Saturday, May 9, 2009

Is "African-American" a Valid Educational Category?: A Pragmatic View

Recently, a sparring match has surfaced between William Seletan and John McWhorter over whether test performance statistics should subcategorize by racial makeup. The hubbub is over a recent NYT article noting that No Child Left Behind is failing to close the black/white achievement gap. The question: why even keep score of such an arbitrary categorization of race?

Seleatan's point is that in the age of genetics, race is hardly the most pertinent or salient category. He writes that McWhorter is relying on an arbitrary categorizing when he:

[is] for airing "findings that shed less than positive light on black people." Not bad parents. Not people with low-performing kids. Black people.

McWhorter suspects that Seletan's motive is simply to put a hush on any statistic that might make black's look bad.

Just as that is antithetical to what getting past race is supposed to mean, we will not pretend that it's okay that black students don't read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren't racists.

To be honest, this is a hard discussion to think about and there are good and bad points made on all sides. But my pragmatic inclination is to say that what counts as a valid category is any category that has something pertinent to say (as measured by whether most people believe it does). By this pragmatic light, race is still a valid category (even if it is not a valid genetic category). We still - and especially black intellectuals - talk of black culture as somehow being seperate from white culture.

While my personal sympathies lie with Saletan - I really cannot see how different skin colors are valid educational subgroups) - my social symphaties lie with McWhorter. The very fact that we as a society are so obsessed with the "black/white achievement gap" (that does bear out statistically) means that there is something to subcategorizing educational statistics by racial groupings.

And I further agree with McWhorter that as long as we are talking about the black/white achievement gap, we should be divulging and publicizing statistics reporting on it, even if it makes one group look bad. And as a teacher, I will go even further to suggest that current statistics suggest that blacks DESERVE to look bad right now! Whether race is a valid genetic category, the statistics tell a story of a whole group of people going awry in many areas, such as criminality, educational performance, and single parenthood. I agree with McWhorter that to put rosy dressings on such statistics would do a disservice to the black community, who obviously needs to hear (and get angry at) such statistics.

So, I think it would be unfair for Seletan to win this argument if only for the fact that, in a pragmatic sense, we are a society that DOES see "racial makeup" as a valid social category. As long as we are talking about the "black/white achievement gap," and as long as such a gap is borne out statistically, refusing to break future stats down by race would be the equivalent to posing a question only to censor the answer. And as long as we are concerned with how blacks are performing as an academic group (no matter how loose that grouping is), I think it would be nothing short of pussyfooting not to let them (and others) see their dismal report card.

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