Jun 01 2011

Anti-racism: gettin’ skeptical on yo’ ass

I’m a skeptic. For those of you who don’t know, that means that I subscribe to the general principle that the strength of a person’s belief in an idea or position should be proportionate to the amount of evidence. Ideas for which there is no evidence I do not accept, and ideas for which there is mixed evidence I can be persuaded either way.

I take an identical approach to all positions – if you show me the evidence that something works then I believe it. If the only thing you’ve got supporting your position is vague ideas and logical fallacies, you’ll be unlikely to persuade me. However, I’m only human, meaning that you’ll have to work harder to convince me of something I don’t agree with than you would to gain my agreement on a subject I support. This is bad skepticism – I should apply the identical standard to all things.

I care about race and racism, and that desire to understand the topic better has given me a position that is based partially on experience, partially on research, and partially on verifiable evidence (to the extent that these kinds of things can be observed scientifically). However, it behooves me to apply my same skeptical look for positions I agree with as I do for ones I don’t (like this morning’s example). In the interest of being a fair race skeptic, here’s a position that doesn’t pass muster for me:

University coursework should be marked anonymously to deal with concerns that potential bias against a “foreign-sounding name” can cost students marks, a report by the National Union of Students recommends. The report also urges universities to minimise “eurocentric bias” when drawing up curriculums. “This is critical, not only to demonstrate to black students that their learning reflects their own experience, but to promote understanding among their white peers,” it states. It is standard practice for universities to assess exams anonymously because of concerns about preconceptions relating to race, sex or previous knowledge of a candidate, but the NUS report calls for anonymity to be extended across all “assessment procedures”, which would include coursework…

The report, Race for Equality, is based on a survey of 900 students with African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds. The survey found that, while most students were positive about their institutions, 23% described the universities they attended as “cliquey” and 7% as “racist”. There was also widespread frustration that courses did not reflect non-white backgrounds and views.

I have the same criticism of this finding as I do of the Tufts study – it measures perception and not reality. Are these schools actually cliquey? Are they actually racist? We can’t use the results of student opinion surveys to draw that conclusion, especially given the multitude of possible explanations for the perception. One has to do actual observational work to justify making a huge policy change, not simply jump at every measurement of how people feel.

While I am generally inclined to believe the claims of the respondents (based on my own experience of what institutes of higher education look like as a black student), I think that these responses – like the ones from this morning – are useful and interesting areas for scrutiny. If the scrutiny yields results then a policy change is in order. However, until then, we should remain skeptical of all claims – even those we agree with; perhaps especially so.

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1 comment

  1. 1
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I dunno… While I agree that a concrete accusation of racism isn’t warranted, given the recent study from UBC (http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2009/05/21/ubc-study-finds-people-with-foreign-names-face-job-discrimination/), it seems highly plausible that there is likely to be some level of background racism at play in marking (especially in those departments where marking can be a little subjective).

    A professor at Langara told me once that while he was at [a different college in BC], after awarding failing students for what he perceived to be shoddy marks, he was explicitly told “we don’t fail Natives here”. To deal with that (both to deal with his own potential bias, and to cover his own ass), he started blind-grading.

    So while I agree that the study is bad… I think that there’s very little to lose from blind-grading across the board.

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