USC’s highlighting of “field” as a racist word perplexes the students

January 13, 2023 • 9:15 am

Two days ago I reported that the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) School of Social Work had highlighted the word “field” as a racist term, for it was used in the phrase “field hand”, referring to enslaved people forced to do agricultural labor. Below is part of the memorandum issued by the School’s “Practicum Education Department”:

This is about as arrant an example of changing language for no good reason that I can think of, for who would think of the phrase “my field is psychiatric social work” as racist? And if you use “practicum”, which isn’t even technically correct, nobody would understand what you meant.

As readers here also noted, the phrase “field” in the agricultural sense goes back centuries, and, further, “field” has many other uses that can’t in one’s wildest imagination be seen as racist—like “field work” for ecologists. This is an example of an action that did not need to be taken, but also an example of how crazy the language policing has become. Words are getting deemed racist so fast that a good ideologue can’t keep up with the changes.

The memorandum has also confused USC students, too, as this article from Wednesday’s USC student newspaper, The Daily Trojan, notes (click to read):

The paper notes that the word’s earliest usage antedates its use in American slavery:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “field work” can be traced back to 1767 in uses meaning “gathering statistics or doing research out-of-doors or on-site.” Merriam-Webster’s website says the term’s first-known use was in 1686, to mean “a temporary fortification thrown up by an army in the field.”

But what’s doubly confusing is that the school administration walked back what the School of Social work declared:

Twitter pundits quickly seized on the announcement, decrying it as “woke” virtue signaling.

“The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words,” wrote Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Graddy in a statement to the Daily Trojan Wednesday. We will continue to use words — including ‘field’ — that accurately encompass and describe our work and research.”

If that’s the case, then the School of Social Work is at odds with USC’s administration. When, then, is the word “field” to be seen as racist? I look forward to clarification from the Practicum Education Department.

What’s curious but predictable is that only a few students interviewed were willing to criticize the announcement about “field”. It looks like some were puzzled, but others thought that because “field” was declared racist, it must be racist.

Students — interviewed by the Daily Trojan on Tuesday both at random on the University Park Campus and specifically in the school of social work — seemed largely split on the school’s decision.

“I’ve never been in a conversation with another Black person that has had a problem with the word ‘field,’” said Leka Mpigi, a graduate student studying architecture. “But I don’t know if that’s because I’m of African descent; I’m not African American.”

Mpigi said she could see why the terms would be taken the way the memo characterized them, but suggested that USC might have “bigger problems” to focus on, specifically admitting more students of color.

“At this point, it looks like we’re fishing for something of relevance,” Mpigi said. “It feels like a stretch.”

Kudos to Mpigi for at least saying the obvious. She’s clearly savvier than the factotums in the School of Social Work.

Here’s a student bowing to authority and dissing free speech as well:

Paloma Williams, a junior majoring in design, said that if the phrases being replaced originated from slavery or have an offensive origin, she supports the decision.

“Free speech doesn’t make saying offensive things OK,” Williams said.

That last statement is wrong if by “OK” she meant “legal.”  Notice the revival of the old critique of free speech: it should be curbed when that free speech is deemed offensive.

Three other students who will go along to get along:

“I have no issue with [the change],” said Maya Borenstein, a graduate student studying social work. “The title of my courses doesn’t really affect me. I’m all for changing language if it’s what they think is correct.”

Borenstein said she doesn’t feel like the change is limiting her own speech. David Lerman, another graduate student studying social work, said he thinks it isn’t his place to judge whether a term is harmful or offensive because he’s white.

“Coming from a background where I had family members that grew up working fields, I don’t think that they themselves would find it particularly offensive,” said Rylan Jimenez, a freshman majoring in engineering. “It just seems a little ridiculous to me.”

Jimenez said he can’t speak for people whose families have been through slavery.

“I feel like I can see both sides of the argument,” said Rozheen Barekatein, a graduate student studying social work. “But at the same time, why are we calling it a ‘master’s program?’”

Barekatein sees the hypocrisy of expunging some words but not others. (After all “master” has been thoroughly demonized, as in the removal of the term “master bedroom” from real estate descriptions.)

But clearly the students aren’t as willing to take as hard a line against the term’s elimination as did readers here. That could be for three reasons:

a. The students are more woke than our readers and willing to accept changes in words deemed offensive.

b. The students are, as the paper notes in its headline, somewhat confused, and so are ambiguous in their thoughts and responses.

c. Many of the students think it’s dumb to eliminate the word “field,” but are too intimidated to say so.

I think the answer involves all three factors, but I hope that a.) is a minor one. But make no mistake about it. The School of Social Work may USE the word “practicum”, but I strongly doubt that it will catch on.


h/t: Anna


Are you a racist if you like big butts?

January 8, 2023 • 1:15 pm

How can you not like Kat Rosenfield when she’s named “Kat,” is Jewish, and has the ability to write a trenchant but also funny review of a book on how white people are not allowed to either like big butts or (if a woman) have one, for it’s a form of racist cultural appropriation. Twerking is out too.

The book under consideration is called Butts: A Backstory, and you can click on the cover to go to the Amazon link (yes, the title and graphics are clever):


You can read Kat’s Unherd review by clicking on the screenshot:

Kat gives the book a mixed review. The bit about the documented racialization of oversized derrieres, particularly in the 18th and 19th century, is pretty horrifying, especially the story of the South African black woman Sarah Baartman, who was exhibited as an inferior specimen of human for her rear pulchritude. But if big butts were racially denigrated then, author Heather Radke says that they’re welcome now among some white people, and gives examples like Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and so on. “Twerking,” too, has been taken up by whites. And it’s the white appropriation of the butt fetish that is, well, problematic:


To be fair, it surely is not Radke’s intention to inculcate racial anxiety in her reader: Butts feels like a passion project, deeply researched and fun to read, offering a deep dive into the history and culture of the human rear end, from the Venus Callipyge (from whose name the word “callipygian” is derived) to Buns of Steel to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s seminal rap celebrating all things gluteal. It is a topic ripe for well-rounded analysis, so to speak. But having been written in the very particular milieu of 2020s America, Butts unfortunately falls victim to the contemporary vogue for viewing all matters of culture through a racial lens. The result is a work that not only flattens the butt, figuratively, but makes the book feel ultimately less like an anthropological study and more like an entry into the crowded genre of works which serve to stoke the white liberal guilt of the NPR tote bag set.

At this point I was starting to fall in love with Rosenfield, but she kept on stoking the ardor with her insistent anti-wokeness:

The concept of cultural appropriation has always struck me as both fundamentally misguided and historically illiterate, arising from a studied incuriosity about both the inherent contagiousness of culture and the mimetic nature of human beings. But when it comes to the remixing of thing such as textiles, hairdos or fashion trends across cultures, the appropriation complaints seem at least understandable, if not persuasive: there’s a conscious element there, a choice to take what looked interesting on someone else and adorn your own body in the same way. Here, though, the appropriated item is literally a body part — the size and shape of which we rather notoriously have no control over. And yet Radke employs more or less the same argument to stigmatise the appropriation of butts as is often made about dreadlocks or bindis.

The book is insistent on this front: butts are a black thing, and liking them is a black male thing, and the appreciation of butts by non-black folks represents a moral error: cultural theft or stolen valour or some potent mix of the two. Among the scholars and experts quoted by Radke on this front is one who asserts that the contemporary appreciation of butts by the wider male population is “coming from Black male desire. Straight-up, point-blank. It’s only through Black males and their gaze that white men are starting to take notice”. To paraphrase a popular meme: “Fellas, is it racist to like butts?”

But if it’s racist to like big butts, why are so many white people either getting butt implants or taking pride in their derrieres? It seems that Radtke is conflating racism with cultural approprition. Both are “moral errors”, but really it’s only the first.

First of all, buttophilia is not a new thing; there have always been a subset of men who like an ample bottom, and there’s nothing wrong with that, for there’s a subset of men who favor any given female body part. (Rosenfield notes the theory that the bustles of earlier times were designed as a superliminal stimulus to appeal to those who favor large rears.)

But there’s also no doubt that there’s recent cultural appropriation, as in white rapper Iggy Azalea’s astounding increase in bum girth, one suspects through surgery. If a love of big butts is racist, there’s an awful lot of white people who favor them!  Again, things that are really considered racist are not culturally appropriated, no matter who appropriates them.  I suppose that Radtke’s thesis, although she mentions cultural appropriation, is that women who strive for big butts are, à la Rachel Dolezal, trying to be black, and that is somehow a form of racism. But that doesn’t explain why some white men like big butts.

It’s all a mystery, but Rosenfield still writes well about it:

By the time Butts comes around to analysing the contemporary derriere discourse, its conclusions are all but foregone: the political is not just personal, but anatomical. The book calls multiple women, including Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus, to account for their appropriation of butts, which are understood to belong metaphorically if not literally to black women. The most scathing critique is directed at the then-21-year-old Cyrus, whose twerking at the VMAs is described as “adopting and exploiting a form of dance that had long been popular in poor and working-class Black communities and simultaneously playing into the stereotype of the hypersexual Black woman”. The mainstreaming of butts as a thing to be admired, then, is the ultimate act of Columbusing: “The butt had always been there, even if white people failed to notice for decades.”

There is also the curious wrinkle in Radke’s section on the history of twerking, which credits its popularisation to a male drag queen named Big Freedia. The implicit suggestion is that this movement style is less offensive when performed by a man dressed as a woman than by a white woman with a tiny butt.

On the other hand, now that the fad is “healthy at any size,” how can there be an ideological stigma against large bottoms?

. . . Ironically, the author of this book is herself a white woman with a large backside, a fact of which she periodically reminds the reader. And yet, Butts thoroughly subsumes its subject matter into the cultural appropriation discourse in a way that implicitly impugns all the non-black women who look — at least from behind — a hell of a lot more like Nicki Minaj than Kate Moss, women who perhaps hoped that their own big butts might be counted among those Sir Mix-a-Lot cannot lie about liking. It is worth noting, too, that the women hung out to dry by this argument are the same ones who other progressive identitarian rhetoric almost invariably fails to account for: the more it indulges in the archetype of the assless willowy white woman, the more Butts excludes from its imagination the poor and working class — whose butts, along with everything else, tend to be bigger. It fails to account, too, for those from ethnic backgrounds where a bigger butt — or, as one of my Jewish great-grandmothers might have said, a nice round tuchus — is the norm.

And the last paragraph is great:

All told, Butts offers an interesting if somewhat monomaniacal look back at the cultural history of the derriere. But as for how to view our backsides moving forward — especially if you happen to be a woman in possession of a big butt yourself — the book finds itself at something of a loss. Those in search of body positivity will not find it here; Radke is firm on this front, that white women who embrace their big butts are guilty of what Toni Morrison called “playing in the dark”, dabbling thoughtlessly with a culture, an aesthetic, a physique that doesn’t really belong to them. The best these women can hope for, it seems, is to look at their bodies the way Radke does in the final pages, with a sort of resigned acceptance: her butt, she says, is “just a fact”. On the one hand, this is better than explicitly instructing women to feel ashamed of their bodies (although implicitly, one gets the sense that shame is preferable to the confident, twerking alternative). But after some 200 pages of narrative about the political, sexual, cultural, historical baggage with which the butt is laden, it feels a bit empty, a bit like a cop-out. It could even be said — not by me, but by someone — that Butts has a hole in it.* [see below]

In the end, it seems as if Radke’s message is that it’s not really racist to like big butts if you’re white, but you better not get one or engage in twerking.  That’s reserved for ethnicities whose women naturally have large rumps; in other words, whites of a callipygean bent are engaging in cultural appreciation, and that’s wrong. But I’ve never seen a form of cultural appropriation that I’d criticize, and this one is no exception. Let a thousand butts twerk!

The evolution of Iggy Azelea’s rear, from an article in (of course) The Sun:

Rosenfield’s last line reminds me of a semi-salacious joke that my father used to tell me when, as a young lad, I was tucked in (he always had a witticism at bedtime):

“Jerry, there’s a good movie on. The ad says “Mein Tuchus in two parts. Come tomorrow and see the whole!”

h/t: Luana

“The Problem of Whiteness” course postponed (but not canceled) at my university

November 9, 2022 • 10:15 am

Some time ago, a conservative second-year student at the University of Chicago discovered that a course called “The Problem of Whiteness” was going to be taught this winter. The student, Daniel Schmidt, who has about 30K Twitter followers and describes himself on the platform as “Sophomore @UChicago. Exposing insanity at an elite university. ‘Right-wing college activist’ — Media Matters”, emitted several tweets describing the course and giving bit of the syllabus. The instructor is white and the course is falls under “Critical Race and Ethnic Studies” (“CRES”). Here are two of Schmidt’s tweets.

Of course this caused a social-media fracas, with people getting all hot and bothered and writing the university in protest. I even hear that the instructor, Rebecca Journey (named in the article below), received email threats, but I can’t verify that.

Although I don’t like the tenor of this course, which seems both anti-white and divisive, I cannot demand that it be canceled. What an instructor decides to teach is a matter of academic freedom, and if her department approves the course, it’s their call, not mine.  I of course worry that the University of Chicago will become as woke as some of its peers, which regularly teach courses like this, but while I can criticize the effect and content of such courses as socially inimical, I cannot and will not call or lobby for the course’s elimination or demand that the instructor be criticized—much less threatened—for teaching it.

Nevertheless, as this article in Inside Higher Ed reports, the instructor has, of her own volition, postponed the course until Spring. This is likely a result of the public pushback, though it also may be due to the low prospective enrollment (zero students).

A bit of the article:

The University of Chicago is still offering a course called The Problem of Whiteness, which attracted negative attention online, but it will do so a term later than originally planned—in the spring instead of the upcoming winter quarter.

It’s unclear just what prompted the course delay. The instructor, Rebecca Journey, a teaching fellow in anthropology, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a public statement affirming its commitment to academic freedom, the university said Journey asked to push back the class.

Well, something’s wrong here, because the link above doesn’t say anything about Journey and the class, but merely restates, in the words of Dean Boyer, our principles of academic freedom. I would be surprised if the University had any comment on a specific course. The article goes on:

A description of the University of Chicago course in question says, in part, that “Whiteness has long functioned as an ‘unmarked’ racial category, saturating a default surround against which non-white or ‘not quite’ others appear as aberrant. This saturation has had wide-ranging effects, coloring everything from the consolidation of wealth, power and property to the distribution of environmental health hazards. Yet in recent years whiteness has resurfaced as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse. This seminar examines the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens, drawing from classic works and contemporary works of critical race theory.”

The course became a target for critics earlier this month after Daniel Schmidt, a sophomore on campus with 30,000 Twitter followers, tweeted about it as an example of “anti-white hate.”

“Rebecca Journey, a ‘cultural anthropologist,’ who, ironically, appears to be white, will teach it,” Schmidt tweeted, listing Journey’s photo and Chicago email address. “The course description describes whiteness ‘as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse’ with ‘worldmaking (and razing) effects.’ Anti-white hatred is now mainstream academic inquiry. And you’re not even allowed to call that out without being called racist.”

Schmidt posted an apparent screenshot of the course’s registration information, which at the time listed zero students enrolled.

Several days later, Schmidt tweeted another apparent registration screenshot showing the class had been canceled.

“Thank you to everyone who shared my thread,” he said. “We are obviously fighting an uphill battle, but this is a huge victory. Students need to call out anti-white hatred whenever they see it. Just the beginning.”

Of course Schmidt has every right to say what he wants about the course, and that may affect how people see the University of Chicago. That’s proper counterspeech. But there’s also academic freedom, which gives Journey every right to teach her course so long as she adheres to the normal principles of pedagogy. (That, of course, doesn’t mean every course can be taught: teaching creationism in public schools and universities, for instance, has been banned by the courts as an exercise in religious propaganda prohibited by the First Amendment.)

I was glad to see that FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) agrees with me:

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression soon weighed in on this case, saying that while it had learned that the course was actually rescheduled for spring and not canceled, it still had concerns—especially (but not merely) because Chicago has a strong reputation for protecting academic freedom.

“U Chicago told us the class was not canceled, but the instructor had simply ‘chosen to move’ the course to the spring term. All good? Maybe…” FIRE said on Twitter. “Administrators can inappropriately pressure a professor to cancel or delay a class in hopes that a controversy will die down. We don’t have evidence that happened here, but in these cases, transparency is paramount so academics don’t fear teaching controversial material.”

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE, told Inside Higher Ed Tuesday that the University of Chicago “doesn’t appear to have exerted any pressure on this professor to cancel their course, which is great and exactly what we expect from a top school for free speech. But other sources of pressure on faculty are also common these days. For example—from legislators or Twitter mobs, who sometimes threaten the professor’s funding or even their safety.”

Given the current polarized political environment, Morey said, “universities should urgently re-evaluate what it means to support a professor through a controversy over their teaching. It likely needs to go beyond just saying their speech is protected. Sadly, that may look like taking interim measures to ensure their safety, like providing their class meetings police protection, so they can continue their important work without delay. That’s what it may take these days to preserve faculty’s rights. Universities and faculty senates should have this on their radar.”

Here’s one of FIRE’s tweets on the issue:

If academic freedom means anything, it means what FIRE says above, and what John Stuart Mill said 223 years ago about freedom of expression: it must not be censored because it exposes people to ideas they don’t like. I don’t particularly like (or agree with) the idea that whiteness itself is toxic, or that all white people are racist unless they are actively antiracist, or that whiteness is the dominant theme of academia, reason, or science, but these ideas aren’t vanishingly rare, either. Let the students take Journey’s course and judge for themselves (if they’re open-minded going in, of course!).


UPDATE: I don’t know if I’ll say much about the Stanford conference on academic freedom until the YouTube videos are released so you can see for yourself, but it’s already been widely attacked. Even this article in Inside Higher Ed is somewhat of a hit piece, concentrating mostly on the more demonized and controversial speakers. Click to read:

The complex issue of racial reparations

October 22, 2022 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE:  Reader Daniel sent me this link to a half-hour video of Christopher Hitchens and Glenn Loury on the question of reparations.  Hitchens is in favor of them, Loury opposed. The debate took place in 2001.

One of the big issues in the antiracist debate is the question of reparations, or restorative justice through dispensing money, good, or advantages like mortgage help.  This is motivated by trying to make up for the evils of slavery and the subsequent bad treatment of minorities, especially blacks, by making accommodations, though payments or otherwise, to the descendants of those who still feel the aftereffects of slavery and find their opportunities limited.  And there’s no doubt that the historical legacy of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow racism still lingers on, narrowing the opportunities for many black people.

Perhaps the most eloquent—and certainly the most famous—argument for reparations was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, an essay called “The Case for Reparations” (free read). It’s a must-read for those who want to think about this issue.  Those who haven’t read it often think Coates was calling simply for direct payment to blacks, but that’s not all of what he wanted, although it seems to be part o it.  He did assert that affirmative action wasn’t sufficient. We had to undergo a fundamental transformation of society and of the minds of white people, Coates argued:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

. . . . What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

. . . Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.”

And yes, he did think that some kind of monetary payments might be part of the package.

. . . Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

I do think Coates has a point, though I don’t think direct payments are the way to go. The objections are familiar:  Why do I (a Jew whose ancestors came to the U.S. well after slavery) need to balance the ledger? Many white people had nothing to do with oppressing blacks, so why do they need to bear the burden? To that I say, “We all bear a societal responsibility to the marginalized.” After all, I pay taxes for schooling young Americans, though I have no kids. I do so willingly, for that furthers the good of America as a whole.  Others bring up more vexing questions.  Who will get the payments? What about black immigrants to America, or people not descended from slaves? Will those of partial black ancestry get partial payments? Most important, is the direct-payment form of reparations going to solve the problem of inequality? I don’t think so—any more than winning the lottery makes people happy (it often doesn’t).  Surely it would be better to spend the money eliminating the societal barriers that prevent blacks from having equal opportunity to success.  Note, however, that the debate that Coates wants has already started: it’s the discussion about “racial reckoning” we’re having now.

An alternative, one to which I subscribe, is outlined in this article on NPR (which means it’s passed the progressive “sniff test”). Click to read (you can also listen):

The man with the ideas is Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton professor of American Studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation. In an interview on the NPR All Things Considered show, Delbanco laid out his program, outlined more fully in the National Endowment for the Humanities’ annual Jefferson Lecture, held just this month.

Here are some excerpts; you can hear the show at the link above:

On why he believes everyone has a responsibility to help with reparations, even though they did not create the system

If we allow ourselves to be thoughtful, I think we all understand this instinctively. I mean, no one should be blamed for the sins of the fathers, as the scripture puts it. And yet we live in a world that has been damaged by history. And we have a responsibility, I think, to do what we can to repair the world.

So it’s a paradoxical problem that on the one hand, the past is past and should have nothing to do with us in the present as individual moral actors. But on the other hand, we live in the world that we’ve inherited, and so do people who’ve been injured by history. So it’s a difficult moral problem. It’s a problem that writers and philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. And we’re never going to arrive at a clean, clear answer to it. But the very fact that we’re talking about it, I think, is a positive sign for where we could go as a society.

You’d have to be blind to not see the effect that slavery and Jim Crow had on today’s black population. What to do about it? Delbanco talks about the damages at length, but I’ll let you read about those and see his solution:

On putting a monetary value on many of these intangible concepts

I don’t think we can. Some people have tried and we’ve seen numbers from the thousands to the millions to the billions and trillions proposed, and different programs for distributing financial benefits to all persons who are regarded as Black, according to some pundits.

Others say, “No, it should be restricted to only those who can prove they had an enslaved ancestor.”

I don’t think that’s the right path to travel on, and I recognize that this is a point of view that will anger and upset many, and that should be part of the discussion. For me, the more sensible and the more plausible — in the sense that something might actually come of it — approach to this is to recognize that many Americans have been injured by history, notably Black Americans who have a good case to make that they’re at the head of that line. But there are many others who can point to disadvantages that were visited on their families or on themselves for reasons of racial prejudice and for other reasons, as well.

What we need to do, and I take my cue here from a great person, from the past, that is Dr. King, and from a young scholar, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who teaches at Georgetown University, who speaks of reparations not as a process of payback, or settling scores, or getting even, but as what Professor Táíwò calls, “A construction project,” a future-oriented reconstruction of our society to make it a fairer place. To ensure that the kinds of depredations that Black people and many others have had to deal with over the decades and centuries will be mitigated in the future.

And you can imagine the sorts of policies that someone who takes this point of view would have in mind, providing wraparound services for schoolchildren of the sort that affluent families take for granted. Providing better access to quality health care to try to close those shocking gaps in infant mortality, maternal deaths and childhood, and many others in childbirth. And many other measures on which Black Americans still lag behind, providing better educational opportunities beyond those early years.

And that’s my solution, too.  Although some people may object that it smacks of paternalism, it really doesn’t—not if your program is aimed at creating more opportunities for those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale. Those are disproportionately members of minorities, of course, but by aiming at those who lack both well being and access to the pipeline to well being, you’re helping all of those who are deprived of opportunity. And those are often descendants of slaves.

This, of course, takes will and money. I’ve already said that I’d be more than willing to pay a substantial part of my savings, or accept a rise in taxes on those who are better off to help all Americans achieve equal opportunity. In the end, this is the only way that reparations can work. It may not involve handing out checks, but it’s the pecuniary equivalent, and has the advantage that these structural changes will be in perpetuity, and devolve on everyone, so it can’t be criticized as a simple form of affirmative action. Remember that, if you’re a determinist (or even if you’re not), you can see that low societal well being is not the “fault” of the affected individuals in that they could have risen in America had they chosen otherwise, and many people don’t even know the opportunities, or have the environments, that could help them.


The Jefferson Lecture will eventually online; here’s Delbanco giving a preview:

h/t: Williams

Saturday reading: Glenn Loury on the history of civil rights

October 8, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Glenn Loury is, as you know, a black heterodox thinker and writer, much like his friend John McWhorter. Loury was also the first professor of economics at Harvard to get tenure, and that at only 33. Now he works at Brown University.

I found out only yesterday that Glenn has a Substack site, and saw the post below on it. Click to read, but, as always, subscribe if you read regularly. This post is free to the public, and if you’re pulled up short, just click “Let me read it first”:

This is a long post, much of it reproduced from an earlier interview that is not online. Loury intro:

There is no better time than now to think back with a critical eye on the conditions that brought about landmark mid-century civil rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions. Below I do just that in a long interview from 2019 led by Bucknell University sociologist Alexander Riley, which is taken from his edited collection, Reflecting on the 1960s at 50: A Concise Account on How the 1960s Changed America, for Better and for WorseIn it, I speak at length on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers, affirmative action, mass incarceration, and reparations, among other topics.

A few quotes under topics I’ve chosen:

The relative efficacy of Dr. King’s actions vs. those of contemporary activists:

. . . .I get why people are saying that. I get why contemporary social justice activists are impatient with the color-blind “I have a dream that one day my children will be judged by the content of their character. Black and white will walk hand-in-hand together, etc., etc.” I understand people’s impatience with that rhetoric in our current day, but I just ask people to reflect on what the power of that rhetoric actually was in transforming structures in American society. Again, I don’t think the threats of violence, the rejection across the board of American norms, the contempt for patriotism, the classification of the Founding Fathers as a bunch of dead white males, half of whom were slave owners anyways, and “we were 3/5 of a man in the constitution,” I don’t think that kind of rhetoric gets us anywhere. So there’s that.

On affirmative action:

 I’m not one of those who would respond to affirmative action by saying it’s discrimination against non-black or non-Latino people and therefore it’s wrong and must not be done. It is discrimination to the extent that it’s undertaken to benefit blacks or Latinos, but it’s not discrimination that I think should be prevented on a constitutional argument. That’s one thing that I would say.

But we are here in the year 2019. Affirmative action is something that dates back to the late 1960s, and really gets going in the 1970s. President Lyndon Johnson famously says, I believe it’s at a commencement address at Howard University in 1965, that you don’t take someone who’s been hobbled by history, the chains that encumber them, and remove the chains and bring them up to the starting line of a race and then you set the race off and expect that you’re being entirely fair. This is a paraphrase of Johnson. What he says is we need equality as a fact, and equality as an outcome, not merely equality in principle or equality as a theory.

We are a half-century into this idea that we’ve got to do something special for the blacks in the competitive venues where they lag behind in order to ensure equality of opportunity. A half-century, that’s a long time. It’s as long from Johnson giving that speech in 1965 to where we sit right here, today, in 2019, as was the time that expired between Appomattox, where Lee surrenders to Grant, and Versailles, where the First World War is brought to a conclusion. That’s a long time. That’s three generations. It’s a long, long time.

There is a lot more he has to say on the issue, and it’s relevant because the Supreme Court is set to overturn the Bakke case. Last night I discussed with my friends, who are longtime social-justice activists of the good sort (they actually did and are still doing stuff: teachers at minority schools and social workers), and we all agreed that the true solution to underrepresentation (“inequity”) is not the magicking of equity into existence by lowering the bar for some groups, but a fundamental change in opportunity, allowing everyone equal opportunity from birth. And that would require income redistribution—anathema to most Americans and all Republicans. It would also require other changes difficult to make. But it’s the only viable long-term solution. As McWhorter notes:

There was recently this controversy about the exam schools in New York City: Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, Stuyvesant. They have an exam. They give the exam. Tens of thousands of people take it. They are admitting only hundreds. Stuyvesant constitutes a class—an incoming class for the fall next year—of 895 admits. Seven of them are black. And the newspaper article says, in the spirit of affirmative action, “Racial Segregation Returns to New York City’s High Schools.” The presumption is the low number of African Americans being admitted is a reflection of the failure of the institution to be fair and open to all people.

It is not! It’s a reflection of something else, something less pretty, something much more challenging, something that goes much more profoundly to the heart of what’s wrong in our country. It’s a reflection of the failure to develop the human potential of those youngsters who happen to be black. The test is only a messenger. It’s merely telling us what people know and what they don’t know. Some respond, “Well, let’s get rid of the test, let’s put a quota on the schools, let’s raise those numbers.” But why not, “Let’s develop those people so that they can compete”?

. . . I used to be one of those people who said, “Oh no, it is just racial discrimination, it is just reverse discrimination, and we shouldn’t do it.” And then I became one of those people who said, “Oh no, wait a minute, I do think we need to defend affirmative action.” And now I am one of these people who is saying, “Are we ever going to get serious about the actual problem of inequality and address ourselves to it? Affirmative action doesn’t take us to that point.” Imagine how weak, and, at the end of the day, pathetic it is to be in this position of begging not to have affirmative action taken away. Throwing a tantrum not to have them take away affirmative action. “We want our affirmative action!” Pathetic!

I still think that in the interim some form of affirmative action is needed, but perhaps it should be based on socioeconomic considerations rather than ethnicity. Since ethnicity is correlated with socioeconomic status, that would still create more “equity,” and perhaps that is the way colleges will counter the upcoming dismantling of affirmative action by the Supreme Court. I always wonder what will happen to the elaborate and expensive apparatus of DEI bureaucracy erected by many colleges and universities, including mine.  Will “D” no longer include race, but diversity of viewpoints and of socieconomic status?

On reparations.

I actually think that little bit of the question is kind of interesting, and maybe even ironic to me, because if I said that the family has a right to pass his wealth on to from one generation to the next without the encumbrance of inheritance tax, or call it the death tax as Republicans like to call it, a lot of progressives would say “Oh no, oh no. Just because your father made a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything. You didn’t earn it.” Well, likewise, just because my ancestors may have been deprived of the fruits of their labor by being forcibly enslaved doesn’t mean that necessarily that I am entitled to anything. I really don’t see, conceptually, a distinction between one or the other. In some sense, intergenerational entitlement being transferred from one generation to the next is intergenerational entitlement being transferred from one generation to the next.

But that’s not my main point. Do the facts of slavery, and Jim Crow segregation, and inequality, and restrictive covenants, and racial discrimination, and poll taxes, and literally tests, and anti-miscegenation laws, and all of that figure in a social scientifically identifiable way in accounting for some of the disadvantage of African American? I have no doubt that that’s true. I have no doubt that history casts a long shadow, that some dimension of African American poverty does indeed derive from historical mistreatment of African-Americans. Saying how much would, it seems to me, be a bridge too far. I don’t know how you do that as an empirical project.

. . . How about this? How about those who are concerned about the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow as they manifest themselves in the lives of very poor and disadvantaged and marginalized people, how about if we get about the business of building a coalition of poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized people of all races, and try to formulate a politics in which the essential needs of those people for opportunity would be at the center of our advocacy? I am prepared to include white people, brown people, yellow people, red people, as well as black people in that effort. That would be, I think, a serious American political enterprise. This sectarian enterprise—“Y’all disadvantaged my ancestors and I need to get paid”—I don’t think it’s going anywhere and I don’t think frankly it should go anywhere.

There is much to read and think about in Loury’s essay, including prison reform as well as these Big Three racial issues: Is our goal to become color blind? What should we do about affirmative action? And should we enact reparations, and, if so, how? You may disagree with Loury, but he will make you think. (Feel free to give your opinions below on these three questions or other related issues.) But do read this piece.

We are probably going to have Loury speak on our campus this year, and I wonder what sort of disruptions would ensue.

A podcast: Loury and McWhorter discuss race

October 3, 2022 • 2:01 pm

Here’s a 51-minute podcast that first aired in July and has been reissued on Bari Weiss’s site (click screenshot below to listen).  It’s John McWhorter and Glen Loury discussing race in America, with good moderation by Kmele Foster. First, the podcast’s introductory statement:

Today’s episode is borrowed from the feed of the great podcast The Fifth Column. Usually hosted by Kmele Foster, Michael Moynihan, and Matt Welch, this episode, which aired in July of 2022, features Kmele and two guests who have become elder statesmen around the persistent issue of race in America: John McWhorter and Glenn Loury.

Over the past few years McWhorter, Loury and Foster each have written, discussed and lectured exhaustively on anti-racism, the role race plays in America, and the changing meaning of the word “racism” itself. In this episode, they talk about the inadequacies of regarding people solely by their racial category, the dignity of the individual and what a future might look like if we were to abolish race all together. While all three men bring a contrarian streak to this discussion, you’ll find that they have disagreements when it comes to questions of race abolition and the so-called “Racial Reckoning” of 2020.

Loury is an economist and professor of social science at Brown University. You can listen to his interview with Bari here. McWhorter is the author of numerous books, including Talking Black and Woke Racism. He’s also professor of Linguistics, Philosophy and Music at Columbia University, and a columnist at The New York Times.

Since 2015 Kmele Foster has been a prominent voice in a number of discussions about race in America, including his reporting challenging the mainstream media’s verdict on Amy Cooper, better known as the Central Park Karen.

There’s a lot of ground covered here, including the Zeitgeist, how John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism came to be, McWhorter’s take on the pair being seen as pawns of the Right, the nature of DEI, whether it’s an ideological position, how, according to both, it patronizes and dehumanizes minorities, and the question of whether racial identity is of any use—much less being necessary—or does it merely confer a kind of soothing tribalism on people. (This is one reason McWhorter calls Wokeism a “religion”.)

This is a good take on their views, and I love to listen to these guys. Like Pinker or Sam Harris, they speak in complete paragraphs, without even an “uh” or an “umm”. But of course it’s what they have to say that we you should pay attention to.

More ideological bias: the National Science Foundation gives grants for people to document what the NSF already claims to know

September 25, 2022 • 11:15 am

You can argue about whether the purview of the National Science Foundation (NSF) should include investigating whether American science and science education are “systemically racist” in addition to doing what the NSF normally does—funding science itself.  I won’t argue that, since I think that the NSF does fund sociology, and I suppose science is as good a field for sociological investigation as any other.

But I will argue—and what I discuss hre—is that the NSF isn’t calling for investigations of whether systemic racism is an important impediment to education and professional advancement in STEM. No, the NSF assumes that this is true, and then throws money at investigators to figure out how to remedy a problem that hasn’t yet been demonstrated.

In other words, the NSF claims to already know that not only is systemic racism real and prevalent in STEM, but is also the overweening cause of the inequities in representation.

This is question-begging in the authentic sense—assuming what you want to demonstrate. And I take “systemic racism in STEM” to mean the presence of ingrained features in STEM that cause discrimination against people (it could be any group, but they’re talking about racial discrimination). “Systemic racism” does not mean that “STEM has bigots”—all fields, do, of course—but rather that education in science, math, engineering, and technology have built-in features that discriminate against minorities and women. And that’s why those groups are underrepresented in STEM studies and among STEM academics.

Many NSF-funded scientists were sent a link to a new program solicitation for “racial equity in STEM” education, which has a pot of money between $15 million and $25 million. The goal is to show how systemic racism impedes STEM education and then how to overcome these impediments. The program assumes there’s systemic racism in science and science education, something that many scientists would contest, especially in view of the eagerness of many science departments to recruit minority students and faculty, sometimes giving them advantages over non-minorities. (Not long ago the National Institutes of Health started a program that gave minorities preferential access to grant money, but then quickly dismantled it when I think they realized it was illegal.)

Before I show you this question-begging, let me add that the goal—to give historically disadvantaged minorities a leg up in education—is admirable. But before you do that, you have to figure out exactly how the disadvantages act to reduce STEM participation. And, as I note just below, “systemic racism” is one of just several potential causes for underachievement.  Especially for a science organization, you cannot assume that systemic racism is THE cause. That has to be demonstrated, not assumed. But the NSF assumes and doesn’t demonstrate.

At any rate, here’s the proposal, sent by a colleague who was surprised that an organization that gives money for scientific research assumes from the outset that “systemic racism” is ingrained in STEM, so that there is no need to

a. demonstrate that this is true using an explicit definition of “systemic racism”, and

b. further demonstrate that systemic racism is the cause for inequities of representation of minorities in STEM.  As you know, there are other possible reasons, including “pipeline problems” based on unequal opportunities that start at birth and lead to educational deficits, as well as differences in career preference of different groups.

Click on the screenshot to see the program announcement.

I’ve taken some excerpts. Here is the “Important information” at the beginning of the announcement. I’ve highlighted “systemic racism throughout” so you can see how it’s assumed. Note that three of the four requirements assume systemic racism exists and is important in cause unequal representation.

I presume that “led by or in authentic partnership” means that proposals should have principal investigators that are minorities or at least collaborators. While you can’t investigate racism without studying minorities, this may be code for saying “we will favor proposals by minority Principal Investigators.” But they can’t say that outright because it’s illegal, just as it was with the NIH.

The rationale for the study, which is fine. Every American should have an equal opportunity from birth to study science and become a scientist. That doesn’t assure equity, of course, but it does assure equal opportunity.

The NSF Strategic Plan focuses on ensuring that U.S. research is an inclusive enterprise that benefits from the talent of all sectors of American society – a research enterprise that incorporates the rich demographic and geographic diversity of the nation. The strategic plan recognizes that the more people who engage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and the more diverse their backgrounds, the richer the range of questions asked. The result is a greater breadth of discovery and more creative solutions

The assumption that inequities are due to systemic racism:



There will be a total of 15-35 awards given, each award can be for up to five years, and you can ask for up to $5 million.

Note the big problem: they explicitly and repeatedly ascribe inequities (unequal representation of racial groups in proportion to their presence in the American population) to systemic racism. This is an assumption, not a fact.  And in truth, you cannot even begin such projects without a demonstration of what role ingrained features—and exactly which ingrained features—of STEM impede education in the sciences. Perhaps the NSF should use that $15-$25 to investigate the contribution of various factors to inequities. But that, of course, is taboo, because progressive doctrine already tells us the answer without any need for empirical investigation. It’s revelation, Jake! Or at least ideology.

NYT and other media fall for a hoax because it matched their ideology

September 16, 2022 • 9:20 am

I read about this incident (or rather, non-incident) the other day, but Jesse Singal, in a post on Bari Weiss’s site, tells the whole story in detail. The lesson is that when a story appeals to the ideological bias of a newspaper, even if it doesn’t check out, they sometimes print it as if were true, or at least don’t check it out especially thoroughly.  It’s especially galling when America’s premier newspaper, The New York Times, falls prey to this confirmation bias, as it did in this story.

Click to read; it’s free and short (but do subscribe if you read often):

The story is one indicting Brigham Young University (BYU) students as racists, supposedly evinced during a volleyball game against Duke University on August 26:

Last month, Rachel Richardson—the only black starter on the women’s volleyball team at Duke University—leveled a shocking accusation. She said that during her team’s August 26 match against Brigham Young University, fans inside the BYU arena in Provo, Utah inundated her with racist abuse and threats.

After the match, 19-year-old Richardson told her godmother, Lesa Pamplin, about the incident. Pamplin is a criminal defense attorney running for a county judgeship in Texas, and was not at the game—but the next day, she published a tweet that rocketed the story to national attention: “My Goddaughter is the only black starter for Dukes [sic] volleyball team. While playing yesterday, she was called a [n-word] every time she served. She was threatened by a white male that told her to watch her back going to the team bus. A police officer had to be put by their bench.”

The tweet is no longer available, but it racked up 185,000 likes before it was archived. LeBron James himself responded: “you tell your Goddaughter to stand tall, be proud and continue to be BLACK!!! We are a brotherhood and sisterhood!  We have her back. This is not sports.”

The story was reported widely, most prominently by the New York Times in this story by Vima Patel (click to read):

One student, said to have led the racist insults, was banned from all University athletic venues. The story then spread widely:

The national response to this heinous allegation was swift and righteous. Utah’s governor, Spencer Cox, issued a statement on Twitter (now deleted) expressing his shock and disappointment. “I’m disgusted that this behavior is happening and deeply saddened if others didn’t step up to stop it,” he wrote. “As a society we have to do more to create an atmosphere where racist a**holes like this never feel comfortable attacking others.” For its part, BYU quickly acknowledged that something horrible had happened in the fieldhouse. The day after the game, it published an apologetic statement, saying that the fan deemed responsible for shouting the epithets—who was not a BYU student—had been banned from all university athletic venues.

Unsurprisingly, major media outlets were all over this story. The Times’ coverage set the tone, with the Washington Post and CNN and Sports Illustrated and NPR all publishing similar articles, alongside the predictable think pieces. The incident also had consequences for BYU sports more generally. The head coach of women’s basketball at the University of South Carolina canceled its home opener against BYU. A match between Duke and Rider University’s women’s volleyball teams—scheduled to be played at the BYU arena—was moved to a nearby high school gym in order to provide both teams “the safest atmosphere,” according to Duke’s Director of Athletics, Nina King.

For millions of people watching this story unfold, this was yet another example of the ineradicable stain of American racism, of just how little progress we’ve really made.

Singal, whose reporting I like quite a bit, then adds the four-word kicker.

Except it didn’t happen.

Yes, this was all made up. Completely made up. There is no evidence that any slurs were emitted, that the n-word was used when Rachel Richardson was serving, that there was a cop assigned to sit by the Duke bench, and so on. And it’s not as if there weren’t potential witnesses, either: there were cameras recording the game, cellphones doing the same, and thousands of witnesses. Not a single bit of film documented the assertions, and no witnesses came forward, even with requests to do so by the cops and the newspapers.

It was either a hoax or a massive lie, however you want to characterize it. How was it discovered, then?

Not by any major paper. The Salt Lake Tribune did question whether the right student had been banned, but the whole truth came out via—you guessed it—”a conservative campus newspaper at BYU”, the Cougar Chronicle  (BYU is a Mormon school, quite conservative, and has few black students.)  Here’s their attempt to get at the truth, done the old-fashioned way: using the phone and shoe leather.

Click to read:


BYU then did its own investigation, and on September 9 issued this statement (click to read):

An except:

From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event. As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe. That is the reason for our immediate response and our thorough investigation.

As a result of our investigation, we have lifted the ban on the fan who was identified as having uttered racial slurs during the match. We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity. BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.

Yet, as often happens during these hoaxes, institutions who were deceived nevertheless must say something that affirms their virtue, so the statement adds this:

Despite being unable to find supporting evidence of racial slurs in the many recordings and interviews, we hope that all those involved will understand our sincere efforts to ensure that all student-athletes competing at BYU feel safe. As stated by Athletics Director Tom Holmoe, BYU and BYU Athletics are committed to zero-tolerance of racism, and we strive to provide a positive experience for everyone who attends our athletic events, including student-athletes, coaches and fans, where they are valued and respected.

This is typical of what happens when a campus “hate crime” is revealed as a hoax—as a substantial proportion of them are. I suggest having a look at Wilfred Reilly’s book, Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War. (Reilly, by the way, is black.) I’ve read it, and the stories he tells are dire. I can’t remember the proportion of campus hate crimes or hate “incidents” that turn out to be fake (usually perpetuated by a member of the minority group that was a victim of the fabricated “hate”), but it’s substantial.

What’s telling is what these incidents have in common after they’re revealed as hoaxes. The perpetrators are often not punished, even when they’re caught; the fact that the hate crime or incident was a hoax is not revealed to the college community (this is bad, because it perpetrates the idea that racism is prevalent on campus); these hoaxes happen everywhere, and, after the “crime” is revealed as a hoax, the schools nevertheless continue to insist that it could have been real because racism is everywhere. Finally, the colleges even put in place new antiracist initiatives—simply to show that they’re doing something, even in the face of a hoax. These colleges, like the newspapers, have a substantial ideological investment in perpetrating the idea that racism is ubiquitous.

At any rate, the New York Times also responded with a retraction (below), but also some tut-tutting about the prevalence of racism at BYU. Here’s the retraction:

And Singal’s take on the NYT’s most recent story, which still maintains that the “hate” against the black player happened as described.

By this point, between the original New York Times story and a tepid followup, a combined five reporters and researchers had been pantsed by a small student paper. If all this provoked any soul-searching on the part of the Times, it was unclear from its report on BYU’s findings.

Remarkably, their most recent story treated the events as unresolved: “B.Y.U. did not directly address why its findings contradicted the account by Richardson, and the statements by both universities left questions unanswered.” It also included a statement from Duke’s athletic director saying the university stood by the volleyball team. The story ends with a reminder that at the overwhelmingly Mormon school, less than 1 percent of students are black, and that a recent report highlighted the university’s diversity issues. It’s unclear exactly why this is relevant; the point seems to be for the Times to advertise that it understands racism is a serious problem at BYU, and that even if the school were not guilty of it this time, everyone knows the university’s soul is not entirely spotless.

The lessons are several. People were all too willing to believe a story that comported with their ideological views, especially the view racism is everywhere and “systemic”. But the press bought into it too, abjuring their traditional role in news stories to state the facts and omit anything that isn’t supported by the facts. Further, this shoddy reporting damages people, as well as the public, who are misled by biases. Singal mentions, as examples of similar hoaxes taken seriously by the public and the media without proper vetting, the Covington Catholic High School issue (three media settled with the supposedly “smirking racist” for a substantial amount of money), and the Jussie Smollett case, immediately believed as an incident of racism though Smollett’s claims were ridiculous.  And of course the fact that a “hate crime” or a “hate incident” was a hoax is never publicized as widely as the original “transgression” itself, so the public never learns the truth.

Here’s Singal’s conclusion:

. . . there’s an established pattern of journalists being far too credulous when these incidents first burst onto the scene.

It won’t take some radical revolution for journalists to better cover fast-developing, controversial incidents involving race and other hot-button issues. All they have to do is rediscover norms that are already there, embedded in journalistic tradition. The best, oldest-school newspaper editors—a truly dying breed—constantly pester cub reporters to make that one extra call, ask that one extra question, follow that one extra unlikely lead. They do this all in the service of making sure their organization prints the best, most accurate version of the news (and doesn’t get sued). They can adhere to these norms without becoming a shill for the powerful. It’s simply a matter of approaching a story with curiosity and skepticism, of not believing they are the advocate for one side in a conflict—no matter how righteous and obvious the battle lines may seem at first glance.

It’s getting so that one has to turn to Substack instead of the “MSM” to get the real news!

The lesson, then, is one that scientists have long had drilled into them. If a result tends to jibe with your innate biases—with what you want to be true—then that is the time you have to exercise the most doubt and give the results the highest scrutiny.

Another STEM field, particle physics, gets woke

September 5, 2022 • 11:30 am

A long time ago, I predicted that among all academic disciplines, science would be the least likely to become woke. I was wrong. These disciplines, I thought, are wedded to facts and to open discussion as well, so surely they could not all rush to conclusions that were unevidenced.  Yes, I was wrong, but I won’t discuss the reasons why I erred. The fact is that as soon as one department or scientific journal drank the Kool-Aid, the others rushed to the trough to imbibe along with them. The result is that nearly all scientific societies and journals (Nature and Science prominent among them), as well as many STEM departments in universities, are rushing to proclaim their virtue, while in the end doing very little to ensure equality of opportunity for Americans.

I of course favor equality of opportunity: a long and arduous project that involves putting effort and money into housing, education, and every aspect of culture that, inherited from the bigotry of the past, holds down minorities. It’s certainly true that the underachievement of “minoritized” groups in the sciences is largely a relic of discrimination—a relic that society (though not necessarily particle physics) has a responsibility to attack. But the woke people in STEM aren’t trying to rectify this by “widening the pipeline.” Instead, they use this kind of logic:

a.) There are “inequities” in science: disproportionally low numbers of individuals from some minority groups in fields like physics and chemistry.

b.) These inequities are evidence for current and ongoing “structural racism” in science.

c.) Therefore, we must root out the present racism endemic in scientific fields.

We all know by now the fallacy of this argument. Inequities now are largely the result of racism in the past, whose legacy remains with us. But to say that current inequities reflect current racism is fallacious (especially for scientists) because, for cultural and historical reasons, the obstacles to entry into scientific fields is simply lower for “privileged” groups—and the desire to do pure science may differ as well. As anybody in the sciences knows, the inequities persist despite years of attempts of schools and fields to recruit minorities. Of course some scientists are racists—every field has its bigots. Science is not 100% purified of bigotry. But to say that such bigotry is currently endemic, rife, and ubiquitous in science is to completely ignore all the efforts scientists have made to recruit minorities.

The equation of inequities with ongoing structural racism is a fallacy that one wouldn’t expect among evidence-adhering scientists, especially in view of the countervailing evidence, but it’s the kind of claim that’s simply taboo to question.  But what else are we to do to ensure equality unless we know the causes of inequality?

The new article from Nature below (click on screenshot) makes the familiar argument that a field of science—in this case particle physics—is structurally racist, and that’s why there are fewer doctorates going to women (22%) and underrepresented minorities (7%) than their proportion in the population. To the interviewee, Kétévi Assamagan, this constitutes evidence that the field is not only rife with discrimination, but is also not a meritocracy, for to Assamagan a true meritocracy would have more women and minorities than it does.  This claim again requires evidence, but none is given.

The article shows the characteristics of all such articles accusing scientific fields of being hotbeds of racism: not only the equation of inequities with ongoing racism, but the obvious omission of supporting data. Rarely do we see evidence of racism at all beyond assertions, and we never see evidence for systemic racism (or, for that matter, for “implicit bias” as its cause, an assertion that many are now questioning). Instead, we get anecdotes about people who feel “harmed” or disrespected. And sometimes that’s true, but apparently only a small handful of cases of “harm” are sufficient to indict an entire field, and then to call for changes in its standards and practices.

Here’s the article, and remember that it’s from Nature:

The background is that a bunch of American particle physicists engaged in a once-a-decade exercise called “Snowmass,” in which they assess the state of the field and recommend changes. This time, one of the ten topics included was “elevated diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a leader of the community-engagement project, was interviewed by Elizabeth Gibeney. Here are a few Q&As from the interview, which are indented. Things that are flush left are my own comments.

From the introduction:

Nature spoke to Kétévi Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and co-convenor of the community-engagement frontier, about the DEI recommendations that emerged from the Snowmass process — and why meritocracy in particle physics an illusion.

I question, of course, how illusory the notion of a meritocracy in physics is, but the article makes clear that, according to Assamagan, physics should be a meritocracy—not, as you might think, that we should eliminate the meritocratic aspects of the field to increase minority representation. No, Assamagan says that if physics were a true meritocracy, there would be more more physicists from underrepresented groups. Here’s his claim:

How do you convince people that particle physics is not a meritocracy?

People in the dominant culture think: “I am not a racist, I don’t see racism in my group, so if these people work hard, it will be fine.” But research has shown that there is much more under-representation in our field than meritocracy would suggest.

The culture is not welcoming and the climate is not conducive for some people to be there. Unconscious bias feeds into how people progress and go into senior positions, and how the senior people then maintain that culture. We are not asking for favouritism for any group. We are talking about making the environment and culture work for everybody in the way that it does for the majority.

I am not aware of that research, but in fact I doubt that it exists. How can you actually demonstrate that if there were a true meritocracy, you would have greater representation of minority groups? The only way I can think of would be to show consistent and pervasive racism in promotion, hiring, and publication, so that really good work by minorities gets ignored, and that this brand of ignoring leads to greater inequities. Those data may in fact exist, but I’d like to see them for particle physics.  As in most fields, physicists, like evolutionary biologists, are eager to find qualified members of minority groups.

Here’s what one of my colleagues said about this, “Another way to demonstrate racism would be to compare the number of undergraduates interested in particle physics with their representation in PhD and professor positions. I would bet that the underrepresentation starts at level 0 – therefore it is a matter of choice, as interested people simply aren’t there to begin with (rather than they being weeded out by racism”.

He/she added, “Finally there is the issue of culture.  Why would a minority individual coming from an underprivileged background be interested in particle physics, a topic he/she was probably never exposed to?  Why would the person not want to be a medical doctor or a social worker or a teacher – dealing with things he/she might perceive as urgent?  Particle physics is an elitist area, frankly for people distant from the reality of the world.”

Note that Assamagan is saying here that particle physics should be a meritocracy, not that it shouldn’t be because meritocracy causes inequities.

As for the second claim, that’s the claim of structural racism caused by “unconscious bias”. Again, we have a claim with no evidence: that senior physicists unconsciously maintain a racist culture in the field.

Can you give me some examples of how an unwelcoming climate can affect particle physicists?

Someone might ask a female physicist, “Can you bring me some coffee?” Or I could go to my lab and a newly hired white person might ask: “When are you going to clean my room?” It is assumed that people who look like me can only be there to do that kind of work. Police have been called on colleagues because they were in the building where people don’t expect them to be.

These incidents make people really uncomfortable and mean you have to work to demonstrate that you occupy that space because you have the training and ability to be there. People might also say you are a ‘diversity hire’. We as minorities are expected to take all of these things, shrug them off and excel like everyone else.

My colleague added this: “Although I am not in particle physics, I would be shocked if it is common for people to say to a woman ‘are you going to clean my lab?’!

Now I’m not doubting that such incidents may have happened on occasion, but I simply cannot believe that they’re so common that they create an unwelcoming climate. That would suggest that we’ve made no progress towards moral equality since the Jim Crow era.  If these things happen all the time, I’d like to know about them. But it’s considered churlish to even ask for evidence. Believe the “lived experience”!

Note, though, that Assamagan does reject the notion of “diversity hires”, which means that he’s also rejecting the notion of hiring that favors members of certain groups—that is, affirmative action.  And indeed, he doesn’t even suggest affirmative-action hires or promotions, so I largely agree with his suggestions below for improving the scientific climate for everyone:

What are some of your recommendations for improving the workplace climate and encouraging diversity?

It starts with the application of a code of conduct for everyone — including anti-harassment policies and policies to protect victims when they report issues. Conducting surveys about workplace climate will tell you what your community needs. For example, for people with disabilities, you need to ensure that meetings are arranged with consideration of their needs.

You also need to start engaging with science in schools and building the pipeline — there are minority-serving institutions that have a lot of capacity that particle physics can tap into.

Leadership is also important. One of the papers submitted to Snowmass says there needs to be a cultural change where people are chosen for leadership positions through excellence, and then promote an environment of equity and excellence, for example by getting away from just automatically rewarding privileges such as being from a top university.

I’m not too keen on the endless codes of conduct promulgated in meetings and by departments, one reason being that this assumes that bad conduct is not already subject to supervision and sanctions. Do we really need this kind of policing? Not if particle physics is largely free from sexual or racial harassment.

As for building the pipeline: YES! To me that is the main way to increase diversity in STEM. But it’s a lot harder than just promulgating codes of conduct or requiring candidates for jobs and promotions to submit DEI statements. To Assamagan’s credit, he doesn’t suggest any such form of affirmative action.

The third paragraph above, where he emphasizes choosing leaders through “excellence,” is more evidence that Assamagan really does want a meritocracy in particle physics, but one that takes genuine quality into account, as it should. There is indeed too much emphasis on “elite schools.”  (This overrating of schools as a sign of one’s merit is the reason that, when someone asks me where I went to school, I say “near Boston.”) At the U of C, we try to avoid this elitism by concentrating solely on research records. For several years I was on the University of Chicago’s promotion and tenure committee in the Biological Sciences, and was continually impressed by how the meetings were dominated by discussion of research quality. Never once did I hear someone touted because they went to an elite university.

In the end, Assamagan’s article is a mixed bag. The good bits are his insistence on a real meritocracy (that will enrage some of his woke colleagues!), and his lack of insistence on affirmative action. Perhaps he realizes that affirmative action is at odds with the true meritocracy he wants—that’s another truth that nobody dare discuss, much less admit.  But Assamagan also implies that particle physics is structurally racist, and that this ongoing racism creates the inequities we see. If that’s true, I’d like to see the evidence.

Why am I concerned with a two-page piece in Nature that, after all, is almost identical to dozens of statements from other areas of science? Because, as I said, to cure a problem you have to correctly diagnose it. It makes a substantial difference if you impute inequities in physics—or any field—mainly to ongoing racism or, alternatively, mainly as a historical relic of racism that has narrowed the opening of the pipelines to success. For the former, you do the fixes that departments are doing now:  codes of conduct, affirmative action, DEI statements, and the like. So far, those haven’t worked.  For the latter, you concentrate on rebuilding society from the ground up to afford everyone equal opportunity from birth. If you do only the former and don’t concentrate on education and opportunity, the problem of disproportionate representation will need constant policing and tweaking via diversity initiatives. If you do the latter, you have the chance to really solve the problem. And that’s why the last Q&A was this:

How much did physicists get involved with the community-engagement frontier during Snowmass?

Not enough. Very few people participated in community-engagement activities, compared with the big physics areas. All of this research-based work was done by just a few people. People feel they understand the issues and want solutions, but they don’t have a lot of time to devote to it.

It’s the time (and money), Jake!

Jesse Singal on inequality, inequity, structural racism, and the “pipeline problem”

August 19, 2022 • 9:15 am

Jesse Singal has a nice piece on racial disparities on his Substack site, and you can read it for free (do subscribe if you read often). I had to read it twice to grasp his point, for the title is a bit confusing. Now, however, not only do I see where he’s coming from, but in the main I agree with him. Our only disagreement seems to be semantic: about what “structural racism” means. But that semantic difference is important. I’ll get to that shortly.

I recommend reading it, which you can do by clicking on the screenshot below.

I’ll summarize what I think is his point. He sees structural racism not as present-day features of institutions that mandate or facilitate discrimination, but simply as racism that has persisted through American society since slavery (he counts “blacks” in his discussion as American descendants of slaves, not including immigrants from Nigeria or the Caribbean). “Structural racism,” though waning, persists because, due to racism as recently as his grandparents’ time, there’s been a persistent inequality of wealth and resources between whites and blacks. This leads to an inequality of resources available to blacks and whites—resources that help people get jobs and attain the diverse measures of success. This disparity of resources means that entry to prestigious or lucrative jobs is more limited for blacks than for whites, leading to the present “inequities” that are so visible—the subject of a lot of worry. In other words, blacks have a narrower entrance to the pipeline that leads to success.

In this way, the “structural racism”—racism beginning early in America and persisting up to our era—leads to unequal outcomes, and that’s through a restricted entry of blacks into the “pipeline” of opportunity. To Singal, it’s a matter of wealth, the lack of which limits opportunity. Ergo, if you accept “structural racism”, then you have to also accept “pipeline problems.”

If you see “structural racism” in this way, then I agree with him. My only disagreement with Singal—and it’s an important one—is that “structural racism” is usually construed as institutionalized forms of discrimination: laws, rules, or codified practices that discriminate against people of color. This construal is important (and Singal alludes to it) because it implies that present inequities reflect present-day racism, and leads to the view that we can fix inequities simply by either ferreting out the structural biases, or lowering the bar by lessening the degree of meritocracy. Singal sees this form of “structural racism” as different from his. But in the end, Singal’s solution would seem to be mine as well:  assure equal opportunity for everyone from birth.

The problem is that if “equal opportunity” reflects, as it surely does, inequality of wealth, then how do you assure it without making everyone equally wealthy, or at least wealthy enough get what you need to compete for good jo?  His solution to inequity, then, seems to be to drastically reduce income inequality. And that’s a tough row to hoe.

But a lot of what Singal says makes sense. I’ll give a few quotes:

First, his definition of a “pipeline problem”:

Before I unlocked this article, my copy editor pointed out that I failed to define pipeline problems, assuming readers would be familiar with the phrase. A pipeline problem is a situation where disparities in workplace or academic settings might partially reflect disparities in the pool of qualified applicantsfor these positions rather than discrimination in hiring. To take an extreme and hopefully uncontroversial example, imagine Company X lacks any Lithuanian American employees. It could be because the company’s hiring process is biased against Lithuanian Americans, but it could also be because it received few or no competitive applications from this relatively small group.

Fair enough. I think we all agree that such issues are the primary explanation for the absence of racial diversity, at least in academia.

And his construal of structural racism (or so I think):

But whatever you think of the precise way race continues to shape things today, and how much it can be fully separated from class, race has obviously shaped the transmission of wealth and opportunity across generations. Again, we’re talking just two generations ago. There is no wild conspiracy theorizing going on here. It’s just not credible to deny this. So the tl;dr version of all this can be boiled down to: “I am successful in part because my grandparents were able to accumulate wealth on an uneven playing field, and millions of other white people can say the same thing.” This is not a knock on the grandparents in question, who really did work hard. But, again, everyone knows that a lot of people work hard. People travel tens of thousands of miles, on foot, just for a chance at a slightly better backbreaking job. “Well, they worked hard!” is a cop-out that doesn’t really explain who gets what.

You’re telling me that this stuff doesn’t matter and that it can’t help explain things like the racial wealth gap?

If you think of “structural racism” as inequality of opportunity caused by racism that was pervasive as recently as our grandparents’ generation, then you plunge yourself into a convoluted argument that that (Singalian) structural racism is the main problem rather than entry into the pipeline. (Singal sees them as pretty much equivalent). His quote:

If you believe in structural racism but don’t believe that white people are better positioned than black people to produce competitive job applications, on average, think about what you’re saying:

1) White people have, over the generations and on average, been endowed with opportunities black people have been robbed of

2) This extends well past K–12 education and into the elite corners of higher education, which white people have much more realistic access to than black people, on average — and degrees from top-tier schools are much more advantageous than degrees from middling ones

3) White people are also, relative to black people, endowed with more of every conceivable sort of training, tutoring, career guidance, access to young professional networks, and other benefits associated with successful job-searching, on average

4) Despite all this, white people and black people produce about equally competitive job applications.

I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could believe this sequence of claims. To do so, you have to think that all the stuff you were (rightfully!) yelling about 30 seconds ago — the vastly unfair and discriminatory apportionment of wealth and opportunity in America over the generations — just doesn’t matter when it comes to job applications.

Ergo, if you believe in “structural racism”, you must believe in pipeline problems, for the former (again, construed as Singal does) causes the latter. And you can’t rectify the latter simply by making a few tweaks in the structure of corporations, universities, or, indeed, society. DEI initiatives won’t work: we need a fundamental shake-up of American society.

The reason that people prefer the “pipeline argument” to the “structural racism” argument is that the former absolves them not only of blame, but also pretends there is an easy fix to inequality. A couple of quotes:

And [the pipeline explanation] very beneficial to privileged people, because it draws attention away from that privilege, away from how much they have and how much other people lack, and toward the idea that whoops, some bias infected some people’s brains (coulda happened to anyone), and once we banish it, diversity will bloom within our selective institutions.

By “discrimination” below, I don’t think he means simple racism, but discrimination among those of unequal qualifications—i.e. a meritocratic approach to hiring:

. . . One more time: It is comforting to think that discrimination is what’s leading to the outcomes we don’t like. It suggests relatively easy, nearby fixes. No one wants to be discriminatory.

And this—the fact that we’re nowhere near equality of opportunity, which correlates with equality of income—is the reason why people think that weak or even virtue-flaunting solutions are going to do anything about unequal representation. Again, by “discrimination”, I think he means “discrimination based on qualifications”, not race:

What people do want — or what the sorts of people in a position to shape how companies look want, at least — is to win the meritocracy game. They want that for themselves and for their kids. That’s why the conversation will grind to a halt if you press people on the actual depth of their desire for racial and socioeconomic justice. As in, if the results you see around you aren’t generated by discrimination, but rather by a big, complicated machine, are you still going to be enthusiastic about trying to change things? What about when you reflect on the fact that this big, complicated machine has generated excellent outcomes for you and your family?

Below is his case for diversity, which I agree with. I suppose that, in the end, this is the reason I favor some forms of affirmative action (I go back and forth between the diversity-is-inherently good justification, which was the basis of the Bakke decision, and the diversity-as-a-form-of-reparations argument):

Forced to choose between the two, I do certainly prefer a meritocracy with diverse faces at the top than a meritocracy dominated by white people. I think that all else being equal, diversity is a very good thing. I know it sounds like I’m reciting a mantra, but I’m a city boy and Jewish and so much of the culture, food, and literature that has meant the most to me has been the result of different groups colliding, mixing, and creating new things. America was always built to be a diverse place — it really is in our DNA, to borrow a phrase — and we’re at our strongest when it’s a cacophonous throng of voices from different backgrounds. So I don’t want to paint too dire a picture for those simply seeking to hire more diverse workers.

But this puts him in a bind, for as I see it Singal still views the meritocracy as inevitable (I don’t know if he approves of it), and holding that view will automatically create inequities.

What is the solution? In the final section, called “The Good News (Sort Of)”: Singal has some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that things are getting better: inequalty and inequity are lessening as racism wanes. (Only someone who’s blind can deny that.)

The bad news is that not only is it nearly impossible to create a level playing field, but people don’t even want to talk about the needed fixes, much less the problem. Those fixes require too much work and too much money for those of us in a position to help, and to discuss the problem leads to accusations of racism:

What it comes down to is that if we can’t openly and honestly talk about what the problems are, they will be impossible to solve. And part of me thinks that’s the point. For a lot of powerful people, the system we have is working great for them and their kids, minus a pesky lack of diversity where they work or where their kids go to school. If they can just tweak that — and it’s certainly getting easier to do given the aforementioned burgeoning middle class of talented non-white Americans — then their world will look pretty good, pretty just. And they can get there without ever having to really question, let alone act contrary to, their own material self-interest.

Were I to grade the piece, I’d say that it’s about 40% too long. But it’s well worth reading anyway.