Minority Achievement and Involuntary Therapy

by Harry on October 1, 2004

As Dave explains, I’ve spent part of the week getting embroiled in local affairs. Our school district devoted another in-service training to the Courageous Conversations program; every employee (except the many who took sick days) had to participate. Dave’s own experience reflects pretty accurately the experiences I’ve had related to me. It’s a kind of involuntary therapy session — the kind of thing that my friends who used to be in obscure Maoist organizations report having gone through regularly. The pretext is a concern with minority underachievement, which the District regards as being caused by institutional racism, on which the day’s conversation focused. You might expect that a focus on institutional racism would look at the racism in the criminal justice system and the labor market, which deeply affect the prospects of minority males and, presumably, therefore indirectly effect their aspirations and marriageability (with predictable consequences for family structure). But: no mention of these things. It is all about the racism inherent in the schools, and particularly in the attitudes of teachers.

Prompted by one very pissed off, but honest, left-wing, and good, teacher, I wrote an op-ed for the local paper, simply arguing that the focus is misplaced and suggesting some rather dull measures which, unlike involuntary and inconsistent therapy for school employees, have a good track record of slightly raising the achievement of low income and minority students. I have to admit I was nervous about doing it, both because the racist teacher theme is popular, and because lots of people don’t like open criticism of the District for wasting resources, because that creates an atmosphere in which voters are les likely to vote for tax raises. But I’m pissed off with the District for wasting resources, both because enough waste creates a perception of waste, and because I think the achievement of low-income and minority students should be the most urgent priority of our education system; and programs like this not only have no benefits, but give ammunition to those who don’t take it seriously as a priority.

In fact the response so far has been unremarkable: a nice note from a School Board member thanking me for writing it, and a series of emails from random people expressing their own feelings. I have, though, heard from a reliable source that the program was opposed internally by the main person responsible for equal opportunities and minority achievement. The Superintendent has not commented.



perianwyr 10.01.04 at 5:34 pm

Actually, you’re wrong.


Ken Houghton 10.01.04 at 5:54 pm

You mean the superintendent HAS commented?


Ken Houghton 10.01.04 at 5:55 pm

You mean the superintendent HAS commented?


Ken Houghton 10.01.04 at 5:57 pm

Oops. Sorry for the double-down; the new technology confused me.


rea 10.01.04 at 6:40 pm

“Actually, you’re wrong.”

Nothing like a well-reasoned debate on issues of public policy . . .


Ayjay 10.01.04 at 7:22 pm

Oh great. I read through the whole damned post only to find that, actually, it was wrong. (Note to self: read comments first in order to avoid reading wrong posts.)


Joel Turnipseed 10.01.04 at 7:32 pm

Harry –

You’re right–and I can’t believe people can’t (don’t want to?) acknowledge it.

Two illustrations:

1) When I was an undergraduate teaching assistant in logic at the University of Minnesota, I had a guy in my recitation named Charles. He was a really cool guy, late twenties, who’d moved up from Houston and was working at the U to pay his way through college. One day I asked him, as we walked the halls following class, “So, what else are you taking Charles?” “Well, I’m taking this English Composition class and I’m taking College Algebra.” “That’s great,” I said, and he asked, “Say, you ever take College Algebra?” I replied that I had, and he looked at me with disbelief, “Really? Man that shit’s hard. When you take College Algebra?” I paused, not sure how to answer, then figured the only way was honestly, “In tenth grade.” “No,” he said, “I’m talking College Algebra.” His disbelief was such an indictment of the gap between his Houston school district experience and my own suburban Minnesota experience (where almost EVERYONE takes College Algebra) that I didn’t know what to say: what could I? “Charles, you need to be reborn as a white kid in suburban Minnesota.”

2) In a dialogue I had with a bunch of tent-mates from North Philly during the Persian Gulf War, it came to pass that one of the guys lamented that “No one ever told him to read Plato, et.al., — cause it sounded like pretty cool shit.” I made fun of him, “What, you see me going to the Gunny to ask, ‘Hey Gunny, you mind if I read this here Plato for a while’?” but he had a point: there was no external encouragement, no social pressure, to read–much less read Plato.

Now, there isn’t a house in my family, going back three generations, that doesn’t have a substantial library. My grandfather was an economist, and taught me how to program at age 10, on the old TI-59. What school district changes could we make that would close the gap between families like mine and those of Charles and my North Philly Marines? Is that gap evidence of racism on the part of teachers? anyone? Or is the failure to recognize that gap–and its everyday existential sources–the real racism? If you don’t change the life habits and social expectations of families and communities, schools aren’t likely to do jack.


Dan Hardie 10.01.04 at 7:41 pm

It’s a little bit OT, but Harry- what’s funding like for libraries in DC and Maryland? Any programmes running to encourage poor kids to use public libraries?

Also- anyone know who runs the ‘consultants’ who provided (and were paid for) this Cultural Revoluti- in-service training? They wouldn’t happen to have directors who also had good local political contacts, by any staggering chance?


joel turnipseed 10.01.04 at 7:42 pm

Also note: And policies and philosophies around social justice must understand that you can’t “solve” such a problem (or “hold it accountable”) in a short period of time (e.g., some forms of redistribution, affirmative action must accompany realization of the forms and nature of these inequalities).


jet 10.01.04 at 9:25 pm

Great post. Your action probably had more effect than you imagine. Even if it was only to influence the level of debate people have about this subject.


drapeto 10.01.04 at 9:50 pm

You might expect that a focus on institutional racism would look at the racism in the criminal justice system and the labor market.

Actually, I’d hope that an institution’s discussion of institutional racism would focus on racism within that institution.

Diversity training is corny and often pointless — yours certainly didn’t do much good, I observed on a previous post — but it’s a signal to employees of institutional boundaries that they can be held to. I get the impression that racist teachers simply doesn’t count as a problem to you. It is to me, but then again, I was on the receiving end.


harry 10.01.04 at 10:16 pm

bq. I get the impression that racist teachers simply doesn’t count as a problem to you.

In the particular circumstance the district has made a big deal of this training as response to the minority achievement gap. But whereas we have ample evidence that this gap can be narrowed, somewhat (not a lot) by dull measures like those I elaborate, we have none at all that it is narrowed in the slightest by diversity training, good or bad. There are probably some racist teachers in the schools, and there attitudes probably have some effect on student achievement. But, just as one, small and only suggestive, piece of evidence, the district gave no examples of actual racist incidents or behaviours that it has encountered.

Undermining racist attitudes is important. If the district knew how to do it, I’d welcome it. But I still think it’s right to prioritise the achievement of minority students over the improvement of district employees’ characters. Since we know we can do something about the former, and have no evidence that doing anything about the latter helps with doing the former, I think they are culpable.

Why look at institutional racsiim more broadly than just at the particular institution? This is partly optimism on my part. I think that most of the teachers are not racist, and are reasonably well-willed, but I know that some of them find the behaviours, and especially the low motivation, of low income children very hard to understand. I believe that an accurate understanding of the way our society structures the opportunities and family lives of especially low-income Black children would help such teachers (and the administrators) to understand what is going on in their students’ lives, and deal with them more effectively. But, I admit, I’ve no evidence of that. Basically, I think the vast majority of teachers in the district are not racist and are well-willed (if overworked and poorly managed).

All that said, joel turnipseed’s point in his second comment is something everyone should be bearing in mind all the time in these discussions. All interventions take time to work, and have only marginal benefits. Short of successful implementation of the maximal social democratic program we can’t expect too much.

dan hardie – I’ll look into it — I don’t know much about it but I know people who do.


jam 10.02.04 at 3:51 am

Just one point: institutional racism is not the same as personal racism on the part of people who make up the institution.

An example: if a police department regularly stops people for Driving While Black, this may be (1) because individual officers pick disproportionately on Black drivers or (2) because the department deploys cops on traffic duty disproportionately in Black areas. Case (1) is personal racism, case (2) is institutional. Even in case (1), it may be that the department is more likely to recruit or promote personally racist officers, in which case, again, we have institutional racism.

Diversity lectures, of the sort you describe, may, possibly, have an effect on personal racism. it is possible, though unlikely, that through such a program a person may come to recognise his or her wrong thinking and vow to reform. The possibility shrinks drastically, however, if one can get out of the program by taking a sick day.

But such programs have no effect on institutional racism. If racist effects are due to the institution’s policies, working on the individuals carrying out the policies is useless. It is the people who set the policies who need their consciousness raised.

If the institution preferentially recruits or promotes racists, it is again useless to convert the individuals. If one is successful with an individual, one has simply condemned him to non-promotion. Those with whom one has failed will become those making the decisions on recruitment and promotion.

If the belief that the Madison school district suffers from institutional racism is justified, then it is the management and policies of the district which need to be examined, not the beliefs of the teachers.


harry 10.03.04 at 11:29 pm

I knew that jam.

But I couldn’t think of a succinct and helpful way of putting it. More than that, couldn’t really reach back into the fog of my mind to articulate the problem to myself. Don’t need to now you have. Thanks.:) It also seems a bit like twisting the knife (‘Look, you guys can’t even get the concept you’re working with right’). But it is helpful when talking to the employees (which I’ve now done a fair amount of since Thursday).


Sandriana 10.04.04 at 7:45 pm

I’m not sure that I agree that diversity training for individuals has no effect in combating institutionalised racism. Individual attitudes are a component of institutional racism, in that every aspect of an organisation contributes to the overall ethos and its relationship with its members, users and the general public.

A body can have the best equal opportunity policies in the world, but if unspoken negative assumptions and attitudes of members of that body about minority groups are not continually challenged, then those policies are worthless.

It’s irrelevant that you, as an individual, might see your self as non- or even anti-racist. What’s comes over to me from that post is the classic liberal thing: “I’m not racist, therefore institutionalised racism is nothing to do with me, why are you accusing me?”. No one is accusing you personally of racism, they have accused the institution of which you are a part; you therefore also have partial responsibility to put it right, and if that entails a little joint self-examination with co-workers, so be it.


harry 10.05.04 at 12:27 am

bq. What’s comes over to me from that post is the classic liberal thing: “I’m not racist, therefore institutionalised racism is nothing to do with me, why are you accusing me?”.

Not what was intended at all. The issue the article the post links to addresses is what can be done to narrow the achievement gap. I will say that I don’t think anyone has offered any evidence that the school district is, even institutionally, racist. So I think the reaction I’ve heard from teachers is a little bit ‘I’m not racist’; a little bit ‘my colleagues aren’t racist’; a little bit ‘there’s racism but there’s also a class basis for all this which we resent being told we’re not allowed to think about’ and a lot: ‘Look, minority achievement is the issue here and there’s a lot of evidence that other measures help, and none that this one does’. Nobody has commented to me on what I, as an outsider, find offensive (though in some cases justified) which is the problem of employers trying to exercise direct psychological power over their employees, trying to reshape their minds. As I say, sometimes justified, but to my mind the bar of justification here is very, very far from reached.

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