Blinkered Vision…Plus Four Small Suggestions For Getting Out Of The Box

A point I make a lot around here is that your typical white elite progressive is to the political left of the median Black voter in this country and that distorts perceptions in our sector. Black voters are constrained by the two party system much more than they are uniformly ideologically left. It’s not well understood that the one demographic group that moved against  (not who won various demographics just shifts in vote share) Donald Trump in 2020 was white men, white college educated men in particular, though non-college white men did, too. Trump made gains with “people of color,” especially Hispanics. Not a very good tweet!

We, and many others, were picking that up in pre-election work but you’d sooner lasso a unicorn than find people around the leadership of the education non-profit world who believed it was possible. It just didn’t compute with a lot of people. That’s because the non-profit education sector is pretty elite and pretty political, it’s a blindspot, and creates short circuited feedback loops. Pauline Kael didn’t actually say the Nixon quote widely attributed to her, but you heard that same idea about Trump in 2016 and 2020 a lot around these parts.

As an aside, one of the more amusing poll findings in the 2020 election was just how much more disappointed Democratic white voters were that the Democratic nominee was a white guy than Democratic Black or Hispanic voters were. Education played a role there. More education = more disappointment.

Anyway, thanks to Eric Adams this issue seems to be getting some attention, it’s a focus today of David Leonhardt’s newsletter in The Times. There was a big article over the weekend.

It’s an issue worth pausing on in our sector for some specific and sometimes atmospheric reasons. Specifically on structural issues like school choice and charter schools and some within school issues, for instance discipline, views don’t track along racial lines the way a lot of white progressives think they do. Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to support school choice. There are plenty of reasons to be for or against charter schools, but if you’re saying you listen to the community and that’s why you’re against charter schools you’re doing it wrong. In the current climate that seems like a political opportunity.

On atmospherics, the point is not who is “correct” on various issues. It’s about understanding the landscape we’re operating in. If you don’t appreciate that Black Americans are less likely than [progressive/liberal]1 white Americans to support abortion rights, defunding the police*, gay marriage, and more likely to think “me too” went too far and sex is biologically determined at birth and to attend church then you’re not appreciating the diversity and complexity of the American scene. It’s a more conservative population, overall, than elite ed reformers often appreciate. That’s not a supposition, there is loads of public opinion data on these and other questions. A related issue, one unfortunate casualty of our current debates is the flattening of the rich diversity of Black thought, often by white people.

You can do this same exercise with Hispanic voters (immigration doesn’t break the way your friends at Smith told you). And also with with white voters, where education levels and geography exert a lot of leverage. It’s why many ideas considered microagressions in the elite non-profit and education world (ideas like bootstrapping or the “American dream”) enjoy substantial support across racial and ethnic dimensions and are a lightning rod in some places when someone comes along saying it’s wrong .

Substantial caveat, this could all change generationally over time and there are signs of that in the data. But politics is about the here and now and demographics is not destiny in politics, as should be abundantly clear by now.

For now, the good news, more people are basically woke, in the Leadbelly sense, and appreciate the problems. The bad news is that Black Americans are still not surprisingly more likely to report unfair treatment across a range of dimensions from policing and government services to retail and service sector interactions.

For political candidates all this matters to winning elections. Just ask Eric Adams. For people in the education reform world it’s a question about blinkered vision in service of political and governmental action. The reform community has an audience confusion problem right now. If your audience and social circle is elite funders, people who went to the top 50 or 100 colleges in the country, upper middle class affluent, largely white, people then you’re going to move one way in our current climate. If your audience is the country, in all its messy and hard to pigeonhole diversity, the challenge is far greater. But one that must be engaged if the ed reform world wants to lay claim to any mantle of authenticity, have a broad national footprint, and regain meaningful political traction to help improve a vital American institution.

What to do? I don’t have the answer but here are a few suggestions – and a gentle push that the messy reality of humans is so much more interesting than reductionist frames.

First, when you think in terms of diversity, think in terms of viewpoint diversity as well as other dimensions. A bunch of people socialized at Yale might not be as diverse as you think.

Second, on various issues ask yourself are we talking about race/ethnicity, class, or politics? Belief in the American dream is fundamentally about politics given how the range of views break out. Disparate treatment by the police? That’s in large part about race based on ample data. A crude but generally workable heuristic I use is “would a conservative Black person agree or disagree with this statement?” It’s a pretty quick way to parse out politics from race.** Policing is the most obvious case here and an illustrative one, you see general agreement across the spectrum about the problem.

Third, beware ecological fallacies. What’s true of groups is not true of individuals, and what’s true of individuals is not true of groups. This might be the biggest fallacy in many debates and the amount of casual ascription that goes on is genuinely mind boggling.

Finally, get out more. That should be self-explanatory.

*The “defunding” debate is fascinating. Four in five Black Americans report they want the same or more policing in their communities – even as they report disparate and unfair treatment by the police and want immediate reforms there. In 2020 data seem to indicate gun sales rose fastest among Black Americans. These issues may be related? President Biden seems to have noticed, last week he basically proposed funding the police.

**This is one reason the “CRT” debate doesn’t break entirely like you might expect in local communities, in practice the current debate is about politics as much as race or critical race theory for that matter.

1- added in an update, this point wasn’t clear because I wrote it sloppy, apologies.