DEI's Unknown Unknowns
with John McWhorter
What do we know about the effects of DEI initiatives? In one sense, we know quite a lot. There are entire sub-industries in the media, academia, and the business world dedicated to measuring and tracking diversity in basically any field you can name. It wouldn’t be hard to dig up more data on diversity than you could analyze in a lifetime. We’re awash in it.
But there are important questions about the effects of DEI that are harder to measure than counting the number of X group of students at a given university compared to Y students. We know that black students can get admitted to most elite universities with good grades and good test scores, whereas their white and Asian peers often must have outstanding grades and outstanding test scores to have a shot at the same schools. We know this.
What is less clear is whether the students know. And if the students do know, how does that knowledge affect their academic performance? If a student knows they only need to earn Bs in order to get into their preferred college, is he going to put in the work to earn As? Common sense says he won’t, because he hasn’t been incentivized to do so. So if it happens that the student knows he only need Bs, we end up with a distorted picture of his abilities. It could be that, with a little more effort, the student is capable of earning As and stellar test scores, that he really can compete at the highest level. But we’ll never know if that’s really the case. Perhaps more troublingly, he’ll never know.
We know that data about diversity doesn’t tell us the whole story about the comparative potential of black and white students. The existence of racial preferences and the possibility that black students know of the existence of racial preferences consigns us, ironically, to a state of ignorance about those potentials. In the following excerpt from my most recent conversation with John McWhorter, we discuss what happens when diversity initiatives prevent us from knowing what we don’t know. DEI’s unknown unknowns (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) and the suppressed resentments they inspire may well be the most important factors in understanding the real contours of disparate performance among racial groups and what kind of society they will bring about in the future.
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GLENN LOURY: I think there's another thing. I mean, you can look at this in terms of underrepresentation, but you could also look at it in terms of overrepresentation. Why are some groups overrepresented? What accounts for that? I mean, presumably whatever explanation you give about underrepresentation, there's gonna be something on the flip side of that that accounts for overrepresentation.
So overrepresentation. Here's one of those things. How hard did you work? How much time did you put in? How much effort did you exert? How many hours a week did you study? Now there are ethnic group differences in those things. There's a book out there about Asian excellence in academic undertakings. It's called The Asian American Achievement Paradox by two sociologists, Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, who are of Asian background—I think Jennifer Lee's Vietnamese and Min Zhou is of Chinese extraction—and published by Russell Sage Foundation Press, which [has] center-left orientation and [does] social science publishing, and is based on extensive interviews of families in Southern California, hundreds of them, where they spent many, many hours with these families asking them about their kids and what happens in their home and what happens in their schools and so forth and so on.
And the bottom line is, there's a culture of achievement that has its impact on the way parents and children interact with each other and the way they interact with the school system, with the consequence that these kids can't come home with a low grade without the parents being disappointed. There's filial piety. They want to please the parents and honor their parents and so forth. And this has an impact on their effort and so forth and so. Anyway, they have an elaborate account. I'm not gonna try to summarize it all here. But just to say, there are behavioral and cultural foundations for these differences in in group performance.
There's another factor, and it's called the incentive effect, or if you will, the disincentive effect of affirmative action. I'm gonna get into trouble for saying this, but I'm gonna say it anyway. If you tell a kid that they can score at the 70th percentile of the population taking the LSAT, the Law School Admissions Test, and they can have a B or a B-plus average in college and still get admitted to Georgetown Law Center, that's one thing. If you tell the kid they had better be at the 90th or higher percentile of the LSAT population of test-takers, and they had better have pretty much an unblemished straight-A record in their courses, otherwise there's no chance that they're gonna get into Georgetown Law Center, that's a different thing.
Now, if the kid is black, the first scenario applies. They have a pretty good chance of getting in if they're above average but not at the very top of the distribution of test-takers and if they've got a good but not pristine transcript, they still have a good chance of getting in. If the kid is white, they basically have no chance of getting into one of these top law schools if they're not right in the upper tail of the test-taking distribution and if they've got more than one or two Bs on their transcripts. They have no chance of giving in.
Now, all I'm saying is, if that's the world that people are living in, the incentives for effort that would affect their performance after they've been admitted is very different as between the two populations. We've created a regime where the message that we send out to students of color is, you can be okay but not absolutely great, and you still can have a pretty good chance of getting admitted to our program. The idea that that would not affect people's behavior, I think, is just contrary to common sense. How much is a question that would have to be studied, but the incentives here are not entirely healthy.
This is the regime that we're creating. We're creating a regime where we're communicating to students of color a sense of entitlement and exemption from the criteria of assessment that is unhealthy. Instead, in my view, we should stand fast by the expectations of performance. Accept the fact, in the short run, that we might not have a population parity of students, but build up the performance capacities of that population over time, and then let the chips fall where they may. If blacks are ten percent of the population, we don't have to be ten percent of the people getting PhDs in European history, in theoretical biology, in economic statistics. Where is it written that every group is gonna be represented in the same proportion in every undertaking? But a world in which we send the signal to black students, “We welcome you on the expectation that your performance is comparable to the others whom we are admitting to our rarefied program of study” is the only world I think that is worthy of the name equality.
Just this final point. It's not equality when you create a special dispensation for blacks and then look the other way at their relatively poor performance after admission. That's condescension. That's not really equality.
JOHN MCWHORTER: The devil's advocate question—and it's a relevant one and it's a respectable one—is, “To what extent are black adolescents and teenagers aware of how affirmative action works?” I don't know the answer, concretely. Do black kids know that they don't have to do as well? Who tells them? How much do the typical black kids have their ear to the ground about educational policy, any more than any other kids do? However, the idea that it's in the air is unassailable.
And I can definitely say—although I just qualify as an anecdote—I'm not sure where I picked it up, but I knew about that sort of thing when I was 12. And I knew, to the extent that I thought about college, that I did not have to do as well as the white kids to get into top schools. And I know that once you're in, say, 10th or 11th grade, I assume that you can't help but notice that, especially if you're in a relatively small school where you kind of see everybody. I went to a Quaker school and there were, you know, a few hundred. I don't remember, but say the senior class was 60 people, that sort of thing. And it was K-12. Still is. But you watch the seniors talking about getting into schools. You know, people talk about it. You'll have somebody walking happily down the hall and getting a hug from a teacher or something. I remember seeing that often. You can't help noticing that the black kids get into every damn school. So I assume that people would know.
And I always knew. I was a good, A-minus, B-plus student. Quite frankly, I could have been an A-plus student. But I didn't feel like it, I had my nerdy interests, and I knew if I work just at the level I do work, I don't have to worry about whether I'm gonna get into places. I'll be just fine. I don't remember ever saying it to anybody, but it was painfully clear. And I don't think I was that different.
Shelby Steele has a passage in one of his books where he says something along the lines of, “We exempt black students from serious competition and then wonder why they're never qualified for it.” And that's exactly it. They never seem to hit the highest note, but then again, they're not required to. He's absolutely right about that. What all of this really is is all of these people are basing themselves on a certain fundamental idea that for us to hit the highest note is either not authentic to us or that we need to teach this evil society a lesson by exempting ourselves from it, because it shows that racism exists or something like that.
But yeah, it's a kind of condescension, and all of it is where you get Carol Kelley. It's where you get Ibram Kendi. All of these people who are very comfortable with the idea of saying that if black kids aren't good at it, it's racist, and therefore let's get rid of it, even for other students. And when you fight against this ideology, you're told that you're a racist, you're an Uncle Tom, that you just don't get it. But what is the “it” to get? And the society that these people want to create is one that I really would not be interested in participating in. I worry about my children going out into this society. I'm just waiting for them to start being treated as these tokens of diversity. And it's not the way things should go. Ugh.
Well, I just wanted to remark, I think you raise a very good question when you ask, what do we know about what kids actually know? Do they see the world the way that I just got through describing it, with the special treatment for black kids? Are they aware of that? And I don't know the answer to that question. I suspect they are. But that would require a survey and an investigation, and it would be a very fit topic of research to try to get a handle on, how have these policies shaped the way in which kids perceive their opportunities and react to those perceptions?
I can tell you this from my interaction with elite white students here at Brown University who have gone to high-end private schools in New York City and like places or ultra-competitive public schools around the country: They are keenly aware of who gets admitted where and keenly aware of the fact that a black kid in their class who might not have been as sharp in terms of performance, in their perception, nevertheless got admitted to four or five places that they had also applied to that they didn't get admitted to, or they only got admitted to one or two of those four or five.
They're clearly aware of that and, moreover, are tortured by that awareness because they don't want to feel resentment because they know that it's wrong. They know that they shouldn't be—according to the religion—they shouldn't be resentful of having been squeezed out and not having gotten admitted everywhere that they might have applied, even though they were “better” than a black kid who did get admitted there. They're supposed to be on the right side of history and for social justice. And so they're tormented within themselves about how to feel about being aware of the differential treatment that they're experiencing.
And I just think, you know, I say people are bluffing and I say there's a dark side to all of this stuff. And I think the resentment, the suppressed resentment, the feeling of guilt at feeling the resentment, I don't think that's a stable, healthy, permanent situation. I think that that creates a circumstance where someone like an Ilya Shapiro—this is the would-be law professor at Georgetown—his appointment was put on hold while an investigation was undertaken because he had tweeted something about Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson not being as qualified as another non-black, non-white potential appointed to the Supreme Court. We'll end up with a lesser black woman who will always have an asterisk next to her name, he said before he apologized and took the tweet down and so forth and so on.
Well, there are a lot of people like him that who are chastened by what they see happening to a guy like him who speaks out and says his mind. They don't get disabused of their perceptions of quality differences and their resentment at racial preferences because Ilya Shapiro could get cashiered. And by the way, he's stepped away from the Georgetown appointment and has taken a position at the Manhattan Institute as a research staffer
I don't blame him. He's right. At Georgetown, there'd be a cloud over him. And the second he ever said—
They're just waiting for him to make a mistake.
He could walk wrong one day and somebody would video it and he'd be out on his butt within six months or it would be such an unpleasant work environment. Yeah, he couldn't take a job there.