Category Errors

Sometimes we talk about common errors you see around this sector. One of my favorites is ecological fallacies because they’re genuinely interesting to me. There are others, some less interesting. Lately you see a lot of broad category errors. Here are two I came across recently that are illustrative both on the specifics and in general.

This column in The Washington Post echoes a common misconception, 

Frey’s first key point is that according to Census data, “for the first time, children of color (those who identify as Latino or Hispanic, Asian American, Black, Native American, or with two more races) now comprise more than half (53%) of the nation’s under-age-18 population.”

Frey’s second key point is that a very large majority of the nation’s parents — around 65 percent — are people of color or are college-educated Whites, substantially larger than among adults overall.

Those groups tend to be more Democratic-leaning, while non-college-educated Whites lean more Republican. You would think Democrats should be able to effectively address the large bloc of diverse and educated parents on these issues if they try a little harder.

The two authors are trying to make the point that if Democrats can just figure out how to talk about race in the classroom things will be good because all these various voters will join in blissful solidarity.

One would think that after Asian voters put a knife in affirmative action in California and Asian voters moved to Glenn Youngkin in Virginia (and Youngkin seems to have won Hispanic voters outright) analysts would stop with these crude generalizations. Or maybe rethink this theory? In Virginia, Asian voters helped Youngkin because of concern over admissions to selective schools and advanced classes. Those policy changes were critical race theory informed, sure, but that’s not the “CRT” backlash we heard so much about. Democrats are struggling with Hispanic voters, Asian voters, and to some extent Black voters for a bunch of reasons but one is a perception that Democrats are completely out of touch on education (and in general). This Intercept headline pretty much sums it up.

Meanwhile, there is pretty wide agreement on teaching about race and racism across a broad swath of Americans. So orienting a strategy around engaging the dead enders, which right now looks like the caricature of the American tourist who just thinks yelling louder will somehow make people understand, seems like political malpractice. Dems will never get those votes anyway. The problem is, and this is what happened with Terry McAuliffe, if you can’t discern between age inappropriate or blatantly political content and honest teaching of history then you’re going to get painted defending some crazy stuff. And mostly freelancing by teachers who don’t have good curriculum and training. A large amount of what animates social media is not things that are actually in any curriculum.

All this is obscuring that Democrats have an education policy problem. Right now, just for instance, the Biden Administration is trying to curtail charter school growth through the regulatory process. This is an odd position for an Administration that says it wants to “center” Black and Hispanic Americans. Here’s some charter polling that’s in line with lots of other polling. 

Source: MorningConsult & Ed Choice

This, of course, while the Democratic party is facing intense pressure because it’s associated with what are perceived as longer than necessary shut downs of in-person schooling and for generally being out of touch with parents. It’s an interesting strategic choice.

The voters who really don’t like charters are white progressives, who are to the left of Black and Hispanic voters in general. When he was Lt. Governor of California Cruz Bustamante used to talk about the “Radical Hispanic Agenda,” which he would then reveal to be safe neighborhoods, good schools, and economic opportunity. Democrats could do a lot worse than returning to those basics.

As always, though, Democrats have an ace in the hole: The Republicans.  

A second and similar sort of error can be found in this interview of Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride (D), a transgender woman serving in the legislature there. McBride recently chaired a hearing about the transgender and youth sports issue. In the interview she says,

Second … within all sports, there’s biological diversity, there’s physiological diversity, and some of those biological and physiological realities for students give them competitive edges.

I will tell you, I’m bad at every sport.

But that diversity exists within every gender identity. It exists within cis [gender] students and trans students. And legislation that comes before us that isn’t making individualized determinations, that isn’t actually looking at these issues of disparities and competitiveness, whether that’s access to private coaching, whether that’s differences in height, or actual cardiovascular capacity, but specifically rooted in a protected class’s identity.

I agree on the blanket ban problem. Both the ‘athletes should decide unilaterally based on what they want to do’ and blanket bans are exclusionary and walk on the nuance here. But, this general idea about ability is a common and important misconception about this debate.

First, there are enormous benefits that come from playing sports. They are both physical in terms of movement and exercise and also mental and emotional in terms of teamwork, fair play, winning, losing, efficacy, persistence and a lot more. That’s why, for me, a first principle for this whole debate should be how do we get as many kids as possible playing for as long in their lives as possible? There are a lot of lessons there. This is one reason I helped the Aspen Institute’s Project Play work on ways to make sports, and school sports, more inclusive. 

But, this broad point about sports and how there are lots of differences so what’s one more elides a really key issue: It’s just not the case with many highly competitive sports. At that level of competitiveness the differences are often small but hugely significant. And physical ability matters a lot. That, not recreational and other youth sports, is where the action is on this complicated question. It’s why a guy whose name I can’t even recall, not even in the top 200 of male players, was able to beat the Williams sisters back to back – and they are phenomenal players. We saw this recently in NCAA swimming.

This is why the issue here is so hard – not at the level of recreational sports and young kids where inclusion is an easy default position because getting everyone playing should be the goal. But with highly competitive sports in high school and college (and the Olympics though  that’s less of an education issue). At that level it is a zero sum game, so to speak, where two different rights clash. The transgender athlete wants to compete in the gender they identify with. The female athlete – who at the point of highly competitive sports has put in untold hours of work and effort – wants to compete on a level playing field.

How you balance the rights of the athlete who just misses this finals by one place, or comes in 2nd, loses a spot on a team, etc…with the athlete who just wants to live their life and compete in a sport they love is not straightforward. If you reflexively see one of those sets of “rights” as obviously more important than the other then I’d suggest you’re not appreciating the very complicated issues here. This is a collision of claims, none of which are without merit. Yes it’s a fractional issue overall,* but it’s not to any of the athletes involved.

We’re not doing anyone any favors ducking that or waving it away because most of us never competed at that level or lack the ability to. It’s why for the umpteenth time I think we need a national commission to work through this in a more deliberate way and make recommendations for a framework.

*Just as an aside political point, I’m not sure the messaging that it’s ‘just a few kids’ helps advocates for transgender athletes the way many seem to think it does. Public opinion remains strongly on the side of the bans, consistently across a lot of polling. And governors who have cited the small number of athletes involved in vetoing bans have done it not because they favor letting athletes do what they want but rather because they want a process for the small numbers and also want to avoid a lot of litigation. It’s entirely possible when the public hears, “it’s just a few kids,” some people then think ‘well, if it’s just a few then a ban isn’t really that big of a deal.’ In other words, that messaging may cut both ways depending on someone’s priors.

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