"It's not personal, it's business: or teaching structural explanation" (at an HBCU).

Author:Meyerson, Greg
Position:North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

Needless to say, the dominant explanatory framework among our students generally is still individualism, and when it comes to their career trajectories, American dreams and equal opportunities predominate. Where I currently teach, the Historically Black University (HBCU) of civil rights fame North Carolina A and T University, it is more complicated. The common sense ideology of our HBCU combines bits of "radical" rhetoric of a nationalist character--from revolutionary, militant nationalism to Afrocentrism--with protest rhetoric from the civil rights tradition fond of citing Frederick Douglass on the relevance of struggle to change, and a stunningly naive success rhetoric, that in isolation resembles undiluted American Dream talk. Many of my students (just like those at non HBCUs) think they will be, well, rich. A central characteristic of this HBCU common sense is then to combine incoherently (as ideology does) anti-establishment talk of structures and systems with "you can make it if you try" talk. What this means in practice is that class is actually collapsed into "race," so that structures and systems amount to "the white power structure." This "power structure" is not in the historical materialist sense a structure at all but a reification of a collective mind. My approach to teaching structure and system in this context requires the concept of forms of explanation in order to distinguish structural from individualist forms of explanation while allowing "racial categories" to be (momentarily) set aside--and thus to bring into view with maximum clarity the class structures and capitalist imperatives within which "race" and racism operate. Below, I share three instances of such practice.

Alan Garfinkel, in Forms of Explanation, offers a neat example of a structural explanation of a grade distribution. I have modified it for my own purposes.

There are 50 students in the class (we could make it one hundred in recognition of Occupy). The professor has imposed a severe curve on the distribution so that there can be 1 A, 5 Bs, 10 Cs, 20 Ds and 14 Fs. In the example, "Mary" gets the A. "She wrote an original and thoughtful final," Garfinkel notes (Garfinkel, 41). But this would be inadequate as an answer to the question "Why did Mary get the only A?"

It is misleading because it might give the impression that writing a good final was sufficient to get the A. You could go down the list of 50 students, offering up properties of their papers that led to the evaluation. "If we take each person in the class and ask why that person got the grade he or she got, we have fifty answers to the question why Mary got an A, Bob got a B," Greg and Marcial got Ds and Dick, or Richard, as the teacher would no doubt call him, unfortunately, received an F (Garfinkel, 43). But if we were trying to explain the distribution of grades, the answers to the fifty questions would have not just little to do but absolutely nothing to do with it. If there were no curve, the 50 reasons might carry explanatory weight. But here, it is the curve that explains the distribution. As you might imagine, I use this example to model crudely inequality in the global economy and so to make the point that the inequality cannot be explained by individual effort; that individualist explanations of inequality fail. And the explanation for the inequality must be structural.

The model allows a nice comparison between conservative, liberal and radical views of distribution. For conservatives, the distribution is as it should be. Insofar as there is in fact a curve imposed upon the distribution by the imperatives of a capitalist system, the conservative naturalizes the inequality. Liberals may very well want to eliminate the inequalities, but if our liberal fails to address the curve, for whatever reason, she will succeed only in moving around the inequalities, not eliminating them, whatever she may or may not want.

This particular version of the model leaves out sexism and racism. But a second version of the model incorporates racialized and gendered distribution effects, which would not change the distribution itself but would reshuffle (i.e. "moving around the inequalities") the names and identities so that a larger percentage of white men, for example, got the As and Bs. The first model where race and gender effects are abstracted out is crucial for understanding the precise role that racism and sexism play in reproducing class structures. The class structure generates the inequality. Racism and sexism distribute that inequality and legitimate it in order to facilitate social control and thus the reproduction of class rule. My more progressive students routinely use terms like "racial capitalism"...

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