Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

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.

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.

MIT’s Report on Race and Diversity: A Template for Change?

MIT has just issued a lengthy report on its hiring and promotion of underrepresented minority faculty, a document several years in the making.  I will be writing more about this report in the next few days, trying to put it in historical perspective.  MIT may be one-of-a-kind, sitting well above almost every other technical institution in the country, but my first glances suggest that as I read it I’ll be thinking about how this report might shift thinking on diversity in other STEM higher ed settings.  Here’s why:

Like most other documents on diversity in STEM fields, this report works from the premise that because valuable science is produced by a pool of talented personnel, racial equity is desirable because it will enlarge that pool.  But at the same time, unusually, the report bluntly acknowledges that notions of scientific talent are themselves sometimes subject to biases. Even more promising, the report grants that something about science makes its institutions uniquely resistant to social reform:

Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos — and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race — race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

These kinds of acknowledgments are vital if a STEM diversity effort is to have an authentic social justice agenda.  And they are rare in educational policy and university self-studies, not least because they hint that exclusive venues gain their status in part from…exclusion. If MIT’s new report really does dig deeply into the ways that self-proclaimed meritocracies perpetuate social exclusion, it can have important ripple effects.  More soon on the report’s overall handling of these provocative ideas…

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.