Ph.D. Octopus

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Universities are still Super-White and if our Leaders have their Way will only get Whiter.

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By Peter (the second in a series of three posts on affirmative action)

There is a group of students getting unfair advantage with their admission into college. Despite the best effort at remedial education, this group lags behind other students on most standardized testing. Some (like myself) even suspect that this group could be genetically less intelligent. Worse, they are more prone to violent outburst, misogyny, and other anti-social behaviors.

So why, then, do colleges insist on giving such advantages to white lacrosse players? The answer:

The push by Midwestern liberal arts colleges to add lacrosse programs is one of several tactics employed by these institutions in recent years to hold on to a demographic that presidents say is central to these institutions’ identities and bottom lines, particularly as the population shrinks and becomes more coveted by other types of institutions. Middle-class suburban students, who are not only able but willing to pay the high price for private education, used to be liberal arts colleges’ bread and butter. Now they’re increasingly lured to other types of institutions. Lacrosse is a weapon in the fight to keep them

Let’s dig into this demographic that is “central to these institutions’ identities and bottom lines.” We learn they are “likely white, from a well-educated and wealthy household… Lacrosse players are desirable for several reasons, but the main one is that they tend to be what enrollment professionals call ‘full-pay’ students, or students whose families tend not to qualify for need-based aid.” Ivies, notoriously, recruit for waspy sports like squash and rowing, giving a leg-up to the long-suffering “arrogant prep school jock” demographic.

Do we Really Need Affirmative Action for these guys?

The recruitment of lacrosse players is hardly the only way that colleges give advantages to the already privileged. The worst are legacy admissions. Having parents who went to Yale can be the equivalent of a 160 point increase in your SAT scores when applying. At Amherst, a legacy is 4 times more likely to be admitted than a non-legacy. Nor are legacies insignificant. At most elite schools they compromise between 10-25% of admissions. Finally, schools like to maintain “geographic diversity,” which means that students from sparsely populated mostly rural and white states like North Dakota get an advantage. Note too, that these groups get this formal advantage above and beyond the millions of informal advantages in life that have accrued to them on account of their wealth, whiteness, and educated parents.

Meanwhile, of course, thanks to the age of austerity, black and Latino students are less likely to even have the chance to go to good public universities. Tuition is skyrocketing and the predictable consequence is that poor and working class communities of color have fewer options. Here in New York, thanks to the CUNY tuition hikes pushed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo (aka Governor 1%), we’ve seen dramatic drops in the black and Latino enrollment at top CUNY programs. So Cuomo takes the money that had been going to education for poor black and Latino students and hands it over, in the form of tax breaks, to rich suburbanites who now have extra cash to pay for lacrosse lessons.

Something is going on in society when we freak out about giving someone from a poor background a leg-up, but we are silent about all the advantages we give—at the exact same moment!—to privileged demographics. Those who claim to speak on behalf of a “meritocracy” would have a lot more credibility if they showed even half of the concern about how all these privileged people get an unfair advantage. As long as Harvard continues the far more unjust policy of giving an advantage to children of Harvard graduates, I will never take seriously a critique of race-based affirmative action.

My point with all of this is to highlight the power of definition. When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people. One of the privileges of whiteness, then, is its invisibility, as society naturalizes and normalizes the very processes that give white people advantage, sewing white privilege into the unexamined fabric of social reproduction, while subjecting to the most strict and withering examination any systems that try to remedy existing inequality by benefiting black or Hispanic students.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at race and graduate school. In 2009, 4.9% of all doctorates went to black graduates and 3.7% went to Hispanic students. For both groups that is about 1/3 of what their general population suggests should be the case. Although women come closer to parity, they still only comprise 47% of phds, despite comprising a higher percentage of undergraduates. Clearly we are not in a nation where Affirmative Action has run amuck.

Outside of a handful of disciplines in the humanities, most grad programs are shockingly undiverse. Economics programs, for instance, are both heavily white and heavily male (.73% of PhDs awarded in 2009 in economics went to black students, 1.46% went to Hispanic students. About 2/3rd of econ PhDs are men, perhaps part of the reason the field is so enamored of autistic math-oriented modeling). My university, NYU, lists 7 tenured or tenure track professors of economics who are women; this comprises 13% of the 55 professors in the department.

The sciences do have a lot of Asian-American PhD students, but only 2.9% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) PhDs go to African-Americans. (Remember this when economists talk about whether their field is a science; it’s not, in fact its much more racist.). Given that 67% of all PhDs in the nation go to those in the STEM fields, you can see that African-Americans and Hispanics are in fact dramatically underrepresented in academia overall.

Perhaps the worst offenders, when it comes to diversity, are philosophy departments, which are remarkably white and male. One study found only 16% of academic philosophers were women and another showed that a shocking 1% of academic philosophers were black. NYU has one of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the world, yet only 6 out of the 36 professors on their website are women (16.7%). As an undergrad, my girlfriend was repeatedly dissuaded from applying to philosophy PhD programs because she was told that it would simply be much harder as a woman to flourish in such a program. Philosophy is especially interesting, because unlike the sciences, it can’t (or shouldn’t) hide behind the formalism of quantitative standardized test scores to explain its lack of diversity; like the other humanities, it supposedly studies more abstract and less measurable ideals of critical thought and intellectual creativity and could sorely use engagement with other perspectives.

It’s hard not to see these numbers and suspect that there are processes of exclusion—formal or informal, conscious or unconscious—going on that are keeping some departments from being particularly diverse. For instance, one study examining why there are so few women in the sciences concluded that who students see teaching matters a great deal: women who only see men teaching Chemistry are less likely to stick with the discipline or find mentors there. Similar processes, no doubt, occur with race. Until those disciplines make exerted efforts to promote professors who are women, black, or Latino, students will never see professors who look like themselves. Thus inequality replicates itself.

The only really diverse PhD programs are in parts of the humanities, like history, English, American studies, cinema studies, etc…, where black and Hispanic students make up a significant percentage of the PhD students.

I suspect most of the readers of this blog belong to this world of the humanities, so we probably overestimate academia’s diversity. But the humanities are actually a tiny bit of university life, accounting for less than 10% of all PhDs. And while there are a small handful of programs within the humanities like Chicano studies, or African studies, that recruit high percentages of minority students, they are at least partly balanced out by (white) ethnic studies programs that recruit almost no students of color. NYU has an Irish studies, a French studies, a Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and a German House. Unsurprisingly, white applicants compete with few students of color in these departments.

Given the differences in integration between departments, we have to look at what happens not on the individual level, but between departments, when University and Federal decision makers allot funds. It is certainly true at NYU, and I suspect at most places, that those departments with the most money for their graduate students and for new hires, are also departments with the least racial diversity. Economics PhDs get paid more than English PhDs; Science ones more than humanities ones. And the jobs crisis has not hit the sciences and the (profitable) social sciences like Econ nearly as much as it has hit the humanities and (non-profitable) social sciences like sociology.

Keep this in mind as humanities departments get shuttered, and states instead push math and science. Normally the justification for this is that science and math are more profitable, implying that these changes are the result of neutral market logic. But these “profitable” sciences only exist thanks to massive and generous Federal subsidies. Take a look at Harvard’s financial report: the school took in $686 million dollars from the Federal Government just last year, the vast majority of which went to the STEM research. Meanwhile the National Endowment for the Humanities gets about 3% of the funding that the National Science Foundation gets. And most of that humanities money goes not to universities, but to museums, historical societies, and the like. Given that black and Hispanic students are much more likely to prosper in the humanities, this discrepancy in Federal funding has obvious racial connotations.

The point is this: it is not neutral market-logic at play reducing funding for the (racially-diverse) humanities, but rather, in large part, the conscious decisions of Federal and state policy makers. Again, a supposedly race-neutral process (shifting money from humanities to disciplines like Economics and STEM), has the effect of benefiting white people at the expense of black and Hispanic scholars. On a more profound level, it probably also has the effect of defunding those intellectuals who spend the most time critically reflecting on social and racial problems in favor of “neutral” scientific technicians whose methodologies are unlikely to challenge the status quo.

Debates about affirmative action at the level of hiring, then, kind of miss the point. Structurally, in an age of academic austerity, the racial inequality is already baked into the cake. Debating about whether an individual History or English job should take diversity into account already obscures the question of why there are so few jobs available in those departments in the first place. Universities let individuals fight over the declining opportunities that remain, while the people who make the decisions about how many opportunities will exist seem perfectly uninterested in advancing the conditions of black or Hispanic students.

Affirmative Action has always been a bit of a red herring, making liberals feel good while doing little to address the substantial inequality of race and class that permeate American society. Nonetheless, at the graduate level affirmative action doesn’t need to be curtailed, but dramatically extended to actually include the vast majority of grad students and professors in disciplines like economics, philosophy, the applied sciences, and math.

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 26, 2012 at 12:00

6 Responses

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  1. [...] Universities are still Super-White, and they could get whiter: My point with all of this is to highlight the power of definition. When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people. One of the privileges of whiteness, then, is its invisibility, as society naturalizes and normalizes the very processes that give white people advantage, sewing white privilege into the unexamined fabric of social reproduction, while subjecting to the most strict and withering examination any systems that try to remedy existing inequality by benefiting black or Hispanic students. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  2. [...] Universities are still Super-White, and they could get whiter: My point with all of this is to highlight the power of definition. When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people. One of the privileges of whiteness, then, is its invisibility, as society naturalizes and normalizes the very processes that give white people advantage, sewing white privilege into the unexamined fabric of social reproduction, while subjecting to the most strict and withering examination any systems that try to remedy existing inequality by benefiting black or Hispanic students. [...]

  3. [...] “When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people.” Let’s discuss this! How do you feel about legacy admission? [...]

  4. This study evolved from a presentation at the College of Lake County, a comprehensive community college located in a northern suburb of Chicago, in January 1993, in which Claude Steele, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University, outlined several themes that have emerged from his research. He believes that there is a “deepening crisis in the education of Black Americans” (Steele, 1992, p. 68). He explains, “From elementary school to graduate school, something depresses Black achievement at every level of preparation, even the highest” (Steele, 1992, p. 70). He noted in his speech that the grades Black students earn the first semester of college quickly fall behind those of White students with similar standardized test scores. In sum, “the same achievement level requires better preparation for Blacks than for Whites” (Steele, 1992, p. 70).

    mercadeo

    May 28, 2012 at 20:15

  5. [...] line with our series of three posts on affirmative action, I thought I would mention this cool new book that just came out called [...]

    Ph.D. Octopus

    May 29, 2012 at 16:55

  6. [...] Ph.D. Octopus: Universities are still Super-White and if our Leaders have their Way will only get Whiter. Peter also offers up this “late-night rant”: Please… no more “Don’t Go to Grad [...]


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