Monday, January 23, 2012

The Middle Path To Understanding (And Addressing) The Racial Achievement Gap

The existence of a glaring achievement gap among different racial and ethnic groups within the United States is widely known. When we analyze rates of high school graduation, college attendanceunemploymentincomeincarceration, obesity and out of wedlock births, we find that Asian-Americans enjoy the most positive outcomes, followed by European-Americans and then Hispanic-Americans with African- Americans demonstrating the most troublesome statistics. Where the greatest disagreement lies in on the explanation for this persistent phenomena. Progressive explanations typically center on the following factors of continued Institutional Racism and White Privilege. Whereas, conservative explanations usually discount racism, instead focusing on: cultural pathologies that encourage poor social and economic strategies.

The first glaring problem with the progressive explanation is that not only have Asian-Americans outperformed European-Americans in every social and economic measure, but so have African Immigrants. For example, 43.8% of African Immigrants are college graduates, which greatly exceeds the national average of 23.1%. If the "white power structure" and "institutional racism" are the deciding factors in educational and economic achievement, how is it possible that Indian, Japanese and Chinese immigrants have risen so quickly and are now doing better than whites? And interestingly this same phenomena is mirrored on an international level, with East Asian nations experiencing outstripping most European Nations in educational and even economic output. This clearly demonstrates the economic and social welfare are not static phenomena; throughout history, the fortunes of individuals, groups, nations and even regions have risen and fallen.

This phenomena become much clearer when we "look at the trees" rather than at the "forest, i.e. focus on specific, individual values, behaviors and choices that increase or decrease an individual's chance for improving their economic and social trajectory. The reason I chose to focus on trajectory, is because comparing the absolute outcome of (let's say) the child of a working class immigrant to a well established, middle class family would neither be fair nor allow us to fully determine the effect of culture and choice. But, comparing the relative improvement or decline of each individual or group would allow us to do so. And exploring the multi-generation trajectory of families and groups paints an even clearer pictures of the dynamics that government social and economic assent and decline. 

Or, to be even more specific, we could ask ourselves what advise would we give to a friend or family member about how to improve their chances for success? Here are the most obvious: dedicate more time to studying, at all costs do not drop out of high school, do not have a child before you graduate, do not have a child until you are married and financially stable, avoid engaging in behaviors that run the risk of arrest,  if possible choose a highly marketable field of study, such as math, science and engineering, live beneath your means, establish a good credit history, save and invest in the future. While making the right choices are not absolute determinants of one's trajectory, no one can deny that there exists a very strong correlation between choices, behaviors and outcomes. When we "compare apples to apples," or the more upwardly mobile to  the less upwardly mobile components of the African-American community, we will certainly encounter markedly different approaches to family, education, employment, saving and investment strategies. And unless we are hopelessly intellectually dishonest, we will see that the same is true for more (and less) upwardly mobile ethnic groups. To put it simply, Indians and African Immigrants have risen so quickly, because a higher percentage of their respective groups adopted values, choices and strategies that are conducive to success and African-Americans and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic and European-Americans have not. 

There is a balanced middle path that does not look at issues of social pathology as an either / or phenomena; they acknowledge the continued effects of racism, but believe that they are greatly amplified by the prevailing culture, values and behaviors of individuals and communities alike. In this day and age, such choices have a far greater bearing on the social and economic welfare of individuals and communities than racism and white privilege. For example, many African-American communities are provided by substandard schools, whose negative effects are amplified by the insufficient commitment to learning and discipline present in many families. But, those who take the middle way differ from most conservatives by their acknowledgement that culture and behavior do not occur in a vacuum; they are products of one's history and experience. In other words, the most pernicious aspect of America's long history of racist oppression is that it degraded the social and cultural capital of its victims, leaving them in a state in which they cannot fully capitalize on the rapidly expanding opportunities of a free society.

Decimate a  people's common culture, outlaw education for 5 generations and provide shamefully substandard schooling for 3 more and it will not come as a surprise that a substantial portion of the next generations will be left without a tradition of learning. Subject several generations to slavery and bar their descendants from all but the most menial professions and do not be surprised if the next generations do not see the connection of work and discipline to upward mobility. And then finally when you acknowledge the magnitude of the crime you committed against a whole people, you seek to make amends by the massive expansion of the welfare state that renders a portion of the beleaguered community dependent on the state, with their traditional family structure eviscerated. Part of this tragic drama are the "experts" and "activists" who treat the battered community like children and passive agents who are incapable of shaping their environment and their destinies, like other communities have done so before them. Their refusal to assign any responsibility to diverse communities for the problems that they face may stem from a well meaning prohibition against "blaming the victim," but it has eroded their capacity to acknowledge and address the pathological behaviors and cultural patterns that play a major role in shaping disparate outcomes.

The view of the Middle Way begs the questions: What can be done? If personal choice and culture are driving forces in the trajectory of individuals, communities and cultures, can the state do anything to induce real, positive change? Relatively to progressives, who have deep faith in the power of the state to shape equal outcomes, classical liberals (libertarians) believe that at best the state can expand equal opportunity. The problem is not that universities are discriminating against diverse groups, quite to the contrary, most are religiously pursuing "diversity" and "equal outcomes." Rather, the dearth of qualified high school graduates means that far too diverse students are able to capitalize on these unprecedented opportunities. So, improving the dismal schools that diverse communities face is of paramount importance. Without real improvement in educational outcomes, progress will remain elusive and economic inequality will continue to worsen.

How schools can be improved is truly a vexing question, because more than a half century of efforts by the educational establishment to bridge achievement gaps have bore little fruit. Rather than repeat the tried and failed formula of: increased funding, increased federalization and the pursuit of unproven pedagogic fads, a new paradigm must approached: school choice and competition. Unlike most of my conservative brethren, I make no illusions that the said factors can improve failing schools, but at the very least they can offer expanded opportunity for the students who are willing and able to pursue them. And on an even broader level, the education establishment must shift its focus from the study of failure, towards understanding and promoting the norms, values, behaviors and strategies that upwardly groups (Asian-Americans) and nations have pursued. As painful as it may be to admit, not only do schools shape their students, but students and their families have a central role in determining the quality of the schools. So, without a shift in the values, norms and behaviors that predominate in a community, even the most well run schools will still produce dismal results.

This brings us to the topic of welfare. As a classical liberal (libertarian) I would like to see welfare in its present form significantly reduced. However, until we arrive at that improbable point, the best we can hope for is to reform welfare programs so that they will subsidize positive, rather than pathological choices. Increasing subsidies for welfare recipients who choose to not have more children (than they can afford and educate) may constitute excessive social engineering for most conservatives, but would ultimately offer a net decrease in expenditures and provide incentives for positive behavioral changes. In addition, the incentive structure that governs social welfare agencies needs to be transformed; social workers and bureaucrats who are able to help their clients transition away from dependency and pathology should be offered bonuses. Mandating full time employment, even "menial jobs" that "Americans won't do" for all adults in a household that receive welfare is essential for breaking the cycle of dependency and re-establishing a culture of work.

Ultimately what characterizes the middle way is intellectual honesty, a belief that we must allow facts and reason to carry us to logical conclusions, now matter how uncomfortable they make us, no matter how offensive others find them. For using sophistry to support comfortable narratives will spare feelings, but will lead us to continue pursuing the ineffective paths and policies of the last half century. The first step towards real compassion is adopting the intellectually honesty acknowledgement that past racism casts its heavy shadow on the present via the persistence of widespread cultural and behavioral pathology. Failure to do so will doom future generations to even greater economic and social inequality; a more racist outcome I cannot imagine.

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