Q: Every article and press release about you mentions that you’re 30, and the youngest African-American ever to get tenure at Harvard. And because of a magazine article a few years back, some really personal details—your parents’ failings, your own youthful drug dealing, your beloved great-aunt and uncle running a crack cocaine business—are now public. Do you wish that weren’t the case?
A: I’m so glad it’s out there. Obama did this as well. If you get it out there, I think the American public is . . . “forgiving” isn’t the right word, I don’t know if I need to be forgiven for anything, but now I don’t have to hide anything. And it actually makes me relate to the kids [I study] in inner-city schools in a real way; a lot of them are dealing with the issues, unfortunately, that my background describes.
Q: What do you make of the fact that Obama recently called himself a “mutt,” but is rarely referred to in the media as mixed-race?
A: Same thing with Tiger Woods. This has been happening in American media for many years, that if you’ve got a certain amount of black blood in you, you’re considered black. My grandfather on my mother’s side was, I believe, either mixed himself or a white man, and everyone calls me black. I think this is just what they called, back in the day, the one drop rule.
Q: In the U.S., the median black household income is about US$32,000, compared to about US$50,000 for whites. There’s an achievement gap, academically, between black and white kids. Young black men are more likely to be in prison than college, and on average, blacks die five years earlier than whites. Why does racial inequality persist?
A: That’s the million-dollar question. The truth is, we don’t know. Some will say it’s discrimination, some will say it’s the historical legacy of slavery, some will say it’s because of the culture and behaviour of people now. Genetics is another theory. I try not to make any large generalizations. What my research does is to put all these theories on the table and try to eliminate them, one by one. The scientific method allows the data to do the talking and our biases to be kept to a minimum.
Q: You’re an economist and the CEO of the new Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard, which is all about scientific rigour and has attracted multi-millions in funding. It’s hard to believe a research and development agency for education didn’t already exist.
A: It’s funny you say that, because every other company that tries to appeal to 12- and 13-year-olds has huge buildings full of R & D people! Nike, Motorola, MTV—that’s basically where I got the idea from.