This morning in the Wall Street Journal Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim offer some rational thinking about race on campus. It is good to see them shedding more light than heat on the problems.
What have the student activists been demanding? Haidt and Jussim summarize:
After all, much of the students’ agenda was simply an amplification of what American colleges have been doing for decades: They demanded increased affirmative action, more diversity training, more funds to support scholarship and teaching about race and social justice. What harm could it do?
They suggest that this agenda is doomed to fail:
As far as we can tell, the existing research literature suggests that such reforms will fail to achieve their stated aims of reducing discrimination and inequality. In fact, we think that they are likely to damage race relations and to make campus life more uncomfortable for everyone, particularly black students.
Now, they add, if universities admit even more underqualified minority applicants this will increase the gap between them and the rest of the campus, thus making race a clearer indication of inferiority and reinforcing the prevailing opinion:
As a result of these disparate admissions standards, many students spend four years in a social environment where race conveys useful information about the academic capacity of their peers. People notice useful social cues, and one of the strongest causes of stereotypes is exposure to real group differences. If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other schools are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.
Students tend to self-segregate by academic achievement. Those who fall into a category that has received special treatment will be treated as less capable. Recent minority student agitation has made minority students appear to be a force for disruption, a force opposed to good order, campus discipline and a peaceful learning environment. This tends to draw more attention to the fact that they were admitted by different standards:
And racial gaps in classroom performance create other problems. A 2013 study by the economist Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University found that students tend to befriend those who are similar to themselves in academic achievement. This is a big contributor to the patterns of racial and ethnic self-segregation visible on many campuses. If a school increases its affirmative-action efforts in ways that expand these gaps, it is likely to end up with more self-segregation and fewer cross-race friendships, and therefore with even stronger feelings of alienation among black students.
One should add that if new diversity quotas force the hiring of more minority faculty, students will conclude that minority faculty members are less capable. Thus, classrooms and majors will also be segregated by race.
Diversity training is obviously not the solution. Haidt and Jussim report:
The evaluations that have been done are not encouraging. A major 2007 review of diversity training in corporations concluded that “on average, programs designed to reduce bias among managers responsible for hiring and promotion have not worked.” A review of diversity interventions published in 2014 in the journal Science noted that these programs “often induce ironic negative effects (such as reactance or backlash) by implying that participants are at fault for current diversity challenges.”
As I mentioned yesterday in my post about sexual harassment, these programs are long on blame and short on cooperation. The same applies to what is now called microaggression training:
But microaggression training is likely to backfire and increase racial tensions. The term itself encourages moralistic responses to actions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. Once something is labeled an act of aggression, it activates an oppressor-victim narrative, which calls out to members of the aggrieved group to rally around the victim. As the threshold for what counts as an offense falls ever lower, cross-racial interactions become more dangerous, and conflict increases.
Again, it is worth underscoring that imposing an oppressor-victim narrative creates ill-will, suspicion and intergroup conflict. Microaggression training forces students to self-censor when they are around anyone who belongs to an aggrieved minority. Thus, they will naturally avoid any situations that comport danger. This creates an oppressive atmosphere on campus and inhibits free inquiry and open discussion:
Students are encouraged to report any instance when they witness or suffer a microaggression. It is the “see something, say something” mind-set, transferred from terrorism threats to conversational blunders and ambiguities.
But such systems make it far more important to keep track of everyone by race. How would your behavior change if anything you said could be misinterpreted, taken out of context and then reported—anonymously and with no verification—to a central authority with the power to punish you? Wouldn’t faculty and students of all races grow more anxious and guarded whenever students from other backgrounds were present?
Academic administrators are married to the oppression/victim narrative and ignore reality. Most especially, they have never thought to examine an institution that solved its racial diversity problem. That would be the U. S. Army.
It did so without lowering standards. (One adds that it has currently been lowering standards for women.) More importantly, the Army also promoted the value of cooperation and of pride in service and pride in country. And it promoted uniformity and conformity, with the same rules applied, regardless of race. It was anything but multicultural.
Haidt and Jussim report:
In their book “All That We Can Be” (1996), the sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler describe how the U.S. Army escaped from the racial dysfunction of the 1970s to become a model of integration and near-equality by the time of the 1991 Gulf War. The Army invested more resources in training and mentoring black soldiers so that they could meet rigorous promotion standards. But, crucially, standards were lowered for no one, so that the race of officers conveyed no information about their abilities. The Army also promoted cooperation and positive-sum thinking by emphasizing pride in the Army and in America.
If we want to look for the source of the contention on college campuses, we would do well to take a lesson from the Army and to see that undermining national pride and promoting dissension and conflict has produced problems that we are not even close to solving.
The solution, Haidt and Jussim point out, lies in civic virtue, not in dialectical struggle:
Instead of focusing on microaggressions, our campuses might talk about blunders, misconceptions and self-righteousness—and about civility and forgiveness. As Martin Luther King Jr., put it in 1957: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”