of consumer markets and the cultivation of loyalty among already influential types of clientele– have historically undergirded class and racial inequity in America and globally?  Virtually every speaker yesterday acknowledged that corporations are profit-based, presumably to clarify that industries cannot be expected to put matters of social welfare first; economic pragmatism must be paramount. Yet, no one voiced the concern that familiar profit mechanisms depend upon and propel some deeply undemocratic features of our society.  

I wasn’t waiting for someone to propose that we dismantle capitalism, but only to acknowledge that racism feeds on certain parts of the corporate system.  Fifteen years ago, Avery F. Gordon warned that the corporation’s embrace of “multiculturalism” would serve its own ruling interests, and that “diversity management,”  while surely bringing some unprecedented economic opportunities to some minority workers,  actually helps hide deeper strains of racism operating in society.  Managed diversity subordinates cultural identity to corporate governance,  denying among other things any possibility of group-based cultural autonomy, as Gordon explained.   Some of the best-practices outlined at the event might reinforce her worry: As evidence that manufacturers will thrive by hiring more members of under-represented minorities, one speaker enthusiastically noted  that it was attention to one plant’s Hispanic “affinity group” that led Frito-Lay to develop its highly profitable “Guacamole Doritos.”  But the purposeful translation of cultural difference into market advantage, and its labeling as a successful diversity effort in this way, seems more likely to reassert corporate privilege than restructure economic opportunities in this country. Surely it does not promote the reformed education and training systems necessary for real and lasting correction of  race-based occupational discrimination.  (This kind of managed diversity also, not incidentally,  suppresses discussion of those needs by purporting to eliminate racism in employment, as Gordon points out).

Even Cornel West,  variously  riotously funny and deeply effecting yesterday in his endorsement of “diversity management workers,”  seemed to stop short of explicitly pointing out that corporate profit and social justice are often at odds.  He condemned  the U.S.’s  profoundly racist “prison-industrial complex,” but not Americans’  habitually uncritical embrace of free enterprise that has allowed that morally bankrupt sector to thrive. He did not draw our attention to the American corporate disregard for social- structural inequities that is manifest today in the outsourcing of industrial labor, in geographically selective environmental degradation, and in many for-profit education initiatives.

Could he have done so, without diminishing the struggles and contributions of the assembled corporate diversity personnel?  How do we think, historically, about the successes of corporate D&I efforts in reversing long-standing patterns of occupational exclusion? I’m not sure; it is a very difficult question and one at the heart of academic analysis of American race relations, as the social scientist tries to decide what race reform has historically proven to be “worth” doing and even who should make those judgments.

I am sure that downplaying those successes or trying to end racism by condemning capitalism outright has as little efficacy, and potentially involves  as little perspective and practicality, as slapping  on a bumper sticker. There is surely some more effective contribution that historians and social scientists can make.  I look forward to coming back to this space to work, with many others more experienced than myself, on this vexing set of questions about enacting social justice from the not-always-practical perch of academia.

Erring on the Side of…Exclusion

Thank you, John Tierney!  Through your efforts, essentialist thinking about gender and intelligence may keep its hold on Americans for a while longer.  

Tierney suggests in today’s NY Times “Findings” column that we look with skepticism on a new Congressional proposal  to require workshops on gender equity for all those receiving federal science research funding.  The results of standardized tests, Tierney reports, have shown that sex differences are real, gosh darn it;  researchers have proven that gender gaps among the best-performing math and science test-takers  persist from year to year, from generation to generation…why do we insist on resisting the obvious scientific conclusion? Think of the time, trouble,  and money we could save, in classrooms, labs, and HR departments,  if we just accepted the biological fact of women’s innate science and math inability!

The column’s title alone, “Daring to Discuss the Potential of Women in Science”  (my itals.), ensures that this sort of reductive understanding of learning and thinking (something in the brain, that mysterious quaking organ,  makes math easy or hard for people!) will continue to be cast as a brave, selfless, anti-PC act of resistance against…against….Against what? The dangers of inclusive educational programming? Of erring on the side of equity?  Of maximizing occupational opportunities for every American?

No wonder the column’s accompanying illustration is a kooky, retro collage of a pretty blond 1950s “sweater girl,” with gears on her mind and a scientific formula spilling from her lips….Gals in the lab?!  Zany! Let the high-jinks begin!

I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive.  So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences. 

Duster makes it clear that the questions we ask about what counts as aptitude, and the ways in which we measure intelligence,  themselves hide the discriminatory social forces at work in our schools and workplaces.  Where we look for inherited, biomedical, or other biological determinations of human aptitude to explain differences among groups,  we will limit our scrutiny of social, economic  and political causes behind discrepant educational or occupational attainments.  In this way the perceived value of biological research on intelligence is self-reinforcing.

Sure, experimental research on the physiological or genetic endowments associated with cognitive traits seems more objective than study of vague, illusory “social forces” or “values” or “bias.”  But ideology underlies that preference.   As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his forward to the book’s 2003 edition,

Conservatism has always  been linked to forms of thought that tend to reduce the social to the natural–the historical to the biological.

Tierney and the researchers he cites are no doubt concerned about the nature of women’s experiences in science, as they claim; after all, they are probing the matter, not ignoring it. But they don’t really seem interested in the depth and breadth of inquiry that scholars like Duster suggest…that is, in asking questions about their own questions. Those would be the truly daring discussions.

Bad News/Good News/Bad News

I could be projecting here,  but it seems to me that 2-year colleges are getting a lot more media attention these days.  The coverage brings bad news or good news by the day, depending on how you see the role of higher ed in America.

On the worrying side of things for me is a growing conservative enthusiasm for sub-baccalaureate education.  These are voices that tell us that “too many” people are going to college these days…these students are apparently wasting their own time and money, and tax dollars that go to colleges and universities,  since they are destined to become blue-collar or service workers unlikely to “make use” of costly bachelor’s degrees.  

When I first heard  Charles Murray’s  claims along these lines a couple of years ago (particularly a talk called “Education Myths,” hosted by the Cato Institute), I blanched but figured he was just going about his usual essentialist and terribly elitist business (after all, in The Bell Curve he and Richard Herrnstein famously made this kind of deeply discriminatory argument many times over).

But other voices are now joining Murray’s.  The New York Times offered us “Plan B: Skip College”  by Jacques Steinberg yesterday, about educators and analysts who share Murray’s distaste for the expenditure of higher-ed resources on citizens they deem to be lesser lights.

Apparently, we can predict that certain folks won’t get much out of a university education, even before they enroll, and we should stop them in their tracks. Plus, America ostensibly needs workers with the less sophisticated, pared down skill sets that efficiently designed, short, vocational training courses of study might provide…Now that’s a nation aiming high!

Steinberg’s piece did acknowledge that those making such arguments are “touching a third rail of the education system” (a choice of words that unfortunately makes anyone who disagrees with the conservatives sound dangerous and shocking, but still…).   The real good news is that innovative educators are today creating  community colleges programs motivated precisely by inclusion.  InsideHigherEd.com offers us “Taking the Long View,”  by David Moltz, describing transfer-oriented technical programs at 2-year colleges. 

I am quoted in that piece, but the valuable lessons it holds are provided by faculty and administrators from Greenfield Community College, in Massachusetts. That school aims to maximize, not minimize, students’ prospects in technical occupations, by gearing them almost exclusively towards preparation for transfer to 4-year engineering programs. 

Requiring more courses, instructors and facilities,  this is a more costly route, indeed, than limiting opportunities of certain demographic groups to trades training or terminal sub-baccalaureate curricula.  But only in a very short-term fiscal sense.  Simply put, transfer-focused agendas at community colleges promise America a workforce of greater productive potential, not to mention diversity,  than we have ever achieved in this country.

Alas, now back to the bad news: Inside Higher Ed reports this morning that community colleges are facing severe cuts in state and local funding, perhaps an unsurprising  byproduct of federal reductions in support for education and other public services  in recent years.  Many of the functions for community colleges that Obama himself has endorsed,  for drawing larger numbers of Americans into higher ed and improving workforce preparedness,  it is clear, are going to have a harder time than ever sustaining themselves.

Backward, oh backward…

An immigrant family works at home, in 1909, but do they work hard enough for David Brooks? from http://ephemeralnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/cigaretterollers.jpg

Do you supposed David Brooks’ wristwatch runs counter-clockwise? His column in today’s New York Times, “The Limits of Policy,” certainly seems to try to set the clock  back on our understanding of ethnicity and economic equity. The teaser, “How ethnicity swamps politics,” says it all…With amazingly essentialist logic, Brooks tells us that public policy (in which  he includes here everything from public education spending to health care provisions) has “only marginal effects on how we live.” Instead, he says, it is “ethnic, regional and social differences” that bring about drastic differentials in life expectancy and economic standing among  American communities.

Putting aside the circular logic here (tell me again: why shouldn’t we keep striving for better policies?) and convenient breaches in logic altogether (Brooks reports that Asian-Americans do well even in “struggling parts of the country,” but also that “the region you live in makes a gigantic difference in how you will live”), he builds his case on utterly uncritical thinking about how people experience such differences.  He works from the idea that  “cultural attitudes,” “child-rearing practices, ”  and “work ethics” variously foster or limit a given community’s level of health and education. But historians and social scientists have long shown that peoples’ “attitudes,”  “practices,” and “ethics” are not easily distinguished from what they feel to be practical necessity,  and they certainly do not derive in any inevitable way from ethnic identity.

Brandishing crude and selective social analysis,  Brooks appears to cherish cultural pluralism (recommending policies that “fortify emotional bonds” within communities), even while he is attributing poorer communities’ economic marginality to their regrettable value systems.  A quick trip to 1909, anyone?  But Brooks is not entirely lost in century-old social ideas. After all, he commends government efforts to provide basic “economic and physical security” to at-risk communities, as something necessary for the creation of a “culture of achievement” in those communities.  But note: that security is not sufficient in Brooks’ outlook.  Offer a struggling people  security, he adds, and you’ll  only see their achievements increase “if you’re lucky.”

Hackles raised yet?  Upset? Brooks closes with the advice that “we should probably calm down” about “most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously” since they can make little positive difference in the lives of struggling minorities and other impoverished communities around the nation.  Sadly, that one is a timeless American idea.

Opportunity Knocks

 Today’s edition of NPR’s Radio Times spent an hour on proprietary colleges: the for-profit world of DeVry, ITT, the University of Phoenix, and other schools familiar to anyone who takes public transportation or watches local TV, where their ads offer training and quick advancement in nursing, computing, office management, and a host of technical occupations. It was a great show, moving among the highly critical reporting of journalist Sharona Coutts; the cautious, qualified support of University of Virginia education professor Brian Pusser; and the insistent boosterism of Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association.

More and more Americans are pursuing certificates and associate’s degrees at the for-profit institutions, accounting for some 10% of all post-secondary enrollments in the nation, according to PusserThis is almost by definition a group of people who are underemployed, and not surprisingly many turn to federal loans to pay for this training.  In return for that financial risk, the for-profit colleges offer their students higher job placement rates, more flexible class schedules, and quicker credentialling than traditional higher-ed. There is no doubt that the schools provide what looks to many Americans like their only practical route to enhanced employment.

But Coutts and Pusser alert us to holes in that happy picture. Coutts, working for public interest media outlet ProPublica, draws our attention to disturbing government findings about the conduct of some proprietary schools, including aggressive recruiting and problematic admissions practices. Pusser makes the crucial point while they might show higher job placement rates than many community colleges, the for-profits set their students up for limited occupational achievement. That is, unlike our better community colleges, the for-profits are not preparing students to move on to baccalaureate coursework, let alone into the higher level, more highly paid occupational niches that come with graduate or professional training. That kind of mobility for graduates, let alone significant contributions to the nation’s creative talent pool, are outside their business plans. Since federal loans support students attending the for-profits, Pusser asks insightfully if this is really the best way to spend our public education dollars. Couldn’t we put that money into enhanced counselling and expanded course schedules in the public community, city, and junior colleges, to far greater effect?

These are questions I’m glad to see asked, as proprietary and trade schools have historically upheld patterns of economic discrimination against working class and minority Americans who cannot afford traditional higher-ed options. But even if you are not debating your own educational options, or interested in higher-ed policy, there are good reasons to listen to this hour of radio. Miller embodies a set of free market enthusiams that we hear in many other public policy arenas today, most recently regarding health care.  These seem to me to work against economic equity in ways both subtle and powerful.

For example, to Miller, the for-profits answer public demand for rapid, flexible, jobs-oriented training. They accommodate students’ individual lifestyle and financial preferences. …Options! : What’s not to like? Yet, when we say that market demand should shape education, we lose sight of how this particular sort of education cuts off opportunities, offering, as Pusser emphasizes,  a narrow range of subjects, little stress on critical thinking, and minimal possibility of transfer to traditional colleges.  Debts are incurred in many kinds of higher ed, but the for-profits exploit students’ willingness to take that financial risk without maximizing the students’ earning potential.  Miller may celebrate his schools’ focus on consumer desires, but Pusser wants us to aim higher. He returns our attention to collective goals: good uses of public money, an appropriately and thoroughly trained workforce, and I would add, responsible and equitable higher education. His concerns, to my mind, justify the probing critique that Coutts provides and many more questions about this growing educational/business sector.

Trade Secrets

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News offered two articles by Mike Swift that are must-reads for anyone concerned with diversity in technical occupations. The title of the first, “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies,” makes the importance of that piece clear. The newspaper analyzed combined work forces of ten regional companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, and found that already small numbers of black and Hispanic workers in those firms declined from 1999 to 2005. Swift analyzes this data, provided through the U.S. Department of Labor, in a rare and commendable inquiry into the social dimensions of high-tech industries–usually so venerated as a source of the nation’s economic health and international competitiveness that we dare not “quibble” about their involvement with diversity. 

But it is the second article, posted the next day, that I want to hone in on.

That piece, “Five Silicon Valley companies fought release of employment data, and won,”  tells us something new and worrisome about why minority involvement in high tech enterprise may have dropped. Swift recounts how five other firms, including Apple, Google, and Yahoo, declined to have the Labor Department provide the Mercury News with information about their workforces’ race and gender representation. The newspaper’s 18-month pursuit of the data through the Freedom of Information Act resulted in federal regulators confirming the companies’ claim that such revelations would cause them “commercial harm.” Let’s think about the implications of both the claim and official support for it.

Maybe these companies, which together employ tens of thousands of people,  are trying to hide poor performance in this area, a failure to engage or retain a diverse workforce.  Maybe not; We don’t know. But we do know that their argument against releasing the data itself bodes ill. For one thing, the idea that public disclosure of the number of female managers or Hispanic engineers working in a company could provide competitors with  information about a firm’s operations or productivity is positively creepy. Is the presumption that employees’ genders or ethnicities enhance their performances, or diminish their contributions? Or does that depend on the gender or ethnicity in question?  Either way, highly problematic…After all, how can information about workers’ race, ethnic heritage, gender, age, or sexuality be linked to productivity or business strategy in any way that is not discriminatory? It is hard to see how those characteristics could have anything to do with employees’  work or the conduct of business, high-tech or otherwise.

Second, what exactly is the Labor Department, which accepted the arguments of lawyers from the five firms against releasing their workforce data, up to? They seem to be placing corporate privacy above the goal of diversity.  Haven’t we long accepted that  proportionate representation of women and minorities across the labor pool is a collective national good that transcends the profit schemes and business priorities of free enterprise? Apparently not.

Swift is clear that the five companies are not easily critiqued: He reports that Google recently donated millions to groups like the National Society of Black Engineers. But the secrecy here and the rationale offered for it are deeply disturbing. If this is what inclusive management ideologies look like in 21st century high-tech enterprise,  we need to worry. And keep Mike Swift on the case.

Below the Fold, But Still…

The content of an article in today’s New York Times, In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap, by Michael Luo, will surprise no one who has thought about the role of race in American hiring; only a handful of the hundreds of comments posted online in response to the piece today fail to corroborate its claims.   It would appear that one year into the Obama presidency,  even this only intermittently progressive paper worries about the limited change that election brought to U.S. race relations.  It is a brief piece, but it airs a variety of concerns expressed by minority job seekers, drawing attention to a range of motivations behind workplace discrimination and varied managerial attitudes towards corporate diversity. We could of course wish for more frequent and deeper coverage.  This article, like many on racial inequities facing U.S. workers, seems to find the unemployment of minority Ivy League graduates especially telling, as if those cases demonstrate with particular potency the failure of our merit-based system.   We might do better to ask  how our ideas of merit enact discrimination at all levels of education and employment.  But at least a small flare has been sent aloft this morning.