Friday, July 27, 2007

I received some flak for the previous post ...

A quick note about the previous post. I'm getting flak from a couple of people for taking that quote out of context (more on this later). Nitin went on to ask me if I had any substantive criticism.

No, I offered no substantive criticism, because I didn't think the rest of Atanu's post deserved any. That expectations matter is a no-brainer, but a long-winded post (with the usual gratuitous lectures about George Akerlof's Nobel-winning research and Game Theory) that tries to imply that expectations are Very Very Important (if not All-Important) is to overstate the case. I mean, what about incentives that economists seem to love so much? Aren't they important, too? What about intrinsic motivation? What about institutions that could counteract the corrosive effects of low expectations? What, indeed, about ways in which people have overcome great adversities in spite of low expectations imposed on them?

Blaming expectations for the poor status of a group (particularly if the expectations come from within) is a profoundly -- and conveniently -- conservative idea; it affords us the luxury of not having to think about interventions that could help overcome the nasty effects of low expectations.

Heck, if Atanu wants to overstate his case, well, I have very little to say about it (except what I said above -- under duress!). But I can certainly highlight the quality of supporting evidence he has chosen to use. For example, if one wanted to cite some evidence for how expectations affect outcomes, one could have chosen examples of great teachers who transformed their students through a clear articulation of high expectations [Herbert Kohl is an example cited by many]. One could also cite other kinds of interventions that teach kids to change their perceptions about their own 'improvability' and lead them to perform at a higher level [see for example, the work by Carol Dweck].

Instead of references to such people or their work (there's tons of this stuff for anyone who cares to look), what we get is some boilerplate about how Jewish Americans and African Americans are predisposed to different life outcomes because they face different expectations. This 'evidence' comes to us with no ifs, buts or other qualifiers. This 'evidence' is presented to us as if the different expectations are the most important -- if not the only -- difference between these two groups.

A final comment about the accusation that I used the quote without providing any context. The context is what the link takes you to, and let me just point out that that adding that context makes Atanu's position more problematic. If African Americans are under negative expectations, and if expectations are Very Very Important (as Atanu's post claims), it leads to conclusions that are decidedly ugly -- particularly when they are not accompanied by qualifiers and disclaimers. I will just leave it at that.


  1. Rahul said...

    I just posted on your previous post. I didn't see anything controversial in Atanu's article. But taking up the specific questions of expectations that one has from Jews and blacks, and the specific quote you highlighted, let me make a guess that you read it differently from how Atanu wrote it (or how I read it).

    I think Atanu is talking of expectations when the child is growing up. A Jewish kid from Brooklyn is more likely, at home and at school, to face expectations of doing well in studies and going on to a good degree programme at a university. A black kid from a broken inner-city home and hip-hop gangsta friends is more likely to face pressure not to study, and to be derided for being too "white" if he does. It certainly happens, a lot, even if some may dispute how widespread it is.

    What you are worried about (your "ugly" conclusions), I am guessing, is employer expectations: an employer shouldn't judge candidates based on Jewishness or blackness. That's a completely different issue.

    Social and peer-group expectations are a reality that we should acknowledge and figure out how to deal with (and change if possible, but ultimately change must come from within). Discrimination from teachers, or from employers, based on expectations from racial stereotypes, is something not to be tolerated -- no question about that. But recognition from teachers, especially in primary school, of differing socio-economic backgrounds and their effect on students, is certainly important. If a primary school teacher treats the Jewish kid and the black kid equally and ignores their environment, that's not good: a good teacher should recognise the different expectations from society and compensate for them. Many employers would also compensate ("positive discrimination") -- we don't see enough of that in India; if we did there wouldn't be any need for reservation in the private sector.

  2. Atanu Dey said...

    Thanks Rahul.

    Abi, perhaps you are confusing an explanation with endorsement. The explanation may or may not be correct but recognizing the fact that two groups have different characteristics should not immediately open a person to accusations of racism.

    Here's a story. The father asks, what's wrong. The kid replies, my tummy hurts. Father say, must be something you ate. Kid says, maybe it is my stomach and not the food.

    Seeing prejudice where none exists is troubling.

  3. Abi said...

    Rahul: Thanks for making some important points. I am broadly with you on many of them (teachers who need to compensate for different expectations, punishing discrimination, the need to study and understand peer group pressures, etc.).

    I want to highlight something else: I am struck by the care with which you convey your thoughts. For example, when you say something like, "A black kid from a broken inner-city home and hip-hop gangsta friends ..."; you certainly didn't say, "Americans of African descent".

    The "ugly" conclusions that I am referring to are ugly only because of the determinism that they imply, and because of the loose use of words for large groups in a way that tends to stereotype their members.

    Atanu: Thanks for your comment. After reading this post, if you still think this is about 'prejudice', well, good luck to you.