Category Archives: Race and race relations

Why T.J. Deserves a Place in Our Pantheon of Heroes

TJ-statueby James A. Bacon

Students at the College of William & Mary have carried on a long tradition of festooning the campus statue of Thomas Jefferson with accouterments ranging from woolen scarfs to party hats. The latest fad is to append the effigy with sticky notes denouncing the founding father as a slave holder, a racist and a rapist. The activity imitates a similar movement on the University of Missouri campus, which has been coupled with a petition to remove a Jefferson statue on the grounds that it was offensive to idealize someone who owned and raped slaves. I don’t know if the anti-Jefferson movement will gain the same momentum at William & Mary, a public university in a state where Jefferson is revered like no other historical figure. But, given the tenor of the times, some kind of debate is inevitable.

TJI find the negative sentiments expressed in the sticky notes to be indisputably true at one level and profoundly misinformed at another. True, by today’s standards, Jefferson’s views and behaviors were reprehensible. He did own slaves. He did sell slaves and break up slave families. He most likely (though not indisputably) did keep a slave woman as a concubine. He did believe blacks to be inferior to whites. It is not unreasonable to ask why, for all his brilliance as an author of the Declaration of Independence, a United States president, an architect, the founder of the University of Virginia, and all-around polymath, we should continue to hold him in such high esteem (or, for that matter, why we should esteem any member of Virginia’s slave-holding aristocracy).

The case I would make for Jefferson (along with James Madison, George Washington, Patrick Henry and George Mason) is not that they reflected 21st-century sensibilities, which they clearly did not, but that they articulated values and principles for the first time in history that laid the foundation for the values we hold today. We could not have gotten to where we are today had Jefferson & Company not laid the groundwork.

Colonial America imported its institutions and mental constructs from a Europe that was emerging from the Middle Ages. Collective entities such as towns, cities, guilds, social classes and ethnicities — not individuals — were imbued with rights. When Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against the autocratic Governor Berkeley of Virginia in 1676, leading a rag-tag band of impoverished farmers and freed slaves, he called for a restoration of the “rights of Englishmen.” Virginians were entitled to rights and privileges, embodied in the Magna Carta and common law that their ancestors had fought for and won. But those rights were not regarded as universal; they were peculiar to Englishmen and derived from English institutions. Jefferson’s great contribution was to draw from Enlightenment-era principles to argue that all men were endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Essentially, he reinterpreted the rights of Englishmen as rights applied universally to everyone. In Jefferson’s formulation, rights did not belong to collective entities; they belonged to individuals, and they were intrinsic to a person’s existence as a human being — the core principle of 21st-century political thought.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Jefferson is that he articulated principles in direct conflict with his own material self interest as a slave holder. While Jefferson indisputably failed to live up to his own principles, it is intellectually facile and lazy to end the discussion there. It is a truism (and one of Karl Marx’s few useful insights) that economic and social classes, both the rulers and the oppressed, create ideologies that support their material self interest. One must ask: How many ruling elites in the history of mankind have ever developed a governing philosophy that undercut their material self interest? How many ruling elites in history have wrestled with the dichotomy between those principles and the way they actually lived their lives, as Jefferson, Madison, Washington and others did? The answer: precious few. Indeed, I cannot off-hand think of any other ruling elite in the history of mankind that has done such a thing.

Jefferson articulated principles that most Americans, including the people who now despise him, hold dear today. We should revere him for making the leap from rights rooted in collective entities to rights applying to all. We should respect him for making that leap in contravention of his own material self interest, and appreciate the fact that the contradiction haunted him until his dying day, even if he failed to free all his slaves and impoverish himself in the process. The journey to equal rights for all Americans certainly did not end with Jefferson, but it started with him, and he rightly deserves a place in our pantheon of heroes.

NOT Every Muslim Is a Terrorist


by James A. Bacon

Conservatives routinely call upon Muslim leaders in the United States to denounce Islamic-inspired terrorism — and overwhelming numbers of them have done so. Now it is time for conservatives to denounce bigotry against peaceful, law-abiding Muslims. I am ashamed that many have failed the test.

Yesterday I posted a piece belittling the whining of Muslim students at Virginia Commonwealth University about perceived slights and insults in classrooms. The answer to such indignities is not to enforce a regime of politically correct thought on campus. At the same time, all people of good will — and that includes me — should condemn bigotry when we see it.

I was appalled to view a living, breathing example of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the video clip, shown above, taken during a meeting yesterday to inform the community about plans by the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg to build an 8,000-square-foot mosque in Spotsylvania County. Many of the attendees at the meeting were concerned about the impact of the traffic generated by the facility on adjacent neighborhoods, not the religious identity of the petitioners for a special-use permit. But some were opposed to a mosque being built under any circumstances.

The bearded man in the video was especially inflammatory. “Nobody wants your evil cult in this county,” he said. I will do everything within my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. … because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists, I don’t care what you say. … You can say what you want, but every Muslim is a terrorist. Period. Shut your mouth. I don’t want to hear your mouth.”

While some people in the audience moaned at his remarks, he received scattered applause from others.

Perhaps the bearded man was an outlier, but similar sentiments run deep in the American electorate. We have been hearing some extraordinary comments from Republican politicians in recent days. In calling for expanded surveillance of American Muslims, presidential candidate Donald Trump declined to rule out tracking them in a national database or identifying their religion on ID cards. Another candidate, Ben Carson, has said that a Muslim candidate would have to reject the tenets of Islam in order to run for president.

News flash, people, the United States is not a “Christian nation.” The very idea is a profound contradiction of the principles of individual liberty that this country was founded upon and that people like Trump and Carson profess to hold dear. Yes, the population of the United States is predominantly Christian, and the founding fathers were overwhelmingly Christian (with the occasional theist, agnostic or atheist thrown in), but a core founding principle of this country is freedom of religion, and that freedom was never meant for Christians only. Even in colonial times, there was a population of Jews. Today the population of the United States includes not only Christians of infinite variety, and Jews, but Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, spiritualists, animists, Unitarians, Scientologists, Zoroastrians, a growing number of atheists and unaffiliated agnostics, and, yes, Muslims. They all enjoy the same rights under the law as Christians.

Given the reality of the war on terror and the prospect that ISIS is infiltrating terrorists into western nations with the flood of mostly Muslim refugees, we may need to take special precautions before letting these refugees into the country. That is a debate that reasonable people can have. But the Muslims in the Fredericksburg area are already here — many, no doubt, are American citizens. We should encourage them to integrate into American society and assimilate mainstream American values. Treating them as pariahs will do the opposite and feed the radical jihadist narrative.

Oh, and one more point. If Americans are concerned about random acts of terror being committed on U.S. soil, let’s keep things in perspective. The Mass Shooting Tracker has recorded more than 300 mass shooting incidents this year, killing more than 400 Americans and wounding nearly 1,200. Some are school shootings, some are suicide-by-cops, and some are tied to drug violence. I think I’m accurate in stating that only one incident — killing five and wounding two — could be construed as an example of domestic, Islamic-inspired terrorism. I don’t see anyone making sweeping denunciations of mentally unstable white adolescents who predominate among the school shooters, or the unemployed, middle-aged white males who predominate among the suicide-by-cop cases. There is no justification for singling out law-abiding Muslims for special scorn.

Neither is there any defending the bigotry on display in Spotsylvania. All Virginians — especially conservatives — should condemn it.

The Whiners and The Doers

Rob Brandenberg (left) D.J. Haley, and Marketing Director Jeremy Senseng. Haley credits VCU support network for helping them get this far.

Rob Brandenberg (left) D.J. Haley, and Marketing Director Jeremy Senseng with Empower Card. Haley credits VCU’s support network for helping them get this far. Photo credit: Richmond BizSense.

by James A. Bacon

Two stories about Virginia Commonwealth University were in the news today. A front-page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted a forum in which African-American and Muslim students expressed how badly they are treated and how the university needs to make a greater commitment to “diversity.” The other, appearing in the email newsletter of Richmond BizSense, described how two members of VCU’s  2011 Final Four basketball team hope to launch a venture, Empower Card, that will allow purchasers to funnel a portion of their credit card purchases to worthy causes.

The contrast is highly illuminating.


VCU President Michael Rao and VCU student Angelique Scott. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

About 500 people packed the VCU forum hosted by President Michael Rao and gave voice to a succession of gripes and grievances. “VCU has failed black students on many levels,” said Angelique Scott, a junior representing a group called Black VCU Speaks. “We are tired of hearing about old initiatives that have never been set into action.”

Hiba Ahmad, a sophomore from Fairfax, said Muslim students have become fearful in the wake of terrorist attacks and “a growing rhetoric of Islamophobia.” Students “who display their faith very visually” through their dress are concerned for their safety, she said.

There was a lot of talk about fears and perceptions, but no mention of anything tangible. Have minority VCU students been assaulted? No such incidents were reported. Has anyone been physically bullied? Again, no mention. Ahmad took objection to classroom discussions in which “hurtful” and “disrespectful” comments about Muslims are made and the failure of professors to back up the Muslims. Another student spoke about feeling “marginalized” when he discovered he wasn’t invited to a cookout at a professor’s home.

Poor, delicate flowers.

We don’t know how representative the views of these 500 students are, but Rao legitimized them by saying the university is trying to create a more welcoming environment. “Let’s just face it, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “The urgency is more serious than I think some might grasp.”

It is important to note however, that the wallowing-in-self-pity movement does not represent the views of all minority VCU students — just the noisiest ones. We hear a very different story from fledgling entrepreneurs D.J. Haley and Rob Brandenberg, two recently graduated members of VCU’s most celebrated basketball squad. Their idea is to use credit and debit cards as vehicles for businesses and consumers to donate money to participating not-for-profit causes.

Working with a company called Linkable Networks to provide the technology, Haley and Brandenburg have launched a website and are lining up businesses and charities to take part. The idea is that participating businesses would build their brand and customer loyalty by funneling 5% of the credit-card charge to select charities.

For now, reports BizSense, the company is in the very early stages. Haley, who works for a marketing advisory and data intelligence firm in Northern Virginia, and Brandenberg, who works for CornerstoneRPO, a corporate recruiting company in Richmond, are working part-time on the enterprise. Among other hurdles, they figure they need about $50,000 to get the venture off the ground. “We’re betting on the intent to do good works,” said Haley.

How was their experience at VCU? Here’s what Haley said: “We were fortunate to be exposed to great people and great principles,. The other thing that we’re working with is how intertwined we are with the VCU community. We’re confident we have the support we need to make this thing happen.”

I am awaiting the day when Rao holds a forum for ambitious, striving and upwardly mobile students like Haley and Brandenburg. I am guessing that he would get very different feedback. VCU faces a critical choice: Which constituency does it choose to empower — the whiners or the doers? If VCU wants any kind of future, it should cast its lot with the doers.

Best Cities for Small Black Business


Source: Thumbtack annual small business friendliness survey.

I don’t know how valid these findings are, based as they are upon only 1,663 responses to a national small business survey, but they are encouraging. Nine of ten of the cities rated highly by African-American small businessmen (and women) are located in the South and two — Richmond and Virginia Beach — are located in Virginia.

The questions posed by the Thumbtack annual small business survey asked small business owners (1) How friendly is your city? (2) How easy was it to start a business? and (3) Would you encourage others to start a business in your city?

Small business is an important path of upward mobility for African-Americans in a lackluster economy. As Thumbtack notes:

Bacon’s bottom line: Conservatives should never give up appealing to the African-American electorate. While the political left in the United States cultivates grievance and outrage, the political right emphasizes economic opportunity and upward mobility. Leftist-progressive policies destroy economic opportunity and engender bitterness; conservative, market-oriented policies create opportunity and hope. Which one will win in the long run? The one that offers opportunity and hope.


Du Bois-Washington Debate as Relevant as Ever

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

by James A. Bacon

As debate rages in the comments section of Bacon’s Rebellion over the legitimacy of the demands made by African-American student activists at Virginia Commonwealth University last week, I asked myself whether differential graduation rates between different race/ethnicities might be playing a role in the frustration experienced by the student militants. The answer is, probably not. What I found instead was an upbeat story, which, though a few years old, reflects well upon the VCU administration — and, to my mind, represents exactly the kind of policy the university ought to be pursuing.

A pair of reports issued by The Education Trust in 2012 found that VCU had eliminated the graduation gap between African-American and white students between 2004 and 2010, raising the black graduation rate from 34.5% to 49.8%. VCU ranked 16th nationally on the list of “Top 25 Gainers in African-American Student Graduation Rates among Public Institutions,” according to a report summary prepared by the VCU news office. Results improved for Hispanic students as well.

The key to success? VCU’s University College, a program that prepares entering students for college-level work.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

“Our Focused Inquiry Program helps new students experience a college curriculum in a very short time,” said Joseph Marolla, vice provost for instruction and student success. From the article:

The Focused Inquiry I and II courses are the central component of the University College curriculum. Those courses target oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, the development of quantitative abilities, information retrieval and evaluation and collaborative work.

Class sizes are limited to 22 students. Marolla said the 43 faculty members teaching at University College are critical to the success of the program and its students.

Here is a program with 43 faculty members — an expensive commitment — geared to help insufficiently prepared students achieve success at the university.

This strikes me as money well spent. VCU’s proper priority is providing African-American students the academic support that allows them to complete their graduation requirements.  It also strikes me that anyone interested in improving the prospects of African-Americans in Virginia should be focusing on substantive issues like on-time graduation instead of politically potent but ultimately trivial issues such as those articulated by the VCU student protesters.

What we’re seeing played out in the modern American campus is a reprise of the old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago. Where should African-Americans focus their energy: upon education and self-improvement or advancing a civil rights agenda? Du Bois won that debate, resulting in sweeping and much-needed civil rights reforms in the 1960s. Economic gains for poor African-Americans since then have been limited, but African-American political and thought leaders have shown relatively little interest in revisiting core assumptions in light of new conditions. White micro-aggressions and insufficient support for campus cultural institutions aren’t what’s holding back African-Americans today, either at VCU or society at large. Low graduation rates in high school and college are.

As PBS summarizes his thinking, Washington seems more relevant than ever: “He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.” That assessment may or may not have been valid in the 19th century when virulent racism was still prevalent, but it may be the best path forward for African-Americans in the 21st century when only vestiges of racism survive.

VCU’s African-American students need to ask themselves which will benefit them most: more self improvement and educational achievement or the cultivation of resentment and grievance over symbolic issues.

How Does Virginia’s Most Diverse, Liberal University Manage to Alienate African-Americans?


by James A. Bacon

Following up on our conversation about the demands made by black Virginia Commonwealth University students, I stumbled across this data compiled by the college ranking website. I was startled to find that the VCU student body ranked itself as the most liberal of any college or university in Virginia — and the 88th most liberal among the 880 colleges surveyed. VCU also got the highest score for diversity of any Virginia institution (tied with Marymount University).

African-American students invaded the VCU president’s office Thursday and issued demands for more African-American professors, more funding for African-American cultural programs, and implementation of a “cultural competency” course for all students. VCU President Michael Rao engaged in a respectful, two-hour dialogue with the protesters.

I find it fascinating that this surge of unrest by African-American students — fueled, they say, by their alienation from campus life — occurred on the campus that is the most diverse and the most liberal of any university in Virginia. (Read here the methodology behind’s survey, and how it included only those institutions with statistically meaningful results.)

One is prompted by these numbers to ask where the feelings of alienation come from.

Can VCU be said, by any objective measure, to be a hostile or even an indifferent place for minority students when the university rates an “A” for diversity? That is hard to swallow.’s diversity rating gives 20% weight to the percentage of international students, 20% to racial diversity of the student body, 20% to student survey characterizations of the institution, 15% to the percentage of out-of-state students, 10% to faculty diversity, and smaller percentages to gender and socio-economic diversity. (See the methodology here.) Whatever flaws VCU may have, it cannot be said that the university administration lacks a commitment to diversity.

Can it be said that African-American students feel excluded by other members of the student body — that they are marginalized by other students’ racist attitudes? One reason to suspect otherwise is the fact that only half the student body (51%) is white and nearly one-fifth (18%) of the student body is African-American, with significant percentages of Asians and Hispanics. Not only are whites less predominant than at other college campuses, those whites likely are more liberal minded than white students generally. Unless we accept the proposition that self-professed white liberals are closet racists, this explanation does not hold water. (Caveat: We have to be careful drawing hard-and-fast conclusions about student attitudes given the modest size of the survey samples and the inevitable margin for error.)

I would propose a different explanation: that the alienation expressed by a relatively small number of African-American students at VCU — about 30, who may or may not be representative of the larger African-American student body — stems not from VCU’s insufficient commitment to diversity or the racist attitudes of a non-dominant white student body, but the ideology of victimization and grievance that is intrinsic to liberalism in the ivory tower. African-American students at VCU — or at least the students participating in the protest — feel alienated because the peculiar form of liberalism that prevails on college campuses fosters alienation. Fifty years of failed liberal policies have done nothing to lessen the breadth or intensity of African-American poverty in America, but rather than admit the unintended consequences of social engineering, liberals in academia have doubled down on the racism paradigm. Thus, they seize upon ever more subtle manifestations of racism, as evidenced by the recent distress over “micro-aggressions” on college campuses.

Of course, liberals will take issue with my analysis. If past is prologue, some will insinuate that I am racist for criticizing the liberal paradigm — in other words, I’ll be tarred with the “R” word not because I am antagonistic in any way toward African-Americans but because I entertain different ideas of how to bring them into the mainstream of American society. My deeply held hope is that America one day can become a country where racism disappears, where the historic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are overcome, and where every child has an opportunity to succeed regardless of the color of his or her skin. I just don’t think we get closer to those goals by cultivating victimization and grievance. As long as universities continue to do so, they will remain reservoirs of African-American discontent.

Black Students Issue Demands to VCU

Black VCU students talking to President Michael Rao. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Black VCU students talking to President Michael Rao. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

With the occupation of the Virginia Commonwealth University president’s office by an estimated 30 African-American students yesterday, the national politics of racial polarization has come to Richmond. Expressing solidarity with the black students at the University of Missouri, the black VCU students say they feel alienated from campus life and abandoned by the university. Given the black anger sweeping the nation, it was just a matter of time.

Race relations are worse now than any time I can remember since the race riots of the ’60s and ’70s. The militancy of the “Black Lives Matter” movement has given rise to a scary backlash by white hate groups, as highlighted by the South Carolina church bombing and the arrest yesterday of two white Richmond-area men for plotting to shoot up or bomb synagogues or black churches. The inflammatory words and actions of one extreme justifies the inflammatory words and actions of the other. The difference is that white extremist groups remain despised and marginalized in our society, as they should be, while the “Black Lives Matter” movement and its offshoots has demonstrated that it can dethrone university presidents.

Because broad sectors of our society, especially our intellectual elites, confer legitimacy upon black militants like VCU’s student activists — giving sympathetic play to their demands in a way they never would for alienated whites — it is only reasonable to subject the militants’ demands to critical scrutiny.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the VCU students expressed three broad sets of demands: (1) They want to double the percentage of black professors at VCU by 2017, (2) they want more funding for cultural organizations and events on campus, and (3) they want VCU to create a “cultural competency” course, which all students must attend. Let’s deal with those one by one.

More black professors. Fifteen percent of the VCU student body is black, while VCU says that only five percent of the professors are black. Students “say it’s often difficult for them to deal with educators who don’t understand their cultural concerns or the experience driving their thoughts and world view.” VCU, they insist, needs to double the percentage of African-American faculty within two years.

The Chinese, Korean and Middle Eastern students at VCU don’t seem to have a problem with the faculty’s cultural experience different from their own, but that’s a side issue. There is a very practical problem with the students’ demand: There are not enough black professors to go around. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, blacks comprised only six percent of full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions in 2013. Granted, that’s one percentage point more than at VCU, so it’s possible that VCU could hire more black faculty. But raising the percentage to 10% is all but impossible. Making the job even harder for VCU is the fact that the scarcity value of black professors gives them a real premium in the academic marketplace, meaning that more prestigious schools with greater resources are likely to outbid VCU.

Accomplishing the goal within two years is literally impossible, even if VCU could achieve the goal demanded by students of ensuring that at least one of three candidates interviewing for a faculty position is black. While it’s true that 7% of PhDs awarded in the United States these days (based upon 2007 data published by the Survey of Earned Doctorates Fact Sheet) goes to to blacks, the distribution of degrees is highly unbalanced: 38.4% of all black doctoral recipients earned a degree in education (double the average for whites), which suggests that VCU will have no trouble making or exceeding its quota for education school professors. But much smaller percentages earned degrees in engineering and the hard sciences, meaning it will be nearly impossible for VCU to consider black candidates for certain fields.

Bottom line: The under-representation of blacks in VCU’s faculty does not reflect “institutional racism” or “white privilege” but the paucity of African-American PhDs. The paucity of African-American PhDs does not represent discrimination against African-Americans in higher ed, a bastion of liberalism and politically correct thinking, but the lower percentage of African-Americans graduating from high school capable of doing PhD-level work.

More funding for cultural organizations. The activists say there is “no effort being made to foster a community for black students.”

Really? VCU’s website lists 621 student organizations, including these:

African & American Student Empowerment Project
Association of Black Social Workers
Black Art Student Empowerment
Black Awakening Choir
Black Graduate Student Association
Black Ice (hip hop dance group)
Black Student Law Association (BLSA)
Minority Legal Students of BLSA
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Association of Black Accountants
National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice
National Society of Black Engineers

And that doesn’t include the cultural organizations for African students generally, and Ethiopians, Sudanese and Eritrean students specifically.

VCU has no student organizations based on white racial/ethnic identity. I presume that organizations like the Ukelele Club, the Car Club and the Tae Kwon Do Club are open to all, regardless of racial/ethnic affiliation. If there aren’t enough options among the 621 organizations listed to plug into university life, there is nothing to prevent African-American students from starting new organizations, registering with the university, and applying for student government funds like every other organization does. What’s the problem here? Why is it someone else’s responsibility, and not that of the students themselves, to create the kind of community they want? Continue reading

More Meaningless Numbers from Virginia Educrats

bogus_numbersby James A. Bacon

In a story that generated front-page headlines, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday a “significant increase” in the number of Virginia public schools earning accreditation in 2015. The number of fully accredited schools increased by 10 percentage points to 78%.

“Offering every Virginia student a world class education in a public school is at the very foundation of our efforts to build a new Virginia economy,” the governor said. “This year’s strong progress is a reflection of the dedicated work of educators, parents and communities and a clear sign that the reforms we have put into place are working.”

“Getting challenged schools the resources they need to ensure student success is one of the most important steps we can take to improve our Commonwealth’s education system,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. “Every school that earned full accreditation this year is another school that is better preparing its students for a lifetime of success.”

O Frabjous day! Calooh! Callay! Maybe the educational establishment has finally figured out how to turn around Virginia’s ailing public schools! Maybe there is hope for the future!

Or maybe not. The press release was honest enough to acknowledge the following: “The 2014-2015 school year was the first during which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on expedited retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test.”

In other words, any comparison between 2015 results and 2014 results is likening apples to oranges.

What the press release does not tell us is how many schools this adjustment pushed over the minimum accreditation level. (“Students must achieve adjusted pass rates of at least 75 percent on English reading and writing SOL tests, and of at least 70 percent on assessments in mathematics, science and history.”) Four points on a 1-100 scale is not insignificant. Moreover, that four points is an average. It is possible, indeed probable, that the “expedited retakes” proved to be a bigger factor in improving test scores for poorly performing schools, where more students needed to retake the tests, than for strong performers.

Among the crucial data not included in the press release was the number of schools that would have been accredited had the old policy remained in place. The Virginia Department of Education did not provide the data for citizens to conduct their own analysis or draw their own conclusions.

John Butcher has been illuminating VDOE statistical prestidigitations far longer than I. As he has written on his blog, Cranky’s Blog:

The moving target moves; and having moved,
Moves on:  nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to give an honest answer
Nor all thy tears wash away the bureaucrats’ obfuscation.

The manipulation of data is insulting. And who suffers the most from this statistical sleight of hand? Children, disproportionately from poor, African-American households, who are consigned to schools with no effective accountability, that’s who. Just another example of how the bureaucratic, statist status quo works to oppress poor people of color in Virginia. If you think there’s such a thing as “institutional racism” in this country, this is it.

Update: Cranky calculates the impact of other “adjustments” VDOE makes to the data for students with limited English proficiency and for students who have recently transferred into a Virginia public school. On the math tests, the adjustments had the felicitous effect of increasing the number of schools achieving the 70% pass rate from 1,519 to 1,627, or six percentage points.

Addressing the Racial Divide in School Performance

lynchburg_city_schoolsby James A. Bacon

Race is a bigger indicator of success than economic status in Lynchburg city schools, asserted Jay McClain, assistant superintendent for instruction, at a school board retreat yesterday. Even when controlling for economic disadvantage, white students show pass rates about 20 points higher than black students, he said, as reported by the Lynchburg News & Advance.

“This is really, really important information. People have often tried to use … poverty as a proxy for race, like saying the reason why there are racial differences is because of poverty, and therefore ignoring the importance of race,” school board member Regina Dolan-Sewell said. “And you’ve got the numbers right here saying … poverty matters, but race matters separate from poverty.”

“It’s not just poverty. Poverty’s huge, but this is so clear that it’s not just poverty, that…we are systemically funneling our children of color in a different direction,” said board member Jenny Poore. “You’re not guilty because you acknowledge it. … But if you don’t pay attention when you see a chart like this, then yeah, you are guilty.”

Sadly, Lynchburg is not an outlier. With a handful of minor exceptions, the phenomenon applies across the state. No one likes these statistics. All Virginians want to live in a society that gives every kid, regardless of background, a fair shot at succeeding in life. Broadly speaking, the questions are: What do we make of the racial disparity? And what do we do about it? Of the two questions, the first is the more important. Until we have an accurate diagnosis of why racial differences in school performance persist, we cannot hope to devise appropriate prescriptions.

No one disputes that performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rate at Virginia schools is heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of the families the students come from. Students from affluent backgrounds (as measured by their enrollment in free meals programs) tend to perform significantly better than their disadvantaged peers. Disadvantaged students, whose lives are in flux due to dysfunctional family situations, have an up-hill struggle for obvious reasons. But socio-economic status explains only half (in every rough terms) of the variability.

What other factors might create the racial disparity in educational performance? That’s where it gets tricky. The discussion quickly polarizes around liberal and conservative ideological views; partisan narratives trump rational debate. I will try to be as objective as I can. Here are some commonly touted explanations explaining the difference in performance between blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians:

  • Culture matters. Asian students consistently out-perform all other ethnic/racial groups, even when adjusted for socio-economic status, suggesting that something about Asian culture (the “tiger mom” phenomenon, perhaps) is the differentiating factor. Likewise, it can be argued, African-Americans have unique cultural attributes arising from a history of slavery, segregation, lingering discrimination in the post-segregation era, disproportionate exposure to the corrosive effects of the welfare state, disproportionate family breakdown, an assertion of black cultural identity, embrace of a culture of victimization, and concomitant rejection of “white” norms such as the emphasis on academic achievement.
  • Institutional racism. While overt racism has largely gone underground, residual racism and “white privilege” persist in America’s institutional structures and subtle cultural stereotypes. Differences in academic performance can be attributed to such factors, say, as the fact that African-American students are disproportionately likely to be punished for school infractions, or the fact that black youth are disproportionately likely to be arrested for victimless crimes such as drug possession. Negative stereotypes may influence even well-meaning teachers to treat African-American students differently from their white and Asian peers.
  • Better schools. A variant of the institutional racism explanation, this theory says that predominantly white schools have better principals and more seasoned teachers than predominantly African-American schools. The better teachers and administrators gravitate toward schools with students who pose fewer disciplinary problems, with the result that students of those schools benefit from superior instruction. Because those school populations are disproportionately white and Asian, those groups benefit from this trend.

The evidence is pretty persuasive that inspired teachers and administrators can make a difference. Insofar as the racial/ethnic gap in school performance can be attributed to school-related factors, improving the quality of instruction at black-majority schools is an appropriate focus of public policy. The question is how do we keep the better teachers and administrators in schools — particularly middle schools and high schools — where students are frequently disruptive, sometimes violent and often less receptive to learning? Do we pay teachers more? Do we open up the profession to less-credentialed teachers to apply? Do we weed out poor teachers more aggressively? Do we create better teaching conditions by enforcing stricter discipline and/or addressing the emotional needs of disruptive students? There are lots of theories, but nobody knows the answer. The optimum mix of policies is unlikely to come from a top-down solution devised by the educratic elite. It’s likely to bubble from the bottom-up as the result of widespread experimentation. Continue reading

The Assimilation of Hispanics in Virginia

Source: WalletHub

by James A. Bacon

WalletHub strikes again, this time compiling an ingenious set of statistics to measure Hispanic assimilation in American culture. One surprising finding (surprising to me, at least) is that Virginia ranks 8th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the degree to which Hispanics are assimilated, as gauged by a mix of cultural, educational and economic metrics.

Virginia stands out for the “economic” assimilation of Hispanics, ranking No. 2 in the country. WalletHub measures economic assimilation by earned income, labor force participation, unemployment and poverty rates, and home and business ownership rates.

The Old Dominion ranks 17th nationally by cultural and civic affiliation, which reflects English language proficiency, the percentage of foreign-born Hispanics who are naturalized citizens, veteran status, and voter engagement.

But the state ranks only 23rd nationally for educational assimilation, a ranking that incorporates the percentage of Hispanics who graduated from high school and college, NAEP scores, ACT scores and SAT scores.

Vermont has the highest overall assimilation ranking in the country, and West Virginia the second highest. In Vermont, Hispanics comprised only 1.6% of the population in 2012, and only 1.3% in West Virginia. So, I wondered, was the assimilation rate mainly a function of the Hispanic percentage of the population? It stands to reason that the pressures to assimilate are much higher in communities where Hispanics are a tiny minority than where they can form their own communities and preserve their culture.

So, I ran a correlation analysis of each state’s WalletHub rank with the percentage of Hispanics in each state’s population. I was surprised to see how weak the correlation was:


The R² is only 0.0933, meaning that less than 10% of the variation in assimilation by state can be explained by the size of the Hispanic population within that state. For what it’s worth, Virginia (the red diamond) has a much better rank (closer to 1) than would be predicted by the percentage of Hispanics in its population. But other variables are probably far more important.

One variable worth exploring would be country of origin. Florida ranks high in Hispanic assimilation (6th highest in the country) even though Hispanics accounted 23% of the population in 2012. That probably can be explained by the large number of Cubans, many of whom were educated when they emigrated to the United States. Similarly, Puerto Ricans emigrating to the United States have a different profile than Mexicans, Central Americans, Brazilians and Venezuelans.

Another possibility is the diversity of countries of origins. In California, for example, the Hispanic population is largely Mexican. Mexicans in the Golden State bond with one another and form culture-perpetuating communities more easily than can, say, a mix of Cubans, Brazilians and Ecuadorans.

Of course, my operating assumption is that assimilation is a good thing. I want to see Hispanics (well, the ones who came here legally) move into the cultural, economic and political mainstream. Not everyone shares that goal. Some Hispanics are militant about preserving their cultural identity, as is their right. Also, the ideology of “cultural diversity” looks upon assimilation as a form of cultural imperialism. Some people want to keep Americans divided by race and ethnicity for the purpose of political exploitation.

However it happened, Hispanics appear to be assimilating reasonably well in Virginia.