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The complicated relationship of Economics & Education and how we conflate race & class issues in the United States

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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So even after Affirmative Action, there still weren’t very many Blacks and Mexican students enrolled in selective colleges and universities. Why? Because they didn’t meet the entry standards. That makes sense. But what isn’t thoroughly addressed (in this clip) is the reason why. Professor Lino Graglia admits he is not exactly sure why idea why there is a difference, but he does offer to connect high proportion of Black Kids being raised in Single Parent Homes as being part of the problem. (I can’t explain how frustrating it is to hear another person make out of wedlock births or single-parented homes a Black Problem and point to it as the all-accounting problem with most any disparity affecting African-Americans).

Let’s not get it twisted. It is not about being Black or Brown. It is about being poor and yes single parent (low income) families have one helluva time supporting students high performance in academics.  But we see this across the board, not just in Black Families.  Economically disenfranchised communities house poorer School Districts. The tax base that supports the school is small. There tends to be high unemployment, high use of social services, higher percentage of stressed families. Poorer School Districts provide fewer challenging courses in Math, Science or college preparatory courses like Advancement Placement classes. Poorer School districts struggle to keep standardized test scores up. They struggle to keep students engaged and enrolled. Being poor sucks and in today’s economy kids from inner-cities, rural areas or once-productive factory towns see the path out of poverty as a misty-filmed commercial harder and harder to comprehend.

In fact, this Washington Post piece on Tabitha Ruzzo, a kid from a single parent family, low income, on welfare, lives down the street from projects and all of her other siblings dropped out of school has a story much like the Black kids Professor Graglia describes. But she’s white and her story is amazingly similar to so many kids I know, have known. Hell, she reminds me of me in many ways.  Gaglia references the 200 point median difference in SAT scores of average Black Students to average White Students, and this article also references the 200 point deficit students like Tabitha have and the problems with gaining admission into college. Once again, race and class have been conflated.

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

The resources you have available to you right now directly relate to the opportunities you can take tomorrow or next year. It should be no surprise that there are deleterious effects of growing up poor on kids and families. It accumulates over time and over generations. Debt increases. Bills pile up. People get sick and can’t get treatment. Lots of unfortunate bad sh** seems to happen – all of the time and the good stuff doesn’t seem to happen often enough or the money is gone before you cash your check.  It irks me when folks make judgements or insinuate that an individual’s poverty is somehow inherently connected to his/her intellectual capacity or work ethic.  I get extra irked when someone shuts down a young persons odds before they get a real chance to try.

The economy that’s falling apart in America and this impacts people’s decisions. It is hard as hell to be Self-Actualizing when you’re worried about basic needs. And frankly, you can’t tell me the failing Economy and the failing Public Education system are not connected.  In my lifetime I have seen the dismantling of Labor Unions which provided working class families good paying jobs and the ability to send a child (or two) to college. Coincidentally, Union Members and their the culture of work ethic, activism and responsibility helped create very effective public schools that educated their children. Then there was Reagonomics. The jobs began to disappear, pay was slashed, factories were closed, whole town were shuttered. Public education was changing, too. Arts and science and sports programs were cut — all of the programs that provided blue-collar kids ramps to college were begin closed.

Today, our public education system is a complete and utter mess. Which kids tend to do better (and gain access to select colleges)? Those from more affluent families who either attend private school or well-funded public school districts. Honestly, what chances do the Tabithas and Jonnys have in America right now?  And how is higher education really making room for them at the table?  Admitting students is one thing, but if the system fails to prepare these students for the future, then all that is really happening is the creation and maintenance of an underclass of low-wage workers which gain big corporations sock big profits.

What’s really going on? Listen to the BBC interview again. Did you catch what Gaglia did? When asked by the host, about his likeliness of being less intelligent than a White person of the same age because he is black and from a single parent family Professor Graglia essentially responds to Gary Younge telling him that’s he an exception – not the rule. Seriously?! And this is the kind of mess too many students – black, white and brown – have to deal with.

More fodder on this topic

Gary Younge’s full radio documentary about affirmative action in higher education is now available online at BBC Radio 4 until Dec 17, 2012. It is program is definitely worth a listen: Positively Flawed? Affirmative Action and the Future of America. It does go into the Abigail Fisher case.  My biggest peeve with Affirmative Action Opponents who claim that ‘their seats’ were taken by students of color fails to call these opponents on their senses of entitlement – that the seat was their or deserved because they are white. The frame of these complaints is that white students are entitled to admission (automatically) and that students of color must demonstrate proficiency.

And AAAS Science Careers MySciNet has a recent post How Not to Attract Minorities to STEM. This article, too goes into details about disadvantages – inherent and systematic – that students of color (from economically disadvantage backgrounds) experience in higher education and the cumulative effect on STEM fields.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. TinaF 9:53 am 12/11/2012

    Another issue in poor communities, I think, is lack of examples. Growing up I didn’t know any professional people outside of teachers, priests, and my pediatrician. I knew lots of factory workers and truck drivers though. How can you prepare for a career you don’t even know exists? Taking those career tests in grade school or high school is sometimes meaningless because most of those careers are meaningless. A financial analyst? What’s that? Who does that? That’s for rich people, not people like me.

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  2. 2. DNLee 1:41 pm 12/11/2012

    Absolutely, true. Role models, relate-able instructors in high school and college, and empathetic faculty are very important for student success.
    Most systems are designed to benefit the affluent, the privileged, higher education is no exception. Those us from less-influential families have to find ways to survive, change the landscape/culture of academia, and make sure future generations are able to succeed.

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  3. 3. S. N. Tiwary 7:35 am 12/12/2012

    Education and Economy have symbiotic relation. Education enhances economy and economy enhances education. In order to develop any country in the world, it is indispensable to develop education.
    S. N. Tiwary
    DIRECTOR

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  4. 4. OCDRUNER 2:50 pm 12/13/2012

    My problem with the discussion of social disparities is that often times I find one side of the argument (in this case Gaglia) paints over the issue in broad monochromatic brush strokes and the other side (this blog) takes offense. The reconciliation, I think, comes in realizing that though Gaglia’s proffered explanation is simplistic it’s a reasonable hypothesis to consider single parent households (which often lead to more stress and responsibility on the child) as one of many contributing factors to the gap in access to higher education and the academic achievement gap between minorities and whites or poor vs. non poor. A child that is more stressed at home will have a weaker performance in school. A classroom full of children with stressful home environments is likely to struggle on basic achievement tests let alone SAT prep and AP courses. So what if we tackled the problem of single parent households and reduced at least some of the social stress that a child is feeling? Don’t you think that would positively influence the gap in education?

    To the issue of Affirmative Action – I’ve worked in admissions at every majority institution I’ve attended and have observed a number of examples of minority student acceptances with a certain set of grades and numbers that resulted in a rejection for a comparable white student. The way I think about it is not that the black or latino student is taking a seat that the white person was entitled to occupy, but rather that all other things being equal the presence of a minority as a student in a majority institution is likely to offer a greater enrichment to the school over a white student with the same grades, SAT scores and extracurriculars. From the institutional side, I understand an admissions director being irked by the coercive efforts to maintain a certain quota of brown faces at the expense of accepting a white or asian student with better grades, sat scores who is more likely (statistically) to graduate from the school after matriculation. If they search for that brown face with comparable scores, potential, etc…and they do not exist, why should they have to accept a less qualified candidate?

    The question then becomes, in the absence of affirmative action can we trust institutions to come to the same understanding that a diverse student body or workforce is beneficial to their institution. Since the passage of proposition 209 in Cali, there has been a notable decline in the number of African American admissions to the UCs, but an increase in the graduation rate among African Americans.

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  5. 5. A.Igwe 12:19 am 12/25/2012

    “To the issue of Affirmative Action – I’ve worked in admissions at every majority institution I’ve attended and have observed a number of examples of minority student acceptances with a certain set of grades and numbers that resulted in a rejection for a comparable white student.”

    It is important to consider whether the students had access to test prep classes. Often these standardize test do not test knowledge, but how well you have been taught on the intricacies of the test. These test prep courses are expensive and relatively exclusive. Therefore, it makes sense that those who have easier access to thousand dollar test prep courses (and can afford to take the test multiple times) have higher scores than those who do not. Maybe a question on applications should be “Did you participate in a formal test prep course?” and admissions officers would be less irked by having to maintain a quota of brown faces.
    The lower scores is no indication of less potential. I believe lower scores to be comparable to higher ones and indication of more potential if they are achieved without the aid of test prep classes.

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