Letters from our readers.
Jan. 29 1999 3:30 AM

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Blacks in Cadillacs


Hey, that was real funny when Scott Shuger suggested that computer use at historically black colleges may be about half of that at elite colleges because the black students prefer to spend their money on "hot cars and loud stereos." Too bad the remark is also racist.

When I say that I don't mean that Shuger is a white supremacist. But I do mean he shows some symptoms that are still common among well-educated whites. He feels entitled to interpret a politically charged question of racialized disparity through one experience he had with blacks. He doesn't seem to have enough experience with black folks in or out of college to know that he can't extrapolate black college student behavior from the black spring break celebration "Freaknik." He fails to grant black college students the same assumption he might grant whites--that affluent Freaknik partiers are a small subset of college students. He doesn't assume that serious students can party at Freaknik for a few days without damaging their academic achievements, or that Freaknik says nothing at all about those achievements. He doesn't assume that, as with whites, black students with enough money for expensive stereos usually also have computers, and that black students without money for computers usually don't have expensive car stereos or even cars. In short, he overlooks systematic, statistically verifiable inequalities between black and white, poor and affluent, non-elite and elite college students in favor of a favorite "culture of poverty" anecdote. It's not so different from the old way of discrediting evidence of black poverty or segregation by saying, "look, blacks in Cadillacs."

Is there any truth in the Freaknik anecdote? A recent study headed by Richard Flacks, a sociologist at U.C. Santa Barbara, suggests that partying and academic apathy increase in direct proportion to family income, that whites party more in college than any other racial group, and that students who had to "sacrifice" to attend college spend the most time on their academics (see the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 25, 1998). If affluent students gave their computers to poorer ones they would get a lot more use. It's only in Shuger's world that they trade Apple in for Pioneer.

--Christopher Newfield


Associate professor

Department of English

University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif.

A Private Opinion


Re Scott Shuger's idiotic statement on black colleges. Don't you realize that these are mostly private institutions! Many of them are quite elite in their own right. Think of Spike Lee at Morehouse College. Why would you assume that this comment has to do with African-Americans anyway? I teach at a school with many poor whites and Latinos, many of whom can't afford home computers or did not learn how to use them in high school. We do provide access to them here, but there is initial resistance.

Try to examine your assumptions about poverty and race before making any more statements of the type you made today. I was embarrassed for you.

--Patrick Kelly

Assistant professor of history


University of Texas at San Antonio

Scott Shuger replies: The reader e-mail response to this column is an unfortunate illustration of how race clouds the mind. Contrary to readers' complaints, I didn't assert anything about any group. The New York Times item at issue reported that a survey showed a great disparity in computer mastery between first-year students at elite private colleges and those attending traditionally black public institutions, and went on to suggest, via quoting two academics, that this was because of a great economic gap. My comment was that there was another possibility besides economics: namely, that black college students might disproportionately prefer spending their disposable income on items besides computers, such as sound systems and cars. I didn't say I know this to be true. I merely suggested that it would make sense to add some questions about this to the next survey. If it turns out that there's nothing to this, then so be it. What are readers so afraid of finding out?

A comment from the editor:Scott Shuger has the rare privilege among journalists of publishing his work unedited, partly because he is talented and trustworthy, but mainly because his "Today's Papers" column is posted at around 3 a.m. every day. When I read Today's Papers at a more reasonable hour that morning, I e-mailed Scott making points similar to those from these readers. I was hoping that Scott might see things differently in daylight as well. But, judging from his reply--which, as a Slate colleague, he has the right to make--apparently not.

Just to spell it out: The fact that blacks at Freaknik drive fancy cars does not prove--or even suggest--that fancy cars have anything to do with the alleged fact that 60 percent of black students lack Internet access. The most reasonable assumption is that Freaknik draws mostly from an affluent slice of black students that is smaller than, and included in, the other 40 percent. And Scott's I-only-called-for-a-study-what-are-you-afraid-of reply, it seems to me, is a cop-out. Presenting evidence X and calling for a study of Y clearly is meant to imply that X is suggestive of Y. Twice the percentage of whites than blacks have Internet access--but something like twice the percentage of whites than blacks probably also drive fancy cars. Should we study whether whites who don't have Internet access are buying fancy cars instead?


That said, let me add that Scott is not a racist--just a little weak on statistical inferences, like many otherwise excellent journalists.

Ruffed Up

In the Jan. 20 Today's Papers Scott Shuger's description of Charles Ruff as a foot-stomping defense counsel for the president is either mean or ignorant. The man is in a wheelchair, for crying out loud.

Shuger's description of Mr. Ruff's emotional remarks at the end of his presentation was also very wide off the mark. It's best to let viewers and readers decide for themselves whether what they are seeing and reading is genuine or not.

--Thomas Slinkard

Wheaton, Md.

Clinton Boom Busted

My heartiest thanks to Timothy Noah from " Chatterbox" for having the memory (more than two weeks is remarkable, according to standard propagandist lore) and the intellectual honesty to point out that Clinton can claim precious little credit for the health of our economy, though he consistently points at himself as the author of our current prosperity. As neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I am amazed at the party-and-ego-induced conjunctivitis that has given this pathetic president a mantle of glory as he balances precariously on the shoulders of those who came before him. Thank you, Mr. Noah. I appreciate your pen.

--Judith Lawson

Essex, Mass.

Jordan Full of Air

Hooray for Jonathan Chait. In his Jan. 19 " Breakfast Table," he is right that the continual hagiography of Michael Jordan ignores the damage that Jordan has done to the concept of teamwork. In playgrounds across America, young basketball players eschew team play in favor of taking on defenders one-on-one, dunking, and "taking over the game" in crunch time, because they want to "be like Mike," as the advertisements say. All this is the legacy of Jordan's continual selfish play and denigration and belittling of his teammates. Everyone remembers Jordan's last shot to take the lead in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Jazz, but does anyone remember the series of shots he missed in the 4th quarter to put Utah back in the game? Why wasn't any other Bull shooting the ball?

Michael Jordan is a great athlete. He happened to come along at the right time--when marketing was taking over sports and his flashy style of play could be successfully marketed. But Jordan could have never won on his own. Basketball is a team sport, and the continual Jordan hype has always ignored that, in the constant push to sell tickets and merchandise.

--Dilan A. Esper

Los Angeles

From a Basketball Fan

Thank you, Jonathan Chait, for articulating my thoughts and feelings flawlessly. I, too, hate Michael Jordan.

--Erik C. Troberg

Portland, Oregon