Faulty Analogies or Faulty White Logics?

In “White Logic, White Methods” several essays address the false rationality of social science that is a thin veneer for whiteness.

You can rationalize away all disparate impacts of institutional racism and sexism if you shape your theories, models and measurements just so.

I have argued vehemently, albeit academically, that higher education research is one of the whitest fields of research out there these days. Somehow econometrics brought the rational choice penchant for ignoring statistical discrimination from econ and wedded it to the efficiency logics of market enthusiasm to create a perfect storm of obfuscation and rationalized oppression.

I mostly brush it off. This is the job and I don’t know of a job where this won’t be an issue.

However, I am clear about my critical position: the rational approach to re-inscribing race, gender, and class disparities in higher education policy, particularly through federal financial aid policy, is anything but. It’s all the same benign organizational racism that it has always been.

So, when the debate about instituting a “college readiness” test for means-tested federal Pell grants unfolded, I did what I often do: I asked about the racial implications of such a policy.

The analogy was clear to me. Even if it wasn’t clear to others, the meat of the argument remains the same. Secondary schooling is compulsory, which requires a commitment from the State to provide access to the primary qualification for Pell — a diploma or GED. A college readiness test would come with no State obligation. The ridiculous notion that excluding poor students who aren’t college ready from Pell would magically incentivize public education to get on the ball with preparing all students is the kind fairy dust that gives us trickle down economics.

Not a single higher education researcher could explain how this was anything but an act of institutional racism.

Being afraid of talking about race doesn’t excuse serious researchers from the consequences of ignoring race. I do not care if you intend for a policy to be racialized. I am here always for asking the ways in which effects are racialized, absent of intent.

So, let me be clear about my “racist” analogy of college readiness to poll taxes and literacy tests.

Wealth drives “college readiness”.

Black wealth accumulation lags white wealth accumulation because institutional racism has made it so.

From redlining that depresses the value of the greatest asset most Americans have to K-12 school districting that reinforces the salience of wealth and home ownership to curriculum and resources, many black students are unlikely to meet some arbitrary standard of college readiness.

And have no doubt that such a measure would be arbitrary. There is no single agreement on what college readiness constitutes.

There is no moral imperative behind instituting a college readiness barrier beyond “saving money”. But it is never clearly stated whose money we are saving or for what ends. Are we saving poor students’ money? Obviously not if we are denying them a grant and forcing them to rely on student loans more than they already do.

So whose money are we saving? I suspect we mean real peoples’ money. You know, not-poor real people.

As in, the not-poor people whose college readiness is possible because kids in other schools don’t get the resources to be college ready.

There is no scenario where the effects of poverty and racism won’t be expensive. The only scenarios are for whom it will be most costly.

The idea that remediating the effects of negative wealth accumulation and poverty through increasing the cost to individual poor people, who are more likely to be black, is anything but racist paternalism has yet to be effectively argued. Mostly because those who propose college readiness tests are too afraid of being called racist to seriously consider the racist effects of their proposals.

Kind of like how we refuse to acknowledge that punishing poor people doesn’t make them less likely to be poor.

It’s all very rational.

10 thoughts on “Faulty Analogies or Faulty White Logics?

  1. This is so thorough and so well-stated, I can’t think of anything else to say except thank you (once again) for thinking critically, expressing yourself so very well and hitting the proverbial nail on its friggin’ head.

  2. Preach it, sister! Such important stuff to say. People making policy should be responsible for predicting and observing impacts.

    The next-to-last sentence makes more sense to me if I read it “punishing poor people doesn’t make them LESS likely to be poor.”

  3. As an educator at an inner-city high school, that is to say, mostly non-white, I see the aspect of punishing poor people first hand. At our school, students struggle with basic skills, those that should have been learned in the third grade, and are then expected to pass a high school exit exam, among others. In this neighborhood, students are routinely moved on from grade to grade without respect to their abilities or learning. Instead, the system just pumps them through like widgets in a factory, and then expresses surprise that they can’t pass a college entrance exam, or for that matter, write a comprehensible letter.

    David Brooks’ column in the Times this morning sites the story of the prodigal son. He writes, “We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: ‘You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.'”

    Indeed, society seems to be telling the poor, just be like us, without providing a pathway to do that. It is telling that Brooks equates poor people with “the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children”, but that’s another argument. My point is that, as President Obama has said, nobody gets there on their own. Everyone needs help. There are the Haves & the Have-nots; the former thinking they earned everything they have, and the latter left to wonder what they did to deserve their plight. In many cases, the haves come from hereditary wealth, passed down like a peerage through the generations. The Bushs and the Kennedys come to mind. Likewise, the history of the have-nots is often handed down through the generation, except that in their case, it is a history poverty, persecution, and of course, slavery.

    At our school, we are punished for the poor performance of our students, in the form of depriving us funds for remediation. It is an Alice & Wonderland world, where success in the burbs yields more money to already flush schools, and struggles in the inner-city yields reductions in resources. Indeed, punishing the poor does not make them less likely to be poor.

  4. I am in absolute agreement with your argument due mostly to personal experience. Under prepared students of all origins are more likely to acquire the skills necessary to succeed in higher education while they are actually engaged in higher education. Especially if they have suffered from substandard economic/social/educational opportunity prior to their exposure to better designed and resourced higher ed.
    The only justification for testing for “college readiness” would be to find reasons not to help those most in need of it.

  5. I’m Canadian, and must admit to not understading what exactly “college-readiness” means – do you know somewhere I can go to learn more about what that means?

    I enjoy your essays but I’m missing some context here, I think

  6. You blame the lower college readiness of blacks on redlining, school redistricting, and lower wealth accumulation. But how do you measure the effect of these particular factors? You seem to be claiming that it’s these factors, and not other possible causes, that are responsible. How do you get that causality? Do you also compare with other groups (other than blacks and whites) that have had low wealth accumulation?

    1. Ah, you mean the much argued point that blacks are simply have lower ability, usually measured as IQ? Well, there is an entire literature out there about that point. I’d probably start with Massey et al. And then I’d ask you the same question. What evidence do you have that college readiness ISN’T a function of wealth? You might start with defining “college ready” and operationalizing it. Are you using SATs, GPAs, course-taking? Because each of those metrics also have a body of literature on differences by wealth and race that suggest they are causal. Or is college-readiness now some essentialized variable, again operationalized through test scores/grades? Which doesn’t address the fact that college admissions already uses such metrics. So, again I ask, what would be the additional function of college ready as a requirement not for admissions but for AID? Especially for a program expressly designed for poor students, ie those without wealth and it’s many observed proxies?

      1. I’d like to check out Massey et al., then, or any other good introduction to the literature, if there are papers available on the Internet. I don’t have access to a university library, and I didn’t get far just by typing that in to Google.

        To answer your question, I don’t have any good evidence of anything! Unlike you, I don’t study this stuff. And just to be clear, I’m not doubting that wealth is *a* factor. Reasons I’m skeptical of the “wealth is the driver” claim: poor groups that have done well academically; correlations between adult SES and childhood factors – yes, childhood IQ – among siblings, who of course had the same family wealth; and just personal anecdotal experience. Like I said, none of these are evidence, just grounds for *initial* skepticism in someone who’s unfamiliar with the literature.

        Regarding “college ready,” I was going to say this at first but didn’t. I think you buried the lede in the middle of your post: “some arbitrary standard of college readiness.” If by arbitrary you mean that it lacks external validity, that it doesn’t predict college performance, then they should just throw it out! Whether it has a disparate racial impact or not, if it’s a bad measure of readiness, for whatever reason, then it shouldn’t be used. *That* seems to be the bigger story, at least to me, without knowing any more about it than what I read right here: College Readiness Standard Is Arbitrary.

  7. I agree with you absolutely that it doesn’t matter the intent, putting this kind of a barrier to Pell grants is going to have racist effects, and we shouldn’t do it.

    That said, I am curious what you think should be prioritized in distributing financial aid. Let’s say that we change the system and Pell grants can only go to blacks and Hispanic non-whites, or whatever subset of disadvantaged students you like (long term, this could undermine support for the program in a horrible fashion, so I’m not suggesting we do this, but bear with me). Now, let’s say we increase the amount of Pell grants, but in a finite fashion. Would you rather have Pell grants pay for everyone who can hit a score of 24 on the ACT to go to any college they can get admitted to such that they can graduate debt-free, or would you rather the same amount of money spent on Pell grants that go to the least wealthy students, irrespective of progress toward degree, institution used at, field of study, or any other factor? If somebody put you in charge of the program today, what would you do with Pell grants?

  8. The “college-readiness” test echoes historical and recent decisions to impose stereotypes and assumptions on poor communities, and increase the use of culture of poverty-esque (and even biological deterministic) arguments to condemn black students. Much of this position assumes a level playing field among schools, particularly public schools. If you do not achieve, then either you’re not smart enough or do not work hard enough. However, as the research and importantly the lived experiences of people in society show, this is simply not the case. This position is often coupled with the continued myth that “school choice” will solve the world’s education problems by giving a set amount of money for students to use and move to a different school. But as you mention, this cannot overcome wealth accumulation that is historically entrenched in our society. Wealthier parents spend a much more on their kids’ education than poorer parents, not because they value education more or are smarter, but simply because they can and they make these decisions with particular personal and ground interests in mind. Also, the “best” schools only have so many seats available because they do not want to expand class sizes, so the likelihood of actually enrolling at a better school than what a student came from originally is pretty low unless you’re already in those schools, or are able to be one of the first to transfer.
    That being said, the college readiness test for Pell grants is similar to positions taken by politicians that we supposedly have too many “drug addicts” getting welfare benefits (just a little bit of racial code in their statements). The assumption is poor students cannot be college ready and it is inefficient to spend money on someone who will not complete their degree, which will save us all money in the end if we do not fund them. In the end, it’s the Matthew effect: the rich get more because they can do more, which means they deserve more…the poor simply need to do more. Advocates for this type of position backhandedly acknowledge structural inequality while using the thin veil of colorblind meritocracy arguments to suggest cultural inferiority, and when that fails, they will begin suggesting old school biological determinist arguments about how some students may simply not be capable to do academic work beyond a certain level.
    The often used bar of test scores ignores the fact that SAT scores do not predict past the first year of college. As states and the federal government continues to restrict and cut from education, more schools and districts cannot offer many advanced classes that are used to calculate who is “college ready” in these conversations. However, even among students who graduate and are still not deemed college ready they still need the money to get to that level (whatever is used for the bar), by yes, enrolling in colleges to take prerequisite courses to continue their education. So in the end, cutting Pell grant money just ensures that poorer students are unable to pursue college education, or at least are unable to continuously pursue it as they have to decide how much debt (and from where they will get that money) they will go into, and how much they need to work so that they can pay their bills and go to college. In the end, the money that is saved is among those that do not want to contribute to a multiracial democratic society, and instead, like to ensure that they and their families will continue to etch their names in privileged positions and acquire needed to resources to stay ahead of the pack.
    As you mention, it’s all very “rational”. This isn’t the position of bad people, it’s just what you do in a society based on greed and a twisted form of capitalism. But in the end, not matter how much it costs to create the society most say should ideally exist, as Du Bois once wrote: “The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”

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