The witches of the Ivy League

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The rumpus over perceived racism at American universities, with its demands for “trigger warnings” against possibly hurtful statements, “safe spaces” to protect minority students against felt hostility, and “speech codes” which forbid statements that might offend self-styled victims, has turned into something of a circus. A black female official at Yale provoked demonstrations when she refused to intervene against possibly offensive Halloween costumes, even though no such offensive costume yet had appeared. A University of Kansas professor is suspended after simply using the “n-word” to characterize racism.

Salem witch trials
Salem witch trials

Prof. Andrea Quenette merely said, ““As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. It’s not like I see ‘n****r’ spray painted on walls.” Every student in her class signed a petition demanding her termination. It began last month at the University of Missouri, where racial slurs yelled at a black student leader from an unidentified man in a pickup truck led to a strike by the football team, campus demonstrations, and the resignations of the university’s two top officials–for insufficient deal in suppressing racism. The targets are university administrators and faculty who without exception are commited liberals and professed enemies of racism, but who are insufficiently vigilant against “casual, everyday slights and insensitivities,” as a US News commentary noted. It is one thing to revile the student protesters as “college crybullies,” as my friend Roger Kimball did recently at the Wall Street Journal, and another to talk about rope in the house of the hanged.

Kimball sees this as the triumph of the 1960s radicalism that took root in universities and now has become the reigning ideology of the academic establishment. A widely-read Atlantic magazine commentary by Prof. Jonathan Haidt blames the hysteria on changes in child-rearing practice during the 1980s. But the hysteria at American universities is instantly recognizeable as a commplace if neglected practice of European civilization (among others), namely the witch-hunt. The 20 victims of the 1692 Salem witch trials have become the stuff of American legend, but the inquisitors of Massachusetts hardly make the league tables: up to 100,000 presumed witches were executed in Europe between 1450 and 1750, during the rise of the Age of Reason. St. Augustine had thought the whole notion of witchcraft absurd in the 5th century, but the 13th-century Church Father St. Thomas Aquinas revived the notion of demons that led poor souls to perdition.

There must be a witch in here somewhere: A woman fails to conceive, the milk is sour, the crops fail, adolescent girls become hysterical. Once we assume that these events are the workings of witchcraft, the only thing remaining is to uncover the witch (0r warlock) and kill her (or him). If we kill a witch, and the milk remains sour, it means that yet another witch is hiding in the woodshed, and that witch must be flushed out as well. Witches are crafty and try to evade detection, but they betray themselves through insufficient zeal in denouncing witchcraft. Those who display insufficient outrage against micro-aggressions (such as the unfortunate Yale administrator who declined to set up a review board for Halloween customes in advance of the event) must be witches. That is why the unfortunate Prof. Quenette of the University of Kansas watched her career burn at the stake: She was the most likely available suspect.

Unlike previous witch-hunts, the event that motivates the exercise remains unspoken. But that is easy to identify: black American college students, especially men, are failing at a catastrophic rate.

graduation

Little more than a third of black male college students obtain a bachelor’s degree (ideally a four-year program) after six years of university attendance. The college entrance rate is identical for white and black high school graduates at about 70%, but graduate rates diverge. Sixty percent of white male students graduate within six years, almost double the proportion of black males.

A 2006 study in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education cited a number of possible explanations. The first amog several, JBHE wrote, is how welcome black students feel at a particular college:

Clearly, the racial climate at some colleges and universities is more favorable toward African Americans than at other campuses. A nurturing environment for black students is almost certain to have a positive impact on black student retention and graduation rates. Brown University, for example, although often troubled by racial incidents, is famous for its efforts to make its campus a happy place for African Americans. In contrast, the University of California at Berkeley has had its share of racial turmoil in recent years. The small number of black students on campus as a result of the abolishment of race-sensitive admissions has made many African Americans on campus feel unwelcome. This probably contributes to the low black student graduation rate at Berkeley.

Nonetheless, the journal added, “High dropout rates appear to be primarily caused by inferior K-12 preparation and an absence of a family college tradition, conditions that apply to a very large percentage of today’s college-bound African Americans.” That seems like a reasonable assessment. But at most American universities, merely to repeat this statement–printed originally in a respected journal of black university educators–would be considered prima facie proof of witchcraft.

When JBHE surveyed the damage in 2006, the cohort of black students failing to graduate after six years were born in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when the proportion of children born to unmarried non-Hispanic black mothers was a bit under 50%. By 2013 the proportion had risen to 72%. Without stigmatizing unwed mothers, children born in one-parent households are more likely to face the “inferior K-12 preparation and an absence of a family college tradition” cited by JBHE. Things have gotten worse, in fact much worse, for black children.

The failure of universities to graduate more black men has wide implications. Black illegitimacy rates are high in part because so many black men of marrying age are incarcerated, as the New York Times noted in a widely-quoted study early this year. “Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.” Black university students are the ones who escaped the cycle of violence and incarceration, and the low graduate rate is tragic. It implies that the well-intended efforts of universities to reach out to minority students too often have failed, and that the educational system will not interrupt the continued decline of conditions of life of the black American minority. In that case one might as well hunt witches. It will do as much good as anything else.

The trouble is that generations of university students have been reared on the presumption that clever and beneficient social scientists can engineer desirable outcomes. If the outcome is undesirable, it must be due to racism; if the racism is not overt, it must be covert, and if blacks are not subject to racist aggression, the “micro-aggresion” of subtle deprecation. This quickly reduces itself to absurdity. The University of Wisconson’s new speech code declares that the statement “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” is racist. The university says that this is a coded statement that “People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.” It is also racist to say that “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough,” because it really means, “People of color are lazy and / or incompetent and need to work harder.”

People who make these sorts of commonplace statements, it appears, really are witches who cast spells on black students in order to make them feel badly about themselves so that they won’t succeed. The solution is to burn the witches (or their careers) and isolate minority students in “safe spaces” where no-one will hurt their feelings. Of course, this sort of thing will do no more to improve the black graduation rate than the burning of witches improved the quality of cow’s milk in early modern Europe. Nonetheless, the Europeans continued to burn witches for centuries until they tired of it. There is no reason to expect the witch-hunts at American universities to stop any sooner.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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David P. Goldman
David Paul Goldman (born September 27, 1951) is an American economist, music critic, and author, best known for his series of online essays in the Asia Times under the pseudonym Spengler. Goldman sits on the board of Asia Times Holdings.
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