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Catalyst Magazine


Affirming inequality

September 22, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

‘Sorting people by race is wrong.’ ‘People dealt a bad hand should just look on the bright side and turn lemons into lemonade.’ Certainly the race situation in many countries merits responses more considered than those. Yet it makes me worried to see countries like Britain eyeing America’s affirmative action policies as a model for the future, as if our affirmative action story has been an unquestioned beacon of moral advance in human affairs. What we have seen here is that there is a massive gulf between affirmative action on paper and how it actually plays out. As such, I cannot help feeling somewhat queasy about exporting it. We already gave Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox.

Don’t get me wrong: people who see no room for giving a special chance to those left behind by injustice are as unfeeling as someone who would deny a cancer patient chemotherapy. However, from what I have seen in the US, for an affirmative action programme not to end up reinforcing what it was designed to eliminate, it must be applied for as brief a time as possible. Like chemotherapy, affirmative action is a beneficial poison. One must apply it with a wince, alert to its benefits, but eagerly anticipating turning the switch off as soon as possible. If I had been a university administrator in the late 1960s, I would have had no problem with the new vogue of bringing poor black kids into good schools, even though their grades were far below the school’s usual admissions standard. The black middle class was still small. Campuses had until recently been overtly segregated and not just in the South: in the 1950s, black students at the University of California at Berkeley could not live in the dormitories. There were still college administrators in the late 1960s who, as scions of the bad old days, weren’t crazy about admitting more than a token number of blacks, and would say so, casually, in faculty lounges.

So okay, maybe the black students were taking some spots that white students would have occupied. But maybe part of apologising for the hideous past was letting black people move further up the queue. Crucially, the idea was that we were only going to have to do this for so long. Some tutoring and goodwill were supposed to make up for bad schools and lousy home lives, and the black students would do fine in college, join the middle class, and raise kids who could compete with white students.

Ten years on, though, it was clear that fresh air and mentoring could not undo eighteen years of mis-education and domestic breakdown. Many black kids never got close to graduating, and two more uncomfortable points became evident. First, the black students who did make it through were almost all middle class. Second, most could not have been admitted if they were white. A competitive school could only admit more than a few black students by lowering admissions standards for black students in general, not just the poor ones.

No one could have foreseen any of that in 1968. But by 1978, one approach might have been to refocus the crusade on improving schools in poor black neighbourhoods; another would have been to examine why even middle class black students so rarely posted top-level test scores. But to the extent that either of these courses of action were adopted at all, it was not in response to the failure of the first wave of affirmative action; they happened mostly decades later, and even then were deeply controversial among liberals, white and black.

Ironically, the civil rights revolution was the cause of the problem. It had been a historically unprecedented moral advance. However, it left certain attitudes in its wake, which transmogrified affirmative action into a smallpox its creators never intended.

From inequality to diversity

The first was about white self-perception. ‘Racist’ was now the last thing the thinking white person wanted to be – only ‘paedophile’ was perhaps just a tad worse. To not be a racist became a badge of moral legitimacy, to a degree that would have perplexed people just like them fifteen years before. That was lovely, in itself. But for too many, this was, at heart, an inwardly-directed, self-congratulatory gesture. As such, it gave them a sense of comfort and security, whether or not it was connected to actually helping black people.

For example, white leftists congratulated themselves on teaching poor blacks who had been getting by to apply for welfare. Thirty years later they were unruffled that they had created neighbourhoods where women living on the dole with children who barely knew their fathers were the norm instead of the exception – something unknown before the 1970s.

It was almost too perfect, then, that in 1978, just when ’affirmative action, part one’ had proved a failure, down came Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s decision in Bakke v the Regents of California, telling us that black students were important for a college campus because of how diverse they were.

Powell actually suggested diversity as just one of many factors to consider in admissions, and the document was a murky thing, never considered a high point in judicial reasoning. But it didn’t matter: here was the perfect way to justify bringing in a ‘representative’ number of black students under the bar each year, even though almost none of them had grown up poor. It was no longer about inequality, but ‘diversity’.

This was because, apparently, having black students around is a vital part of a good liberal arts education. Of course, it has never made a whole lot of sense. We are taught to imagine a black student saying something in class about being black that ‘teaches’ white students something important. Yet this would only be a certain type of class: what is the ‘diverse’ perspective on organic chemistry? And how ‘diverse’ are middle class black students anyway? One of my favourite examples of this line of thinking is from New York University law professor Ronald Dworkin: it goes that white students benefit from seeing that middle class black students are just like them, and that this itself justifies lowering admissions standards for the black ones. I see.

But the imperative to have the race thing ‘covered’ (rather than engaged with) is so strong that university culture teaches us not to look too closely at things like this – or at the academic studies that appear about once a year showing that ‘diversity’ has no effect on quality of education.

Dangerous mentalities

The second change in public attitudes concerned a new way of thinking among blacks. After 350 years of slavery, segregation and degradation, it was hardly a surprise that black America had a self-esteem problem. Black people were suddenly free to compete to an extent that they had never been before – but suddenly, without preparation, and without the nth degree of determination that an immigrant would have.

For many black people, one way of healing that wound was to adopt victimhood as an identity, as a way of feeling like you mattered. ‘Black power!’ the new cry went, designed to scare whites into, well ... that was the problem: it was unclear what the goal was, other than the self-affirmation of the dramatics.

Until a few years before this, civil rights had been about detailed political platforms presented to the powers that be. The new version was about anger and little else. This was only attractive because whites were now poised to listen to such rhetoric and flail themselves for having elicited it. Despite its creation of nothing by way of black achievement on any level, it felt right. At least it did for a people who had a hard time feeling right after they had been through so much.

Whites’ new commitment to erasing racism was novel in human social history. Tragically, that very commitment meant encouraging racism’s victims in posturings that were more about acting out than activism. History bites. It bit blacks then, and it bites blacks now; for a sad number of black Americans, this way of thinking continues to be so comfortable that it is allowed to trump logic itself. A common example is the claim that there are no positive images of black people in the media, when today television and film are overflowing with them.

This elevation of tribalism over coherence permeates the discussion of affirmative action by black people at universities. Middle class black students defend the policy as bringing disadvantaged students to college, on campuses where barely any of the black students grew up in the ’hood or anywhere close. Black thinkers and administrators insist that students must have degrees from tip-top schools to wangle the social connections to do well in life. ‘Yale or jail’, then, even though precious few prominent black achievers have degrees from schools of this kind.

We also hear – and from whites, too – that ‘unequal outcomes mean unequal opportunity’, denying that there could be reasons other than racism for why black children of managers and lawyers so often post grades and test scores that one would expect from the children of Daisy and Onslow on Keeping Up Appearances. Various articles, a book or two, and a mighty stack of journalistic pieces show that much of the reason for this lag is that there is a fashion in black American teen culture of teasing high-achieving black students as ‘acting white’, which leads many black students to shirk school work in order to have black friends.

No one could grow up black in America and miss this, and every leftist social scientist who has tried to prove that the ‘acting white’ idea is a myth ends up sputtering over inconvenient data. They resist because admitting the reality of the problem would mean stepping away from focusing on the black experience as a battle against racism – an identity that black people who think this way find, of all things, spiritual comfort in.

What began as a programme designed to give a break to people who needed it has become institutionalised psychotherapy for whites and blacks trying to make sense of the challenges of moving beyond a segregated America.

To allow all of these people to feel good, universities beyond the very top few have quietly maintained two-tier student bodies, in which most black students scored as much as hundreds of points lower on the Scholastic Assessment Test and had also gained significantly lower high school grades. And make no mistake, it showed in their subsequent performance in college. At the University of California at Berkeley, where I started teaching in the mid-1990s, the difference between the black students and others was an open secret that, in my experience there, white professors readily acknowledged sotto voce, after a glass of wine at a function. Numbers told the story: more than one in three of the black freshmen who came to Berkeley in 1984 did not graduate.

Administrators have been trained to sell these admissions policies to the public as mere thumb-on-the-scale affairs, in which if a white and a black student are equally qualified, the black one gets the nod. But quite simply, these earnest people are lying. This has been shown conclusively at one school after another in recent years. At the University of Michigan Law School, where race was supposedly ‘one factor’ in admissions, minority students were 234 per cent more likely to be admitted than white students with the same credentials.

Still, one might wonder whether all of this is really so bad. Why not just let the doubletalk pass as collateral damage, with affirmative action as a standing apology to a race treated so hideously in the past, and not always perfectly even today?

The problem is that one man’s collateral damage is another man’s denigration in a new guise. Affirmative action, when treated as permanent, supports a tacit notion that descendants of African slaves in the United States are the only people in the history of humanity who can only be expected to compete under ideal conditions.

Moving on

It is considered the height of ignorance to ask why black Americans cannot just make the best of the worst, the way immigrants do. There are valid reasons for that: black Americans came to America not as immigrants, but as kidnappees. Naturally, the latter will be less well poised to grab the brass ring than the former. This does justify a programme of lowering standards and making the best of it – but only for a brief spell. It is now 2006: race-based set-aside programmes in universities are now thirty years old or more. When we have reached the point where there are more middle class black families than poor ones, overt racism is socially condemned and university administrations police themselves for racism more diligently than anyone on earth, surely we can require a significant number of black students to compete with white ones.

An objection commonly thought to be a coup de grace here is that racism is not completely extinct. But this objection is based on a fallacy: that affirmative action was initially designed to last until racism was completely extinct. Life is perfect for very few. In 1966, a case could be made that being black in America was an obstacle greater than all or most. Today, racism is much more subtle, such that the obstacles that many white or Asian college students may face can hardly be judged as smaller potatoes.

Apparently many think that since racism nevertheless still exists on the margins, affirmative action must live on indefinitely. But this ingrains into the mental warp and woof of society that blacks are inherently powerless, regardless of life history and despite a richness of opportunity that would have astounded civil rights leaders just four decades ago. Then, we fought discrimination, not residual racist sentiments. For the modern reader, one thing that stands out in chronicles of race advocacy before the late 1960s is the utter absence of anything akin to calls to lower the bar for black people.

Black people then would have considered such notions condescending and embarrassing. Today, affirmative action’s inescapability helps teach whites and blacks alike that blacks’ power is in their powerlessness, as Shelby Steele has put it. This is not collateral damage: it ravages the psychology of a people.

And even more dangerous, if permanent, affirmative action then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and morphs into a new obstacle to black students showing what they are made of. Exempting black students from serious competition ensures that none will ever be up to it. Asian immigrants’ children are now so good at getting into top schools because they and their families developed an almost excessively diligent commitment to doing so. But for black students, doing just ‘very well’ can get you into a school where everyone else has to be excellent-plus. Big surprise, then, that year after year even middle class black applicants have so rarely done better than very well – except, pointedly, black children of Caribbean and African immigrants, who are now outnumbering native-born black students at the very best American universities.

With the odd exception, human beings perform at their best when they have to. That this is also true of the descendants of African slaves may seem somehow unfair. But to deny this is to deny black people’s humanity – and to prevent them from demonstrating it.

Beyond the policies

In the US there is ample evidence that when affirmative action policies in university admissions are abandoned, the sky does not cave in. In 1998, an almost bizarrely brave black University of California board member, Ward Connerly, engineered a ban on racial preferences in admissions to UC schools. ‘OUR COMMUNITIES ARE BEING DENIED ACCESS TO EDUCATION WHILE BEING RELEGATED TO PRISONS AND GHETTOES’, read one flyer plastered across the UC Berkeley campus at the time.

Indeed, the next year there were less than half as many black students as there had been the year before. But those denied admission did not wind up ‘denied access to education’. They went to the solid second-tier schools within the University of California system. At one, UC San Diego, in 1998 there was exactly one black freshman honour student in a class of 3238. The following year, one in five black freshmen made honours: that is, 20 per cent, compared with 22 per cent of white freshmen. It would seem that since 1999, UC San Diego has been exactly what affirmative action fans would desire – and even more ‘diverse’ than it was before.

And at Berkeley, the number of black students climbed for years afterwards as students, parents and high school administrators now had no choice but to work together to hit the marks that other students had to. By 2002, when black students were no longer admitted under the old affirmative action regime, the two-tier system was no more. The black students were just like the others: some amazing, many great, some decent.

The lesson, then, is this. In a society where a critical mass of people have developed a consciousness that a racist history justifies compensation to the victims, affirmative action policies will unavoidably be recruited by such people for purposes that are gestural rather than proactive. The supporters of the policy will unwittingly become obstacles to getting past the very things the policy was designed to eliminate.

Such policies are wise, but must be structured to give a boost to one generation. After that, the society must get back to normal: that is, groups and individuals within them competing for the best, despite the fact that, sadly, there will never be a completely level playing field.

Original Source:



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