A few days ago, I returned to a recurring theme of mine -- the continued attempts to try to make acceptable sexism and racism in our society. As many know, I have used Harvard President Lawrence Summers as a rhetorical punching bag on this. It is a bit unfair of me because Summers has apologized for his remarks. But the defenders of his remarks persist, including people here.
Andrew Sullivan attacked me for it, saying Summers didn't say that for which he offered an apology. He mutters about my not understanding standard deviation. But of course standard deviation has nothing to do with my criticism. But if you care about such things, here is a good takedown of Sully on that.
My concern was, and remains, the attempts by people like Charles Murray and in his remarks, Lawrence Summers, to explain away racism and sexism by claims of superior aptitude in the relevant group for men and whites. Of course, Sully has defended "The Bell Curve" for ten years, despite many demonstrations of what it is.
Of course, they will concede the existence of discrimination in society, but they do so while minimizing its importance and denigrating attempts to address it. This is what "The Bell Curve" attempted and this is what Summers' remarks attempted, in my opinion.
I have no idea what is in Andrew Sullivan's heart or Lawrence Summers' heart, but it is my opinion that they are tired of hearing about racial and gender discrimination. They do not want it on the agenda in my opinion. And that is their perogative.
My view is different. It is my view that, as a nation, we have serious problems of gender and racial discrimination. Of course we have a come a long way. But we have a long way to go.
On racial discrimination, consider the poignant story told in the HBO documentary Lalee's Kin:
For as long as she can remember, LaLee Wallace's family has picked cotton. It's the main reason why they continue to live in poverty, but as this great-grandmother and her family know, the legacy of cotton is not an easy one to shake. . . . [T]his poignant, compelling film follows three generations of African Americans from the Mississippi Delta as they live with extreme poverty and illiteracy. Paralleling LaLee's struggle is Reggie Barnes, the superintendent of the West Tallahatchie schools, who is trying to raise school standards, attract qualified teachers and acquire supplies.
If you have not seen this documentary, you should. And ask yourself if you think this type of story is unique. Ask yourself what we can reasonably expect in the way of school performance and life performance from children whose schooling, opportunities and life experience are so lacking. Can test scores provide any objective measure of potential in these children? Can a rational person truly believe that any "scientific" study can control for those variables?
More importantly, should we be making policy decisions based on studies dedicated to trying to find the genetic differences that might provide an insignificant and irrelevant group difference? Do folks like Summers and Sullivan really think that is where our focus should be?
Sully is Sully, and frankly, who cares? But Lawrence Summers is the President of our most prestigious university. His offhand acknowledgment that there is some gender discrimination in the academy while focusing on other issues was, in my view, irresponsible and inappropriate. It was another way to attempt to sweep discrimination under the rug. I am glad he understood this and apologized for it.
As a University President, not acting as a scientist, that is his bailiwick. If science provides important information on the subject, then of course we must consider it. But, so far, the information is elusive and sketchy at best. What is not sketchy is the long history of racial and gender discrimination in this country and the world. It is a primary source of many of our society's ills. The President of Harvard has much good and important work to do on the issues. It is not, to my way of thinking, helpful to have any important public figure who cares about addressing these issues choosing to treat discrimination as a minor issue at best.