Writing Assessment and Race Studies Sub Specie Aeternitatis: A Response to Race and Writing Assessment
By Rich Haswell, Haas Professor of English Emeritus, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi
If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative.
I was filling up my car when I noticed my traveling companion staring at a man in the next row of pumps, staring with fixed malevolence. The man was a stranger. He was also black. With alarm I realized my friend was executing the Southern hate stare. I had never witnessed a hate stare before, only having read about it in John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me. I was dumbfounded. We were in the middle of Wyoming, and my companion, a generation older than me, had lived nowhere east of Great Basin country. I had never seen him betray a shred of racism before. The stranger studiously disregarded the stare, finished filling up his car, and drove away. We drove away. Appropriately enough, the station we left was that cultural mix of neon, bad food, fuel, tourists, and truck drivers called Little America.
This incident happened thirty-seven years ago. It was the kind of racism—hateful, publicly hostile, of a kin with sunset laws and burning crosses—that we all pray a larger America has left behind. Racism itself, of course, we have not left behind. It has just diversified. A “new racism” is still present in a legion of forms: structural racism, institutionalized racism, benevolent racism, color-blind racism, scientific racism, culturalist racism, internalized racism, ethnopluralist racism, whitely racism, everyday racism, microaggressive racism—racisms more or less covert, more or less hateful. These terms are the fruit of the new race studies, which have emerged hand in hand with the new racism. Race studies study race in order to understand it better, in order to find ways to deal with people of all races with sympathy and equity, in order, eventually, it hopes, to eliminate racial inequalities everywhere. Equality, of course, may not exactly fit some of the ways that the study of race applies its findings—think, for instance, of affirmative action. So recently Florida’s state board of education set grade-level test goals in reading at 90% for Asian students, 88% for whites, 81% for Hispanics, and 74% for blacks. The members of the Florida board of education do not hate Asian students in setting their particular bar so high but rather hope that whites, Hispanics, and blacks, given time, will catch up.
In doing so, of course, the board affirmed the existence of race. Herein lies a major contradiction in the new race studies. Often they start with critique (“critical race theory”) that argues “race” is a figment, a social, political, and ideological construction, and then they end by affirming and even celebrating racial categories and groups. A common line of argument first deconstructs “race,” then attacks “racism,” and then confirms the equality of all races.
The contradiction runs through Race and Writing Assessment, edited by Asao B. Inoue and Mya Poe (Peter Lang, 2012). At the top of the book, Inoue and Poe state the current truism that “race” is “artificial,” not biological but rather a “social and political construction” (4). And indeed the book tends not to use the terms “racism” and “racist” at all, preferring expressions such as “racialism,” “racialization,” “raciology,” and “racial formation” (exceptions are chapters by Valerie Balester, Nicholas Behm & Keith D. Miller, and Rachel Lewis Ketai). Yet over and over, as the book furthers projects and programs in writing assessment, it treats race as an objective reality, just as Florida’s board of education has done. In fact an early chapter in the book asks that registrars of USA universities record student’s race (Diane Kelly-Riley), and the last chapter wishes that France’s laws forbidding categorization by racial groups be abeyed for academic scholars (Élizabeth Bautier & Christiane Donahue). Despite Inoue’s start, nowhere afterward does the book deconstruct race. Puzzled, I ask a transgressive question. Does Race and Writing Assessment, in its commendable efforts to act with more fairness toward students of every color, help maintain racism? Let me state my question as a logical aporia. People cannot go about eliminating racism without constructing the notion of race, and the construction of race can only further racism.
This book made me realize again that today, for all of us, “race” is aporetic. It is so by its unavoidable nature as interim, by its being for the time being. One day—a future against which currently many groups fervently fight—interracial marriage globally will eliminate “race.” Eliminated will be the unavoidable first thought on meeting a stranger: “white,” “non-white,” “Asian,” “Amerindian,” “Pacific Islander.” Eliminated will be those euphemistic replacements for “race” that attract scholars in race studies: “population,” “people,” “ethnicity,” “color,” “diversity,” “differentiation,” “nonmainstream,” “minority.” Sub specie aeternitatis, so to speak, the subspecies, or more accurately, the varieties of Homo sapiens today called human “races,” will be no more. Color and pallor will blend into one. But until that phenotypic dispersal, we live racial aporias.
So to the point. Until then, any writing assessment shaped by anti-racism will still be racism or, if that term affronts, will be stuck in racial contradictions. Here are four racial aporias, subsets of the basic aporia expressed above, currently embedded in writing assessment and illustrated by Race and Writing Assessment, although not explicitly expressed there.
To correct racially aligned outcomes, writing assessment must apply benchmarks that are racially aligned. As a whole this book supports the notion that to “democratize” our classrooms (Nicole M. Merola, p.165), no racial group there should be “overrepresented” or “underrepresented” (Inoue, p. 84). Stratification by race, however, is not as straightforward as it appears. In 2007 at Juilliard, with student placement by SAT scores and educational background, enrollment into Fundamentals, the basic writing course, was 50% Asians and 14% whites. In 2010, after a change to an impromptu essay for placement, enrollment in Fundamentals was 41% Asian and 52% white (Anthony Lioi, p. 160). Lioi judges the change “more valid” because now the course population is “more representative of the general racial composition of the student body” (p. 161). This kind of benchmarking Lioi’s co-author Nicole M. Merola calls “isomorphism with the demographics” (p. 164). I won’t examine the unexamined assumption underlying this approach to validation of writing-assessment practices, that the percent of problem writers is the same in every racial group. But why the particular demographic chosen? Why not racial makeup of students applying, or of students graduating, or of USA population as a whole? More to the point, note that this racial isomorphism undercuts other kinds of isomorphism. Why isn’t Juilliard’s basic-writing placement system validated by isomorphic representation of social class, or nationality, or chosen academic major? There is some tacit discrimination going on. Why the effort to represent race evenly and not gender, for instance? Study after study has shown adolescent males performing worse than females on tests of verbal ability, and across the nation males are overrepresented in basic writing courses, yet I know of no professional interest in altering tests or writing placement systems to correct this misrepresentation. Naturally this book aligns itself with race. But as the poet Ai said, “The insistence that one must align oneself with this or that race is basically racist” (1980, p. 277).
Writing-assessment categorization by race erases the individual, yet it is only the individual that can erase race. As Ai continues, “And the notion that without a racial identity a person can’t have any identity perpetuates racism” (p. 277). My emphasis is on a person. Lioi and Merola’s chapter does not sustain a look at any individual student or any individual piece of writing. Nor do the majority of the other chapters (the two exceptions are studies of particular student essays by Anne Herrington & Sarah Stanley, and Zandra L. Jordan). What gets lost when the individual gets lost in discussions of race? For one thing, the notion of race as socially constructed. When “Latino” becomes an assessment category, effaced are persons who have been put in this category but whose individual qualities might well dispute the categorization—e.g., mother of Iberian heritage, father of Amerindian and African heritage. Not only do authors use “Latino” or “Hispanic” as a race category without raising the issue of the legitimacy of that categorization, I don’t remember one author in this collection even raising the issue of “mixed race.” It seems that when “racial formation” becomes the focus, race gets affirmed and the possible elimination of race—phenotypic dispersal—gets tabled. Ai is 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 African American, and 1/16 Irish. She is the future, but she doesn’t fit in this book. In Florida’s new reading standards, which set a passing rate of 74% for blacks and 90% for Asian students, what would they do with Ai, or with any student who also happens to be part African and part Asian? The issue marks one spot where race studies in writing assessment need badly to catch up. Women’s studies have been exploring ways out of the trap of essentialism for three decades now.
Writing research into racial formations disregards individual agency but individual agency fuels racial formations. Sartre recounts a woman who hated Jews because a Jewish furrier had ruined one of her furs. Sartre famously asks why she chose to hate Jews and not furriers. What is usually not cited is Sartre’s next sentence: “Why Jews or furriers rather than such and such a Jew or such and such a furrier?” His answer is that she has a “passion,” a “predisposition toward anti-Semitism” (1943, pp. 11-12). In a word Sartre is describing prejudice, the individual, psychological dynamic that the old race studies have investigated for a century now and that still helps drive racial discrimination. Race and Writing Assessment studiously ignores this dynamic. Inoue and Poe make quite clear why. “Racial formation,” they say, is “not about prejudice, personal biases, or intent” but about “forces in history, local society, schools, and projects—such as writing programs” (p. 6). The new racism is perpetrated not by individuals but by institutions such as language, curricula, or assessment systems. Inoue and Poe’s contributors agree. They investigate how race is written into machine-scoring programs (Herrington & Stanley), how writing rubrics are mono-cultural (Balester), how a grading contract system favors certain races (Inoue), how African American English is viewed at historically black colleges (Jordan) and at traditionally Anglo graduate schools (Behm & Miller), how directed self-placement systems (Ketai) and standardized placement testing (Lioi & Merola, and Kathleen Blake Yancey) may further racism, and how topics in French school assessment disadvantage immigrant students (Bautier & Donahue). This is all good, in part because it provides a new understanding of racism as embedded and hidden in verbal and social structures.
Yet the erasure of classic hostile individual prejudice—and I can’t think of one specific example in this book—can’t be all good, too. Surely acts of individual racial prejudice have not entirely disappeared from the college writing-assessment scene. Kelly-Riley remarks that in essay-evaluation sessions, “Faculty raters or the other members of the rating community may unwittingly introduce silently held, negative beliefs” (p. 33). I wouldn’t put it so gently. It wasn’t that long ago that Jan and I recorded a composition teacher saying about the student author of an anonymous essay, “he might be a black student and is not probably used to looking at abstractions” (Haswell and Haswell, 1995, p. 245). More to the point, the department-sanctioned rubric, or the grading contract, or the directed self-placement instructions, or the computerized diagnostic program was written by individuals and is applied, essay by essay, by individual teachers and students. Should we let off the hook the individual agency that is still necessary for institutional racism to operate?
Writing scholars position themselves outside institutional racism to understand it but their understanding concludes that there is no outside. By virtue of their scholarly perspective, can writing scholars also be let off the hook? Nowhere in Race and Writing Assessment does any contributor note the possible contradiction between their opposition to institutionalized racism and their belief that institutionalized racism is everywhere—a contradiction, by the way, that has been fully explored in sociological race studies (see Robert Miles, 1989 and Howard Winant, 2005). Behm and Miller talk of the “ubiquity of racism and the hidden power relations that perpetuate it” (p. 135). Ketai assures us that “Race is woven throughout the fabric of placement testing and through conceptions of literacy and educational identity” (p. 145). None of them voice the possibility that this pervasiveness of racial formations might include their own relations, conceptions, and identities. Behm and Miller propose that students can extract themselves through critique (“critical race narratives”) and Ketai offers contextualization as a way to rescue directed self-placement. But they don’t entertain the high probability that critique and context will remain racialized. Nor do the editors note that their book, which repeatedly castigates the stylistic criterion of high academic English as a racial formation, is entirely written in high academic English. And far beyond the margins of Race and Writing Assessment lies the troubling contradiction, often expressed in the literature of racism (“The horror, the horror”), that immersion in the disease of racial inequality risks contamination.
Logically there is no escape from an aporia. As in the hermeneutic circle, where knowledge of the parts is defined by the whole and knowledge of the whole is determined by the parts, in scholarly circles knowledge of institutionalized racism is held by members of the racialized institution. Racial aporias will end only when race itself ends. Primo Levi’s readers sometimes asked him if he understood the level of racial hatred that created the Holocaust. Still remembered is his astonishing response. “No, I don’t understand it nor should you understand it,” he wrote, “it’s a sacred duty not to understand” (1965, p. 227). For to understand is to subsume.
Less remembered, however, is Levi’s continuation a page later: “We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again” (p. 228). By “knowing” Levi meant “modest and less exciting truths, those one acquires painfully, little by little and without shortcuts, with study, discussion, and reasoning, those that can be verified and demonstrated” (p. 229). Levi is asking his readers not to forget that understanding may happen for once and forever but knowledge comes at different times and at different stages for different purposes.
This is why, despite what my own readers may be thinking, I applaud Race and Writing Assessment. Until race disappears, racism and racial formations will be with us, but in the interim, “little by little,” they can be exposed and ameliorated. In this book essay after essay ferrets out unfair writing-assessment practices. That takes courage, especially since some of the practices—such as writing rubrics, grading contracts, computerized evaluation, and directed self-placement—wield a hefty amount of professional esteem. And essay after essay shows more equitable outcomes when particular assessment practices are changed and applied. Scholarly study of racial effects have made the placement systems demonstrably less unfair at Washington State University (Kelly-Riley), the Juilliard School (Lioi), the Rhode Island School of Design (Merola), and Oregon State University (Yancey)—and study of teacher bias at the University of California, Merced and Fayette State University of North Carolina surely will improve teacher practice at those places in the future (Judy Fower & Robert Ochsner). This scholarship may involve Levi’s “modest and less exciting truths” and as I argue it may not have entirely extricated itself from race, but for certain individual students it has made writing assessment more just. During the millennia that it will take for human race to disappear, growth in racial justice is not impossible.
Let’s face it, though. In writing assessment, that growth will happen by short, incremental steps. As Chris Anson’s chapter makes abundantly clear, past compositionists have had an inclination to pretend their operations are free of race, constructed or not. As for future writing-assessment studies, the scholarly stare is hardly comparable to the Southern hate stare, but scholars must, as Levi cautions, constantly be on their guard. Kelly-Riley puts the situation honestly and exactly: “if classrooms are microcosms of our larger society—complete with problems of injustice and inequity—then it is not reasonable to think that all students or teachers or disciplines can be safeguarded against intentional or unintentional bias” (p. 32). But some can, as this book shows. This is the reason to congratulate the editors and contributors of Race and Writing Assessment.
Ai. (1980). Ai[Florence Anthony]. In F. C. Locher (Ed.), Contemporary authors. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
Haswell, J., & Haswell, R. H. (1995). Gendership and the miswriting of students. College Composition and Communication, 46.2, 223-254.
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Miles, R. (1989). Racism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Sartre, J-P. (1948/1943). Anti-Semite and Jew: An exploration of the etiology of hate. New York: Schocken Books.
Winant, H. (2005). Race and racism: Overview. In M. C. Horowitz (Ed.), New dictionary of the history of ideas. Vol. 5. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons.