Reporters should stop caricaturing conservatives on race

Getty Images/Mihajlo Maricic

Editor’s note: Last week, at the University of Southern California, the annual Education Writers Association conference kicked off with a speech by USC professor Shaun Harper on “Big Ideas on Equity, Race, and Inclusion in Education.” That was followed by a panel on the same topic featuring Dr. Harper, Estela Bensimon, Pedro Noguera, and the Fordham Institute’s Michael J. Petrilli, moderated by Inside Higher Ed’s Greg Toppo. These were Petrilli’s comments as prepared.

Shaun's comments were well said, though you won't be surprised to know that I disagree with many of his arguments. I'm happy to get into that, as Greg sees fit.

But first I want to focus my comments on you, the reporters.

We all know that this is a difficult time to talk about issues of race and class in this country, thanks to the extreme polarization and division, including on this issue. Of course, President Trump doesn't make it any easier, as he shows no interest in bringing us together or bridging divides. In fact, he seems intent on making the divides even larger, with his awful race-mongering at his rallies and in social media, and with many of the actions his administration is taking. This is why I was a Never Trumper, and why I left the Republican Party after Charlottesville.

But the rest of us shouldn't play his game. And especially when discussing these highly fraught issues around race, we should work extra hard to find common ground, and find solutions.

It's my belief that the overwhelming majority of Americans, and the overwhelming majority of educators, are sympathetic to the concerns Shaun discussed. It disturbs us that so many kids of color continue to face unfair barriers in their educations and in their lives, and we want to do something about it.

But we can't have productive conversations if those conversations are quickly shut down. And that's what I see too often: conversations on race shut down if those of us on the right express disagreement with the views of folks on the left. If we say, for example, that we agree that racism and racial bias are real, and are factors in the gaps and disparities we see, but we don't think they are the only factor, that other factors matter, too, including families, and personal responsibility, and student behavior—if we say these things that are perfectly reasonable, too many times we are called racists. We are thrown in with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. 

And reporters are sometimes complicit. I see this in the debate around discipline disparities. We are all alarmed by the fact that African American students are three times as likely to be suspended as their white peers. We are open to finding solutions to that problem.

But in the press we are caricatured. Civil rights groups and other progressives think the disparities are being driven by racism and racial bias. The conservative view is not that racism or racial bias aren't factors, or don't exist. Anyone who has studied American history, slavery, Jim Crow, understands the racist history of this country. And anyone who understands human nature and cognition knows that implicit bias is a real thing, and something we all have to be on guard against in our own lives. Of course racism and racial bias are part of the story.

The conservative position, though, is that it's not the entire story. When you go and look at the best evidence—the most rigorous studies and surveys of students themselves—it is undeniable that the other big part of the story is student behavior. Some groups of students misbehave in school more frequently than others: African Americans more than white students, white students more than Asian American students, and so forth. This is not because of their race, but almost surely because of various risk factors that are connected to student misbehavior, all of them related to poverty.

African American kids are three times as likely as white students to grow up in poverty, even more likely to grow up in deep poverty, three times more likely to grow up without a dad in the home, much more likely to be exposed to lead poisoning, more likely to be in the child welfare system, and on and on and on. This is a tragic state of affairs, and much of it is the legacy of racism. But we can't wish it away.

And it matters for discipline policy because, if you expect to reach perfect parity in suspensions, but student behavior varies, you are telling educators to stop holding certain kids to high expectations. And that's not good for the kids, and it's certainly not good for their peers, or for a positive school climate. And it also paints educators as the problem, when the truth is much more complicated.

And yet when I've argued that student behavior is part of the issue, that it varies by race, not because of race, but because of these other factors, people in this room have called me a racist. Can we stop doing that?

So again, to the reporters, my plea is this: On issues of race, but really all issues, please check your own biases, including ideological and political biases. When your editors tell you to include the conservative point of view, please work hard to really understand it. Don't caricature it. Don't make it sound like conservatives are denying racism and racial bias in the same way some deny climate change. These issues are complicated and complex—and your readers deserve to see them portrayed that way.

 
 
Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.