The White Man's Trick Bag

October 18, 2011

Way back in 1973, during my second year as a faculty member at a historically black college, I was teaching a descriptive statistics course to a class of about 15 master's degree students in urban planning. One very bright student, whom I will only identify by his first name, was particularly resistant. One day after he had sounded off in class yet again, I asked him why he refused to learn this material. Here's the reply he gave me that was burned into my brain forever.

Roger: Don't you know that statistics is the white man's trick bag?

Me (stunned, slack-jawed): Why ... why do you say that, Roger?

Roger: Well, have you ever met any statistics that had anything good to say about black people?

Our class was hip deep into the infamous "Moynihan Report", various poverty reports, census reports, and other sources of the negative indicators of what used to be called "The Urban Crisis." Indeed, I had become a professor of urban planning at a black college so that I could teach black students how to change some of those bad numbers. Believing as I do today that you can't fix a problem if you don't admit you have the problem, Roger's blunt challenge left me speechless because it was my first confrontation with an admonition that would assume shifting forms over the following decades; and I was nowhere near as sure of my own position back then as I am today.

Sometimes the admonition sounded like: "We already know what's wrong, so we don't need any more studies." Other times it would appear as "If you say those things now that we have black superintendents, black mayors, black congressmen, etc, etc, etc, our adversaries will use your data to demean our black leaders." From time to time advocates of affirmative action would caution against discussing low graduation rates or achievement gaps because such talk might undermine their efforts. And sometimes the admonition would appear in its most seductive form as "We really need better presentations of our successes, not more documentations of our failures."

Almost 50 years after the civil rights revolution, black progress has been substantial, but nowhere near as substantial as we had hoped it would be and nowhere near as substantial as we needed it to be. By this time, as the Great Recession grinds more and more middle class black families into poverty, and as the black-white gaps in student achievement persist and sometimes widen at all educational levels, you would think that the problem deniers would admit that their strategy hasn't worked, that it has undermined our efforts to achieve the full promise of the victorious revolution led by Dr. King and his courageous peers.

You would think so, but you would be wrong. The problem deniers are still out there, still encouraging us to send our children buck naked into the world's jungles like so many black Harry Potters protected only by maternal fantasies that they can be anything they want to be. No, they can't. It still takes a hell of a lot more guts and talent and other resources for a black man or a black woman to achieve the same level of success as for a white man or a white woman.

I concede that substantial, albeit insufficient black progress had been made since the 60s and 70s. That's the good news. But this progress has not been equally achieved by all schools and colleges that educate black students, or by all black businesses, or by all black professionals. In other words, there has also been substantial variance in black achievements. From a statistical viewpoint, this is great news because statistical analysis thrives on variance. Case studies of success by themselves can be exceedingly counter-productive because they can lull their readers into believing that things are really OK, that it's just the "bias" in the media that makes us think that things aren't progressing as rapidly as we expected them to.

However, if 80 percent of a black population of students, businesses, or professionals fall below some specified levels of satisfactory performance, then well-constructed case studies of a few of the high achieving 20 percent could provide valuable clues to the factors that contributed to their success. In other words, given the fact that all other things are still unequal, we need to figure out how these high achievers attained their greater success. Then we have to devise policies that encourage the low performers to adopt (and adapt) the best practices of the high achievers. This strategy has worked in a variety of other contexts with an important caveat. Best practices must usually be adapted, i.e., modified to fit the local culture. Carbon copies are rarely effective.

With regards to the critical tasks of identifying the factors that contribute to black achievement, I say it's high time for the problem deniers to put away their magic wands, leave Hogwarts, and join the rest of us in the real world. There's nothing magical about black high achievers, but we can't assume that we already know the secrets of their success.

  • For example, even the most cursory examination of the six-year graduation rates among the nation's 105 historically black colleges is sufficient to blow away any notion that it's just a matter of budgets. The richest HBCU does not have highest graduation rate, nor does the poorest HBCU have the lowest; and this disparity grows much larger when one considers graduation rates vs. per student dollar expenditures. Some HBCUs are making far more productive use of their tuition dollars than others. We need good case studies coupled with statistical analysis to figure out what the more productive HBCUs are doing right; then we have to encourage the lower performing HBCUs to adopt (and adapt) these best practices.
  • Nor should we confine our analysis to HBCUs. At this point almost 90 percent of America's black students attend integrated, mainstream colleges and universities, not black colleges. And the gross statistics show that some of these colleges and universities have far more impressive retention rates and six year graduation rates for their black students than others. Indeed some colleges and universities have achieved comparable rates for their black and white students. So once again the question becomes: What are the high performers doing that enables them to perform substantially better than the rest? And how can we encourage the lower performers to adopt (and adapt) the high performers' best practices.
  • Similar statistical analyses and case studies could be conducted with regard to highly productive black students and highly productive black instructors at all educational levels.

The good news is that efforts to identify best practices with regard to black achievement are gaining more support; and, of course, the bad news is that they aren't gaining enough support. But the substantial progress that black Americans have made since the 60s and 70s assures us that there is far more variability in the circumstances of black Americans today than back then. This greater variability should facilitate a golden age of statistical policy analysis because it gives us better opportunities than in decades past to figure out what really works for black Americans and why. Instead of being the white man's trick bag, statistics can become the black man's leverage.



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