Identity Politics vs. Excellence
with John McWhorter
Often, debates about affirmative action and racial preferences in college admissions get so intense and so overdetermined, we forget what’s actually at stake. I’m not talking about how many members of A or B group will get into X or Y university. I’m talking about the role of the university in creating value in our society. Yes, college can do all sorts of wonderful things for individual people. It can springboard them from one socioeconomic stratum into another. It can situate them in a highly beneficial social network. It can enrich their lives through imparting to them a knowledge of the great works of art, music, and literature. The list could go on.
But those sorts of benefits, important as they are to an individual, do not capture the real social value of higher education. Think about why the professors who teach young people at top-tier research universities are there in the first place. I’m talking about places like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. Most of them aren’t there because they’re outstanding undergraduate instructors (although a great many of them happen to be that). They’re there because they work at the cutting edge of their fields, they produce groundbreaking research, and that research sometimes ends up producing enormous value for the country and the world. How many of the most significant medical, scientific, and social scientific developments of the last hundred years began at universities? I don’t have the numbers, but I can give you an estimate: most of them.
So when we talk about changing the standards that determine who gets admitted to our top schools and who gets hired in our top academic departments, we’re not just talking about giving a boost to individuals who happen to be members of historically underrepresented minority groups. We’re talking about intervening in a meritocratic vetting process that identifies and cultivates individual talent, creativity, and innovation and transforms it into far-reaching social and scientific change. The same could be said about credentialed experts who serve in appointed government positions, including those who serve on the Supreme Court.
In this excerpt from my latest conversation with John McWhorter, we talk about the real stakes of affirmative action. I do not endorse dismantling affirmative action altogether. I think we do need it in some form. But if we prioritize diversity and proportional representation over academic excellence, we may end up debilitating our academic and governmental institutions. Are we willing to take that risk?
Correction: In the video, I say that Lisa Cook studied under Paul Romer at Berkeley. This is an error. She was David Romer’s student.
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JOHN MCWHORTER: I was just going to say that I agree with everything you're saying. Another thing that sticks in my craw and makes it very hard for me to hear the other side on affirmative action is something that I'm sure both of us have seen, which is that ... and I may be wrong about this. Maybe I'm just too focused on this aspect of the issue. There is a way of being a black academic where you don't have to have published much, and yet you're treated like a god. I am not aware of that being as common for white academics or Asian academics.
And, of course, I see more of some aspects of academia than others. Of course, I'm a little bit primed to see this. And I'm not going to name any names, but too often I have seen over my time that you can acquire quite a reputation as a black academic without having remotely the stack of publications and innovative paradigm suggestions that would be required of a white person being treated the same way that you are.
And I think I have to say, I know it's called “defensive,” but I'm not sure what that term means. It's not that I don't feel like I've gotten enough attention. If anything, in linguistics, I think over the past couple of years in some circles, I've become a persona non grata because I'm not woke enough. But before that, I regularly got invited places. I was treated well. I got to be on committees and stuff. It's not that I was jealous. But I couldn't help noticing that in blackademia in general, you don't have to have written or produced as much or said anything novel, other than various ways of identifying racism, to be lionized. And to me, that always looks like an insult.
If I can't comfortably think, “Look at the big stack of things that person has written,” if it's wrong for me to even think about it and I'm supposed to think of their celebrity ... And I mean, even just within academia, not necessarily household names, but just their celebrities being based on their charisma and the fact that they fight racism and that all of these good white people see them as a useful symbol for the anti-racist position that they wish to be seen as espousing? It's demeaning.
And yet, you know, I'm not supposed to think that. There's supposed to be a sense that it's different for black people. Is it? Why does it always have to be different for us? Because racism? I find that dodo thinking. So yeah, I know exactly what you mean. And I'll say one more time, it's not jealousy. Linguistics and academia have treated me very, very well, to quote Garrett Morris. It's not that I want something they have. But I can't help seeing that you don't have to work as hard as I did. And yet, if you are the right sort, you're treated as if you've done a whole lot more than you did. I don't like it.
GLENN LOURY: This is the stuff of a closed door and “Promise not to tell anybody I said this” kind of talk. A person gets put up for a position. Let's say it's a governor of the Federal Reserve Board of the central bank of the country, of the United States government. And you look at the academics who have been appointed governors, and they are people like Ben Bernanke, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. He was a professor at Princeton before he was elevated to that position. Or Janet Yellen, who was a professor at Berkeley before she was elevated to that position. And you look at their publication records in the American Economic Review and the Review of Economic Studies and the Quarterly Journal of Economics, and you look at their engagement with the development of the theories of monetary economics and macroeconomics, and you see that they're players.
And then a black woman gets put up to be the first. And it's, of course, a very exciting thing. This is Lisa Cook. She's a professor at Michigan State. She's an African American. She's been president of the Black Economics Association. She's a student of [David] Romer, who is a Nobel laureate and a professor at Berkeley. She's written the thesis and has an important paper that's gotten a lot of attention on the effect of violence on the production of scientific innovation by African Americans using data from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But many people think the paper is fatally flawed. And it's the big paper in her CV, which is otherwise perhaps not as distinguished as one might expect for an academic being appointed to this position.
But she's an African American woman. And if you get into the business of saying she's not as qualified as somebody else for this position, this is affirmative action, you'll be accused of ... you know what you'll be accused of. “Oh, you don't think a black woman is as smart as, I don't know, Ben Bernanke or Paul Krugman,” who has never served in this, but could well have been nominated, or some of these other luminaries in macroeconomics who follow very closely what goes on at the Fed and whose commentary is taken seriously.
Now, it's not only academics who were appointed to the Federal Reserve Board. There are also people who have practical experience in finance and banking and so forth. But what are you supposed to say?
Well, let me give another case. Eric Lander was the scientific advisor for the Biden administration, and he's been fired by the president because he was abusive in his treatment of some subordinates and used language that made people feel unwelcome in ways. His manner of conduct, not his excellence as a scientist, but his manner of conduct was found to be unacceptable. So he stepped away. But he, Eric Lander, was a mathematician that became a mathematical biologist who became the guy who was the head of a big lab at MIT that was doing human genome research and became a leader in the movement to map the human genome completely. That was a long, very well-funded, and very scientifically profound exploration.
But he's out, and he's been replaced, it's just recently been announced, by Alondra Nelson and Francis Collins. Francis Collins has been in the administration. Alondra Nelson is a new appointee. She's an African American woman. She's a sociologist. She's a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which is a distinguished scientific thing, and she writes about the sociology of science and race.
But let's just say, compare it to Eric Lander in the minds of many people sitting in their labs all over the world, she's not really a scientific player. She's an outsider who is not as profound a thinker about science as was Eric Lander. Is she unqualified? I wouldn't say that without some careful investigation. I would just say that a lot of people are gonna think so.
The president has announced that he's going to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. A lot of liberals think with a 6-3 disparity in favor of conservatives on the court—you've only got three seats—that that person, whoever it is, ought to be able to lay down dissenting opinions written from the point of view of profound constitutional legal expertise that could be the template for a future legal movement which should push back against what the conservative majority is bound to do. They want an Antonin Scalia of the left. They want somebody at the top of their game. They don't necessarily have to come from academia, but the most profound ...
That person probably would.
... and would be a leader, an intellectual leader.
Now, are there no black women capable of being intellectual leaders at the Supreme Court? I would never say so. I would never say it. But if we were to draw a list of the ten most profound, without reference to race or sex, just draw the list of the people whose writings are indicative of a mastery sufficient to be the intellectual leader of a resistance movement against conservative jurisprudence at the court over the next quarter century, it's entirely possible that that list would not contain any black women at all.
Now, he's going to appoint a black woman. He's already said. I mean, there's no turning back from that. Has anything been lost here? Dare anyone say that anything has been lost? And I want to say this, not just personally lost, lost for the country, lost for the future of the law. Has anything been lost? Did we give up anything whatsoever? I mean, let me put it this way.
If I had a heart attack, and the physicians told me that I needed open-heart surgery, and they told me, “However, we understand, Professor Loury, that you're deeply committed to racial equity. We're going to find a black woman surgeon to do the procedure,” I would say, I think, let's just find the best surgeon that you can possibly find to do that procedure. If you restrict your attention to black women, the chance that I'm going to get the best possible care has been very significantly reduced.
You know, everybody's thinking that surgery is different from the law, that these things are more [makes a gesture] people do this with their hands. It's more holistic with the law than it is with, say, heart surgery. What would your answer be to that?
I could be wrong. I could just be revealing myself to be an insufferable elitist. And if I were white, I'd be a racist. Give me the best friggin' surgeon. Give me the ones that everybody wants to have do the surgery on them, and I want them to do the surgery on me. Please don't tie your hands to looking only amongst black women when you find a person who is going to do this, cut my chest open and stitch my heart arteries back together again. Don't do that to me.
And there are people who are going to say, don't do that to the country. They're going to whisper it like this. They dare not say it out. I mean the bottom line here is, if you allow identity to infiltrate your judgments of excellence at the very pinnacle of human achievement, you are going to undermine the effectiveness of what you do.