NY Times Racial Myopia
by Robert Weissberg
Issue 216– November 28, 2012
Many readers have probably long suspected that contemporary liberalism is brain dead and the New York Times is the house organ of this nonsense. But, suspecting is one thing; having smoking gun proof is another. Fortunately—and I say this tongue-in-check—a recent op-ed essay (“Moving Beyond Affirmative Action” October 5, 2012) by Thomas J. Espenshade (a Sociology Professor at Princeton) offers proof positive that this suspicion is justified. This one essay illustrates so many pathologies and so starkly that it deserves special attention, perhaps enshrinement in the Bureau of Standards as the quintessential Times liberal rant.
Here’s Espenshade’s argument. He quickly professes his support for racial preferences in higher education but then admits that the Supreme Court will probably soon outlaw them. But, this unhappy prediction does not bring a slew of arguments why the Court should resist going down the color-blind road. Instead he takes a totally novel course for fans of racial preferences—the Court’s reversal may actually be beneficial since absent preferences, Americans would be forced to confront “deeply entrenched disadvantages that lower income and minority children face from the beginning of life.” For those familiar with the social policy debates of the 1960s, this returns the “root cause” approach. Put another way, court-ordered quotas just hide the deeper problems and these deeper issues—not court orders—require our attention. (It is worth noting that the essay offers detailed evidence on why affirmative action in higher education has failed minorities.)
So, how should we, yet one more time, tackle root causes? He begins by admitting that the racial gap in educational achievement cannot be eliminated by today’s favored solutions, measures like smaller classes, more effective teachers, merit pay, a longer school year and so on. Does he have something yet-undiscovered magic bullet? The short answer is, “no” but this hardly stops Professor Espenshade from offering up dangerous nonsense.
What he suggests is that universities, now freed of having to recruit and retain minority students, instead re-direct their resources to early childhood intervention before academic gaps before become insurmountable. His justification for professors intervening in pre-school to high school education is that “higher education has a responsibility for all of education.” I’m sure that parents can’t wait until the professors show up to treat their children as laboratory guinea pigs.
Put concretely, universities should use endowment money and staff expertise to examine such gap-causing factors as nutrition, sleep routines, exposure to electronic screen time, and the impact of outside stress on home life. Specific programs might include peer-to-peer mentoring so poor minority toddlers do not begin Kindergarten years behind their white and Asian classmates.
At the risk of bemoaning the obvious, let me catalogue the foolishness and dangers of this seemingly well-intentioned liberal boilerplate.
First, early intervention does not work and the evidence is inescapable. Had Espanshade read my Bad Students Not Bad Schools or any dozens of similar analyses, he would have discovered this inconvenient fact. Governments have struggled to close achievement gaps for nearly a half century spending billions on myriad schemes. Not even the mighty Big Bird can bring black youngsters up to white levels (Sesame Street’s original aim). Like countless of other liberals, Espanshade is willing to spend lavishly to re-invent the square wheel if there is a barely a scintilla of hope.
Second, it is just assumed, no justification necessary, that closing racial gaps is so important that universities should turn this quest into a modern education Manhattan Projects. Think about this for a moment. This likely futile crusade should be added to the already long list of what universities ought to accomplish when institutions of higher learning already struggle with imparting knowledge to their students. How are they going to teach young blacks mired in poverty to read at proficiency levels when many undergraduates also struggle when reading serious books? Further add sky-rocketing costs that add to burgeoning student debt. Who pays for all this do-gooderism? Has Professor Espanshade ever heard of the notion that you can’t pay for everything you might desire? Or the concept of opportunity cost?
Third, failure only leads to more invasive measures antithetical to limited government. Good-intentioned totalitarian creep so to speak. If some extra Kindergarten tutoring fails, try Head Start and if that fails, require parents to play Mozart to infants and if that, too, fails, play Mozart to the fetus. Can you imagine all the government workers need to observe millions of sleep patterns so as to see if these impair school work? That this increasingly invasive involvement in family life violates the basic tenets of limited government is hardly noticed; closing the gap in educational achievement trumps everything.
Fourth, Espanshade blithely assumes that millions of poor black and Hispanic parents want this academic gap closed and are therefore willing to pay the price in terms of altering their culture or sacrificing other values. Let’s face it: educational attainment may not be the primary value of most Americans. Doubters only need visit the typical high school and compare the popularity of book learning to sports or social status. I’d guess that only a tiny fraction of Americans prize school learning but Espanshade obviously believes that everyone shares his own pro-education values.
Of course it will be said that Espanshade’s ill-informed fantasy is just one of thousands that regularly appear regarding affirmative action. True enough, but it is more than yet one more op-ed. It is an op-ed in the New York Times written by a sociologist at one of America’s foremost universities (Princeton) and as such reveals the latest liberal party line. The implicit message is: you can be totally wrong on the facts provided you are right politically. Liberals who read it will now have a fresh supply of authoritative talking points, that is, let’s return to the disastrous 1960s policy of “root causes.” That this strategy failed then, and will fail now, makes no differences. If the Times embraces it, it’s good enough for me.
Robert Weissberg holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, has authored 11 books, and has taught at Cornell University and the University of Illinois-Urbana; he still occasionally teaches a graduate seminar on elections at New York University. A rare academic, Robert had owned and operated a clothing store for fourteen years. This first appeared in Conservative Action Alerts.