Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Ugly Marriage

"Race Map" from 1920
I recently came across the book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools by Robert Weissberg.

My interest piqued by the title, I was struck however by this bit from the synopsis on Amazon,
"Weissberg argues that most of America's educational woes would vanish
if indifferent, troublesome students were permitted to leave when they
had absorbed as much as they could learn; they would quickly be replaced
by learning-hungry students, including many new immigrants from other
I then noticed that this was followed by a favorable blurb from none other than John Derbyshire, the conservative columnist for the National Review who was recently fired after achieving infamy in a column in which he pretended (?) to give advice to his white child on how to avoid various threats black people might pose - a racist version of "the talk", the much publicized response amid furor over the George Zimmerman profiling case many black parents have felt necessary giving their children.  Here's a little taste:
...Thus, while always attentive to the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences, use statistical common sense:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot)....
(11) The mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites. The least intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black. These differences show in every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in countless everyday situations. “Life is an IQ test.”
In my last podcast, I pointed to the fact that racists always seem to be conservative.  I argued that this is likely due at least in part to the substantive claims conservatism makes.  While its logic does not unavoidably lead to racism, its underlying assumptions do much of the logical heavy-lifting.  Taking a spin around the site that hosted Derbyshire's writing, the racism is as close to explicit as it gets.  And the list of contributors is paleo-conservative to the bone.  You can almost hear the brandy glasses clinking in the background as the phrenology calipers are adjusted.

One might dismiss these radical types as not representative of any larger conservative movement.  And to an extent that is no doubt true.  Yet while most prominent conservatives would have a hard time coming right out so bluntly, it isn't hard to see how such thinking represents a mere coherence of the nebulous, uncomfortability conservatism has with race and class in general.  In a tragic way, race acts as a kind of litmus test for the poisoned waters of "meritocracy", the sly fantasy the right-wing embraces as a means of perpetuating traditional power structures.  In a sea of undifferentiated masses, it is easier to pretend that the poor are merely choosing their own sorry destitution.  Yet when poverty remains so wedded to race and ethnicity, it becomes hard not to seek explanations either in social structures or genetics.  As embracing radical change in social hierarchies is anathema to conservatism, radical paleo-conservatives are merely being honest when they voice their preference to adopt genetic explanations.

Milton Friedman, in his 1980 miniseries Free to Choose
I'm fascinated by the politics of education reform, and the lenses that it gets viewed through.  I do agree that the problem is the students, and demographics - you can't argue with facts.  But where I differ is that I see this not as a problem of racial or ethnic inferiority, but as one perpetuated by our economic and social system, where human and societal capital are distributed according to privilege.

I see current reform efforts ultimately as a clever alliance between this kind of paleo-conservative racial & class exclusion and neo-liberal naivete that wants to believe that poor kids' only enemy is bad teaching.  Vouchers have been replaced by charter schools, which promise to give both groups what they think they want.

Unfortunately, the problem - for those of us neither right-wing racialists, nor pie-in-the-sky teacher demagogues - is about equality of opportunity.   If we really want to give kids an equal education, we need to invest in levels of service appropriate to the necessary intervention.  That, we have not yet begun.

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