Thursday, November 05, 2015

A "Great Debate" about Black Data

Last update: Thursday 6/16/16
In April 1973, Ben Wattenberg, a former liberal who became one of the founding fathers of "neoconservatism", published an article in Commentary magazine ("Black Progress and Liberal Rhetoric") that claimed that a middle class majority had emerged in Black America ("about 52 percent"). His article was greeted by a hailstorm of criticism from America's most prominent Black policy analysts, including a response from Dr. Herrington Bryce, Director of Research at the Joint Center for Political Studies ("Putting Black Economic Progress in Perspective"). Wattenberg's call and his critics' thunderous responses triggered an epiphany in my small brain, the kind that blinds ambitious young instructors to the obvious risks of standing too close to erupting volcanos. So I decided to invite Wattenberg and Bryce to participate in a debate in front of my class in the final week of one of my courses in the upcoming Fall 1973 semester ... and they accepted my invitation.

A. The Course 

This course introduced research methods to masters degree students in urban planning at one of the nation's most prominent HBCUs. The course emphasized survey research and the kinds of descriptive statistics that were most useful in an exploratory analysis of the data gathered from surveys, with particular emphasis on the Census. In order to prepare my students for the Great Debate, I also took my class on field trips to the offices of a number of Federal data luminaries, including the administrator of the office in the Census Bureau that managed some of the data that Wattenburg had referenced in his article.

B. Preparations 

In the months preceding the final class, I made it plain to my students and to Dr. Bryce and to Mr. Wattenberg again and again that the purpose of the debate was not to prove which of them was right or wrong, but to give my students the opportunity to analyze the methods and the data that each of them had used to support their positions. But I was also aware that all but one or two of my 15 students had been enraged by Wattenberg's article. So I reminded them again and again that this debate provided them with a hands-on opportunity to practice one of the most powerful tactics available to policy analysts ==> When you don't like someone's recommendations, you don't attack their recommendations directly; you demolish their methodology with all of the analytical tools you can bring to bear, thereby denying logical validity to their conclusions.

Despite all of my efforts to frame the debate as an ultra cool exchange between a pair of policy professionals in front of an ambitious group of aspiring professionals, I sensed that the volcanic fires were growing hotter and hotter. 

  • Black analysts -- including Dr. Bryce and my students -- were infuriated by Wattenberg's assertions because of their fear of the consequences if his conclusions were taken seriously by Congress and/or by the White House. The dollars spent on President Johnson's War on Poverty and subsequent initiatives sustained by President Nixon were grossly insufficient to heal the wounds that the private sector plus Federal, state, and local policies had inflicted on Black America in previous decades (centuries?), especially on its urban poor. If Wattenberg's declarations that a majority of Black Americans had suddenly moved into the middle class were believed by key decision makers, these decision makers would take this upward movement as a sign that "victory" was in sight. They would immediately reduce the funding for these programs and eliminate them soon thereafter.
  • On the other hand, Wattenberg was concerned that most White Americans felt that the funds invested in these programs had been very substantial. White America had be told that these substantial investments had already won substantial gains. Otherwise the political will to continue to invest in these programs would evaporate. In other words, Wattenberg claimed that he was trying to avoid the same disastrous elimination of the programs as his critics. 
By the week before the final class, word of the debate had spread to other students and to other faculty in my department and in other departments in the university. Lots of folk wanted to attend ... but I said no. No guests. Absolutely no guests. This debate was just for this class. No guests. Just us cool, level-headed professionals. Of course, I lied when Wattenberg called the day before the debate and casually asked for reassurances that he would not be blindsided by protesters or other public displays. No problem, I assured him. Don't worry. Everything will be cool. Don't worry. There's nothing to worry about. Then he hung up ... and I was very worried.

C. The Debate
I think it's best for me to describe what happened on the evening of the debate as someone else might have seen it. So I will refer to myself as the "moderator" in the following paragraphs.
  • The speakers and the students arrived on time. The speakers sat behind desks in the front of the classroom, facing the students; the moderator sat on a chair between the speakers' desks
  • The moderator opened the debate by introducing the speakers. Then he laid out the rules of engagement. He would ask each speaker to briefly summarize the paper he had published. The speakers would then take turns asking each other specific questions, questions that should receive factual, polite responses. After the speakers questioned each other, the floor would be opened to questions from the students who should also direct specific questions to either speaker. At no time would anyone talk about anything other than the speakers' published papers and their brief summaries.
  • As per the moderator's instructions, each speaker then made a brief statement. As per the moderator's instructions, each directed specific questions to the other and gave factual, polite responses.
  • Everything seemed to be following the moderator's ground rules ... until ... one of the speakers made a comment that placed the discussion in a larger context. The moderator shook his head. The other speaker countered with a statement about his own context. More head shaking form the moderator.
  • This exchange of contextual references escalated to a pinnacle when Mr. Wattenberg (who was Jewish) asserted that Jewish people had suffered far greater losses in the Holocaust than Black Americans in the South. Whereupon Dr. Bryce (who was Black) countered that Black people had suffered far greater losses in the Middle Passage than Jewish people had suffered in the Holocaust ... at which point the moderator suddenly stood up and announced that it was time for a break. Then he walked out of the classroom looking very sad.
  • Out in the hallway, the moderator literally banged his head against a wall three or four times, turned to face the classroom, and watched and listened to the explosion of multiple, unplanned, heated conversations between the speakers and among the students.
  • When the noise level subsided, the moderator walked back into the classroom and announced that students should raise their hands if they wanted to direct questions to either speaker.
  • The moderator seemed pleased by the first few questions that focused on the students' perceptions of flaws in Wattenberg's analysis. But more head shaking accompanied the the next students' angry comments about Wattenberg's distortions of the data and his disregard for the pain that Black people would suffer when the government programs were cancelled.
  • Then the students suddenly ran out of questions, which was odd, given their obvious excitement about the topics being discussed. Perhaps they remembered that their participation in this debate was part of a course for which they would be graded by a professor/moderator who couldn't seem to stop shaking his head.
  • After a few moments of awkward silence, one of the students rose to ask the moderator, "Why haven't you called on the gentleman sitting next to me? He has raised his hand politely for the last half hour but you haven't called him." The moderator replied, "I haven't called him because he is not a student in this class.  As you know, I said again and again that guests should not be invited to this debate." "But no one else seems to have any questions, so why can't he ask a question?" ... The moderator seemed perplexed, confused. There was something about the confident, clean cut, young stranger who was dressed in a dark suit, a starched white shirt, and a bow tie ... a bow tie. The moderator kept staring at the bow tie as though it was a clue, a warning ... who wears bow ties? ... but he finally relented, "OK. He can ask one question."
  • The young stranger in the bow tie stood up, smiled from left to right, then he began, "Brothers and Sisters, as we all know, the White Man is the devil" ... at which point the entire room gasped ... the moderator wheeled around to apologize to Wattenberg, but was surprised ... and relieved ... to see that Wattenberg didn't seem to be offended. He was laughing ... and then Bryce was laughing ... and then the students were laughing.
  • When the young Black Muslim finished his canned speech, the moderator declared that the debate had come to its end. Then he thanked the speakers, the students, and their guest.

D. Why I was shaking my head
In order to preserve my semblance of objectivity as the moderator of the debate, I decided not to make my own detailed re-analysis of Wattenberg's data; but my preliminary review was sufficient to convince me that the Black middle class was closer to 35 to 40 percent than the 52 percent that Wattenberg had claimed. My rough review was sufficient to convince me that Wattenberg had cut corners in order to achieve his political objective. 

That's why I was disappointed that Herrington Bryce, an otherwise cool, unruffled pro, had allowed Wattenberg to goad him into a verbal food fight, the kind of no-holds-barred exchange in which Wattenberg, a seasoned policy brawler, had thrived on Sunday morning talk shows. I was pleased that the first questions from my students had gone straight for his jugular by exposing some of the flaws in his analysis. But I was saddened by their subsequent lapse into righteous rhetoric.

E. Lessons Learned
In the early 1970s a prominent, over zealous White policy advocate distorted some data to satisfy his own political agenda. To be specific, he exaggerated the success of the Black middle class. What can we learn from this episode that's useful today?

Ironically, forty years later in 2014 and again in 2015, the Silicon Valley (SV) elite also distorted data about the Black middle class, but in the opposite direction, i.e., by devaluing the  achievements of the Black middle class in order to serve their corporate agendas. They "explained" their failure to hire more Blacks in technical positions by claiming that there weren't enough Blacks in the academic pipelines, i.e., in high quality computer science and related programs. In other words, the Black middle class families that were sending over ninety percent of their children to mainstream colleges and universities were not sending enough of their children to the nation's best colleges and universities, and not enough of those who enrolled in elite institutions were majoring in computer science or related fields. Amazing. Whereas Wattenberg's "data" was dubious; the Silicon Valley "data" was deceitful. 
  • How many talented Black graduates of which programs from which colleges and universities would it take to fill the Valley's "pipeline"?

    None of the diversity reports published by the SV corporations in 2014 and again in 2015 provided the data required to answer this question. To be specific, none of the corporate reports provided data about the total number of technical staff they employed, where their staff obtained their degrees, and the subject areas of the degrees they obtained. This missing data also includes information about the foreign workers that were employed by SV corporations here and abroad plus stipulations that the universities from which their foreign workers had obtained their degrees were comparable to the best U.S. universities, i.e., to Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T., etc.
Some of the SV corporations also played the race card by vowing to launch intensive recruitment campaigns at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), but I don't understand why. Nowadays the Black high school graduates with the best grades are offered far larger scholarships and other financial support by the nation's top 150 colleges and universities than they receive from the nation's 106 financially pressed HBCUs. So the wealthiest non-HBCUs have enrolled at least 90 percent of the Black high school graduates with the best records. If the SV elites were really serious about diversifying their technical staffs with high quality Black recruits as quickly as possible, why not grab the low hanging fruit? Why continue to pretend that there aren't enough Black high achievers? Why not intensify their efforts to recruit high achieving Black students from the same colleges and universities that they themselves had attended? 

My conversations with Ben Wattenberg, plus my reading of many of the other articles he published, plus his capacity to laugh when he was demonized by the young minister in the bow tie caused me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I misjudged him too favorably, but I believe that he sincerely wanted to help Black people when he cut corners in handling his data. By unhappy contrast, I see no reason to give SV corporations the benefit of any doubts. Most of them made little or no progress between 2014 and 2015 in diversifying their technical staffs. How much longer do they expect us to wait???

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