Count the Beans

Stop-Blog

By Mark Bauerlein

Insidehighered.com had a story recently on racist patters of citation in academic research. The title is “The Racial Politics of Citation,” and the subtitle explains, “The lack of citations of scholars of color furthers racial dominance and forecloses potentially valuable areas of intellectual inquiry, argues Victor Ray.”

Ray is a professor of sociology at University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  His complaint falls into the category of disparate outcomes, the judgment of racial discrimination by the evidence of numbers alone.  Most academics are white, the reasoning goes, which makes higher education a “white institutional space.”  The rate at which scholars of color are cited does not match the proportion of scholars in the research population, also, and this disproportion is tantamount to a “history of racial exclusion in academe.”  We have, in effect, “segregated scholarly networks.”

The language is strong and loaded.  It makes you wonder how, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, and far away from Governor Wallace’s rousing exhortation in 1963, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” we would still find discrimination operating on some of the most progressive zones in the country.  Not only that, but the people committing acts of segregation are found in the most progressive departments, anthropologists and sociologists, whom Ray singles out as guilty.  He acknowledges that this exclusion may be unintentional, but it’s a form of racism nonetheless in that it sustains white supremacy in the institution.

The solution is clear: “scholars and editors should take proactive measures to make sure researchers are citing relevant work by underrepresented scholars.”

Ray doesn’t spell these measures out, but we can imagine some of the possibilities he has in mind.  The editor of a quarterly might issue a statement urging contributors to make sure that the manuscripts they submit cite a sufficiently diverse set of scholars.  We might even see contributors adding a statement in the cover letter: “The essay I submit to you cites 41 scholars, eight of whom are black, 15 female . . .”  Why not?  If the yardstick is entirely a matter of percentages, then it shouldn’t be hard to add a few “diversity sources” in the kind of perfunctory manner of “For more on this issue, see _______.”

Advocacy groups, too, could pressure some of the organizations that tally citations such as Google Scholar and Academic Analytics to include in their assessment of scholars not only how many times their work is cited in the research literature, but also how many times they cite scholars of color.  With those numbers in hand, tenure committees would have a whole new metric.  “I think Assistant Professor A’s book is interesting, but why are only two percent of the people he cites African American?”  Liberal professors usually don’t like the quantification of their work, especially in the softer fields.  But with progressives pushing just this kind of social engineering within a discipline, liberals haven’t any basis for complaining.  They know what will happen to them if they do.

The numbers have to change, it’s that simple.  That’s what the progressives mean when they talk about diversity.  Only the outcomes matter, the final count.  If in 2016 only 78 of the 1730 doctorates in math and computer science went to “Black or African American” candidates, and only 97 of the 3,6666 doctorates in physical and earth sciences, then we have a problem—a problem with the numbers.  The problem won’t end until that historically-disadvantaged group earns science doctorates at a rate proportional to their make-up in the general population (12 percent).

That means we need four or fives times as many Black or African American doctorates in those fields than we have now.  The blank number at the end of the statistical tally can stand all by itself.  Nothing more needs to be discussed.  We don’t need to draw in data on access and opportunity, and certainly nothing on merit.  Those are the old liberal values, the level-the-playing-field approach.  We have moved on to leftist values, which spotlight results, not inputs; realities, not intentions.  The 21st century natural right is happiness, not the pursuit of happiness.

You may call it dumb, simplistic, manipulative, and bureaucratic.  It demands the kind of social engineering closer to socialism than to capitalism.  It insists on group distinctions, but it assumes that all groups have the same interests, that women love computer science just as much as men do.  (If we accepted differing interests, we might be less motivated to even up all the outcomes.)

Progressivism also plays favorites in its leveling tactics.  It protests the small number of women in math, but ignores the small number of men in nursing.  In my field of English, nearly 70 percent of all the PhDs go to women—but nobody’s worried.  Nobody wants to suggest that feminism has dissuaded men from entering the discipline.  We’ll just overlook those disproportions and stay focused on the historically-underrepresented groups.  The just-recently underrepresented ones (white males in the humanities) are of no concern.

What is equally astonishing about this blunt proposal of coercive regulations—as is the demand that people cite more people of color in their work—is the blithe confidence with which the reformers advance them.  That disparate outcome number says it all for them.  They don’t need to make an argument.  All they need do is cite a percentage.  In fact, they barely need to attribute the discrepancy to racism.  Yes, they will mention “institutional racism” and “systemic racism” and “structural racism,” but those assertions aren’t much more than asides.  At this point, disproportionality can stand on its own as a flat injustice.  We must have equality, or else we have no justice.

The appearance of the number automatically provokes a machinery of correction.  We don’t argue over the disparate outcomes.  We don’t examine their causes.  We just set out to do something about them.

Leftist thought has shrunk to this mandate.  It finds a disproportion and demands that it be fixed.  It doesn’t think “before” the disproportion, why it exists and what variables feed it; not does it think “after” the disproportion, that is, after it has been fixed and other ends come into sight (as one would normally assume).  Leftists don’t talk about those further benefits.  They have a strictly personnel vision of workplaces.  Getting the right people into the institution—that’s it.  Leftism is all managerial.

The university is its best testing ground.  There, they can control hiring and promotion, resources and curricula (except in the STEM areas, where scientific limitations block them).  For those of us who resist this insertion of identity politics into the logistics of higher education, it’s a frustrating situation.  Not because of the identity politics alone, but because of the simplistic, short-sighted implementation of them, too.  When the progressives say, in so many words, “We’ve got to hire a person of color,” you wonder, “Then, what?”  Okay, so instead of having four persons of color in the 20-person department they have five.  What do they think will happen then?

When I imagine such conversations, I see the leftist pausing and looking at me as if the question is irrelevant, or inscrutable, or meaningless.  We are supposed to accept the fact—and rejoice in it—that changing the percentage of the department from 20 percent non-white to 25 percent non-white is a triumph in itself, diversity for the sake of . . . diversity.  Perhaps, if you pressed the question further, you’d get something about the “experience” benefit.  “People with diverse backgrounds and ethnicities will bring difference experiences and perspectives into the room, and this will produce a more intelligent, sensitive, aware, and flexible group understanding.”  There is no real evidence for that, and besides, the training that everyone in the department has undergone has been so uniform (doctoral programs are very much alike) that a black and white sociologist differ a whole lot less than do a white sociologist and a white accountant or athlete or bricklayer.

But no matter.  The mere presence of a few more minorities at the table is a good in itself.  It makes the white liberals at the table feel very, very good.  And that’s good enough for them.

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