Spectacle vs. Progress
High-profile battles involving celebrity academics have little to do with advancing the fortunes of regular people.
In a little-noticed article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this summer, Jason England, an assistant professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, attempted to sum up the lessons of the Nikole Hannah-Jones/UNC–Chapel Hill tenure controversy: “The story, for me,” he wrote, “isn’t about Nikole Hannah-Jones. . . . It’s about how the media framed her tenure struggle, and how so many of us are so eager to substitute the latest cause célèbre for real, collective progress.”
England is right. Battles among elite universities over what perks to offer celebrity academics are irrelevant to the everyday life of most professors (to say nothing of adjuncts earning minimum wage) and to most students (who will rarely find themselves in the same classroom as these luminaries). Is it better for Cornel West to be at Harvard or Princeton or Union Theological Seminary? Who cares?
But these fights are worse than just irrelevant; they also distract from real issues. “How many of them are . . . trading on grievance and resentment as they collect speaking fees and book deals, all the while employing their social-media followings as bully pulpits to blunt criticism and seize more influence?” England asks of these high-profile academics. “They seduce you with the rhetoric of collective empowerment, but you’ll never see a dime of their rewards or a sliver of their platforms.”
This isn’t a problem limited to academia. The same could be said of the diversity push across American institutions. Take the new Nasdaq rule that any company listed on the exchange “will be required to either have at least two directors who are diverse, or explain why it does not meet such requirements.” Does anyone believe that putting in place a certain number of black directors of Fortune 500 companies will somehow yield important progress? Once those numbers have been increased, will the black children failing to read at grade level today in the South Bronx suddenly find themselves able to reach their educational potential?
Affirmative action has always been about helping those already in a decent position. The members of racial minority groups who benefit most from preferences in college admissions, graduate school admissions, and professional hiring are those who grew up in stable families and got a decent elementary and secondary education. The idea was that these benefits would, to borrow a phrase, trickle downward. Young black kids would see people who resemble themselves in various professional roles and would aspire to follow in their footsteps. The result would be better-educated students and more promising job prospects. Exactly how we would get from point A to point B has always been unclear.
Apparently, we’ve now dispensed with even that fiction. According to our elites, we make progress not by economically improving the lives of those at the bottom of the ladder but by redistributing political power. An article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy complaining about the lack of funding for the cause of racial equity noted that many of the big gifts by foundations and individuals in the past year and a half “went to . . . programs focused on education and jobs, not racial justice”—as if the former has nothing to do with the latter.
What the professional diversity activists want, the article observes, are “racial-justice grants focused on building community power to fight for systemic change.” The activists want billions more dollars sent to lobbying groups and consultants like Ibram X. Kendi, who will come lecture white people about anti-racism. Progress? Not in the sense that most of us mean by the word.
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