Empire (State) of the scolds: On March 3, 2014, readers of The Daily Beast were handed a pleasing jolt.
The possibly pleasing Beast report had been written by "Conor P. Williams, PhD." Williams was identified as "a Senior Researcher in the Education Policy Program at New America."
Williams was describing a new report from The Civil Rights Project, a high-profile institute which was founded at Harvard, then migrated to UCLA.
The pleasing jolt delivered to readers concerned, or at least seemed to concern, New York City's public schools. According to the Civil Rights Project, New York City had "the most segregated schools in the country," or so Williams seemed to be saying.
Is that really what the Civil Rights Project had found? No such claim is made in its iconic report—but here's the way Williams began in The Beast, double headline included:
WILLIAMS (3/3/14): The Real Reasons New York has the Country’s Most Segregated Schools/Had The Civil Rights Project actually found that New York City had "the most segregated schools in the country?" Two long paragraphs in, that seemed to what The Beast's Ph.D. was saying. Indeed, Williams explicitly made that statement in his opening paragraph.
New York schools are the most segregated in the country according to a new study, but blaming charter schools, which only serve 6% of city students, won’t fix the real problems.
New York City occupies a special place in the American consciousness as the tumultuous seat of our financial markets and the buzzing capital of our culture. Most importantly, it’s the city that exemplifies American pluralism, the “melting pot” that attracts new immigrants looking for work and college graduates drawn from their hometowns by the promise of excitement and diversity. So, when it turns out that the melting pot has the most segregated schools in the country, as a new study reports, it suggests that something has gone very wrong in our approach to education.
New York’s appeal hangs on its diversity and its image as a city where everyone can try, get, and be anything. But the new UCLA’s Civil Rights Project report shows that the city’s vaunted cosmopolitanism masks sharp divisions within its schools.
That said, as Williams continued, it became less clear what he was saying about the new report. In paragraphs 3 and 4, Beast readers were taken through a bit of a maze, as is common in modern American journalism:
WILLIAMS (continuing directly): John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, the report’s authors, found that New York State has the nation’s most segregated public schools—dubiously led by the demographic patterns in New York City’s schools. They found that “over 90 percent of black students in the New York metro attended majority-minority schools—those with 50% or greater minority students.” Perhaps even more telling, around three-quarters of these students attended schools with student bodies that were at or above 90 percent minority students.In paragraph 3, Williams correctly stated the basic finding of the iconic UCLA report, in which New York State is said to have "the most segregated schools in the country."
These sorts of figures would represent a shocking failure of educational equity wherever they occurred in the United States, but that they come from New York City? That’s news. School segregation is supposed to be a red state problem plaguing those sleepy hometowns—it hardly fits New York’s reputation as a global hub for diversity.
But in paragraph 4, he might have seemed to be veering back to his apparent claim that New York City had been so accused—and in paragraph 3, he'd thrown in a reference to "the New York metro." This further confused the issue, though readers may not have known.
Conor Williams, PhD, produced a true jumble this day. He gave readers no ultimate way to know what the Civil Rights Project had actually said—that "New York [State] has the most segregated schools in the country," as compared to the other forty-nine states.
"New York [State] has the most segregated schools in the country?" We're quoting the first sentence in the Civil Rights Project's Executive Summary—but those are our brackets, and those are our italics!
Our brackets, and our italics! In short, at least to some extent, the conflation of New York City and New York State starts within the careless writing and jumbled scholarship found in the UCLA report itself, a matter we'll detail tomorrow.
Just for clarity's sake, did UCLA's Civil Rights Project actually say that New York City had "the most segregated schools in the country?"
Just for clarity's sake, no, their report didn't say that.
In the first paragraph of the report's Executive Summary, Professors Kucsera and Orfield say that New York City is "home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation." That's about as specific as it gets within the report about the New York City schools.
At no point do Kucsera and Orfield, employing their sometimes bewildering definitions of "segregation," attempt to define where New York City ranks among the nation's million and one public school systems, or even among the public school systems of the nation's largest cities.
In support of the assessment we've quoted about the New York City schools, the professors offer a footnote citing this report in the New York Times—a report which says that Gotham's public schools "are among the most segregated in the country."
The Times report seems to say that the public schools of Chicago and Dallas are more "segregated" than those of New York City, with Philadelphia, Houston and Los Angeles not far behind.
That said, the Times report made only the most slapdash attempt to explain the way it measured "segregation," and it made no attempt to say how many school systems had been included in its study. This is the kind of scholarship on which Kucsera and Orfield were prepared to rely as they published a highly influential report on an extremely important subject.
At any rate, no, Melania! Kucsera and Orfield didn't say that New York City had "the most segregated schools in the country." But for whatever it may be worth, these inaccurate claims—about the New York City public schools, and about what Kucsera and Orfield actually said—have never quite managed to die.
Williams seemed to be making the inaccurate claims in his real-time report for The Beast. In fairness, though, that was then—and even now, people keep reciting the pleasing, inaccurate claims.
Headline writers especially seem to love the unfounded claim about the New York City schools. Last summer, to cite one example, The Observer published a report which cited the UCLA study beneath this exciting headline (June 14, 2018):
NYC Has the Most Segregated Schools in the Country. How Do We Fix That?The claim in that headline was tribally pleasing. One month later, The Atlantic followed suit. A profile of Gotham's new public school chancellor appeared beneath these headlines (July 23, 2018):
Can Richard Carranza Integrate the Most Segregated School System in the Country?In paragraph 2 of this Atlantic report, the author correctly stated that The Civil Rights Project had found "that New York State has the most segregated public schools in the country."
A new chancellor is talking a big game about making New York City’s schools more equal—but that’s the easy part.
But it was becoming a habit among headline writers to embellish this pleasing claim. Earlier this year, WPIX Channel 11 News continued the tradition, published a widely-cited, widely-reprinted report under this inaccurate, pleasing headline:
NYC has the country’s most segregated schools; will the city’s plan to change that make its best schools worse?Within the world of the liberal press, advancement of this inaccurate claim has almost become a family tradition. In part, this unintentionally comical syndrome reflects the ability of the modern press to get almost everything wrong, no matter how important the topic in question may be.
In part, though, this reign of error represents something else. It represents the imperial, scolding culture of modern pseudo-liberalism—a scolding culture within the which the pseudo-liberal engages in his or her "performative virtue," even as he or she helps the Donald J. Trumps of the world attain and maintain power.
In fairness, the pleasing if inaccurate claim about New York City's public schools is almost as pleasing when it is made about the schools of New York State, concerning whom Kucsera and Orfield did state a doomsday judgment.
Almost surely, few people who advance the claim about New York State could explain the methodology from which the pleasing claim is derived—a methodology we ourselves still don't understand, as we'll note tomorrow.
Still, the claim about the schools of New York State is highly pleasing within the syndrome anthropologists describe as "Contemporary Liberal Scold Culture." Within the past year, it has become common to repeat the claim in connection with the Mayor de Blasio/New York Times crusade to "integrate" New York City's public high schools—rather, to "integrate" that handful of high schools which serve the city's "elite" students, while ignoring everyone else.
Within the realm of Liberal Scold Culture, the claim about the schools of New York State triggers the performative act in which the pseudo-liberal or pseudo-progressive complains that New York State is even worse than Mississippi or Alabama (examples tomorrow). In mounting the ramparts in this manner, the pseudo-liberal and/or the performative radical or progressive gets to declare that Amerikan betrayal of its ideals is far, far worse than Mommy and Daddy ever said.
This particular piece of performative scolding has been increasingly common over the past year. According to anthropologists, when the pseudo-liberal or "performative scold" adopts this performative moral stance, he or she will typically engage in these concomitant behaviors:
He or she will typically fail to make any attempt to explain the difficulties involved in "desegregating" the public schools of New York City or New York State.
He or she will fail to explain the obvious reasons why states like New York State, California and Illinois top the Kucsera/Orfield list of states with "the most segregated schools."
Most significantly, he or she will fail to explain that the schools of our biggest cities will never be "desegregated" in the childish way the performative liberal childishly urges us to imagine.
He or she will fail to explain that people who want to serve the children who attend those schools need to move beyond childish crying about "segregation," even though the reduction of racial isolation will presumably be a good thing. Such people must also look for ways to improve instruction within our "segregated" schools, and for ways to improve the daily experiences of the children who attend them.
For reasons which are blindingly obvious, those racially imbalanced schools won't be going way, whether within the state of New York or within New York City. It's time for anthropology's "performative liberal" to come to terms with this fact.
According to future anthropologists, people hate us pseudo-liberals because of our dominant "Scold Culture." In our own view, people aren't obviously wrong when they feel that way about our tribal culture, and our childish performative scolding does, in fact, help Donald J. Trump maintain his hold on power.
Tomorrow: Shoddy scholarship and scold