Another Educational Prophet Of Doom

If Anthony Carnevale, higher education apparatchik extraordinaire and, according to Inside Higher Ed, “a grizzled expert on educational access and equity,” were a corporation he would be the bluest of blue chips, perhaps even a one-man conglomerate. His resume is a virtual road map of the loftiest sinecures of politically correct labor and educational policy making on both sides of the partisan divide. Given his impeccable establishment credentials, it is therefore both revealing and depressing that from his present perch as Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce Prof. Carnevale has produced a report that reeks of infantile leftist claptrap. If the Occupy movement had an educational division, Separate& Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege would be its manifesto.

Carnevale’s report concludes that higher education is, as Inside Higher Ed‘s fawning report puts it, an “engine of inequality.” In the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s equally obsequious summary, it “perpetuates white privilege.” Rather than making things better, the report’s Executive Summary begins, “The postsecondary system mimics the racial inequality it inherits from the K-12 education system, then magnifies and projects that inequality into the labor market and society at large.”

The gloomy direness of this conclusion is supported only by glaringly unremarkable evidence that whites are “overrepresented” in selective colleges and blacks and Hispanics “underrepresented.” Not only are these facts entirely familiar, but the version of them here seems an especially weak reed on which to rest the sky-is-falling conclusions of “white privilege” and “separate and unequal.”

Are we really shocked, for example, by the revelation in the report’s Table 7 (p. 51), that compared to their proportion of the college age population whites are overrepresented in the top three tiers of selective colleges by 13%, blacks and Hispanics underrepresented by 8% and 11%? Actually, there is something surprising (if true) in this table: the claim that Asians are overrepresented in the top three tiers by only 6%. I would have thought Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego alone would have pushed this number far higher, not to mention the Ivies holding at a steady 16% or so even though Asians make up only 2% of the college age population.

Although Carnevale provides no clear explanation of the pervasive inequitable disproportionality he describes, he tends to see discrimination lurking wherever he looks, even in dropout rates. “Among low-income college students, clear racial bias in outcomes exists. Whites drop out much less often and obtain Bachelor’s degrees or better at nearly twice the rate of African Americans and Hispanics.” (p. 43, note 16)

Finding “bias” in an “outcome” is not simply convoluted academic awkward writing. It is an article of liberal faith that disproportionate outcomes are the result of discrimination. If no culprits can be found, the first fall back is disparate impact, discrimination without discriminators. But when push comes to shove even disparate impact won’t do, since some policy or practice must be found that produces the impact. Thus the final resting place of the liberal theory that discrimination explains disproportionality lies much deeper, in systemic or structural barriers.

I said Carnevale provided no clear explanation of what he describes, but he does offer a typical murky one, identifying the “barriers” to be overcome as “nested mechanisms.” It’s a classic, and worth quoting:

These economic and educational mechanisms are color-blind in theory but not in fact. They are nested together in ways that make their combined negative effects mutually reinforcing, resilient, and superficially legitimate as racial and ethnic barriers to opportunity. While these mechanisms appear color-blind and class-neutral, they persistently produce educational and economic outcomes that have a disparate negative impact on African-American, Hispanic, and low- income students.

Got that?

On July 26 President Obama, surrounded by a bevy of black educators and with The Charlatan Al Sharpton at his right hand, signed the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, an Executive Order that has been discussed, such as by the Daily Caller, mainly because of its call for racial quotas in school discipline. Equally noteworthy, however, was an inability it shares with the Carnevale report to distinguish discriminatory “barriers” from the baleful disparities they supposedly produce.

According to the Executive Order, “substantial obstacles to equal educational opportunity still remain in America’s educational system.”

African American student achievement not only lags behind that of their domestic peers by an average of two grade levels, but also behind students in almost every other developed nation. Over a third of African American students do not graduate from high school on time with a regular high school diploma, and only four percent of African American high school graduates interested in college are college-ready across a range of subjects. An even greater number of African American males do not graduate with a regular high school diploma, and African American males also experience disparate rates of incarceration.

Yes, but what are the “substantial obstacles” that produce this sad situation, and what policies will remove them?

If “only four percent of African American high school graduates interested in college are college-ready across a range of subjects,” does “white privilege” really explain or even fairly describe their underrepresentation at selective colleges?

The report highlights black and Hispanic dropout rates without ever mentioning “mismatch” as a possibility. It says blacks and Hispanics in selective colleges graduate at a higher rate than blacks and Hispanics with similar credentials in non-selective institutions, but it never compares the graduation rates of the former with that of the whites and Asians in the selective schools. It mentions the “low hanging fruit” of 111,000 blacks/Hispanics who graduate in the top half of their high schools but still attend open access schools, never pausing to consider that being in the top half of many high schools, especially inner city high schools, does not necessarily qualify students for selective colleges. The whole thing is a mess.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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