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ON RACIAL CULTURE WARS IN AMERICA

 

By David J. Leonard |with thanks to NewBlackMan

 

Saturday, February 18, 2012.

 

The racial culture wars (that is, the demonization of black students) are once again raging on college campuses.  A recent study authored by Peter Arcidiacono, Ken Spenner, and Esteban M. Aucejo concludes that African American students are less qualified and academically prepared to succeed at Duke University.  “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice” cites evidence of African Americans switching from science (STEM) majors to easier liberal arts majors as evidence for a lack of preparation. 

 

According to a group of Duke Alumni, “The study opens with a bold statement that affirmative action admissions in higher education allow for the college admission of minority students who have 'weak' preparation for college-level work.  This implies that students of color are not as intelligent or prepared as their white counterparts.”  The study is thus not simply an assault on affirmative action and the struggle for diversity on college campuses, but an effort to reassert notions of white superiority. “What many people of color discovered upon entering those previously closed corridors was not white superiority but, for the most part, white mediocrity. Now, to preserve such a system, what is often brought up is the mediocrity of blacks and other groups of color who enter,” writes Lewis Gordon. “What is not brought up, however, is the group of blacks and brown people who were excluded on the basis of their excellence. The prevailing view in predominantly white institutions about such candidates is fear of whether such candidates are ‘controllable.’”  Leaving readers with the conclusion that blacks are not controllable (and thus not desirable), the study has dangerous implications.

 

In relying on and working from a series of stereotypes and accepted narratives, the study fails to answer a number of questions that points to both its deficiencies and its danger:

 

How does the study define blackness; does it differentiate between first generation African immigrants or students whose family have been in the United States?  Does it account for class differences?  In talking about SAT courses, and preparation, how does it account for educational inequalities, such as differential resources, access to SAT preparation courses, and the availability of advanced placement courses and countless other examples that point to the ways in which racism produce an uneven playing field?

 

How does the study account for extracurricular activities, demands of work, student involvement, and engagement with the community?  Are there differences between different disciplines?  How does it account for the ways that the demands of life, and the potential involvement of students as organizers, community leaders, athletes, artists, and active citizens differs between the sciences and the liberal arts, and the potential impact on grades?  How does it explain high rate of entry for black students in STEM majors and how does it account for high exit rates? 

 

In failing to actually talk with students and learn from their experiences, in an effort to understand how the institutions and higher education is potentially failing, the authors instead explain once again put the onus back on black students.  Offering a narrative that focuses on “qualifications,” “work ethic,” educational unpreparedness, the authors not only deploy a dominant white racial frame that consistently images whites as superior and deserving, and blacks as inferior and therefore undeserving, but erases the meaningful ways that racism and white privilege operate in contemporary society

 

The study works from a premise that sciences are harder, demand more study time, and are more demanding; the evidence provided for each of these claims is lower grades amongst students despite greater academic preparation.  The authors argue at great lengths – “and perhaps related to the differences in grading practices, students are working harder in natural science and economics classes and perceive these classes to be more challenging than classes in the humanities and social sciences”—that African American students are fleeing from harder classes and majors because they cannot handle them.  Without any evidence, such claims should give pause on a number of levels.  The assumptions here are extensive as the authors provide little evidence that these classes are harder or more demanding; the authors merely recycle the assumptions that Schwarz Reflection Principle and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are far more challenging to students than understanding the use of metaphors by Shakespeare and Ellison, analyzing Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea of signifier and signified within The Matrix, or applying the theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Walter Rodney to globalization. 

 

At the core, the study demonstrates no understanding of the ways in which race and racism may operate within the classroom and within the broader community.  In fact, it shows an inability to understand how race and racism impacts the experiences of students color.  For example, they argue, “While researchers have documented lower grades for black students in college (see, for example, Betts and Morell 1999), this is to be expected given differences in college preparation.”  Evidence of their failures to look beyond numbers, and the tendency toward reductionist thinking (differential college preparation=low grades), the study erases the larger context and processes that impacts grades.  Had the researchers actually talked with students they may have gotten a better understanding as to how their experiences, as African American in predominantly white classrooms at a predominantly white institution with predominantly white male professors, may have figured in their decision to switch majors. 

 

A study – “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students” by Daniel Solorzano, Miguel Ceja, Tara Yoss – found that black students experience ample discrimination and prejudice (microaggressions) during their academic classroom experiences.  Citing expressed low expectations, negative interactions with white peers, segregation from other white students in class, isolation, discrimination from joining study groups, and a culture of diminishment, these authors illustrate the profound ways that race operates within the college classroom.  I cite two of their examples to highlight how race and racism might account for the switching of majors

 

An African American female stated that racial discrimination in study group formation was obvious: I've had times when a guy in the class ... [said], "Well, I don't want to work with you because you're Black." And he told me to my face.... And it was upsetting 'cause ... I came here thinking that it wouldn't be like this, and that was naive.

 

Another African American female recalled a friend's experience: [A Black male student] thought he was going to be pre-med. And he was in this chemistry lab, and nobody wanted him to be in the [work] groups, so his partner [sic]. . . turned out to be this deaf girl. I'm sure everybody's looking at them like, "They're never going to pass."

 

The authors conclude with this observation:

 

Several of the students we interviewed indicated that beyond feeling like a numerical minority, they also felt personally diminished by nonverbal micro-aggressions perpetrated by their White counterparts. Other students agreed that merely "looking like" a person of color can be cause for White professors, students, and college staff persons to draw negative assumptions about minorities and lower their expectations of them. They further recognized that being stereotyped carries very real consequences beyond feeling bad about oneself. Some indicated feeling "drained" by the intense scrutiny their everyday actions received in the context of negative preconceived notions about African Americans. Others acknowledged as racial micro-aggressions the subtle and overt daily put-downs they encountered-or attempted to avoid-in their interactions with some Whites in the academic setting. Such incidents put these African American college students on the defensive to keep from succumbing to stereotype threat.

 

Stereotype Threat, an idea popularized by Claude Steele, describes the ways that anxieties and fears that failure will confirm negative stereotypes, dramatically hinders performance.  Sandy Darity summarizes the importance of stereotype threat in his critical response to the authors’ study,  citing Steele and Aronson (1995), who found that black students under stereotype threat scored 13 percent worse than those under no threat at all.  They also found that those under threat answered questions at a much slower rate than those students not subjected to the threat.  This study fails to consider the ways in which the stereotype threat may impact academic success within the sciences and how this same stereotype threat impacts test scores as well pointing to its overall ignorance about racism and white privilege on and off campus.   

 

In recycling bell curve, anti-affirmative arguments, that  isolate or particularize black movement from STEM majors to humanities rather than reflecting on the larger trend; one might instead argue that the  sciences fail to retain students.  Whether reflecting bad pedagogy, an elitist desire to weed students out of particular majors, shifts in professional goals (leaving the sciences after deciding against pre-med), or the curricular banality, the sciences are systematically failing to maintain its students. In “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard),” Christopher Drew explores the issues here:

 

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

 

The failure of this study to account for the reasons why students may choose a field in the humanities over sciences reflects its methodological choices.  Its focus on statistical analysis, and its operating through a series of assumptions, might have been complicated the authors actually talked to students.  Within a recent New York Times article, Mr. Drew chronicles the experiences of one such student:

 

MATTHEW MONIZ bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year. He had been the kind of recruit most engineering departments dream about. He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering.

 

But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’ ” And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.

 

So Mr. Moniz, a 21-year-old who likes poetry and had enjoyed introductory psychology, switched to a double major in psychology and English, where the classes are “a lot more discussion based.” He will graduate in May and plans to be a clinical psychologist. Of his four freshman buddies at Notre Dame, one switched to business, another to music. One of the two who is still in engineering plans to work in finance after graduation.

 

The above points to the complex reasons why students may chose one major over another, none of which has anything to do with the ease of humanities compared to sciences, the yearning for better grades, or an unwillingness to work.  In this instance Mr. Moniz points to the pedagogical differences between the sciences and humanities, an important factor given research on pedagogy and the best practices, much of which points to the limitations of traditional lectures (studies have shown that students retain between 20-40 percent of material presented during a lecture). 

 

The failure to look at the sciences themselves, to deploy stereotypes about black students and rehash ideas about the difficult sciences, points to the failures of this study.  Yet, this study is receiving national attention.  Articles have appeared in countless newspapers, which cite its findings as evidence for a larger narrative about white preparedness and black educational deficiencies.  It is dangerous because of its conclusion and because of how it reinforces dominant stereotypes and narratives. 

 

Lewis Gordon recently asked, “What’s the problem with affirmative action?” The Duke study attempts to answer that with flawed analysis, and flawed conclusions, all based on a flawed approach.  Sandy Darity, in “Affirmative Action Grumbles,” summarizes Gordon’s rhetorical responses: “First, when implemented, ‘it works.’ Second, its very existence forces the society that has adopted it to acknowledge that it continues to be a site where racism and discrimination operate – not past discrimination but current, ongoing discrimination. Making such an admission may be the source of the biggest grumbles of all.”  No matter what the study says, it fails because it neither acknowledges the profound ways that affirmative action is working and the ways in which racism and discrimination remain in operation.  One has to look no further than this study to see how race and stereotypes remain a salient issue in our society. 

 

See Also: Affirmative Action on Death Row by R. L'Heureux Lewis

 

***

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.

 

 

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