A young man who was so brilliant that he was admitted to the best tech university on Mass Ave. at 16 and had a Ph.D. in computer science on his wall by 24 was telling me about the difference between his life and his father’s. We’ve been talking about such things for years, as he comes for Thanksgiving and, sometimes, Christmas at my house. It’s not accidental. He’s another one of my sons.
There was a bidding war over him. He was being flown to interviews in a private jet, and these companies would have done damn near anything to prove their devotion, including mentioning salary packages with a lot of zeroes. You see, they wanted him. Bad. He’s black. He’s brilliant. And he was amazed at how things worked out for him. He told me his father couldn’t understand how it was possible, that they were throwing jobs at him, throwing money at him. He didn’t find it at all surprising.*
David Brooks contends that “Moderates Failed Black America” by trying to make education available to everyone, regardless of race.
We Americans believe in education. We tend to assume that if you help a young person get a good education and the right skills, then she’ll be able to make her way in American society. Opportunity will be bountiful. Social harmony will reign.
Education is, of course, one piece of the puzzle of opportunity. It’s not the only piece, but it’s a biggie. But then Brooks indulges a logical fallacy, which seems to be a job requirement at the Gray Lady.
This formula has not worked for many African-Americans.
Over generations, great gains have been made in improving black students’ education. In 1968, just 54 percent of young black adults had a high school diploma. Today, 92 percent do. In 1968, about 9 percent of young African-American adults had completed college. Today, roughly 23 percent have.
There were battles over affirmative action, over funding education for the poor, over improving educational outcomes for inner city schools with negligible graduation rates and a long list of other changes necessary to increase those numbers. There were a great many moving parts to the machine that ended in increasing the high school and college graduation rates, and there were battles over every one of them. It wasn’t easy, but the rates increased.
And yet these gains have not led to the kind of progress that those of us who preach the gospel of the American dream would have predicted and that all young people are entitled to.
The median income for a white head of household with a college degree is $106,600. The median income for a comparable black college graduate is only $82,300.
This is where it would have helped Brooks to be familiar with the notion that correlation does not imply causation, such that he would grasp that the disparate outcomes might not illuminate their causes. Sadly, he does not, perhaps reflecting a gap in his education.
It turns out that increasing educational opportunities does not by itself reduce income disparities. Nor does it reduce social disparities. Minority students who graduated college were supposed to enter a less racist America. They have not. Seventeen percent of college-educated blacks say they face discrimination “regularly,” compared with 9 percent of high school-educated blacks. Half of all black Americans with at least some college said they’ve feared for their personal safety because of their race, compared with roughly a third of those with less education.
It was never believed that education “by itself” was the magic bullet, but a foundation for opportunity. On the one hand, achieving a college education and entering a “less racist America” is a non-sequitur. On the other hand, facing discrimination regularly as proffered by Brooks, claimed by 17% of college grads, even half saying they feared for their personal safety, conflates their feelings about reality with reality.
What does any of that have to do with how much they are paid? What does it have to do with whether they are particularly sensitive to fear, to perceived slurs or to their ability to achieve what their parents were not? Brooks’ linked survey offers ideas that Brooks does not.
So why is this? Other researchers suggest that college-educated blacks are more likely to work in predominately white environments, which may lead to greater exposure to race-related prejudices or stresses. One scholar noted that college itself may offer blacks more opportunities to discuss race and discrimination through classes and organizations, thereby raising their awareness of these issues.
There will be white people in workplaces, just as there will be black people. There will even be Hispanics, Asians and maybe even an Aleut. Did anyone think that black people getting college degrees was going to make white people, et al., disappear from the campus or workforce? And if you’re carefully taught to believe that racism is everywhere, is it surprising that they find racism everywhere?
Brooks is right in the sense that education, a cornerstone of the moderate effort to provide opportunity to all, hasn’t produced the results anticipated. Yet. The same could be said of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is a battle still being fought more than 50 years later. Except it wasn’t considered a magic bullet that would eradicate racism overnight, but the start of its end. And it’s done exceptionally well, better than most expected, because laws can change conduct, but not minds. And yet, minds have followed, even if not overnight.
The gospel of the American dream teaches that as people make it in America they will feel more accepted by America, more at home in America. This is not happening for many African-Americans.
Brooks isn’t being honest here. The gospel of the America dream was that if you work hard, study, stay out of trouble, get an education, and then work hard some more, you can improve your station in life. As my black son, the doctor (I know, but still), tells me, it can work, far beyond his wildest expectations. He feels pretty damned accepted these days.
But then, he worked hard, got a great education in a field that he knew would pay off at the end, and is still working hard. He wouldn’t have had this opportunity 50 years ago, but he has it now and made full use of it. And on those occasions when some asshole calls him a name, and it does happen, he laughs because his future is bright and the asshole will always be an asshole.
*And as other, less-desired demographics, might tell you, getting a good job these days isn’t easy.