Confronting Anti-Blackness and Systemic Racism at USC

James E. Moore, II

Editor's Note: This letter is written in response to USC's recent statement on "Black Lives Matter." It is posted here with permission from Professor James Moore.


June 23, 2020

Dear Prof. Folt,

Thank you for your note of June 11, 2020, outlining six immediate actions by the University of Southern California to “confront anti-Blackness and systemic racism.” I offer the corresponding response below.

Removal of the name Von KleinSmid from the Center for International and Public Affairs – As you note, Rufus Von KleinSmid served for 25 years as the University’s fifth president. You fail to mention that he is the individual most directly responsible for USC’s transition from a regional, backwater institution into a research powerhouse. He laid the foundation on which you and I stand. The former Von KleinSmid Center was dedicated in 1966, two years after his death, to commemorate his legacy of still unparalleled achievement. It was not dedicated to his shortcomings, which are real but separate outcomes. This building was no early-20th century confederate military statue erected by white political authorities to intimidate and subordinate a black electorate. It was an acknowledgment that we at USC are able to do the work we do in no small part because of Von KleinSmid’s leadership. The unannounced, midnight reversal of this dedication after 54 years is more an act of revisionism than rectification.

Renaming the former Von KleinSmid center only makes sense if it improves the fund-raising posture of the university, but the fact that it took less than 12 hours for you to act on the vote you extracted from the Board of Trustees executive committee makes it look more like a surrender to the Jacobins.

Community Advisory Board for the Department of Public Safety (DPS) – I lived just off campus as senior tutor for a USC residence hall from the summer of 1989 through the spring of 2015, and worked closely during this period with multiple DPS administrations. The current DPS leadership is sophisticated, and the rank and file are well trained, well educated, and conscientious. DPS pursues a guardian policing model rather than the Los Angeles Police Department’s more militarized, warrior approach.

The arrest authority afforded DPS officers under Section 830.7 of the California Penal Code leaves USC positioned to deliver consistently good outcomes for the population that matters most to us, our students, but also to the local community. DPS has collaborated with multiple community partners on many local security projects funded by the USC Good Neighbors Campaign. Further advice from a body incorporating even more community voices is constructive on its face, but there are no grounds to be skeptical of what the USC Department of Public Safety has already achieved.

President’s and Provost’s Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – You attribute this to the 2015 task force “having deans appoint diversity liaisons in each school.” Initiating these functions has typically meant hiring new, well-paid, non-instructional staff.

You, Provost Charles Zukoski, and Senior Vice President, Finance James Staten have reported to the faculty that USC faces a fiscal year 2021 budget deficit of between $300 million and $500 million as a result of revenue losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. So dire are our fiscal circumstances that the Provost and the Senior VP, Finance have notified USC faculty and staff of your unilateral intention to pause employer contributions to 401(a) employee retirement accounts for the duration of 2021. No endowment resources are to be expended to close the budget gap.

This anticipatory repudiation of faculty employment agreements ignores a glaring source of manageable expense: USC’s relentless, decades-long growth in administrative staff. Inelastic demand from student families made it possible for the university to fuel this overhead growth with many years of systematic tuition increases. Inevitably, these increases were publicly attributed to the cost of the faculty, when in truth they were much more a function of management decisions that swelled non-faculty ranks.

I do not know exactly what share of USC’s costs are driven by growth in USC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs and staff, but it is substantial. A large number of staff members are involved, and they come with advanced degrees, most often in education.

Unfortunately, this staff complement is often counterproductive and is always expensive. They tend to automatically attribute all differential outcomes across groups defined by race and gender to racism and sexism. You report that a new task force will “identify structural and institutional processes that perpetuate racism and inequality.” I am skeptical that USC has any such processes: We are scrupulous here about our responsibilities to members of protected groups, and go to great lengths to attract participation from and protect the interests of any and all underrepresented groups. The task force effort will no doubt be led by our DEI personnel complement, whose very existence is grounded on a need to address or create instances of systemic racism. What I expect they will find instead is a self-constructed rationale for calling on members of the USC community to practice “antiracism.” This honorific term can mask some very objectionable ideas, such as using public authority to enforce equal outcomes across groups, regardless of the social welfare implications of doing so.

There are routine and inevitable differences across group outcomes that are not the result of any form of racism. There are many variables in play in these circumstances—racism is but one possible explanation. In an organization so attuned to the prospect as USC is, racism is the most remote explanation of all.

Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer (CDEIO) – The bright spot in the 2015 Task Force actions you report was avoiding the need to make this hire, which you now intend to make. Decentralizing these responsibilities was expensive, but at least it avoided the creation of yet another Vice Provost, Vice President, or similar senior staff position. Hiring a CDEIO at this time makes a crushingly expensive situation that much worse.

Space and Programming for Underserved Students – You report that “we will open new student spaces in the fall on two floors of the Student Union to better serve our underrepresented students.”

The Provost reports that about one-third of USC’s income is tuition and one-eighth is contract and grant revenue associated with research. USC’s 20,500 undergraduate students and a majority of its 28,000 graduate and professional students are served on the main campus, which has a footprint that is approximately a half-mile by a half-mile. Space is scarce. Shifting space that might be dedicated to teaching or research toward student services has very substantial business implications, and we should make these trade-offs cautiously. Any new space for student programming should be flexible enough to accommodate an array of intellectual, disciplinary, and cultural pursuits rather than entrenching exercises in identity politics.

The previous administration expanded student residential options with completion of the 2,700 bed USC Village development, and the common areas in USC’s residence halls and residential colleges provide a means to bring students together and to serve them. A residence-based approach, possibly thematic, would conserve tangible construction costs, opportunity costs, and might avoid or at least minimize growth in associated staff.

Mandatory Unconscious Bias Training – You report that, “We urgently need training to raise awareness of conscious and unconscious biases;” that, “Our students and others are already developing programs;” and that you, “have asked SVP [of Human Resources Felicia] Washington to work with … – students, faculty, diversity officers, and staff to develop an online program for fall semester.”

This is a matter of concern. What drives this urgent need? There are so many subjects, direct objects, and indirect objects in your statement that it is impossible to discern what will be mandatory for whom, much less why.

I have conscious biases, but these are largely the result of a life-long effort to improve my state of information and decision making. I know what my conscious biases are and to a great extent why I have them: They are, after all, conscious. They are part of my worldview, and anyone I meet is invited to disagree with them at will. I am, for example, plenty biased against furthering the ideological monoculture characterizing most of the social sciences and humanities, and university campuses in general. In public and professional life, I am disappointed by identity politics and its practitioners. The list goes on.

I had a childhood and have a subconscious, so I must have implicit biases. I expect that you and the students want to use an instrument such as Greenwald’s Implicit Associations Test (IAT) to assess mine. Knowing my implicit biases might help me remain alert to them, and perhaps defeat them. Whatever the efficacy of such an effort might be, though, it is far less clear what business my implicit biases are of yours or the students’. This is a vital question, because the current institutional climate imposes a risk that implicit biases might be viewed as constraints on competence, or even equated with intrinsic character flaws.

Knowing my own biases would be unlikely to change my intention to make decisions and choices that afford others an equal opportunity to perform, and to compete unfettered for opportunities and resources regardless of group membership. I expect I would continue to afford extra attention to decisions that might advantage or disadvantage members of underrepresented groups we want to ensure are served.

I’ll set aside any relevant questions about what instruments like the IAT measure and how accurately and reliably they measure it. Assume the test has a low probability of type I and type II errors, and is thus of great value as an assessment. The literature still offers a debate about what can and should be done with this information to squelch discrimination. What would USC do?

My mental and moral development are my own ongoing responsibility. The market for good ideas and sound thinking provides me with ample incentive to deliver both if I can. If I elect to try and improve my decisions via an assessment and awareness of my unconscious biases, this is my own affair, my own duty. I am not inclined to surrender to anyone my own role in deciding how I will decide.

Yours,

Prof. James E. Moore, II

Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
Price School of Public Policy
Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA


Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

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