I recently was invited to give an address at the Career and Technical Educational (CTE) STEM Conference in Utah. There were nearly 900 CTE teachers there from across the state focused on how to improve STEM education within in the CTE structure. Oddly, I was a bookend speaker to Mitt Romney. He gave the opening remarks, and I gave the closing remarks.
Apart from heralding teachers and praising the importance of the work they do, he gave an odd argument that I objected to. He said that there are “spurious arguments” in the ether that do not do well to serve the common good. For example, he suggested that the argument that everyone go to college is – spurious. Spurious means that something is false or fake, not what it appears to be.
“Americans believe that going to college is the gateway to higher wages and a better life. But, if everyone went to college, that wouldn’t be true, now would it? It’s a spurious argument. Not everyone needs to go to college”, he said.
The problem with college graduates who are born into wealth and privilege making arguments like that, is that they overlook the ugly reality of patterns. An alternative interpretation of his argument is that not everyone needs the opportunity for the kind of American life that he has. Not only is his argument wrong, it is offensive.
There are patterns that correlate with who gets access to American higher education – and more importantly, who does not. Who gets the requisite education to be prepared for college in the first place? Even with the right educational preparation, who can afford to go to college? Which communities have schools that adequately prepare students to even make the choice? Which communities volunteer their kids to be soldiers instead of students? How many congressman, governors, presidents or McKinsey executives did not themselves or have children that did not go to college?
His argument, like so many made from behind a podium of privilege, assumes a mythical meritocratic Americaland. If all students had equally strong educational backgrounds and some portion of them simply decided they did not want to attend college, then his argument is absolutely correct. The inequity in American education, however, is legendary and criminal. His argument, therefore, is spurious.
Atlanta is the second most segregated city in the United States behind Chicago. A dubious distinction in Martin-Luther-King-City. The segregation of people by race correlates with every social measure from education to health – including college attendance.
The color patterns are the patterns. The brown are the census tracks where the population of Black people is greater than 65%. The blue are the census tracks where the population of Black people is less than 7 percent – mostly more than 90% White. Atlanta is completely segregated by race. For most of the brown census tracks, the population of Black people is more than 90%.
The implications of Governor Romney’s argument are borne out in the plot – the correlation between the percent of people in a census track who have a bachelor’s degree or better and the average household income of that census track. Each census track that is identified on the map translates to an individual dot on the plot.
There is only 1 census track in the Atlanta metropolitan area where the population is greater than 65% Black and more than half of the people have a bachelor’s degree or better.
Said another way – there is only 1 predominantly Black community in Atlanta where more than half of the people are college educated.
Black people in Atlanta generally lack access to higher education. Not because they choose not to and everyone doesn’t need to go to college, but because the educational infrastructure of the city does not work the same way in the brown sections as it does in the blue sections. Life itself does not work the same way in the brown sections as it does in the blue sections.
The confluence of race and poverty is tantamount to a shackle. It tethers our people to the bottom of the plot – where the majority of Black communities in Atlanta do not have higher education and have the lowest average household incomes in the city.
Rather than trumpet specious claims based on spurious arguments, the Governor ought to help us envision an America where everyone does have the opportunity to attend and afford college. Rather than overlook the ugly patterns of history and race that damn the basic assumption of his argument, in his bid for U.S. Senate, he should confront them courageously.
Despite the Governor’s claim, in contemporary America, access to college makes the path towards higher household income and a better life easier. That is simply a fact.
In Atlanta, Black people can explain that to him.