December 12, 2020
To the Editors of The Spire:
When the editors of a student publication like The Spire undertake to publish a criticism of a “Thanksgiving Letter” that I sent to my students (and which I subsequently published in RealClearPolitics and The Fenwick Review) as they did on December 4, I would not normally undertake to submit a reply. My job is to teach, advise, and engage in scholarship, not normally to participate in public debates with students I don’t know. However, the subsequent appearance in The Spire of a letter from the College Provost and Dean, Margaret Freije, praising the Spire editorial for “provid[ing] specific evidence that contradicts some of [my] more sweeping assertions and generalizations,” compels me to respond, simply in order to defend my professional reputation, within the College and outside it.
Contrary to the impression created by Dean Freije’s letter, I find only three or four specific factual allegations in the Spire editorial that challenge anything I wrote, and each of them is highly dubious. First, the editorial questions my denial that inequalities among different racial and ethnic groups in contemporary America – in such areas as income, education, crime, and incarceration rates – are typically the consequence of legal obstacles to anyone’s advancement by asking how else one might explain the fact that African-Americans are “incarcerated at five times the rate of white people.” The answer, quite simply, is that different rates of incarceration provide no evidence whatsoever of official discrimination, unless they exceed the rate of serious crimes committed by members of different groups. The latter claim has by no means been demonstrated. (See, among many other sources on such misuse of statistics, the great African-American social scientist Thomas Sowell’s book Discrimination and Disparities [revised ed., Basic Books, 2019], especially, with reference to crime and arrest statistics, pp. 94-6. In this context, Sowell makes the important observation that “for as long as homicide statistics have been kept in the United States, the proportion of homicide victims who are black has been some multitude of the proportion of blacks in the population,” with “the vast majority” of those whose killers were identified having been “killed by other blacks” (p. 95; my italics). Given such facts, it shouldn’t be surprising that a large majority of black people polled on the issue of “defunding the police” during the past year oppose reducing such funding, favoring either maintaining existing levels of policing or increasing it. (See also, on the crime issue, ch. 10 of Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s classic study America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible [Simon and Schuster, 1997].)
The editors’ next charge, similarly drawn from the NAACP’s “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” supposedly denying that differential crime rates are a contributing factor to differing levels of prosperity between black people and others, is that the fact that “African Americans constitute 33% of illicit-drug-related incarceration, despite accounting for only 5% of illicit-drug users and 29% of the arrests.” But the figure on drug use is quite unreliable, since it depends entirely on self-reporting, as described in the National Survey on Drug Abuse. Not only does the cited figure make no distinction among the kinds of illicit drugs being used (marijuana, at one extreme, vs. heroin and cocaine, on the other), it makes no allowance for the likelihood that African-Americans would be less likely than others to admit to using illegal drugs, even in an anonymous survey, out of fear that the admission would somehow be traced to them, resulting in their punishment by what they might fear is a “racist” legal system. (It is noteworthy that despite subsequent criticism of a 1986 law that made the penalties for possessing or selling crack cocaine [more widely used by blacks] much harsher than those for powder cocaine [more popular among whites], the enactment of that law was backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whose members proposed even tougher penalties on crack, out of awareness of the ruin that it was causing in the neighborhoods they represented: see Thernstrom and Thernstrom, p. 278.)
The same misuse of statistics is present in a Wisconsin study cited by the editors that was reported in the New York Times and which found that “white people who were arrested had a 25% better chance of their charges being dropped,” while according to the NAACP “African Americans account for 35% of people executed under the death penalty despite being 13% of the United States population. Here again, the reported statistics tell us nothing about the relative seriousness of the charges that were dropped, or the degree of heinousness of particular crimes that were committed by members of different races. (As an educator I would much sooner see Holy Cross students required to take a course on the use of statistics – or at least tested on the subject, as used to be done at Harvard – than subjected to one devoted to indoctrination on matters of supposed “social justice.”)
It is hard for me to make much sense out of the two subsequent paragraphs of the Spire editorial, which while acknowledging that slavery “was not an American invention, and that Native American tribes engaged each other in warfare,” berate me for “lessen[ing] the consequences of violence in our country’s history.” Far from doing that, I in fact reminded my students of the terrible toll that America’s young men have suffered in our country’s wars, and encouraged them to view Ken Burns’s remarkable documentary series “The War,” so as better to appreciate the sacrifices that previous generations of Americans (including members of all races) made in the Second World War to preserve our country’s, and the world’s, freedom. Again, the purpose of my letter was to encourage my students to be genuinely thankful, particularly at this time of year – in contrast to the disposition of egotistic publicity-seekers like Colin Kapernick who want to display their scorn for our heritage. There is no nation on earth that has a morally unblemished history; but unlike the editors, I choose indeed, especially amidst the ongoing anarchy in places like Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland, to “focus on the positives” about our country – which are what drew my wife’s and my fathers and grandparents, and all other (non-enslaved) immigrants here in the first place. Much as I endeavor to engage my students in the Socratic quest for truth, I would be morally negligent if I did not publicly celebrate rather than denigrate the institutions and sacrifices that made it possible for me to enjoy the privilege of teaching freely, and for my students to study freely, in preparation (on their parts) for what I hope will be publicly beneficial careers as well as lives of good citizenship.
I am appreciative that the authors acknowledged, without complaint, the College’s continued adherence to the AAUP’s policies on academic freedom, including the AAUP’s condemnation of any attempt to censor speech that may be unpopular. In this regard I was also delighted by Fr. Boroughs’ own Thanksgiving exhortation urging members of the College community to listen to people whose views differ their own rather than “shout them down.” I do regret, that the College has not always adhered to this policy in recent years, most notably in facilitating the literal shout-down of Heather MacDonald’s address last fall (designed to block half the seats available in Seelos Theater from being occupied by students and faculty who wanted to hear her speak).
I am hopeful that we can all continue to act on the principle that the foremost purpose of an institution of higher learning is to engage in the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, behaving respectfully towards one another and recognizing that the intellectual disagreements that inevitably arise among us are not typically reducible to moral ones.
David Lewis Schaefer
Professor of Political Science