Dr. Roland Fryer Discusses Economic, Racial Injustice

The gospel choir marched up the aisle singing “Hallelujah,” a joyous prelude to Phillips Academy’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. Roland Fryer’s All-School Meeting address launched a full day of workshops and community service projects in honor of the late civil rights leader. Dr. Fryer said, “[Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] ideas are ones that open the eyes to new ways not just for the day but much longer… and can change culture.” This year’s activities were organized around the theme “Economic Justice: Unfinished Business.” Head of School Barbara Landis Chase said, “This is a day when we step away from our normal routine to learn something new about each other… and challenge ourselves to think together.” Students participated in workshops with themes ranging from “Gender and Leadership at Andover” to “Lessons from France: Riots, Racism, and Immigration,” a forum that discussed the racial undertones involved in the October riots in Paris. The most notable difference between this year’s MLK day and those of years past was the requirement for Lowers to attend a workshop centered around a viewing of the movie Crash, a film about racial conflict in Los Angeles. Mrs. Griffith shared her excitement for this addition to usual schedule of events, explaining that watching Crash gave Life Issues teachers, “a reference point to promote dialogue on the issue of race [for the future].” Dr. Fryer, the day’s keynote speaker, is an Assistant Economics Professor at Harvard University and a member of that university’s Society of Fellows. Dr. Fryer is considered a rising star in the academic world because of his statistical analysis of issues of race and inequality. He applies economic theory as a tool to interpret the factual evidence about social trends. Dr. Fryer grew up with his grandmother in a segregated neighborhood in Texas. At her insistence he attended an elementary school where he was the only colored student. He then attended an all-black high school where he was exposed to drugs and crime. Dr. Fryer said that he “didn’t pick up a book” until he attended the University of Texas on a football scholarship and was introduced to mathematics and economics. While studying the basics of economics at graduate school, Dr. Fryer said he “noticed how ironic it was … [that the] most brilliant minds of economics were studying things like optimal cake eating [theory, while we] leave the hard issues up to Hannity and Colmes.” He said, “Facts don’t tell us about the root of the problem but tell us where to look [to find a solution].” Dr. Fryer listed statistics comparing blacks and whites in America. He told the audience that the average black 17-year-old reads at the level of the average white 13-year-old. Dr. Fryer said that children and adolescents need incentives to perform well in school; they cannot focus on a dream that will take many years to realize. He conducted an experiment in Texas in which he gave third-graders two dollars for every book they read. After having read 10 books, the child would no longer receive money. However, most of the children continued to read regularly long after they had passed the $20 cap. In order to successfully eradicate the social ills currently plaguing America, Dr. Fryer proposed strengthened teamwork and interdisciplinary cooperation. Dr. Fryer described a project he conducted using mathematics to analyze the names given to children born in California over the last 40 years. He sought to determine whether those with culturally “black” names are offered fewer opportunities to succeed in life. Dr. Fryer followed the history of particular individuals by looking at data provided by the maternity wards of California hospitals. He found that regardless of how “black” a child’s name was, that individual was likely to remain in the same income level at age 25 as he or she had occupied at birth. Dr. Fryer concluded, “[It is] not a name like Shaniqua that causes those social ills.” Dr. Fryer also shared with the audience his thoughts on the American response to Hurricane Katrina. He said, “Think of this [catastrophe] as a societal failure. This isn’t their problem; this is our problem. The victims of Katrina are not just poor black people; they are our people. They are Americans.” After the speech, students were invited to attend a luncheon with Dr. Fryer in which he would discuss racial issues with them and answer any questions they might have. Among other issues, affirmative action became a topic of discussion. Dr. Fryer believes that colleges should admit students based on the student’s learning potential; they should accept students who will be best at the end of their four years at college, not at the beginning. Interim Associate Dean of Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Raj Mundra asked Dr. Fryer about the social constraints Andover students from low-income families face. Dr. Fryer responded, “If you have problems in families…its not like these things just go away when you come to PA. There [are] many things like this, whether it be financial or social. What I hope is that we can try to alleviate these constraints.” Dr. Fryer told the story of a student at Harvard who worked two jobs to help his family stay out of debt. This lost academic time had negative repercussions on the student’s studies and he was not able to take full advantage of the school. Another PA student questioned Dr. Fryer about the number of African-Americans in prison. Dr. Fryer said, “I thought a lot about if there was a racial injustice in the criminal system today. If you take a black male under 25 who doesn’t have a high-school degree, the probability he will be in prison is one-quarter.” Mr. Mundra’s Co-Interim Associate Dean of CAMD Linda Carter-Griffith asked Dr. Fryer to comment on how integration of schools has changed in the last 10 to 20 years. “At some level there has been an integration of the cultures today. I think that it is encouraging. While the trade-offs are still clear, some of the costs of being the only black student are going down,” said Dr. Fryer.