Monday, August 14, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville: The Dangers of Painting with a Broad Brush

The national conversation is filled with discussion of the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend. The death of one woman is both a tragedy and a crime, as is the injury of nearly two dozen others. Our justice system has much to do to address these terrible acts, and I have faith that it will.

As is often the case, I am more interested in the broader conversation and the conflict that it represents. I have a couple of points I want to make; because of the raw nature of recent events, we'll see how well I can make them.

First, the supporters of White Supremacy often like to wrap their political activities in the flag of Free Speech. The right to peaceably assemble is sacred to all, whether we agree with their views or not. This much is true.

But it is debatable whether "peaceable assembly" includes showing up with shields, helmets, body armor, and sticks. That's not a "peaceful" demonstration, it's intimidation and preparation for combat. So I'm not buying the "peaceful assembly" line. There was never any intention for this to be "peaceful". This is not a movement much interested in peace.

Second, at some point - probably already happened by now - some apologist for the marching racists will argue that it's not fair that they all be blamed for James Alex Fields' actions. He acted alone, they will say. You can't all paint us with the same brush just because of one violent man in our midst.

Bullshit.

The entire White Supremacist movement relies on painting with broad brushes. All blacks, all Jews, all gays, all Muslims, all Latinos - "they" are all the same. This is the entirety of their "argument". They don't care about individuals, only about groups. All of "them" are always the same.

If you marched on Friday night, tiki torch in hand, and you don't think this describes you, get the heck out now. You have taken up with a violent movement. Perhaps the icons of knives and axes might give you a clue. Or the hardware your fellow marchers are carrying.

So fine. Your group - each and every one of you - is violent to the point of being murderous. And we, the rest of civilized society, are justified in rounding you up and prosecuting you under the law.

Finally, this is the really key thing that these White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and various KKK hangers-on don't yet realize. They've already lost. The vast majority of American society - including whites - rejects them, rejects their ideas, and most especially rejects their murderous attachment to violence. To borrow Ronald Reagan's memorable phrase, they are already consigned to the Ash Heap of History.

They just aren't smart enough to know it yet.

Let us not forget that it was the forebears of these rampaging rage-monsters that slaughtered 168 Americans, including 19 preschool children, twenty-two years ago in Oklahoma City. The mix of rage, incoherent fear for their white identity, and rejection of government authority has killed before.

I hope that the death of Heather Heyer will serve the same purpose as the deaths of those many innocent victims in 1995: a wake-up call to the nation and the start of another effort to drive this kind of violent hatred back underground. Given the current occupant in the White House, I'm not holding my breath, but I hope at least that his fellow Republicans will see the Faustian bargain they have struck and repent.

Many people have been quoting MLK's "arc of history" line. In this case, he is absolutely correct. The men (and yes, they are mostly men) who have bought into this violent insanity have been brought out into the light. But they have already lost. The nation unites in horror against their dystopian rage. They cannot win, not even a little bit, anything that they hope to achieve. They can't even keep the statues they are so keen to protect standing in the public square. All they can do is shriek helplessly as the arc of history leaves them behind.

Or, they can repent and join the rest of us. I, for one, would be happy to have them back if they can find a way to set aside their rage, fear, anger, and hatred. We need people working together to build a more perfect union for all of us.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Missing the Key Issue on Affirmative Action

I wrote last week about the Department of Justice memo regarding a new effort to "crack down" on "reverse discrimination" against whites (and Asians) in college admissions. As I explained in that piece, this effort is entirely about symbolic politics, with little to no practical impact on either college admissions or on most people's lives. I urged my colleagues in higher education, most of whom are dedicated to the ideal of diversity, not to panic, because most of our universities aren't going to be affected no matter what DOJ does.

Since most people don't read my blog, however, the ongoing conversation has continued as one might expect. People of color and their allies are understandably concerned about any effort to "target" affirmative action, which they see as a step towards turning back the clock towards a more openly racist past. Given all of the other openly racist things that have happened in the last six months, this is a reasonable concern even if this particular effort is of no consequence.

I have a number of friends in this group, and it is to those friends that this post is addressed. My argument is simple: we're missing the boat. This DOJ initiative on "reverse discrimination" is distracting us from something much more important.

Affirmative action in higher education is a big deal for those who want to advance the cause of underrepresented minorities, because higher education has tremendous potential as a social equalizer. For folks who have been permanently stuck in the economic and social underclass, getting a college degree can be a ticket to a better job, a better neighborhood, a better life. It can break the cycle of poverty and put families on a completely different trajectory for generations to come.

I'm a big believer in the transformative power of higher education, which is why I've devoted my career to it. I've watched single mothers with little support system go on to become Vice Presidents at Fortune 500 companies. I've seen how exposure to educated African Americans and Latinos changes white attitudes about who belongs and who doesn't. Access to higher education is one of the most important tools we have to help people help themselves, and to lift our entire society in the process.

But here's the reality: the kind of "who gets in and who doesn't" arguments about affirmative action and college that the Right wants to fight about don't have an impact on the broader societal problems we want to solve. If you want to lift families of color out of the cycle of poverty, having a different set of rules about who gets into Harvard or Michigan isn't the way to do it.

What's the real barrier? Money.

The vast majority of college students in the United States attend public regional universities. These aren't the schools that the New York Times writes about, but they are where people actually go. In particular, they are the primary recipients of first-generation students who are the key to altering family trajectories.

These universities don't have an affirmative action issue. Most of them accept 90%-95% of their applicants, and those they don't accept aren't decided by race but by basic capability factors (generally, high school GPA and ACT or SAT score). The Wright States and Millersvilles and SW Missouri States and Wisconsin-Green Bays of the world will take any and all students they can get who qualify. They are truly race-blind in admissions.

(As an aside, this is also true of a lot of private schools, who struggle to get the number of students they need to keep themselves going. Even the University of Dayton, a very good Catholic research institution, admitted as much recently - if they get two applicants, one white, one black, both equally qualified, they'll take them both.)

What keeps minority students from attending regional public universities isn't that they can't get in. It's that they can't afford it. And while there are lots of arguments about what is driving the cost of higher education, for regional publics the primary barrier to affordability has been the long, slow, inexorable march by most state legislatures to defund their higher education systems.

Case in point: 25 or so years ago, Wright State (a very typical regional public institution) got $2 of subsidy from the state for every $1 they collected in tuition from their students. Students had "skin in the game", but the amount they had to pony up was significantly decreased by state investment. Today, that ratio has flipped: WSU now gets less than 50 cents from the state for every dollar they get in tuition.

If you believe in higher education as a pathway to success for families of color, this is the battle you need to be fighting. Forget about admissions rules and arguments about whether race can or can't be included in deciding who gets in to college. If you want to really move the needle on societal equality, and lift millions of disadvantaged people out of the poverty trap, get more public money put into higher education.

I don't for a minute believe that this is an easy task. But as folks are marshaling political resources for a mostly symbolic battle of little practical significance, I ask them to consider focusing those resources instead on the battle that has the greatest impact on people's lives. Don't fall for the bait of arguing about Harvard's admissions practices. Harvard isn't going to solve our problems. But more money in public higher education just might.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Affirmative Action in Universities: Don't Panic

There has been a lot of buzz in the last couple of days about an internal Justice Department memo seeking lawyers for a new initiative to go after universities for "reverse discrimination" in admissions. This is an old conservative argument that claims, to whit, that white students (they now add Asians to this group) are denied admission to universities in favor of less-qualified black or Latino applicants.

In a country with thousands of universities and millions of university students, I'm sure that there are a few cases where this can be credibly argued to have happened. It is hardly an epidemic, or even a problem of any significant size, judging by the racial profiles of pretty much every university (outside the HBCUs) in the nation. On its face, this is a non-problem.

The political utility of the argument, however, is easy to see. It feeds a broader narrative of tribal white resentment. It also plays well to the more conservative philosophical point of view that everything is about the individual, that the individual is sovereign, and that when the rights of a single individual are trampled that's a terrible thing (though that argument seldom gets extended to individuals of color...)

Setting aside whether this sort of initiative within the DoJ is a good or a bad thing - people can form their own opinions on that subject - I can say from inside higher education that this effort, if it ever gets off the ground, will be far less significant than it might appear. There are relatively few institutions vulnerable to this kind of investigation. Most universities will be ignored, because admissions works very differently in different kinds of places.

The wealthy private elite institutions - the kinds of places that the NY Times writes about whenever it talks about "higher education" - have long ago insulated themselves from this charge by adopting very complex wholistic admissions practices. Race is but one consideration among many, and so much of their process is subjective that being able to credibly argue that any given student was turned away primarily because she is white will be impossible. Yale, Harvard, Amherst and Williams turn away thousands of students every year who are just as qualified as the ones they admit - that's the nature of the game. No investigating lawyer is going to wade into that world, because there is no victory to be had there.

Over in the public university area, the vast majority of public institutions are regional and desperate for students. Two that I have worked for, Wright State and the University of Toledo, will take any and all qualified applicants. They and a host of similar schools - Youngstown State, SE Missouri State, Millersville University, most of the SUNY campuses, Central Florida, and a thousand more - are enrollment and tuition-driven. The notion of having to select some students over others on the basis of race - or anything else - is irrelevant to these schools. When you're admitting all qualified applicants (and often, many who are marginally so), there's no danger that you're discriminating against anyone. Keep in mind, too, that these schools are where the vast majority of university students in the United States go.

That leaves only two classes of schools - small second and third tier private schools, and public flagships. The former are unlikely to be targeted in part because they, too, tend to be enrollment and tuition driven and are therefore less selective than their elite counterparts, and in part because nobody outside of their immediate area has heard of them. Regardless of the merits or demerits of affirmative action processes, any investigative effort is going to want to go after universities or colleges with national name recognition, because they're trying to make a political point. No investigator is going to focus on Lebanon Valley College (sorry, LVC!) They and several hundred of their brethren can rest easy.

The for-profit sector, of course, is immune to this kind of charge for the same reason regional publics are - they'll take anybody who qualifies to get in and is willing to pay (or borrow). Phoenix doesn't have an affirmative action problem.

That leaves only the flagship public universities like Michigan and UT-Austin. It's no coincidence that the major affirmative action cases in the last two decades came from those two schools. These schools, and a handful of others around the country (Ohio State, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Florida or Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Minnesota, UW-Madison, etc.) have enough cache and status that they get a lot more applicants than they can accept. They do care about diversity (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are allowed to do), and they do take race into account. Because of the Fisher case and others, all of them have long ago adopted admissions procedures that stay well within the boundaries of what the court says is Constitutionally permissible.

So we're really talking about a small handful of universities here - maybe 30 in all - that are potential targets of any kind of DoJ effort. And all of them have spent years making sure that their admissions processes can withstand legal challenges. They don't get caught up in the kind of accusation leveled against UT-Austin so many years ago.

In other words, this "effort" is unlikely to affect 99% of America's universities, and it is unlikely to actually change much even in the few that might be targeted. This is pure symbolic politics - sound and fury signifying nothing, to borrow from the Bard. To my colleagues in higher education: don't panic. This, too, shall pass.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can We Ignore North Korea?

A good friend of mine posted this question to FB today. Since a decent answer requires more than should be put into a FB comment section, I'm writing out my thoughts here.

OK, honest question for the many people in my feed who are smarter about international stuff than I am. 
Hypothetically, what if the US were to just ignore North Korea? No threatening, no assisting, no engaging, nothing? Just maintain our relationship with South Korea and nothing else?
Would that still create an unacceptable risk for South Korea? Would it destabilize our relationship with China?
There are obvious humanitarian reasons not to follow this course, so I'm not advocating anything -- I just want to better understand how the cogs fit together. Smart people, please educate me.


Like all questions of foreign policy, answering this one depends very much on what your goals are. The Trump administration hasn't been very clear in articulating its goals towards North Korea, but my sense is that they haven't shifted very much from where past administrations have been. Those goals reasonably include, or could include, the following:

1) Avoid war in the Korean peninsula (which would be horrendously catastrophic for everybody, and would result in millions of deaths).

2) Prevent North Korea from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.

3) Prevent North Korea from developing a deployable nuclear weapon. Barring this, prevent it from developing such a weapon that can be delivered to the United States.

4) Bring about regime change in North Korea, with a possible eye towards reunifying the peninsula.

#4 is, for all intents and purposes, out of bounds. The Kim regime in Pyongyang desires its survival in power above all else, and it has had a credible conventional deterrent against Seoul and South Korea for decades. We may say we don't like their government very much, but no US administration has openly flirted with actively trying to change it - as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced just yesterday.

#3 is also essentially off the table. We have tried under the past three presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) to use various carrots and sticks to get the North Koreans to forgo their quest for nukes. None of this has worked, largely because there are no sanctions or offers of aid big enough to eclipse the value the Kim regime sees in having a working nuclear deterrent to the United States. Anything more aggressive than what we have tried threatens to run afoul of #1, which nobody wants. So while nobody in the US government can admit it out loud, we're essentially stuck with a nuclear-armed North Korea with a limited strike capability against the United States.

That leaves us with Goals 1 and 2. These are indeed achievable using the same tool we've been using in Korea and elsewhere for the past three generations: deterrence. A basic deterrence posture does, in a sense, look a little like what my friend suggested: "ignoring" North Korea. They have weapons, we have weapons, we each make it clear to the other under what circumstances we will use them, and then we settle down and watch nothing happen. The Kim regime wants to deter an attack on its regime; we want to deter an attack on South Korea, Japan, and ourselves (the Chinese can take care of themselves). With both sides possessing a devastating strike capability, neither is likely to attack the other.

Of course, completely ignoring North Korea by  having essentially no relationship isn't really an option. There is always a need for contact to avoid misunderstandings, to facilitate basic interactions, to jointly govern the DMZ, and so on. Most of the time this kind of contact takes place well below the public's radar screen. Banning Americans from traveling to NK will probably help keep it there.

The longer-term danger which we, Seoul, and Beijing all recognize is: what happens if the North Korean system collapses economically? An internal crisis would likely spark a mass exodus of refugees, some of whom would be shot while fleeing but many of whom would wash up on South Korean and Chinese shores. A serious crisis could also lead to internal unrest, especially if the North Korean military begins to doubt the wisdom of backing Kim's rule or, worse, factionalizes. There is no viable political infrastructure or civil society in North Korea, so any crisis could lead to chaos for a long time before order is restored. And given the level of weaponry in the hands of the North Korean military, that chaos could lead to a lot of damage, both inside the country and in its neighbors.

Unfortunately, neither engagement nor disengagement can have much effect on the North's internal dynamics. If we see a food crisis coming, we can flood the country with food aid, which staves off the crisis at the expense of propping up the Kim regime. We should certainly maintain enough engagement to be able to see what's happening - any warning at all that a crisis is brewing is better than none.

In the absence of a serious internal crisis, North Korea is a significant priority for US foreign policy but probably not a very active one. Beyond deterrence and some level of engagement (in which we may want to follow the lead of our South Korean allies, since they bear the immediate consequences), there's really not a lot to be done. Even the Trump administration seems to have figured out that, while it's easy to criticize your predecessors for "not doing enough" on North Korea, the reality is that we don't have any other options and we do what we do because there is nothing else to be done.

Interestingly, China more or less shares our goals with regard to North Korea. They don't want war, they don't want an attack on the US (which would cause a war), and they would probably prefer that North Korea not have nukes. To the extent that we want to find areas to cooperate with China, North Korea is a promising field. But we should not suffer from the illusion that China can force the Kim regime to do things that we can't. If China squeezes North Korea by cutting off trade, that could well precipitate the kind of internal crisis that no one wants. In essence, the Kim regime has at least two forms of deterrence: it can cause unacceptable damage with its military, and it can also cause unacceptable damage by its own untimely death. It's a modern state version of a dead man's switch.

The best we can hope for, therefore, is a North Korea that is stable (if poor and a human rights disaster) and contained. There is actually a fifth goal, which we and China also share: preventing North Korea from sharing its nuclear or missile technology with other actors elsewhere in the world. That's an area where we can fruitfully cooperate. Export proliferation is also not a big priority for the Kim government, which cares for its own survival and not at all for anyone else in the world.

So the answer to the question of whether we can ignore North Korea is "yes, sort of". Energetic and engaged diplomacy is unlikely to change the Kim regime's behavior. Starving it (beyond the current levels of sanctions) could trigger a disaster. And so we sit, and wait, and hope to contain the damage when change eventually comes.