Taboo Views on Race and Higher Ed

Willfred Reilly

by James A. Bacon

The reason for the academic under-performance of African-American students in K-12 and college is a matter of contentious debate in the United States. The dominant narrative holds that African-Americans are held back by racism either overt or unconscious. Conversely, some hew to the view that genetic factors such as IQ are to blame. But to Willfred Reilly, a political science professor at Kentucky State University, the answer is neither: It’s the culture.

A single observation disproves both the racism and genetic theories, he says: Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean Islands in the United States are prospering. Says he: “All of these brothers from Africa and the islands do as well as whites do.” 

The culture of Africans and islanders differs from that of many African-Americans. “One of the biggest predictors [in educational outcomes] is how much you study. That’s 70 to 80 percent of it. The other is having a dad at home. If you adjust for hours studied and dads at home, there’s virtually no difference between the races.”

To Reilly’s way of thinking, the genetic view is pernicious. But it’s not terribly influential. By contrast, the view that blames all the problems of African-Americans on white racism — what he calls the Continuing Oppression Narrative (CON) — is far more entrenched and, at this point in time, more dangerous. Policies based on that narrative have unintended consequences that do considerable harm.

I became a fan of Reilly’s last year when I read his book, “Hate Crime Hoax,” in which he argued that a large percentage of U.S. hate crimes are hoaxes. I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing, which is clear, heavily grounded in data, and sensitive to complexity and nuance. Like his hero Thomas Sowell, Reilly appeals to reason and avoids hyperbole. When his new book, “Taboo,” came out I made a point of reading it as well. In that work, he expands upon arguments in his previous book, deemed taboo in our politically correct era, regarding ethnicity and race. He addresses the police “war” on blacks, racial differences in academic performance, white privilege, cultural appropriation, and related topics of the day. I highly recommend it to Bacon’s Rebellion readers.

Reilly was generous enough to submit to an interview, and we discussed a cluster of topics frequently addressed on this blog: race, racism, culture, and education.

The starting point of the conversation was that African-Americans perform poorly on standardized tests, from Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams to SAT scores. The average SAT was around 940 for blacks, 950 for Hispanics, and 1100 for whites (or numbers close to those), he recalls from memory. “Asians kick everyone’s ass at 1180.” Of course those are averages, and averages conceal a lot — such as the fact that children of Jamaican and Nigerian immigrants do as well as whites, and among whites, Southern whites perform worse than whites from, say, the upper Midwest.

The Continuing Oppression Narrative does African-Americans a dis-service by blaming the gap on structural racism, discrimination, and white privilege. In other words, he says, “no matter what you do, the white man is responsible.” If that’s the message pounded into black kids, why should they devote themselves to arduous academic study?

The problem continues at the level of colleges and universities, especially elite institutions, where administrators try to compensate for the disappointing number of African-Americans coming through the K-12 pipeline by practicing affirmative action. The 30 or so top-rated schools will take almost all the African-American students with test scores that remotely qualify them to attend an elite institution, Reilly says. On average, their SAT scores are considerably lower than those of their Asian and white counterparts. Then the next tier of higher-ed institutions has to dig deeper into the SAT pool, and the same thing happens.

“That goes on every level down,” says Reilly. “If Yale is taking in the brothers qualified to go to [the University of] Illinois, Illinois is taking the brothers qualified to go to Western Kentucky, and Western Kentucky is taking the brothers qualified to go to community college.”

As a consequence, African-Americans at all levels find themselves competing against Asians and whites who are better prepared academically than they are. They don’t perform as well in class. They get frustrated. They get resentful. They retreat into their racial cocoons. Most deleterious of all, they drop out at higher rates — usually after racking up thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars in student debt.

“The best thing,” Reilly suggests, “is for all kids to go to the schools they naturally would have gotten into.” Even more heretical, he questions whether so many people, especially African-Americans, should be going to residential four-year colleges at all. “There are a ton of options. If you do a four-year hitch in the Marines or a good union trade school, you’ll be more hirable than graduating from Southwest Alaska State with a degree in English.”

Reilly identified an interesting trend that I, as much as I have written about hire ed, had not noticed. Colleges have dramatically expanded the number of vocational degrees they offer. Things that people once learned how to do on the job — hospitality management, for instance — they can now spend years studying and paying thousands of dollars to learn. The spread of credentialism helps companies by reducing their training costs, and it helps higher-ed institutions by creating a new educational product they can peddle to tuition-paying students.  Students are the losers.

Insofar as the students entering vocational occupations are more likely to be minorities, the educational-industrial complex has created a major barrier to upward social mobility. This is Bacon speaking, not Reilly (although I suspect he would agree): Once you’ve stripped away the lofty rhetoric, higher-ed institutions are organized to extract maximum revenue from students, including minorities, while easing the guilty consciences of the white liberal professors and administrators who benefit most from the extraction of wealth.

The private sector could save a lot of trouble and expense by administering IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) tests to ascertain applicants’ aptitudes. “You don’t need all those credentials,” he says. “I’m not sure you’re getting better people by requiring these degrees.”

Reilly, who teaches at an HBCU (historically black college or university), describes himself as a “moderate conservative.” It’s probably easier for him to maintain his controversial “taboo” views there than at an Ivy League institution. “Historically black colleges don’t tend to be that ‘woke,'” he says. Judging by such cultural markers as military service or church attendance, American blacks are more one of the most conservative groups in the country. Why, then, do they vote so overwhelmingly Democratic?

“Eighty-three percent of black people think that Donald Trump is a racist,” says Reilly. “I really do think that the Democratic Party has a lot invested in that idea being true. If 20 percent of the black vote and 40 percent of the Hispanic vote went to the GOP, that would end the Democratic Party stranglehold.”

In that case, Reilly could be progressives’ worst nightmare. If young African-Americans begin heeding his message, American politics would take on a very different complexion.

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25 responses to “Taboo Views on Race and Higher Ed

  1. Why do they vote democratically? Because white conservatives have tried for centuries to keep them down. Why your obsession with race?

  2. “No serious researcher believes the majority of hate crime reports are false. Even Wilfred Reilly, a political scientist at Kentucky State University and author of “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War,” believes that fewer than 2 out of 10 reported hate crimes are fabricated. Where academics disagree is on just how many hoaxes take place.

    Reilly estimates that as much as 15 percent of the hate crimes reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation are falsified. Another researcher who has closely examined the subject — Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino — puts the hoax rate much lower, at less than half of 1 percent.

    What accounts for the difference? Levin and Reilly diverge on what should be classified as a hoax. Levin, a criminologist, counts hate crimes that are reported to authorities — such as the police or college campus officials — and later are shown to be deliberately falsified.

    Reilly casts a wider net, including in his database various noncriminal incidents that initially generated speculation about hateful motives. He counted cases where there was no hoaxer, such as the toppling of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery outside Philadelphia because of age and recent landscaping, or the discovery of a “noose” on a D.C. construction site that police determined was merely a rope used to move equipment.

  3. It’s best for white people to just go about their business and to ignore or avoid any discussion of race, racism, or the causes. Why? Because any view held by white people is immediately labeled as racist. The minute that name calling is used, the conversation ends.

    Until black people are willing to be honest with themselves about the inability of black people to compete successfully in our society, little or no progress is possible.

    The bottom line is that the key to upward mobility of black people in America depends on the ability of black people to finally understand that they have the power to change their own condition. Only then will they earn the admiration of all others.

    Until then, there is very little can be done. Until then, best to just keep your mouth shut and do what all Americans should do, treat all people with kindness regardless of their self-imposed condition.

    • not really. Blacks vote for White People all the time, right?

      So apparently there are different kinds of white folks – the kind that get called “leftists” that buy into that awful Continuing Oppression Narrative.

      If anyone talked about the “culture” of the Asians, Irish or Italians or Hispanics or Native Americans – in the way they talk about it for blacks – would that be okay? Are we being selective about just one race or culture?

  4. Every time I see one of these tomes, I cringe and wonder what the attraction is. There are a lot of books on the subject including Red Summer – why these books by this author? Why gravitate to this one viewpoint when actual history and facts are more than one man’s personal views? He’s basically cooking up his own data to support his own biases. That’s a book worth reading?

    The fact that a black guy writes this really ignorant twaddle is inexplicable but it sure makes white guys who also like the idea feel good about it. If a known white supremacist wrote the same stuff, and they have and do, you’d not see it extolled and lauded , put a black professors name on it and it’s good!

    The “culture” thing is not a new thought. For decades racists and White Supremacists have referred to blacks as lazy and shiftless and prefer music, soul food and procreation to work and effort Of course, the same racist types go after Jews and Muslims also… Jews are apparently the opposite, they’re successful money grubbers and that also is bad.

    Not sure how “Continuing Oppression Narrative (CON)” folds into the same hate against Jews, Muslims and others but it has a nice ring to it when said to be associated with “leftists” and such.

    In terms of joining the military – After World War I, 380,000 black soldiers returned home – and across the country they were attacked and killed because they were said to be vying for white jobs and asserting their right to buy property and get more education.

    It was called the Red Summer of 1919. (Wiki)

    Apparently those who gravitate toward books like Hate Crime Hoax and Taboo don’t find Red Summer as compelling a read, perhaps because it’s actually real history rather than one man’s personal viewpoint?

    • >>The fact that a black guy writes this really ignorant twaddle is inexplicable but it sure makes white guys who also like the idea feel good about it. If a known white supremacist wrote the same stuff, and they have and do, you’d not see it extolled and lauded , put a black professors name on it and it’s good!>>>

      tu quoque

  5. If you want to read something real by a real African American, try “Trailblazer” by Dorothy B. Gilliam, the first black female reporter ever at The Washington Post. There and at a number of other papers in in the 1950s and 1960s, she covered civil rights in the Deep South — places where the white reporters got to stay at the motels and black reporters had to stay at someone’s homes or at a funeral parlor. Violence galore. It’s a great book and a friend of mine helped edit it.

  6. Thank you for posting this piece on how culture can impact education. I will be reading Reilly’s book and am interested in diverse viewpoints. I can see how culture does have an impact on our lifestyle, eating habits, attitudes, and motivations. I have also witnessed how culture evolves from how groups are historically viewed, historically treated, and how groups respond to different cultures. Historical racism influences how American citizens perceive and trust other Americans today. In my communications with several of our rural VA county supervisors (mostly white male descendants of long established families in the area), I have noted to them how open and gracious they have been in including all public voices in their meetings whenever possible. I stated that I did not note any racism in that process. One supervisor thanked me, and told me that this carefully managed meeting process does not mean that racism does not exist in the county (a bit surprising to hear from him, but a notable point). My study of history and social interaction seems to reveal some real evolution on humanity’s part, giving me some hope, as stated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that government and education have a crucial role to play in keeping a path clear to justice in our society, and how we reach the appropriate balance in striving for justice is often our topic here in this engaging on-going discussion. Thank you for the discussion.

    • Thanks for keeping an open mind. In the end, what matters is what works. We are undergoing a massive social experiment in Virginia schools — more money, more social justice. If those are the key drivers for educational outcomes, then educational outcomes will improve. If the proponents of more money/more social justice are misdiagnosing the problem, however, educational outcomes will not improve. They might even get worse. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about what the effects will be, but nobody knows for certain. We’ll have to wait in see. Hopefully, the results will be unambiguous enough to draw undisputable conclusions.

      • Jim – it’s not JUST Virginia, guy. And it’s not JUST black folks. That’s the problem with your narrative. You keep making this about race, not once, but over and over – it’s a pattern and theme and it’s simply wrong.

        Kids of parents who themselves are not well educated and as a consequence not economically secure – often do not provide the same enabling learning and living environment for their kids to succeed as kids of well-educated parents who are economically better off.

        That’s not a “theory”, it’s proven by actual data and again, it’s about income and education – not race or culture.

        The problem is exacerbated and recurring by the settlement patterns that often are bifurcated by income and wealth which, in turn, affects the quality of the schools that serve those neighborhoods.

        To recognize these factors is not “social justice experiments”.

        You keep impugning public schools for trying to deal with this problem by throwing about words like “leftists” and “social justice” and “massive social experiment” . You condemn them for failing to fix the problem which is indeed widespread because low income and under-educated parents are widespread. Massive resistance is something that did happen to real people in our own lifetimes where we did systematically deny a decent education to people and in doing so, we are still seeing the effects of it, in part, because our neighborhood schools STILL reflect the demographics of the neighborhoods they serve.

        Kids are not born “dumb” nor “lazy” and all are innocent and deserve opportunity to overcome their disadvantaged circumstances they are born into.

        Why keep making this about race and “culture”?

        It just baffles me and disappoints me every time I read another of these tomes that keep recycling wrong-headed beliefs.

  7. Jim, Maybe this story will make my point about educational success and the need for a unique approach for some kids, not label by race but by neighborhood.

    In the early 90’s Univ. of Penn, located in a West Phila. location that had turned into something of a ghetto, was making efforts to understand and find solutions for the problems of the area. A fellow U of PA alum got involved. His solution was to go to an elementary school filled with financially disadvantaged students and create college scholarships for any student in that grade who would study, graduate and be accepted at a college. He agreed to pay the full bill for any student in that class who made the grade.

    What happened? I don’t remember if any child received the free college education, but what shocked my fellow alum was that by the time the kids were in middle school all but a few had seen someone in their family, or in the immediate neighborhood, shot. Living with the daily fear and trauma was more imp0ortant in shaping their lives than the promised few college, and many of the kids gave up along the way.

    So yes … we have a societal obligation to our young people that is not met unless we are willing to look clearly for, and provide, a variety of solutions.

  8. The genius of Malcolm X is that he understood the Black man’s greatest obstacle was his own culture, the core message in most of his speeches.

    • I’d say there is a context problem and some confusion as to the primary thinking of Malcom X.

      What he advocates is that people try to overcome institutional racism – not that it does not exist and the fault lies with the harmed people’s “culture”. He just advocates recognizing the real world – the racist environment they have to live in and to overcome it because it’s not going to get fixed anytime soon – that from his own personal experience:

      ” As a child, Malcolm does very well in school, and he ranks among the top three students in his class. His dreams of becoming a lawyer, however, are blocked by his white teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, who tells him to set his sights more reasonably and pursue a career in carpentry. This marks one of the first times that Malcolm is acutely aware of being discriminated against because of his race, and he quickly drops out of school. More than teaching him subject knowledge, Malcolm’s official school career makes him aware of racism, of how official society represented by public schools both oppresses black people and justifies that oppression through its view of black people as being inferior – a viewpoint that at least for a time Malcolm internalizes.”

    • Malcolm X had a penetrating insight at times. When speaking about liberals and conservatives here is what Malcolm had to say: “One is the wolf, the other is a fox. No matter what, they’ll both eat you.”

      The full speech can be found below. He certainly had a knack for distilling some powerful arguments.

  9. Larry,
    It’s likely you would play devil’s advocate to your mother if she told you she loved you. I suggest you do more than a quick google search to find some pushback.
    Whatever Malcolm’s thinking was, what he said over and over is that blacks need to take responsibility for themselves. That’s attacking a cultural problem.
    Saying they face a cultural problem does not deny any of the other problems they face. Vietnamese boat people came here and were wealthy in a generation. It’s not IQ, And it’s not racism — not any longer–that is slowing down the advancement of blacks. It’s culture.

    • musingsfromjanus says:

      “It’s not IQ, And it’s not racism — not any longer–that is slowing down the advancement of blacks. It’s culture.”

      Thomas Sowell agrees, and demonstrated that from an extensive historical record as well. And of course we are finding the same cultural impacts across the spectrum of all peoples living in the modern age. Those impacts are greatest upon our young who are still developing, cognitively and emotionally, including not least their identity. Thus early on stress and trauma (negative events) play an even greater roll impacting their futures. New research makes this plain.

  10. Interesting story, Jim, and also interesting comments.

    Quick note: Comparing black immigrant wages to average wages of non-immigrants runs into a huge self-selection bias problem. People who immigrate are not average in any sense. They may be higher risk takers, they may be the top performers in their old environment, they may know or feel that they can succeed in this new environment, etc. This is not a controlled experiment, so it is hard (in my opinion) to draw conclusions from immigrant to non-immigrant comparisons without control variables.

  11. Jonathan,
    Unless you would claim that the control groups need to match the skin colors of the compared populations, except one conclusion…that the racism of the general society is not the principal obstacle to advancing in the society.

    Don’t both comparisons share the same general society? Don’t both groups face the same purported racism?

    And as a theorem for research, the major cultural differences are a reverence for family unit, a passionate commitment to educating the children, entrepreneurship (hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, construction,lawn service), draconian savings rates for investment in education and business–to name a few.

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