Preserving Confederate memorials to learn from “our” history

My friend Dominique Baker recently shared this story with me. The basic summary is that removing physical relics of the Confederacy from shared public life removes any need for “us” to contend with the racism of “our” history.

A similar argument was made here at Vanderbilt University recently, amidst conversations about Confederate Memorial Hall as well as the Eliza Claybrooke Memorial Scholarship for daughters of Confederate soldiers at Peabody. Besides the argument that there are still people who hold the Confederacy close to their chest as a part of their identity, a similar argument was made that removing relics removes any responsibility “we” have to face “our” ugly history.

I think there is some valid thought here. This nation needs to contend with its violent and oppressive history. “We” can’t just wash away all memory of this history and just march forward for the sake of marching forward.

What I firmly reject about this argument, as is evident from my consistent use of scare quotes, is the idea that “we” all share this responsibility. Let us be clear for a moment: the “we” being discussed here is white people. This much is explicit in Regina Nippert’s article above, as she notes, “We white Southerners are a hot mess. That does not excuse us from the conversation we know we need to have.”

The problem I have with this argument is that it perfectly fits into existing structures of white supremacy. It privileges the needs of white people above the feelings of black people.

I do not attempt here to make the claim that all black people want the removal of Confederate symbols. To some extent, I expect there are probably some who would agree that white people should not be allowed any boulevard through which they can avoid facing history. My issue is not so much the decisions made as a result of this argument as much as it is the fairly uncritical way it has been presented by white people.

Racism isn’t just a part of our history. It exists in our current world, and based on observations from my experience as an activist, Confederate relics can and do contribute to feelings of disempowerment, invisibility, and fear among black people. Discussing preserving these relics in the name of helping white people grow without paying any mind, again, to the needs of black people isn’t a statement of progress.

Sure, it’s great when white people are able to contend with whiteness in a historical and contemporary context. But as I also mentioned in my discussion of white fragility, this exploration of whiteness can dangerously translate into continued ignorance of the needs of people of color.

Affirmative Action may be uncomfortable, and that’s okay (for some people)

Last year, Vanderbilt University brought Sheryll Cashin to discuss her book Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America. I attended, as did several of my colleagues and friends. And for those of us that were trying to work towards a more equitable and justice-oriented campus, it was…interesting, to say the least. Overall, I found it somewhat narrow and felt that it missed the point. I was deeply troubled for a while, especially as the audience consisted mostly of white members of the community who, more often than not, were in a place of power. What were they taking away from this talk, and how much harder was it going to make my job?

In discussing her opposition to affirmative action, she said one simple, powerful phrase that brought the crowd to its feet, notably without myself and my colleagues: “I was raised to care about other people’s children.”

In a lot of ways, I think this sentiment in opposition to affirmative action, that those in the dominant majority are being slighted in a zero-sum game of college admission, is very unhelpful. It was deeply troubling to me for a while, and only made me even more cynical about our ability as a community to enact real justice for those who are underserved in higher education or, more broadly, the world.

That said, I’ve thought about it a lot. And while I still think that it’s a huge problem that this was announced to a crowd of white people who overwhelmingly endorsed this point of view, I sympathize with where Dr. Cashin in coming from, in certain ways. Before anyone either (a) decides to dismiss everything I’m about to say as anti-justice or (b) use what I’m saying as a part of their anti-affirmative action platform, let me say up front: I support affirmative action, and I generally disagree with most opposition that those in the dominant majority have against affirmative action. What has changed in my thinking is that overall, I think it’s okay for black people to be uncomfortable when thinking about it.

Obviously (or maybe not, for some people), it’s not okay when someone assumes that a black person got into college because of affirmative action. I’ve gotten these comments before, anywhere from “It would be great to be black so I could get into college more easily” to “Well it’s good for you that you got affirmative action to be here.” I’m not going to spend time explaining why these statements are deeply offensive and hurtful, because it should be clear, but there’s a second reaction that I think we don’t think about a lot.

At least for me, when I was in college, I didn’t really understand how college admissions worked. Frankly, I’m still only fuzzy on the details. The secondary, but longer-lasting issue for me when it came to those offensive comments was that they’d dig their way into my subconscious and gradually start to feel true. Did I only get in because of my race? Do I not measure up to other people here because I didn’t get here on my own merit? I’m not saying that they’re healthy thoughts, but I think that if other black students were also feeling this way, I’m okay with that acknowledgement.

I think it’s okay for black people to feel uncomfortable about affirmative action as it relates to our own personal lives. I think that overall, that’s where Dr. Cashin was coming from (though it’s still thoughtless to not consider your audience). It’s for the same reason that, for a good portion of my young adult life, I was also against affirmative action. In a lot of ways, it’s not great to feel like you might be getting special treatment in spite of your merit.

All that said, I don’t think it’s valid for this to be a talking point for white people on this topic. It’s not up to white people to decide, in my opinion, whether or not my discomfort works for or against their own policy opinions. I’m not sure, now being pro-affirmative action, what exactly you do about the discomfort. It’s definitely hard to reconcile with broader senses of policy justice. These feelings, I think, are exacerbated by a life of feeling like my stereotype was lesser (in academic words, stereotype threat) and living in constant doubt because of it. Even with my updated understanding of the policy, knowing that I’m not actually taking the place of someone more “qualified,” it’s still a slight nag I have in the back of my mind.

I’d rather acknowledge it than pretend it’s not there. It’s the main reason why I don’t think affirmative action is necessarily a perfect situation, but it’s easier when I recognize that I feel this way, and then can work that into my more complete perspective on the policy. It’s not all about me, but in some respects, my thoughts about me are a part of it. Frankly, I’m okay with that.

Methodological elitism and quantitative ego

I was having a talk with the sagacious Ben Skinner the other day about our methodological training, and as I am prone to doing, I have found myself reflecting on that conversation probably more than is healthy. I am not, in my estimation, a master of research method, but I think Ben and I both have had unique experiences in this regard. Both of us have been exposed to the very applied side of methods training within the econometric tradition in education policy, while also having had experience in the world of more statistician-dominated methods training.

The foundation for the discussion we were having was that from both of our perspectives, many of the people in education policy (and at least in my opinion, in social science in general) have placed a certain premium on being able to do rigorous quantitative research. Whether or not that is positive for our field, what it also produces, in many ways, is a certain type of egoism that leaves and perpetuates a gap between how good people think they are at quantitative and computational methods and how good they actually are. This in turn produces three negative outcomes (among others) that I think are particularly problematic:

  1. People can often uncritical of their own methods when faced by those who they feel are not as well trained,
  2. A certain sense of already having accomplished mastery leads people to feel that what they have is “good enough” for being thorough, and
  3. A social hierarchy is produced where those with this mathematical ego see themselves as better than others.

(I should note that the community to which I am referring includes myself. I will also note that Ben, from my conversation, also is reflective on this – I am just avoiding speaking for him.)

On the ego side, I think it’s simpler to see how this is, if not unjust, at least very annoying for the rest of the field. I think it doesn’t require much discussion to justify why this is a bad thing. But I think the methodological deficiency might take a bit of explaining, which I might outline more over time, but here are the cliffnotes…

On the math side, I think that many social scientists learn the basic mechanics and assumptions of regression analysis and, in some places, econometric methods of causal inference. For most of what we do and the work we produce, I think this passes the sniff test: it really is good enough. But often, it’s not. In particular, I’ve found that many of my colleagues (and I say this with the understanding that I am also mathematically deficient in many ways) lack a certain sense of nuance in terms of how data exists (or doesn’t) in time and space. This has implications for many modeling shortcuts I’ve seen, where “good enough for discussion” is prioritized over using distributions and statistics and mathematical perspectives that are outside of our basic econometric paradigm, even if those other perspectives may be more technically correct and may more faithfully describe the world we are trying to explain.

On the computational side, while I think we acknowledge that the flows of research through (especially recent) history have often been determined by our computational capacity as a field, I do think, as was Ben’s point to me (as I understood it), that we forget that we play an active role in creating that capacity. Not everyone needs to be out there creating new computational methods, sure, but I do think that it’s better for research if people are willing to look outside of their comfort zones to find better pathways for answering their questions. Moreover, the questions we ask are constricted by the methods we know, and so even if we aren’t able to commit the time to fully and deeply understanding other computational options, refusing to engage with them functionally limits the creativity and scope of the work we can do. Quantitative research will always be limited simply by the availability of data, but we’re only exacerbating this problem when we limit ourselves to only answering the questions whose required methods are within our current, at-the-moment skill sets.

I don’t think a lot of this is particularly a social science research problem, exclusively. I think math and computational methods hold a privileged position in our society that at least for my part, I don’t think they deserve. But I also don’t think it’s wrong to say that a general lack of faithful rigor in methodological training beyond “good enough” is real and has important implications for the construction of that same society. (And in defense of quantitative methods, I think rejections of quantitative paradigms from those in other communities often suffer from similar types of egoism.)

In the end, I think both the elitism and the deficiencies are essentially tied to one another, and they can’t be addressed separately from one another. I think quantitative researchers, as a field, could benefit for getting off their methodological high horse every now and again to not only reflect on what we don’t know, but also on the need for us to fix it.

Forgiving, forgetting, and fixing racial climates

From the 21-point plan developed by Colgate University to Vanderbilt University’s own burgeoning efforts to increase diversity, there are a lot of responses that universities have been developing to address student dissatisfaction with negative racial climates.

To a certain extent, I guess I should be glad. The kinds of efforts that these universities are undertaking are exactly the kinds of things that advocates, both student and otherwise, have been asking for from the start. These things make it sound, on the surface, like universities are genuinely making progress. I don’t think that’s particularly a wrong takeaway, since I think there’s something important about keeping an open mind as we move forward. That said, I can’t make myself feel particularly good about these efforts. And from what I can tell, having talked to other people who have been engaged with these movements from the start, I’m not alone.

I took some time to really think through why my reaction to these things is overwhelmingly negative, and when it comes down to it, it’s fairly simple: I don’t quite trust those driving these reforms. There are two halves to this feeling, which I share with some of my colleagues, that I think are both critical for understanding this reaction and also determining how we can move forward.

The first half of my negative feelings, in this context, is that these efforts are often coming from those same powers that produced the dissatisfaction that drove students to mobilization in the first place. Despite the perhaps cynical supposition that these powers developed these plans not out of actual empathy but rather to save face, I think it’s reasonable that students might not believe in their institutions, which were only recently the cause of their pain, to faithfully and effectively implement justice.

The second half concerns a certain lack of restorative justice in these efforts. Throughout the tenure of the students involved in this activism (as well as other students of color more generally), there has been a significant amount of harm done. First, before mobilization, many of these students consistently faced a racist environment that made their campus experiences painful. Second, during mobilization, many of the movement organizations faced significant opposition from their administrations, their faculty, and even their peers. This work is exhausting, as I’ve mentioned in the past, but it can also be damaging.

In the end, what this means is that the powers that be in institutions of higher education have effectively lost the trust of many students of color, especially those in positions of leadership. In my opinion, this dooms these new efforts to fail. What, then, would make students (like me) happy?

It’s going to take more than asking students to just forgive and forget what has happened in order for us to move forward as a nation. Significant damage has been done, and unless universities take sensitive, humble, and rigorous care in fixing the wrongs they have committed against students, they’re not going to have the support they need from communities that matter the most in these contexts. How can people do this? I don’t have all of the answers, but this is my opinion: Own it. Identify with the aggrieved students what harms have been done. Develop substantial and genuine apologies. As institutional leaders, commit to change not only in terms of what policies are made, but also in terms of how you as individuals will change yourselves. Acknowledge the pain you have caused, and continue to mend those relationships as you go through your work. And most importantly, in my opinion, approach this reparation in the spirit not of political reconciliation, but rather of a true and meaningful desire to make things right by these students.

I’m not saying this will always work, but these concrete actions, in my estimation, contain some of the elements of true humility that institutions will need in order to make these reforms work. I have yet to see an institution say “I’m sorry.” But I think that until that happens, students will continue to distrust the institutions that are trying to change.

Including student voices in education

This post is a modified version of an earlier commentary I had made on a previous blog, which I have since deleted.

From discussions about student government to policies that give children responsibilities in managing their classroom experiences, common justifications for these practices include (a) that kids will be more invested in their education if they are a part of shaping it and (b) that it gives children good experience in participating in democracy.

I’ve never been a fan of either of those reasonings for including youth voices in the formation of the education vision. I get that both of those things are probably true, but they feel patronizing to me. Basically, we’re asking kids what they think just so they feel included, which we’re doing so they’re “better” at doing what we want them to do. This has never felt like a sufficient reason to include people in democratic processes, as if we’re doing them a favor.

I think that at the root of it, the more compelling reason is that the voices of young people have value in the visioning of education. Yes, of course, we were all children once, but education changes every day, and so do we. I think the value of including the voices of youth is that they are the ones most directly affected by the decisions we make in education, and at least in the short term, they can provide the best insight into how things are working on the ground and what can be done better, what should be better and how they, in the short-term, are being disserviced or benefited.

In the long-term, I think it’s a more complicated question, one to which I honestly haven’t ironed out my answer that well just yet. What does the uniquely youth perspective add to the discussion of the wider economic and social benefits and consequences of education practice and policy? In my estimation, not that much. This isn’t to say that youth don’t have value in that discussion. I’m just saying that I think that what youth can say there, generally, is more muddy in terms of its potential to really make that conversation more comprehensive. Overall, I think that the primary value of including them from a long-term perspective isn’t that it benefits the conversation.

As such, I think that the inclusion of young people in long-term, larger discussions of education vision comes from a different motivation. They’re the people who will be living in the society we’re creating. I think it’s the right thing to do, then, to include them in these discussions. This isn’t an empirical position, since I can’t speak much to whether current structures of student input are actually working, but a moral argument that students need to be in these discussions from a justice point of view. Not only that, but we’ve seen some brilliant ideas come from young people. It’d be a shame to miss out on them because we think they’re “too young.”

So overall, I think the discussion about youth voice needs to be less about how it’ll help students as individuals, but more about what youth bring to the table and the right of students to be there, which I feel like is kind of the point of youth voice.