Blog #7 | Putting Outcomes Before Rhetoric

People are too caught up in rhetoric. Too often, the language and justifications for actions carry more weight than the outcomes of these actions. Sometimes two people with contrasting rhetoric have very similar outcomes. This struck me in Seminar on Scholar-Activism during our discussion of Kaleem Caire and his push to create a school for black boys in Madison. Much of Caire’s rhetoric regarding the proposed school centered on the need to reduce racial disparities, break free from Madison’s racist public schools, and combat the mass incarceration of black males. He frankly said, “We spend more money on policing, jail and related services than we do on providing black men with scholarships for college and addressing their unique social circumstances on the front end of their lives.” He was clear that there was a “dire situation facing black boys.” Despite some decidedly conservative elements to his rhetoric (especially regarding respectability and privatization), it was progressive in its recognition of racism.

Then I think about Booker T. Washington. His rhetoric around black industrial education and race relations in general was rife with conservative ideologies of self-help, white saviorism, white conciliation, and interracial mutual interest. He exemplified these ideologies in his famous Atlanta Compromise speech and his autobiography. In chapter 4 of his 1901 autobiography, in fact, he states: “The “Ku Klux” period was, I think, the darkest part of the Reconstruction days… To-day there are no such organizations in the South, and the fact that such ever existed is almost forgotten by both races.” In stark contrast to Caire, Washington deflected concerns of institutional racism.

Booker T. Washington giving his Atlanta Compromise speech. Courtesy of My Black History (http://www.myblackhistory.net/Atlanta_Compromise_Speech.htm)

Yet, Caire’s intended outcomes were not so different from Washington’s. Materially, the world that Caire envisioned is quite similar to that of Washington, despite the rhetorical distinctions between the two men. (see Table 1). Both worlds have segregated schools and financially stable, working black people (though the type of work Caire envisioned seemed to be more corporate while the type of work Washington envisioned was industrial and service-oriented).

If the outcomes are virtually the same, to what extent does the corresponding rhetoric matter? I would be naive to suggest that rhetoric is not consequential. It is certainly consequential. The rhetoric one uses to advance an agenda has implications for the rhetoric and outcomes of future agendas. For example, I suspect that Washington’s rhetoric opens the door for other leaders to implement conciliatory policies more than Caire, by nature of the fact that Washington’s rhetoric warms people up to white conciliation.

However, the importance of rhetoric is overstated. Most people in my social circles deplore Washington’s conservatism, but I suspect that many of them would have a much more diplomatic view of Caire’s work simply because of the language he used. The extent to which this is the case troubles me. Rhetoric is consequential, but outcomes are more important. A good example of this that pertains to my life — and that we discussed in Scholar-Activism — is the asset vs. deficit framework dichotomy. Many people advocate for asset-based language regarding poor students. I very much like asset-based language, but it does not consume me. When I listen to a teacher or policymaker or administrator discuss students experiencing poverty, I am more concerned with the efficacy of their policies/practices than I am with the rhetoric they use to describe them. When I was a poor student in K-12 education, I really wanted to be fed, to be housed, and to be taught well. Of course, it was also great to be viewed as powerful.

But I really wanted to be fed, to be housed, and to be taught well.

Encouraging people to use asset-based language about poor students is important and it is beneficial to the students. But more important than language is to create a world that is more conducive to these students’ thriving in a material way. Sometimes people concentrate on how asset-based another person’s language is at the expense of concentrating on the efficacy of the policy or practice itself. This is a dangerous trade-off. Outcomes must precede rhetoric.

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