Higher Education and "Identity Politics"


Since it first appeared in the New York Times a week ago, I’ve been meaning to write something in response to Princeton professor Mark Lilla’s op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  But I’ve been traveling and had to put off the task, hoping along the way to write something more expanded about this theme, which has been taken up by others.  But yesterday Chris Newfield posted the piece below on his blog, “Remaking the University.”  It says much of what I wanted to say and some insightful things I hadn’t thought of, even if I might offer some small caveats here and there.  I still may post more on this topic, but for now I’ll let Chris’s terrific piece speak for me and repost it here.

As Trump Privatizes Education, Dumping Identity Studies is the Worst Possible Advice

By Christopher Newfield

It feels a little silly to flog Mark Lilla’s misinformed and retrograde attack on “identity liberalism” while Donald J. Trump appoints wrecking crews to one federal position after another. Jefferson Sessions will wreck Justice’s civil rights division. Steve Bannon will wreck basic racial neutrality in White House strategy. Betsy DeVos will wreck public education across the country (network map courtesy of Veterans Today). Mr. Trump’s one constructive campaign promise, to rebuild infrastructure, is structured as a privatization play in which investors will get equity for 18 cents on the dollar, with public subsidies supplying the rest. Mr. Trump is a master of other people’s money, public as well as private, and the public is going to pay.

Colleges and universities are going to have to fight to keep disruption from meaning destruction. They will need to rebuild democratic higher ed to outflank Trumpian appeals to the working classes. Here’s where we come to the problem with Prof. Lilla’s piece: he is recycling the late 1980s color-blind critique of multiculturalism that kept the Clinton-era Democrats from thinking clearly about race or class, and from connecting race and class as they actually are.

First, there’s the backward cultural politics of this Times-powered slam of alleged Identitude. Prof. Lilla attacks Hillary Clinton for excessive mentioning of various groups of people of color, and then traces the problem to schools.

The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.

Each part of this statement is wrong: that today’s progressive students are more narcissistic than conservative students or than their parents (no evidence is offered, so I’ll go with my contravening 30 years of experience); that diversity is a fixation that isolates students (it actually puts them in dialogue with others); that this causes racial narcissism (it actually challenges it); that college students and staff don’t care about regular Americans (the vast majority at public colleges are regular Americans).

The real problem, revealed for the umpteenth time by this presidential campaign, is not diversity but its absence. Racial and cultural segregation cause the crises of understanding in national politics, not diversity programs designed to overcome it. Ethnic and gender studies requirements often bring the first shattering of the natural narcissism of early life in segregated America. Confirming this point, Dan Berrett offered a primer on existing college diversity practices that features the related themes of pre-college segregation, college-based “group dialogue,” and the overcoming of “white fragility” to create stronger cross-racial bonds. One could also look up virtually any race-conscious student support service, like my campus’s Equal Opportunity Program, to see functions like “holistic counseling” focused on developing the psychological resources essential to academic success. A New York Times regular like Mark Lilla might be familiar with “Who Gets to Graduate?” Paul Tough’s superb account of a particularly successful diversity-based support program at the University of Texas at Austin that elevates completion rates among at-risk students. Such programs help students deal with frequent poverty, hunger, subtle as well as overt discrimination, and unfamiliar forms of competition. I could also go on about the cognitive literature that shows the direct connection between identity-conscious instruction and a student’s intellectual development. I could do the same for the way breadth requirements in the standard college curriculum aim to instill the inclusive national identity that Prof. Lilla says he wants. Diversity programs are higher ed’s attempt to take the country’s socially segmented and unequally educated population and maximize the share that stays in college once it gets there. His attack on diversity programs as such is an attack on a core precondition of democratic higher ed.

Of course Prof. Lilla would be offended by any suggestion that he doesn’t support democratic higher education. I’m sure he supports educational democracy as an abstract concept. But his whole piece argues against a crucial means of achieving it, which is a parity among social identities so that members of every group can participate on equal footing. We don’t have anything close to parity among races or any other social group. The class problem is dramatic. Here is a chart of bachelors degree attainment by age 24 for dependent students, broken out by income quartile (courtesy of a Pell Institute report).

Attainment is heavily influenced by income. The bottom half of the US population has made next to no progress in B.A. attainment over 50 years. There’s a lot to say about the roots of this bipartisan failure (see for example Stage 5 of the decline cycle in The Great Mistake, or Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price), but in the end there’s no excuse for policy toleration of this class bias. The obvious takeaways are, (1) working class and ex-middle class voters are right to think that the higher ed system isn’t doing much for them. And (2), the de facto exclusion of lower-income students is a much bigger problem for college’s reputation than are diversity programs.

Writers like Prof. Lilla have encouraged people to think that this class problem persists because the race problem is being excessively featured. In practice, this would have to mean that low-income whites aren’t going to college because the government has put students of color at the head of the line. This claim also has no basis in fact. To the contrary, as college participation has increased in recent years, most of the new white students go to selective colleges with strong graduation rates, and most of the new brown and black students go to open access colleges with weak graduation rates. This was the core finding of a Georgetown University report on racial disparity in college completion. Endowed with the explicit title, “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege,” its has a graphic that summarizes the racial pattern.

Enrollment growth among students of color has largely gone to the colleges that simply don’t have the per-student resources to support high levels of completion. In short, the United States does not have a class problem because it has oversolved its race problem. It has a class problem and a race problem, and we need to be able to talk about both of them, on their own terms and in their interaction.

Okay, so Prof. Lilla’s guns are pointed in the wrong direction, at race-conscious higher ed rather than at segregationist and class-biased public policy. But the ideas he recycles aren’t responsible for re-segregation and inequality, are they? Yes, historically they actually are. This is where we have to return to the dawn of Clintonism in the late 1980s. Prof. Lilla has just rehashed a critique of multiculturalism that, to repeat, made New Democrats incapable of dealing with either racism or the economic inequality that non-college voters are rightly upset about.

The basic stakes were whether whites were going to demand that post-1960s ethnic groups assimilate to a common culture that whites defined, or, on the other hand, move toward a polycentric society in which fundamental values would be achieved through negotiation within shared legal ground rules. For figures like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump, this wasn’t even a legitimate question: of course the American core was European and all cultural groups would automatically conform. Civil rights movements famously dissented from this kind of white ethno-nationalism. Less famously, so did many educators who worked in racially diverse classrooms. For example, in 1974, Manuel Ramirez III and Alfredo Casañeda published Cultural Democracy, Bicognitive Development, and Education, in which they argued for pluralist overlap and communication rather than white-core assimilation. Writing in the Journal of Teacher Education three years later, Arturo Pacheco, in “Cultural Pluralism: A Philosophical Analysis,” argued for a notion of cultural pluralism in which social groups remained independent and at the same time interdependent segments of society. The practical motivation was that students whose social worlds were not seen as legitimate by their school culture did not do well in school. In the anti-assimilationist pluralism that later came to be associated with multiculturalism, a group like Mexican Americans could retain cultural autonomy within a politically-unified nation-state. The benefit was that Americanness would no longer be defined as whiteness (though Toni Morrison just pointed out that it still is). The result would be a rough cultural equality that would allow people from every ethnic or racial group to live with others on equal footing.

Enter Clintonism, which came to power in the midst of a backlash against multicultural equality. It formed itself as a third way on racial and economic policy. It rested on liberal white nationalism. Democratic centrist godfather Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had written The Disuniting of America (1991) to demand minority-group assimilation to a culturally superior white European core. A modified position appeared in the work of the historian Gary Nash and of eduction scholar Diane Ravitch, among others, who rejected white cultural supremacism but demanded a strong common framework that generated assimilation lite. Writing a few years later, Avery Gordon and I called the Schlesinger position “cultural supremacism” and the Nash-Ravitch position “cultural unionism.” The crucial compromise of the latter was that it offered flexible tolerance while still rejecting cultural parity or equality, and insisting instead on unity and shared foundations. The unionists trained their fire on calls for cultural autonomy (like Afrocentrism) that seemed to them to reject their kinder, gentler version of assimilation to an implicitly rather than aggressively white common culture.

Cultural unionism is more or less Prof. Lilla’s position today. While opposing Trumpian assumptions that immigrants and racial groups must conform to a heartland white American culture, and while hiding the exact degree of assimilation required, he and his forebears are upset about diversity first and inequality much later, if ever. He ignores actually existing racial inequality in his piece, and also the university’s role in ignoring class inequality. (Prof. Ravitch changed her position years ago).

Clintonism adopted this compromise formation, one that denied it was a white racial ideology. It entrenched the post-civil rights era, where the debate was always whether equal racial opportunity had gone too far. Bill Clinton came to power with a cultural politics that included trashing rapper Sister Soulja, executing the mentally disabled African American prisoner Ricky Ray Rector, and, once in office, dumping his nominee for head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, Lani Guinier, when she was ludicrously labeled a “quota queen” by the Wall Street Journal, then ending welfare as we know it, dramatically increasing incarceration in all its racial disproportions, and so on. The Clintons sidelined Great Society and civil rights goals, which came back to haunt Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Clintonian centrism was anti-egalitarian on race and culture–and also on class. Its soft assimilationism or liberal white nationalism would allow civil society to decide racial outcomes. In practice, this meant market forces would decide. Here is where we get to the link between racial and class inequality. The undermining of the civil rights agenda, the embrace of post-civil rights, took the heat off an economic egalitarian agenda. A good example is the work of the Clintonite political economist Robert Reich, who informed the world in his bestselling The Work of Nations (1991) that in the knowledge economy, blue collar workers are obsolete. Only cognitive workers have tradeable skills. Prof. Reich comes very close to saying that blue-collar workers, which he described as formerly valued for their ability to do the same thing over and over, have no meaningful skills at all. Stripped of craft dignity as well as economic value, industrial blue-collar workers were turned by Clintonism into an economic loser class that would need government attention but not make a contribution to the New Economy. Clintonism offered (reduced) unemployment benefits and job retraining. The latter helped spoil the reputation of further learning by offering neither actual work nor liberal-arts style respect for the student as thinker.

Clintonism interpreted industrial blue-collar America, a big chunk of Donald J. Trump’s base, as economic deplorables. Their booby prize was the kind of dumbed-down adult education that would logically render them cynical about higher ed overall. Clintonism relegated the non-college population to second class status, elevating our technology lords and ladies into a new aristocracy of STEM degrees, a tiered system recently ratified yet again by the Democrat-in-chief, Barack Obama, when, in editing the November issue of Wired, he defined global challenges such that only advanced technologists are relevant to solving them.

In short, Clintonism yoked economic and racial disparity. Its commitment to both was structural–college over non-college workers, STEM over non-STEM, market over government, liberal white nationalism over multiculturalism. There’s no surprise that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama was able to break Donald J. Trump’s absurd bear hug of the non-college population: 25 years later, they have no street cred to counter Mr. Trump’s very direct promises to reverse deindustrialization, not with further education, but with state power.

Clintonism long ago posed a terrible challenge to colleges and universities: will colleges create and sustain deep ties to those who were being relegated to the economic ash heap, on the basis, for starters, of the old land-grant promise to provide their communities with any knowledge they needed to advance? Unfortunately for both universities and society, the answer was no. From the vantage of red-state America, they surfed the knowledge economy wave, milked the tech billionaires for donations, built stadium skyboxes for wealthy sports fans, and told the children of the non-college deplorables that they’d better get their behinds to a university, the more selective the better--that is, the more likely not to have anyone like them or their families or their whole doomed class, the better.

From the point of view of class equity, this was an epic screw-up. Dropping the public good vision of egalitarian inclusion, they raised prices, stressed return on college investment, changed and burdened the student experience, shifted expenditures to activities with possible future profits, and let the post-industrial working class play catch up–if they could somehow turn themselves into that completely different type of person known as the knowledge worker. The irony is that universities were slammed for helping students of color instead of whites when, in terms of completion and degree quality, they weren’t really doing that either. The whole policy practice has been a great mistake.

The mistake was clearly identified by race-conscious thinking decades ago, and could have been avoided. In The Ethnic Myth (1989), Stephen Steinberg wrote,

If there is an iron law of ethnicity, it is that when ethnic groups are found in a hierarchy of power, wealth, and status, then conflict is inescapable. However, where there is social, economic, and political parity among the constituent groups, ethnic conflict, when it occurs, tends to be at a low level and rarely spills over into violence. (170)

In a phrase: No Equity, No Peace. And this is the Clintonist legacy that Mark Lilla’s piece suppresses and that Donald J. Trump exploits.

The public university will now be fighting hardcore opponents like it hasn’t seen in years. It can only do this if it drops the endless self-questioning about whether diversity is racism and whether education disrespects white people. These debates are not only a distraction–they create weakness at a fatal time. The public university can either stand for racial and economic parity as a unified project, or it can continue its decline.

5 thoughts on “Higher Education and "Identity Politics"

  1. here’s a letter I wrote to the NY Times–which chose not to publish it–commenting on the Lilla piece.

    To the Editor,

    Many of Mark Lilla’s points about the limits of so-called Identity politics may be correct (for example that they distract from common experiences such as class that cross the lines of race and gender), but his overall argument misses a crucial point: identity politics is a reaction to, not the cause of the inequalities and discriminations that haunt American society. The great failure of the liberalism he touts is its inability to address those profound divisions. In order to counter discrimination, an aggrieved group has no choice but to point to its experience (it’s “identity”) in order to demand change. Lilla’s solution is to ignore the very source of the problem he just wants to wish away.
    Joan W. Scott

    Joan W. Scott
    Professor Emerita
    School of Social Science
    Institute for Advanced Study
    Princeton NJ 08540

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