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Race and education

June 22, 2020

When I was a freshman at the University of Texas, the new Physics-Math-Astronomy building recently had been renamed in honor of Robert Lee Moore. The famous mathematician had taught there for a half century before retiring. He would die later that year.

He didn’t like blacks. That may sound a strange thing to say today. Many varieties of racism were openly expressed then. Just a half dozen years earlier, George Wallace had made a third-party run for president, campaigning on an openly segregationist stance. He took 13% of the popular vote. And carried four of the deep south states. Most everyone I knew who voted for Nixon said they would have preferred Wallace, whom they viewed as more a kindred spirit. They just wouldn’t waste their vote on a third party.

It is popular today to think that this nation put discrimination behind it when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Laws take some time to change culture, especially laws as controversial as that one was. The losing side doesn’t immediately give up. It takes years for courts to limit legal challenges and create the case law that turns the broad sweep of legislation into concrete rules. It takes decades for those changes to propagate to corporations and universities and other institutions. Racism remained common. Moore was an example, not an exception. As a tenured professor, he could treat students pretty much as he wanted. Academic freedom had broader scope then.

I suspect RLM Hall now will be renamed. I chuckled at this bit from the article:

During the event, math professor Mike Starbird said the accusations of sexism against Moore were questionable.

Carolyn West, who pointed me to that article, studied mathematics under Moore. She says that he was both a sexist and a racist, the difference being that he liked women while he didn’t like blacks. Our social view includes affinities and expectations and norms. Those don’t all align, complicating both individual outlook and culture. She remembers Moore running black students out of his classes. Had I a minority child, I suspect that would upset me quite a bit more than the racist branding images now getting so much attention.

That kind of exclusion was a major impetus behind the Civil Rights Act. Many misunderstand why that law has had such large effect. The answer is that it targets corporations. It does not make individual bigotry illegal. It does not restrict the behavior of small employers. To this day, a Texas shrimper who wants to hire only other Vietnamese may legally do so. If he has less than fifteen employees.

What that law mandates is that larger employers must not discriminate on certain grounds. Nor banks in lending. Nor universities in treatment of students.

On the surface, that law affects only institutional behavior. But, oh, what a change that makes in culture. As corporations adapted to it, they required employees to stop expressing views that endorsed discriminatory intent. In everything from official business documents to the jokes pinned to bulletin boards. Even some expression in private became suspect. After all, it is hard for a corporation to argue that it doesn’t discriminate in hiring when an executive making those decisions is caught saying something bigoted. Even if in off hours.

Saying that corporations adapted, in this case, meant also that those working in corporate culture adapted. Doing so was easier for liberals than conservatives. Not just because they more likely hold modern views about race and sex. That was some of it. I suspect more importantly, they hold their views lightly, as personal preference or personal history or empirical nit, easily set to one side for the purpose of career, rather than as great truths about humanity.

When I was eleven, my mother took us to a church near the University of Texas campus. Its preacher taught that black history was a consequence of the curse of Ham. That wasn’t one of its major teachings. Just something the preacher would explain alongside other, more important matters. Despite that church’s old-fashioned teachings, and despite that the regular congregation was lily white, it would attract the occasional black coeds. In later years, I would hope that they were attending as a study for some sociology or religion class they were taking. I suspect the reality was more prosaic.

Social conservatives think their tradition does hold great truths, about sex and origins and social roles. They chafe that their truths have to be set aside. Which they see as oppression by the elites. They conjure all sorts of conspiracy theory to explain why that happens so much in the modern world.

The reality is simpler, if less interesting. Those who work for corporations have to fit into the constraints of corporate culture. And law has mandated that corporations adopt modern rather than traditional views of race and sex. Which they have been happy to do, because that generally fits well with expanding their markets.

Liberals as well as conservatives are likely to underestimate that mechanism. They may want to think that greater equality came through changes in churches and in media, through the efforts of neighborhoods and individuals. I suspect it mostly came from where we spend our lives working. That includes universities. Not just because they are covered by civil rights legislation, but because they have evolved to where they are administered and marketed much like corporations. Faculty no longer are a kind of secular high priest. They are just a middle ranked employee. The fact that someone is quite good at teaching people to be mathematicians means they can be replaced with someone else, also able to do that, who doesn’t rub the corporate ethic the wrong way. If that has been bad for academic freedom, it has been good for civil rights.

I took a topology course from Mike Starbird, some four decades past. I doubt the University of Texas is any worse because some of its Confederate statues have been removed. There will be more loyalty regarding the school song. What I hope is that undergraduates still find it a place where they can study literature and history and philosophy and mathematics and physics and zoology all at the same time, from excellent teachers. Today, with less hindrance because of their race or gender or sexual orientation.

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