Blacks Should Feel Insulted
June 25, 2003
By John McWhorter
The Supreme Court’s legitimization of pursuing “diversity” in composing a university class is the saddest development in civil rights since the Bakke decision of 1978.
That’s no renegade assessment from a “black conservative.” The decision ratifies a practice that black Americans themselves overwhelmingly deplore. Too often lost is that while racial preference advocates coo about the importance of “diverse” perspectives in classrooms, black students tend not to appreciate being singled out this way. In a recent issue of Philadelphia Friends Central School’s newspaper devoted to diversity, a black teen treats this practice as an example of racism: “It makes you become representative of your race. Anything about black culture, they expect you to know.” The undergraduate-written Black Guide to Life at Harvard insists: “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world.”
Meanwhile, in poll after poll, black Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of racial preferences. Typical was a poll by the Washington Post that showed 86 percent of blacks opposed. In Black Pride and Black Prejudice, Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza report that 90 percent of 756 blacks rejected admitting a black student over a white student when their difference in SAT scores is 25 points. In the Friends Central newspaper issue, a black teacher writes: “I would like to receive praise and awards and not have others consider them to be hand-outs.” He sees this as an aspect of racism in his life.
Sure, Monday’s decision outlaws quota and point systems, but this is window dressing. Permission to “take race into account” remains, and this phrase is a fig leaf for treating students’ skin color as one reason for admitting them over someone else. But this is what most black people do not approve of.
And the decision gives a stamp of approval to a general-thought culture where whites are comfortable assessing black people as head-count fodder. This leads to episodes like former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair being promoted beyond his capabilities out of a tacit sense that “diversity” was more important than his abilities.
Of course, many insist that racial preferences are about opening doors for people coming up the hard way, as if all but a sliver of black people live hardscrabble existences in 2003. But middle-class students have always benefitted most from preference policies.
“It is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes, as if racism somehow blocks even middle-class black students from posting grades and test scores as high as other students.
But it’s hard to see bigotry in the white administrators so elated this week that they will be able to continue jerryrigging classes into a suitable level of “diversity.” O’Connor’s statement tiptoes around the elephant sitting in the middle of the room: Why is it that even well-off black students so rarely hit the highest note in grades and scores?
The answer is a culture-internal tendency, largely tacit but powerful, to associate scholarly endeavor with being “white.” This affects black students’ performance regardless of class, as countless journalistic reports have demonstrated and UC-Berkeley professor of anthropology John Ogbu’s book-length study of the problem now confirms. If we wish to undo that tendency, lowering standards for all black people regardless of life circumstances will only nurture it.
As so often, what passes for civil-rights advocacy today contrasts jarringly with what black thinkers in the past assumed.
Zora Neale Hurston never knew racial preference policies, but once wrote: “It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it.”
“Taking into account” socioeconomics is just in a society riddled with inequality. But Hurston would have deplored middle-class black students being submitted to lowered standards to assuage white guilt. She would be right, and Monday was a dark day for getting past race in this country.
©2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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