Affirmative Action's Parasitic Elitism
with John McWhorter
The Supreme Court has issued its decision on affirmative action, but its full consequences will take months and years to materialize. There is one thing that’s become immediately clear, though: Affirmative action is most relevant only to the most selective schools. If the end of race-based affirmative action means that more black applicants will be rejected by Harvard in the coming years, we should remember that those students will not be deprived of a college education. They’ll just go to other universities instead, many, many of which offer excellent educations and post-graduation employment opportunities.
I have a hard time seeing that as a tragedy or a grave historical injustice. As I say in this clip from this week’s episode with John McWhorter, SUNY Purchase is not exactly a death sentence. Only someone with a very constricted perspective on the purpose of higher education could believe that the millions of students who graduate from non-elite schools every year have, by virtue of that fact, limited options in life. And yet this claim, absurd on its face, is precisely what we’re being asked to believe when race-based affirmative action is treated as a matter of life or death.
Perhaps, with the end of race-based affirmative action, we’ll see a concomitant shift in the role schools like Harvard and Yale play in the way we think about American leadership. If these institutions need a vestigial policy like affirmative action to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the elite class to whom they cater, then we ought to question why we accord them so much esteem in the first place. I’m not saying that schools like this are the enemy—after all, I’ve spent most of my life learning and teaching in them. But the Court’s decision provides us with an opportunity to compare their reputations with their merit. We ought to take it.
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GLENN LOURY: On this elitism thing, people don't see the irony in this affirmative action is actually parasitic on inequality. In other words, it says, in order to get a good job, you have to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Rice or someplace, which is a very exclusive place that has 30,000 applications for 2000 seats in order to really make it in America. They pat themselves on the back. “We're creating the elite.” They presuppose that their portal is the only portal that you can pass through to get into the elite. And then they say, “But therefore, we have to be racially diverse. But we are also very, very specialized and selective and elite.”
And hence, the only way to do that, given the fact that there are racial disparities in the distribution of performance, is to use different standards by race. That is to say, to violate the 14th amendment!
They don't have to be so elite. Or perhaps I should say, we don't have to be so elite. The idea that a black student who couldn't get into a ultra-selective university and has to settle for a lower-rank university has been deprived of an opportunity presupposes ... I mean, everybody at the lower-ranked university, on that argument, is being deprived of an opportunity, not just the black student.
Did you ever stop to try to justify the difference in opportunity between the one who went to the top-ranked place and the one who went to the medium-ranked place in the first place? No. And the leftist should catch on to this. No. You were too busy counting beans by race to take note of the actual structure of inequality in the society, which was not racial.
JOHN MCWHORTER: There are so many schools. Let's go to SUNY Purchase. Let's go to any one of the Cal States. Let's go to one of those universities that has Wesleyan in its name in the Midwest. Could you say to the staff there working their butts off to get their seniors into jobs as lucrative and promising as possible, all the people who are there trying to shunt their graduates into being productive and successful members of society, could you say to them, “You know, it's too bad that it doesn't work here. You're at UC Santa Cruz and all these black and Latino students are cut off from opportunity. It's too bad they didn't get to go to Rice or Stanford or Yale.”
Everybody knows that's a ridiculous cartoon. Is it really true? Did Prop 209, which ended racial preferences in California in the late 90s, lower the income of black and Latino people who are now—I can't believe it's been this long—they're now grownups, married with children. Does it lower their incomes?
Latinos? Yes, somewhat. Although of course, a little something called 2008 might have had something to do with it. But black incomes were not lowered. The media wasn't interested in that. If you have any way of drawing some sort of link between Prop 209 and people's earnings 30 years later. I'm not sure I quite understood that, and I'm not sure it's because I'm not an economist. But if you do, then frankly, black people stayed the same. Those are the facts.
State University of New York at Purchase, that's the campus that you were referring to, is not exactly a death sentence.
Versus to going to Cornell or something like that. It's not exactly the end of the world. And the elitism—and this comes through, and Justice Thomas does allow himself a little bit of bitterness and sarcasm in some quarters of his report. For example—this is an aside to my main point about elitism, but I'll just say this—Thomas goes out of his way to point out that Harvard discriminated against Jews back in the day and that the University of North Carolina, the other defendant in this case, was an openly segregationist campus until the Jim Crow era got brought down.
And he says, “These are discriminators. Why should we trust them?” Look, we got this. We're creating a cadre of American leaders and we're gonna make it diverse and everything's gonna be fine. Trust us. And Thomas said, “Why should we trust them? This court has a long history of not trusting discriminators,” and then he cites a bunch of cases all down the line, man.
People are gonna get mad at Clarence Thomas. And I'm just gonna say this, y'all can get mad at me if you want to. I found his opinion to be magisterial.
What people are doing is reciting lines. You're training yourself not to think too hard about the truth. Do you say, “Well, we have to create the elite,” as if the elite only comes from 36 schools. Everybody knows it doesn't work. And the sad thing, Glenn, is that what I see in it is a kind of racism. If people aren't black or if people are black, a certain sense that our identity is something separate from that of whiteness and that therefore there are certain things that we should not be expected to do.
I think what people really think is that middle class black kids should not be expected to perform at that level, that it's immoral to look at that brown face and say, “You have to do as well as that Jewish kid from Scarsdale, as that Chinese American kid from Scarsdale, and that South Asian kid from Queens. You have to do as well as them. The past is the past. The present isn't perfect. But if you did not grow up disadvantaged, you have to do as well as everybody else.” And I can tell that a certain kind of white person, roughly the kind who reads the New York Times and listens to NPR, is very uncomfortable espousing that.
Like when people talk to me about what I'm thinking, what I hear often is, “Yeah, I get it. But there are certain things I disagree with.” And what they disagree with is they can't imagine looking that middle-class black kid in the eye and saying, “Okay, affirmative action is over for you.” And they're especially uncomfortable with the fact that, yes, at first the numbers of us would go down as they did at the UC schools, and then went back up. But yes, there were some times when there weren't as many black kids on campus.
I was there for the last ten minutes of that when I taught at UC Berkeley, and, you know, none of those kids wound up dead. None of those kids wound up in jail. They went to UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego and by and large did very well. The world kept spinning and black incomes did not go down in California. But I think a lot of people are trained to think that, to imagine that those numbers would go down. And to say to a middle-class black kid, “We're not gonna give you set-asides anymore, you have to do as well as everybody else,” makes them bad people.
And Glenn, I can imagine feeling that way if I were white, too, given what we're steeped in. But it's at the point where that sense of guilt that those people feel at expecting the best of me or my children is obsolete. It was time for it to go, and this decision is gonna make it harder to work on the basis of that unintentional essentialism that I think is part of this whole thing.