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with Laura T. Hamilton and Kathryn Joyce

Carrie Welsh  00:01

You’re listening to the Ethics and Education podcast. This episode, “New Universities and Relational Equality,” features two voices: sociologist Laura T. Hamilton:

Laura Hamilton  00:14

What I want people to understand is that the hierarchies that we see today are about racial resentment.

Carrie Welsh  00:22

And philosopher Kathryn Joyce:

Kathryn Joyce  00:25

Addressing racial hierarchies is not primarily a matter of rooting out racists and removing them from positions of power. It’s a matter of eliminating dominant racial ideologies.

Carrie Welsh  00:35

When Dr. Hamilton came to UW to give a talk in 2019, Abby Beneke interviewed her about the book project, Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Universities, which Hamilton co-wrote with Kelly Nielsen, and which was just published. We asked Dr. Joyce to respond to Laura’s interview from a lens of relational equality. So first, you’ll hear Laura Hamilton, and then you’ll hear Kathryn Joyce’s response.

Laura Hamilton  01:12

Hi, I’m Laura Hamilton. I am a professor of sociology at the University of California Merced. I’m here in Madison, Wisconsin, giving a talk in the fall of 2019. The title of my talk is “Administering Austerity in the New University.” It is based on my book project with Kelly Nielsen; the book is entitled, Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding the New University.

Laura Hamilton  01:44

It’s focusing on the ways in which austerity, which is the voluntary deflation of public spending on higher education, has consequences particularly for racially marginalized students from low income backgrounds. And it started with the larger frame of the book, talking about the ways in which the defunding of education is really linked to race in the United States, that scholars who study neoliberalism, which is focused on the deflation of public spending and the increase in market competition, have not thought about race much. But we can look to race scholars, for example, Omi and Winant have a whole chapter in their book on racial neoliberalism. And in that chapter, they argue that neoliberalism in the US is, at its core, a racial project, and that it is racially motivated and has racial consequences. And so one of the big contributions of Broke is to think about how this plays out in the post-secondary sector, and how it really hurts the most marginalized students.

Laura Hamilton  03:05

I make the argument that defunding really happened at the same time that you get demands for access from students of color to research universities in the United States. And that you can really see the the way these things line up, particularly in the figure of Reagan, where Reagan was using sort of the same racial logics to defund the welfare state as he was in defunding higher education. He was anti affirmative action. He motivated the nation to defund higher education on the basis of not providing this to undeserving students, and particularly undeserving students from low income households who are of color. And so we traced that history out a little bit in the beginning of the book. And then we look at Okay, what does it mean? What are the consequences of underfunding public education? And who has hit the hardest and what organizations are hit the hardest?

Laura Hamilton  04:14

So we look at a category of organizations that we refer to as “new universities.” New universities are an evolving category. They serve a large segment of low income, first generation students and a very substantial portion of those students are underrepresented. So they are Latinx, Black, Southeast Asian, Native Island, Pacific Islander, Native American students. These schools are often at the bottom of their hierarchies in the state. They are research institutions. There are a growing number of them all around the country. A couple of those types of schools would be Arizona State University, University of Illinois Chicago, George Mason, also our two focal schools, the University of California, Merced and University of California, Riverside. And so we really look at how the resources flow or don’t flow to those schools.

Laura Hamilton  05:18

I think with this project, one of the pivot points for me was to really realize that race is super central to the organization of our post-secondary system. People recognize that it is class segregated, and sometimes they think that that is sufficient or that that you know, that race is captured by thinking about social class. And this project, we really emphasize that what we’re looking at is a racialized hierarchy and a racialized project. It, of course, scoops up, you know, some white kids from first generation, low income backgrounds, who aren’t able to utilize what Du Bois refers to as the “wages of whiteness.” They don’t have the other forms of privilege that send them to a more, you know, advantaged school surrounded by other white students. And they are sort of collateral damage of this. But what I want people to understand is that the hierarchies that we see today are about racial resentment; they’re about continuing a very long legacy of providing unequal educational opportunities for racially underrepresented students in the United States, and that a lot of the public’s willingness to roll back democratizing programs and spending such as, you know, a largely free post-secondary public system comes from the unwillingness to spend money for students of color. And so that’s, that’s where I’m at with this, this project is really wanting to emphasize that.

Laura Hamilton  07:19

Increasingly, over time, I’ve realized the importance of taking a historical lens in the work that I do, and that it’s entirely a historical and sort of nested lens. So looking over time at the context and looking at how both students within organizations respond to their organizational contexts, how organizations respond to larger political economic shifts, I basically don’t think that you can understand higher education today without having that kind of lens. And so that’s why we start Broke with a historical sort of look at how we got where we’re at over time. And why you even see this new category of universities that we refer to as “new universities.” Why they can make their organizational survival dependent on serving underserved students is because we basically blocked students of color from the top 200 research universities in the country through a whole variety of strategies.

Laura Hamilton  08:27

I sort of think about these things as sort of a constant struggle where privileged groups seek, they engage in opportunity hoarding, through organizations. And if they’re blocked, they find a new strategy. And so you can see the arc of time, lots of different racial projects, race class projects of privileged groups trying to use schools in different ways. And if something changes, for example, you know, segregation is no longer legal in K-12, you find a new way to do that through neighborhood-based schools, or you find a new way to do it tracking internal to schools. And then, you know, there has to be a response from groups that are marginalized to try to block that avenue. So you can kind of see a long arc of all of this, over time these projects–opportunity hoarding and blocking that and then another effort to opportunity hoard–so I think you really have to have that historical lens. And you also have to think about political economy, how organizations respond to that, and then how individuals internal to organizations experience what’s going on in this nested structure.

Kathryn Joyce  10:04

My name is Kathryn Joyce. I’m currently a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of California in San Diego. Next year I’ll be a postdoctoral research associate in Values and Public Policy at the Princeton University Center for Human Values and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs.

Kathryn Joyce  10:21

My research concerns issues related to egalitarian justice and the moral dimensions of educational policy and practice. I’m currently working on a project that explores conceptual and normative aspects of relational egalitarianism, which focuses on equality within social relationships among members of society. It opposes relational inequalities like oppression and domination. The goal is to develop a substantive account of the nature and value of egalitarian relationships, and consider what it implies for social and educational justice.

Kathryn Joyce  10:57

Hamilton examines the role race plays in the organization of our post-secondary education system. She highlights the racial hierarchy underlying reductions in public spending on higher education, and driving the creation of new universities. Hamilton focuses on describing how these trends affect racially marginalized students. But her broader point is that these trends are part of an ongoing project of hoarding educational opportunities for privileged groups in an effort to sustain racial hierarchy.

Kathryn Joyce  11:28

“New universities” are research universities that primarily serve low income and racially marginalized students. They’re usually viewed as inferior to other universities in the state, and tend to be underfunded. Hamilton explains that new universities emerged to meet the demand for higher education from students who are excluded from the top 200 research universities. The result is a post-secondary system that segregated by race and class.

Kathryn Joyce  11:57

Let’s accept Hamilton’s description of our current post-secondary system so that we can focus on the philosophical task of evaluating it. Given the racial inequalities Hamilton highlights, there seems to be something unjust about the post-secondary system. We can get a better sense of the injustice by examining the distribution of benefits and burdens the system produces, the factors regulating access to higher education, and the hierarchical relationships among racial groups. These dimensions are salient because we usually think that the justice of institutions is a function of the outcomes they produce, the processes through which they produce those outcomes, and the social relations they reflect or embody.

Kathryn Joyce  12:40

I think we can account for much of what’s wrong by considering how these aspects of post-secondary education fare with respect to three values: fairness, equality, and improvements for disadvantaged students.

Kathryn Joyce  12:54

Start with the distribution of benefits and burdens. Going to college offers significant benefits students gain knowledge and skills that can make their lives go better, and credentials that allow them to compete for a wide variety of jobs and social positions. Because college graduates compete with one another for job opportunities, the quality of their education and the prestige of the universities they attend are important.

Kathryn Joyce  13:20

These factors bear heavily on how much competitive advantage candidates have relative to one another. Hamilton claims that the top 200 research universities are, for the most part, accessible only to members of racially and socioeconomically advantaged groups. Students from racially marginalized groups are concentrated in new universities, which are apparently considered to be inferior, at least in terms of status, if not quality.

Kathryn Joyce  13:48

If universities are racially segregated in this way, then in terms of the labor market, the majority of racially marginalized students benefit less from obtaining a college degree than advantaged students. So the benefits of higher education are distributed unequally across racial groups in the US. As a result, we can expect to see more racially advantaged people in the most competitive jobs. Elite positions within society that come with increased social and political influence, like holding public office, are also more likely to be held by racially advantaged people.

Kathryn Joyce  14:24

That’s because elite positions are usually filled with people who attend elite universities. Unequal benefits from higher education then contribute to unequal representation within the private and public sectors. Aside from benefits individuals gain from elite positions, the groups they represent may also benefit. How members of the elite exercise their influence affects society. If they’re more responsive to the interests of their own groups, then lack of racial diversity among the elite is a serious problem. Even if members of the elite were genuinely opposed to favoring the interests of their own racial group, they may not be able to avoid doing so.

Kathryn Joyce  15:06

Assuming they attended elite schools, they probably haven’t had the opportunity to build relationships with people from other racial groups–racial groups that are underrepresented in those institutions. That means even those who are dedicated to addressing racial inequality in the US will likely be ill equipped to do so.

Kathryn Joyce  15:28

The burdens of attending college might also be distributed unequally. After all, when it comes to limited resources. benefits for some groups usually means burdens for others. Reductions in public funding for higher education place burdens on all students who can’t afford to pay out of pocket. But Hamilton claims that new universities received less public funding than other research universities, assuming their operating costs are comparable, that likely means they will offer less financial assistance for students.

Kathryn Joyce  16:01

If we think equality of outcome is important, then these inequalities give us reasons to object to the current system. Improving the prospects of disadvantaged students is another valuable aim of higher education. The relevant comparison here isn’t necessarily between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. It’s between the benefits the current system provides to the less well off compared to what they could otherwise expect.

Kathryn Joyce  16:28

By this standard new universities seem to fare better. New universities emerged to meet the growing demand for a particular type of college education. Presumably, existing research universities lacked the capacity. That means students who didn’t get into research universities had to settle for other types of institutions, like community college or for profit schools. New universities provide better options for these students. Since, according to Hamilton, students excluded from research universities are largely from marginalized groups, this aspect of the post-secondary system improves educational options for students who are disadvantaged along that dimension, compared to what they had before. Improving their options improves their prospects on the job market.

Kathryn Joyce  17:16

Of course, we may not be satisfied with these improvements for the less advantaged given that they still benefit far less than members of advantaged groups. However, there is one way in which racially marginalized students might benefit from attending new universities, rather than more selective research institutions.

Kathryn Joyce  17:36

Students from underrepresented groups are not in the minority at new universities, which might improve the quality of their experience. Presumably, since new universities emerged in response to their demand, those students can influence the character and culture of the school. Students from racially marginalized groups often report feeling uncomfortable with the culture of elite universities. Not only is assimilating difficult and in many cases undesirable, it takes a cognitive and emotional toll.

Kathryn Joyce  18:09

Further, new universities may be more teaching oriented than their more selective counterparts. If so, students who attend new universities are likely to gain greater educational benefits compared to students who attend universities that prioritize research. So even if students at new universities get an equivalent or better education, it may not be perceived as such prestige may continue to influence the market value of one’s college education.

Kathryn Joyce  18:41

We might doubt that justice in higher education requires equal benefits; we usually think some inequalities across individuals can be justified, including inequalities in economic goods and opportunities. Inequalities across racial groups, on the other hand, seems more problematic. One reason might be that higher education should benefit racial groups equally. But I don’t think this can be the whole story. When we say that groups benefit equally, we usually mean that the group averages are similar. But group averages conceal differences within groups, a group in which members enjoy similar benefits and a group in which large disparities exist could have the same average benefits. From the perspective of distributive justice, differences within groups matter, because it’s individuals who have claims of justice, not groups.

Kathryn Joyce  19:33

Although patterns of distribution across social groups are not themselves unjust, they can indicate injustice. Even if we don’t ultimately care about producing a particular pattern of outcomes, when outcomes closely track race, that’s a sign that the processes through which outcomes are distributed are objectionable.

Kathryn Joyce  19:53

It’s common to think that unequal benefits are justified when they’re produced by fair processes. If the principles governing access are fair, then the resulting outcomes are justified. Think of a competition. When the rules are fair and all competitors follow them, we must accept the results whatever they are. What causes a fair process for distributing higher education?

Kathryn Joyce  20:17

A common view says that access to opportunities must be genuinely open to all who wish to compete for them. No one should be denied access based on irrelevant factors including race. Essentially, all students should have a fair opportunity to attend the college or university of their choice, meaning that applicants who are equally qualified should have an equal chance of being admitted.

Kathryn Joyce  20:40

Within our current context, however, our race-neutral admissions process may be insufficient for justifying outcomes. If opportunities to become qualified correspond to arbitrary features like race, then race implicitly influences admissions despite race neutral criteria. Racially segregated neighborhoods and schools create systematic differences among racial groups. So a race-neutral assessment of qualifications may not produce fair results within a segregated society like ours.

Kathryn Joyce  21:13

We should also think about whether an impartial race neutral assessment is realistic. Even admissions officers who do their best to be impartial might be influenced by implicit biases. To fully appreciate the significance of these distributed issues, we must consider the underlying racial hierarchy.

Kathryn Joyce  21:34

Race is not a feature of individuals that we simply observe, like hair color. It’s a social identity that is imposed or ascribed. Individuals are grouped together by physical characteristics that are thought to indicate shared ancestry or geographical origin. People in these groups are represented as sharing further features having to do with character that differentiate them from other groups. These are taken to be morally significant characteristics meaning they justify differential treatment.

Kathryn Joyce  22:04

For example, Hamilton notes that the rationale for defunding universities invokes arguments that depict racially marginalized groups as inherently undeserving due to stigmatizing ideas about work ethic. Not only are racial groups differentiated in these ways, they’re arranged hierarchically in terms of social status. In the US, people identified as white have a higher social status than people who are identified as Black. These status assignments come with corresponding differences in power, authority, and considerability.

Kathryn Joyce  22:38

Shared understanding of racial groups leads to practices that perpetuate race-based status hierarchies. Such status relations count as unjust forms of inequality apart from any distributive dimensions or effects. This is the key insight expressed in the unanimous Brown v Board of Education decision. The Court recognized that segregated schools were unequal in an important sense, even if they’re equal in quality, or in terms of other tangible factors. This is because they generate a sense of inferiority. The decision in Brown and subsequent civil rights legislation indicates that racial equality doesn’t just refer to equality of wealth, legal rights or opportunities across racial groups; it’s also a matter of how people are socially identified and categorized and how the resulting groups are valued relative to one another.

Kathryn Joyce  23:28

These concerns about structural relationships among individuals and groups is a concern with relational equality. The value of relational equality helps explain why the distribution of higher education is unjust. Our institutions ought to be organized in ways that express respect for all members of society as equals. We should object to distributions that embody cause or are caused by unjust social relations. Based on Hamilton’s description, the post-secondary system is objectionable on all of these grounds.

Kathryn Joyce  24:03

Austerity measures that help funnel students of color to different universities that are purportedly inferior seem to be caused by and embody unjust social relations. The unequal benefits they obtain are likely to contribute to racial privilege and marginalization, which helps to sustain racial hierarchy. So part of what’s unjust about the current system is that it arises from and contributes to racial hierarchy, which is an unjust inequality and social standing.

Kathryn Joyce  24:33

However we decide to respond, it’s important to note that the response is justified by mutual respect and a concern for relational equality, not by reparations or compensation for historical injustice, and not by the value of diversity. Some of Hamilton’s claims concern the actual motivations of racially prejudiced people. She says that reductions in public funding stem from racial resentment and an unwillingness to spend money on education for students of color.

Kathryn Joyce  25:01

I can’t speak to the accuracy of these claims. But I want to point out that my evaluation does not depend on the racist motivations of bad actors. It’s not that some individuals embrace racist ideologies, it’s that the structure of our society is to a significant extent shaped by those ideologies. So addressing racial hierarchies is not primarily a matter of rooting out racists, and removing them from positions of power. It’s a matter of eliminating dominant racial ideologies, in part by disrupting the practices and patterns of behavior that sustain them.

Kathryn Joyce  25:35

Here’s the upshot. If we focus exclusively on distributive dimensions of higher education, we’ll miss the relational dimensions of inequality that Hamilton highlights. These relational dimensions help to explain the injustice of the distributive inequalities that Hamilton also identifies.

Carrie Welsh  25:59

Thanks for listening. If you want to hear more from the Center for Ethics and Education, subscribe to our podcast and sign up for our mailing list on our website. And we just joined Twitter so you can find us there too! Right now we’re making study guides about a few of our current episodes, including this one. So stay tuned for that. This episode was produced by Abby Beneke and Carrie Welsh and mixed and edited by Kellen sharp