Education, Top Stories

The Counterproductive Suppression of Heterodox Views on Race

Between 2000 and 2014, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) documented 257 incidents of left-wing ‘no platforming’ activism on campuses, 111 of which succeeded in preventing the invited speakers from delivering their remarks. The chilling effect this practice has had on free and open discussion has been much discussed. Less discussed, but perhaps even more damaging, has been the more stealthy suppression of heterodox views through hiring policies and the censoring of faculty, and the deleterious effect this can have on the very causes progressive like to stress are of most pressing importance.

In a long essay for the Atlantic last year, the liberal journalist Peter Beinart described how this process has succeeded in stifling the free expression of anti-immigration positions on both the Left and the Right. A decade ago, Beinart reminded his readers, liberals “routinely asserted that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state.” But attitudes have shifted dramatically in the intervening years. Beinart noted that Jason Furman, a former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has said, “Democrats were divided on immigration. Now everyone agrees and is passionate and thinks very little about any potential downsides.”

Academics are also vulnerable to these new cultural pressures. Beinart approvingly references Oxford economist Paul Collier’s claims that in their “desperate [desire] not to give succor” to nativist bigots, “social scientists have strained every muscle to show that migration is good for everyone.” Harvard immigration skeptic George Borjas pointed to “a lot of self-censorship among young social scientists.” However, immigration is not a straightforward issue that pits the interests of whites against those of people of color. Overlooked in the midst of all this anxiety is the effect that immigration may (or may not) be having on minorities within the United States. One in six black men aged 25 years and over do not have a high school degree, and another one in three have only a high school degree with no college enrolment. Thus, even if immigration only adversely affected less educated workers, half of all black men are at risk.

Similarly, a decade ago some liberals were open to the idea that, on average, black children born in female-headed households were at greater risk of adverse outcomes. Liberals participated in the Fragile Family Studies and some even supported President George W. Bush’s marriage promotion initiatives. In addition, progressive voices—including even that of Ta-Nehisi Coates (in his memoir The Beautiful Struggle)—could still point critically to the violent culture of a cohort of black youth, while others, including Cora Daniels in Ghettonation, could stress the irresponsible spending habits of many poor black mothers. Today, however, these more nuanced views are no longer acceptable. The exclusion of such views from the spectrum of acceptable opinion not only circumscribes criticisms of blacks by whites, but it also discourages thoughtful self-criticism by black writers and academics of their own communities.

This shift partly reflects efforts to rehabilitate the image of black men. From the interviews Kathryn Edin published in 2014, we learned that these men want to be caring fathers of loving families but that a brutal, racist system is robbing them of the opportunity. Changing perceptions of law enforcement conduct have aided this transformation of black men from sometimes-victimizers to always-victims. The annual number of police killings of unarmed black Americans has fallen substantially, as has the black incarceration rate. But, despite these changes, an inflexible narrative of mass incarceration and police brutality continues to underpin claims of systemic racial oppression. By contrast, despite a robust increase in employment rates of young black men, black homicides have risen substantially since 2014, and are now 25 times higher than the number of police killings. Two decades earlier, this increased murder rate would have led at least some liberals to ask searching questions about violent black subculture. In today’s political climate, however, the standard explanation reflects the views of Edin’s fathers: hopelessness produced by a racist, white supremacist society.

A similar emphasis on racial victimization dominates popular and academic discussion of black achievement and scholarship. In the prevailing academic climate, those who offer dissenting analyses of the problems afflicting black communities, or who support unpopular social policies designed to alleviate those problems, risk censorship, ostracization, and even the loss of employment. In 2012, the conservative journalist and university lecturer Naomi Shaefer Riley wrote an article challenging the academic standards of Black Studies departments, in which she described the graduate dissertations as “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap” that did nothing to address the problems faced by black Americans. The ensuing social media outcry resulted in her immediate firing as a blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Then, last year, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax co-wrote an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer promoting ‘bourgeois values.’ In response, almost half of her law school colleagues signed an open letter condemning her point of view. During a subsequent podcast discussion with the Brown University economist Glenn Loury, Wax noted that very few black students placed in the top half of her classes, an observation consistent with available data from the 144 largest law schools. Penn law Dean Ted Ruger responded by removing Wax from teaching her mandatory first year course because, he said, her statement (the accuracy of which he disputed) had breached student confidentiality.

Earlier this year, Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy refused to renew the contract of faculty member Evan Charney. Despite consistently being rated by undergraduates as one of their three most popular teachers, Carney was effectively sacked after 19 years employment because an unspecified group of students had accused him of creating “a hostile class environment.” Duke eventually offered Charney a yearly renewable adjunct teaching position, Real Clear Politics reported, but only if he agreed to “undergo diversity training, cease teaching required courses, accept heightened monitoring by colleagues, and forgo an appeal to the Faculty Hearing Committee.” That ‘diversity training’ was made a condition of Charney’s continuing employment suggests that his willingness to interrogate progressive axioms on race was what got him into trouble, even though he routinely required students to defend the assumptions supporting any view they espoused.

The relatively rare occurrence of censorship efforts like these may seem encouraging at a glance, but it is more likely that this simply reflects the unbalance in hiring dynamics. A recent study of 51 of the 63 top-ranked colleges found that, outside of STEM areas, registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans: 30:1, 33:1, 44:1, and 48:1 in Theater, Music, Sociology, and English, respectively. In Anthropology and interdisciplinary departments, the study found no registered Republicans at all. As a result, there are fewer and fewer faculty members who would consider presenting studies or forwarding hypotheses other than those that postulate racism and oppression as the cause of racial disparities.

But, while the college campus dynamics depress me, what angers me are the faulty policies that emanate from this racism-only perspective. Disparate school suspensions can be overcome by eliminating suspensions. Disparate educational attainment can be overcome by reducing reliance on standardized tests or eliminating math assessment exams for entrance into credit-bearing college courses. Disparate incarceration rates can be reduced by decriminalizing certain behaviors. Certainly, some of these changes may be justifiable. Schools have sometimes suspended students too readily, over-emphasized standardized exams, or relied upon unnecessarily rigid requirements, and strategies to divert young people from prison should be trialled and—if they succeed—embraced.

However, while modest adjustments are justified, the more dramatic changes progressives demand can have negative consequences for those they are intended to help. A number of school districts which have drastically reduced suspensions, have seen a corresponding increase in school violence. Lowering college admission and retention standards may slightly increase four-year graduation rates, but, as I have argued elsewhere, black students graduating from low-rated colleges with disproportionately low GPAs in low-earning majors are not left appreciably better off. When they have trouble gaining employment in a competitive job market with these qualifications, they are encouraged to obtain Masters’ degrees. However, because of their comparatively weak academic record, many enrol in weaker programs, overwhelmingly at private and for-profit universities. As a result, black student indebtedness grows even though their Masters’ degrees often do not significantly improve their employment prospects.

Whether or not these policies are effective, they reflect a progressive unwillingness to reconsider the underlying causes of disproportionate behavioral problems in schools, disproportionately weak academic skills, and disproportionate criminality. Many, like myself, believe that we must be honest about the problematic environments in which too many black children grow up. As a result of widespread multi-partner fertility within the black community—that is, fathering multiple children with sequential partners—many black men have limited and inconsistent relationships with at least some of their biological children. A number of studies suggest that this can have damaging effects on their children, particularly their sons. Such problems are only compounded by a pervasive victimization narrative that can lead black men to discontinue individual initiatives when they encounter obstacles, and which insulates them from criticism for antisocial behaviors.

This tendency to encourage the abdication of personal responsibility is most apparent when progressive analysts assess high-poverty black neighborhoods. Unlike poor white households, black poverty is more concentrated in distinct communities. Progressives devote their energies to advocating subsidized housing policies that would enable some poor black families to move to low-poverty neighborhoods. The evidence that these subsidized relocations improve the lifetime outcomes of black boys is, however, highly dubious. But progressives focus on these policies even so, I believe, to avoid looking too closely at what mires high-poverty neighborhoods in dysfunction. High levels of violent crime dissuade middle-class families from living there; and progressives refuse to consider cultural explanations for these antisocial behaviors.

At the national level, major progressive policy initiatives do little to address the high levels of joblessness black men experience. Between 2010 and 2017, the black employment rate increased by 18.1 percent among men aged between 20 and 34. Yet, despite this robust rise, 29.5 percent of black men in that age group remained jobless compared to 18.5 percent of comparably-aged white men. More troubling still, 20.1 percent of black men aged between 16 and 24, are neither in school nor in work. This is double the white rate. Neither increasing Latino immigration nor raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would stem this joblessness, and either or both of these measures may even increase it.

Now some leftists are embracing a ‘jobs for all’ proposal, whereby the federal government would provide a living-wage job with substantial benefits to anyone, regardless of their skills, educational qualifications, or past job experience. This fantastical proposal once more demonstrates an unwillingness to look at the important sources of joblessness: deficient skills and behavioral traits often rooted in family backgrounds. Similarly, the demand for free tuition at public colleges would do little to reduce the weak educational credentials that limit the employment prospects of many young black men. State and federal subsidies have already eliminated tuition obligations for the vast majority of low-income students. In the CUNY system in which I teach, 70 percent of students have no tuition obligation. The influx of students, however, would put strains on existing support services with which public colleges aid at-risk students. It would also probably result in more stringent requirements to enter high-demand majors.

For me, however, probably the most important downside of the free tuition demand is that it continues to focus on increasing the share of students attaining a four-year degree despite the high degree of failure among at-risk students. This narrow approach continues to ignore other avenues that could help these students obtain modest credentials, enabling them to gain a foothold in labor markets. First among these avenues are certificate programs offered by community colleges. These short-term programs give weakly-prepared students a taste of success that they can build upon but, because they only offer modest starting salaries, progressives are generally reluctant to support them. In New York City, the probation office and support organizations direct all of the previously incarcerated with high school equivalency degrees into community college academic tracks rather than certificate programs. President Trump’s infrastructure plan includes some proposals for training more workers, such as allowing Pell Grants to be used for short-term certificate programs, and creating more opportunities for work-based learning in high school. These programs can reduce the share of young black men who are disconnected from school and work.

A final example of the Left’s disregard for policies that can aid black advancement is its position on charter schools. Despite surveys that find black parents strongly supportive of charter schools, the NAACP voted against their expansion. Together with Black Lives Matter, the organization has claimed that charters perpetuate racial segregation. As the New York Times reported, “They portray charters as the pet project of foundations financed by white billionaires, and argue that the closing of traditional schools as students migrate to charters has disproportionately disrupted black communities.”

The NAACP assembled a taskforce that held staged meetings at which criticisms of charters dominated. According to a report in the Huffington Post, the New Orleans meeting “featured outraged students, outraged parents, and dismayed community members reciting a litany of the problems created by the massive change to a charter school system.” In contrast, New York Times reporter David Leonhardt has written enthusiastically about a commissioned report which found that New Orleans charter schools have performed exceptionally well. Summarizing the results, he wrote, “The New Orleans turnaround shows the power of giving more freedom to teachers and principals—and then holding them accountable for their performance.” A week later, after some harsh criticism, Leonhardt did acknowledge some outstanding problems, but he doubled down on his positive assessment of charter schools:

The harshest critics of reform … wave away reams of rigorous research on the academic gains in New Orleans, Boston, Washington, New York, Chicago and other cities, in favor of one or two cherry-picked discouraging statistics. … Here’s what the evidence shows: Initially, charters’ overall results were no better than average. But they are now. … One form of charter has particularly impressive results—highly structured urban charters with high academic standards.

So, once again leftists place solidarity with other progressive causes ahead of the interests of the black community. The unwillingness to consider alternative policy recommendations that might help black communities, or to acknowledge arguments that place responsibility for disadvantage anywhere besides structural racism and ‘white supremacy,’ has been particularly harmful for young black men. In an attempt to protect them from harsh judgment, and to avoid appearing to give support to the reactionary politics of the far-Right, many progressive academics have either suppressed dissenting views or looked the other way when such suppression occurs. While racial and gender diversity are championed, academics devote little energy to demands for political diversity that is crucial to understanding controversial issues such as the causes of racial disparities. Unless there are seismic changes, I fear claims to be fighting racist and white supremacist views will continue to justify the censorship of heterodox views that could help move black Americans forward.


Robert Cherry is Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.