How to Reduce Racial Animus 101

    HarvardThe good parents in central New Jersey's West Windsor - Plainsboro Regional School District are embroiled in a conflict over best educational practices that has broken down along racial lines.

    On one side is Superintendent David Aderhold and the minority white community which favors relaxing homework requirements, ending high school final exams, and even easing up on the perfectionist ethos in the system's elite music program.  On the other side are Asian-Americans who comprise a majority of the parents in the school system.

    They feel their value system which extols hard-work and achievement is being rejected.  At a recent school board meeting, a first-generation Chinese mother claimed that lower school standards will "hold her and her children back."

    The evidence does suggest that the district is unusually competitive and many kids are feeling the strain.  But, to the perplexity of the superintendent and many other whites, the Asian-American parents aren't budging on their insistence that the school district continue to push kids to the limit.  Author Jennifer Lee explains:

    [W]hite middle-class parents do not always understand . . . how much pressure recent immigrants feel to boost their children into the middle class.  'They don’t have the same chances to get their children internships or jobs at law firms. . . So what they believe is that their children must excel beyond their white peers in academic settings so they have the same chances to excel later.'

    Obviously this is a battle without villains.  Both sides are doing what they believe is best for their kids.  My initial reaction is sympathy for overworked tweens and teens and an inclination to support proposals to alleviate their burdens.  Still my sons attend a very competitive public high school in a district that isn't so dissimilar from the one in the article.  Yet neither they nor their friends appear to be overly stressed from excessive demands.  Perhaps, the pressure on the high school students in West Windsor - Plainsboro isn't as great as some are making it out to be.

    In any case, the best solution is government programs to reduce wealth disparities and poverty.  As Jennifer Lee suggests, the pressure to perform stems from Asian parents' overwhelming desire to see their children solidly ensconced in middle-class comfort.  In our winner-take-all economy, parents understandably fear that anything less than extraordinary scholastic performance may lead to life-long economic struggles.  In 2011, 15% of Americans were impoverished with more than 1 in 9 Asians facing economic privation.  The Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reported three days ago that "most Americans have less than $1,000 in savings."

    So the price in lifestyle and comfort that many Americans may pay for not achieving academically is a very steep one indeed.  Moreover, even among those who attend a top college or university and go on to graduate school, the winnowing process is unusually harsh in America today with the super rich far outdistancing the merely rich.  In this environment, it is perfectly understandable that some working and middle-class parents put extraordinary demands on their children and expect the school system to do the same.

    What's the answer?   Flattening out wealth distribution comes immediately to mind.  Reinstituting top marginal tax rates in the 70% or higher range; tightening up the safety net so nobody is homeless, hungry, or without health care; bringing good jobs back to America via wise trade policy; and imposing a living wage on employers are obvious remedies to the racial animus in central New Jersey.

    Doesn't it seem likely that with these remedies in place, the benefits of finishing first in one's class, graduating from Harvard or Stanford Phi Beta Kappa, and taking a job at Goldman Sachs or Google won't seem that much better than more prosaic alternatives?  And, when this becomes the case parents will reduce the pressure on their kids to be spelling champion, first violin, a top mathlete, and ultimately valedictorian all wrapped up in one.



    I think there are cultural differences that are not economic. There will always be competition in the system. Why would people not compete for a job at Goldnan Sachs when the work is low stress physically and intellectually rewarding? We can have a more even economic system (and we should) but a job at an investment bank is always going to have advantages over coal mining. Being class valedictorian will always have meaning. A Harvard education has meaning beyond future earnings prospects.

    Of course we should solve the problem of economic inequality but we should not pretend that this is a panacea.


    Thanks Michael.  We obviously disagree on the extent that wealth disparities and economic injustice cause tension between identifiable groups of people.  Here is a relatively (for me) brief response.

    1) The blog addresses the best way to "reduce" not eliminate racial animus.

    2) I think you overstate the non-pecuniary benefits of working at Goldman, Sachs and you ignore the costs.  Consider the apparently high-level of suicides in the financial services industry as described by Emily Frost in International Banker.

    3) Regarding the less attractive nature of physical labor, in Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter, there's a beautiful passage in which the titular character who has been reduced to working-class status picks hops for a week or so to make money.  Although the work is very difficult, laborious, and the hops at first prick her fingers painfully, she ultimately finds much beauty and joy working the land with others.  Orwell's point is that the work itself is not humiliating or unworthy.  Instead, he condemns those who pay farm laborers subsistence wages and look down upon them.

    There should have been a lot more bankers committing suicide. The paucity of hard kiri is a scandal in itself. Yes, when you lose a billion dollars you should kill yourself, as when you get caught screwing your clients on a massive scale. But your anecdotes are over 5 years - hardly statistically significant, sadly.

    1) Fair enough.  I shouldn't move your goal posts!

    2) What do you really know about investment banking, investment management or the types of things that finance people do?  Because advising two companies about a potential merger or advising a wealth management client about something as essential as their life and legacy is actually pretty interesting work.  It's competitive, it's hard and it can be dreary and dull, but it can also be exciting and, yes, intellectually stimulating.  I know some professional portfolio managers who are just incredibly clued in to how the world works.  They have access to influential people and to incredible amounts of data and commentary, not to mention quantitative geniuses at the ready.  Have you ever played with a Bloomberg terminal?  Hal... you can look up a specific cargo ship on that thing, read it's manifest, pinpoint its exact location and pull up a satellite image of the ship at sea.  To say that such work is not intellectually stimulating is just a lazy criticism.

    3) Physical labor is only less attractive because it is dangerous, either quickly or slowly.  It would be fine if these jobs were all like NFL careers, where you get paid big sums with the expectation that you will only be able to do that kind of work for 5-10 years.  But when physical labor pays a wage so low that you cannot save for a retirement at 65, much less the retirement you might really need at 50, it loses some of its appeal despite its inherent dignity.

    2) Again you moved the goal posts.  I never said investment banking isn't exciting and intellectually stimulating or that it doesn't provide non-pecuniary benefits.  My point was/is that it's not just a bed of roses.  There are lots of thorns in there - including often incredibly long hours, sometimes extremely difficult supervisors, a constant temptation to engage in unethical behavior, the possibility that bad luck at any point can derail a particular deal, and the fact that the business really is even more soulless than most others - you are ultimately judged based on how much money you bring in to the firm.  Nothing else really matters. 

    Regarding your rhetorical question - "what do I know about investment banking" - I think I know more than most people who haven't worked in the field.  But I don't believe this kind of discussion is productive in the least so I won't engage in it.

    3) We mostly agree here but I don't think physical labor is only less attractive because it's dangerous.  Sometimes, it's not dangerous but it's repetitive, dull, and not intellectually stimulating.  In any case, I guess you're persuaded by my point here.  If we reduced economic inequality - by ensuring that those doing physical labor are paid more and are guaranteed a secure retirement and those who engage in investment banking ultimately take home a lot less - then the parents in central New Jersey wouldn't be as desperate about challenging their kids to achieve academically.

    I read the article several days ago. It is interesting viewing the disagreement between Asian and white parents with white parents thinking the Asians are pushing too hard. There is a search for a solution that soothes the white parents. Interestingly, if black parents pushed for the same lowering of standards, they would be viewed as attempting to destroy the educational system.

    We're all centrists at heart - you're either too much or too little, while my way is the perfect compromise. In Rome, they think Africa starts to the south, and Teutonic barbarians are to the north. Milan thinks Tuscany's already Africa, and the Huns don't start till Switzerland.

    As an actual attendee of a high school in this district, I can tell you straight up that money isn't really the issue here. In order to live here, people must pay awfully high taxes, the only reason being the school district. Nothing else in my town is noteworthy. Only about 4% of my school is eligible to receive some kind of lunch discount. The problem here is that we're being groomed merely to place checkboxes into scantrons, and many of the teachers here are apathetic to actually getting their kids interested in the subjects they teach. The real reason our super removed the midterms and finals wasn't because of the stress it gave students, but because they were arranged awkwardly and didn't do much for the final grade, so he removed them altogether instead of correcting the problem. I do agree, however, with your point about both sides being correct as well as the entire issue being a bigger deal than it really is. Our curriculum before the changes was great, but there were things wrong with it that should've been corrected instead of removed.

    As a parent of a freshman student in College, looking back on the 1 to 12 experience prompts me to remember how some parents saw the process of education as a game of musical chairs where only some people would have a place to sit after the music stopped.

    For that group, no amount of shared prosperity will change the dynamics of the limited number of jobs they see as available. The point of view is more of an opinion about means of production than social justice. I don't think of this perspective as an expression of any particular self-identity (racial or otherwise) because it pops up everywhere.

    Ultimately, this is how we all experience life.  I remember, when I was a factchecker/reporter at Forbes that we had a meeting where the editor told us all point blank, "all of you are not going to be promoted to writer" (the most coveted promotion for our group), "because the magazine doesn't need that many writers, even if we never hire another person."  Of course you wind up looking around the room wondering who is going to eat your lunch.  The thing is, it's true.  Of course it's true.  There are desirable things in this world that are also in limited supply.

    We can do a lot to address inequalities. But, of course, in the end, when things and positions are in limited supply, we will all have to fight for them and animus will result. Until we hit the Star Trek gold mine where scarcity is eliminated and anyone can have a Ferrari just by asking a computer to assemble one, we're locked in competition.


    Among well-compensated reasonably satisfied, i.e., privileged, people there's a tremendous resistance to acknowledging the damage that wealth disparities/economic injustice does to our society and the way it poisons relations.  I explain why here.

    Agree with some of the issues. No one is to blamed in these issues. the only way which can eradicate all these is our way of we think about other races. The only thing which i think is live in harmony and let all to live with the same feel.

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