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The Washington Post’s Not-So-Fine Op-Ed

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An op-ed in the Washington Post recently calls on K–12 schools to improve their racial and ethnic mixes in order to close academic achievement gaps — most specifically, that is, to help black students learn better by making sure they go to schools with plenty of white students in them. It’s a fine op-ed, except for just a few problems: 

  • The terms “integration” and “segregation” are not defined, which is a problem since they are typically misdefined by liberals, as a matter of both law and policy.
  • There is no discussion of where the racial achievement gaps might come from, which is odd in a piece devoted to eliminating them. To be fair, probably the issue is avoided since it might require acknowledgment that a big part of the problem is cultural, especially out-of-wedlock birthrates and peer pressure that asserts working hard is “acting white,” and of course such an acknowledgement would be unthinkable.
  • Likewise, there’s no discussion of why or how “integration” would end these disparities, let alone much acknowledgment of significant evidence to the contrary.
  • There is a consistent conflation of race and income, as if, for example, all whites are rich and all blacks are poor.
  • There is no discussion of the legal problems with assigning students to schools on the basis of their skin color, let alone the moral and policy problems with doing so.
  • There is no discussion of the educational and economic costs of sending children to schools which are not the closest to them.
  • Finally — and this is likely a mistake by an editor rather than the author — there is no claim that the benefits of integration help white as well as black students, the jump-page headline to the contrary notwithstanding.

But, as I say, otherwise it’s a fine op-ed, and no doubt the Obama administration will take it to heart, which is the author’s avowed purpose in writing it.


Hillary and Racial Profiling:  Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to endorse federal legislation banning racial profiling, as she did when she was a senator. I’m no fan of racial profiling in traditional law enforcement contexts — the Center for Equal Opportunity opposes race-based decisionmaking in all contexts — but the legislation that has been proposed is bad, as I explained in this Senate testimony.

A Very Brief Reply to Theodore Johnson:  Missteps by the Washington Post and Hillary Clinton in this area are, I am afraid, to be expected.  ButNational Review recently ran a long article by Theodore Johnson on “Civil-Rights Republicanism,” some parts of which were profoundly wrongheaded. 

In particular, Mr. Johnson thinks it’s a good idea for Republicans to condemn policies that do not discriminate on the basis of race by their terms, in their intent, or in their application, but simply because they have a disproportionate racial result. But there are no policies — none — that do not have a disproportionate racial result for some racial or ethnic group. 

Mr. Johnson likewise thinks that policies should be chosen and then sold to the electorate in part based on racial results and appeals, rather than simply on the basis of whether the policy is a good one or a bad one:  Support this policy because it will tend to help your racial group, oppose that policy because it will tend to hurt your racial group. I say no. In fact, I say hell no.

The Junk Science behind “Unconscious Bias” Studies:  The claim that unconscious bias is everywhere is, well, everywhere these days. But Andrew Ferguson has an excellent article about problems with replicability in the behavioral sciences generally and with unconscious bias in particular.  Here’s what he has to say on the latter:

Perhaps most consequentially, replications failed to validate many uses of the Implicit Association Test, which is the most popular research tool in social psychology. Its designers say the test detects unconscious biases, including racial biases, that persistently drive human behavior. Sifting data from the IAT, social scientists tell us that at least 75 percent of white Americans are racist, whether they know it or not, even when they publicly disavow racial bigotry. This implicit racism induces racist behavior as surely as explicit racism. The paper introducing the IAT’s application to racial attitudes has been cited in more than 6,600 studies, according to Google Scholar. The test is commonly used in courts and classrooms across the country. 

That the United States is in the grip of an epidemic of implicit racism is simply taken for granted by social psychologists—another settled fact too good to check. Few of them have ever returned to the original data. Those who have done so have discovered that the direct evidence linking IAT results to specific behavior is in fact negligible, with small samples and weak effects that have seldom if ever been replicated. One team of researchers went through the IAT data on racial attitudes and behavior and concluded there wasn’t much evidence either way. 

“The broad picture that emerges from our reanalysis,” they wrote, “is that the published results [confirming the IAT and racism] are likely to be conditional and fragile and do not permit broad conclusions about the prevalence of discriminatory tendencies in American society.” Their debunking paper, “Strong Claims and Weak Evidence,” has been cited in fewer than 100 studies.

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Finally, Inside Higher Education ran an article about a recent study on race and the SAT, the gist of which was that — since some groups tend disproportionately to do poorly on the SAT, since the SAT is not that great a predictor for them, and since schools will nonetheless probably continue to use the SAT anyhow — therefore it’s a good idea to use racial preferences in order to counteract the politically incorrect SAT results.  The author of the article was good enough to send me the study and ask me to comment on it beforehand, and to quote me at the end of the article.  Here’s the full text of what I sent him (he quoted the first paragraph):

If a test is unreliable for certain races — and this has long been alleged and long been refuted for the SAT, by the way — then a school is perfectly  justified in not using it, but it should try to find other measures  that are reliable.  What it should not do is admit students who are less well qualified under any measure in order to reach a particular racial result. 

The suggestion is that there is something about race qua race that prevents some races from doing well on the SAT:  There is no "proxy," the author says, that can be identified instead.  One doubts that this author would identify the factor as genetic inferiority.  Instead he might posit societal discrimination — but of course this justification for racial preferences has long been rejected by the Court, and it is hard to see why this explanation could account for a growing gap, when any reasonable person would concede that there is less societal discrimination now than earlier.

I would suggest that there are such proxies, and that they are cultural:  The too-widespread belief that academic achievement is "acting white," and the extremely high percentage (72 percent) of African Americans that are born out of wedlock (and more than 6 out of 10 for Native Americans and more than 5 out of 10 for Latinos, versus fewer than 3 out of 10 for non-Hispanic whites and fewer than 2 out of 10 for Asian Americans).

I also have to note the timing.  There are frequently studies that  seek to prop up the use of racial preferences that just happen to be  released during the run-up to Supreme Court's consideration of affirmative-action cases.  It calls into question the objectivity and reliability of such studies.