Feb 21, 2022 • 1HR 3M

John McWhorter – The Problem with Racial Preferences

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Appears in this episode

Glenn Loury
Weekly conversations on race, inequality, and more, with Glenn Loury. Bi-weekly appearances by John McWhorter.
Episode details

John McWhorter is back, just like you knew he would be. This week we’re talking about the future of affirmative action.

We begin by discussing Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s new film adaptation of the classic musical West Side Story. John argues that people who dismiss the musical as just “something some old white people wrote” are far too simplistic and limited in their view. I haven’t yet gotten a chance to see the new adaptation, but I’m a fan of the music and lyrics, so I’m inclined to agree with him. We then move on to affirmative action. When the Supreme Court takes up the Harvard admissions case next term, there’s a good chance they’ll end up declaring affirmative action unconstitutional. If that happens, John and I agree that we’ll likely see fewer black students admitted to elite universities, though I think administrators unwilling to scale back their focus on diversity will find ways to admit black students who may not be academically on-par with their peers. John and I are deeply concerned that orienting academic standards—from undergrad admissions to the hiring and tenure process—around diversity and identity will have disastrous consequences for the university system, for the long-term health of the nation, and, yes, for black people. As an object lesson, John presents a (rigorously anonymized!) account of a star black academic who, in John’s account, derives their profile more from their ability to represent their race than their scholarly achievements. Is this person respected by their colleagues for the quality of their work? More worrying, will people simply assume that all black students, academics, and professionals—even those who are truly accomplished—achieve their status due to their race? John worries that people will condescend to his young daughters in that way. If I had young children, I’d worry, too.

Things get a little heavy this time out, but that’s because the issues themselves are heavy. I want to know your thoughts—tell me about them in the comments.

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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0:00 John: Don’t dismiss West Side Story just because it was written by “old white people”

14:59 If the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action, will higher education “resegregate”?

24:34 Are meritocracy and racial diversity initiatives inherently opposed to each other?

35:41 What, if anything, are we losing when we give significant weight to racial preference?

47:19 John: Certain black academics are valued for the way they represent their race rather than their scholarly achievements

56:54 The perils of the DEI industry 

Links and Readings

John’s NYT piece, “Yes, Some Musicals Are Unwoke. That’s Not a Writ to Rewrite Them.”

John’s NYT piece, “The Gilded Age’ Is Depicting Black Success. More TV Should.”

Heather Mac Donald’s City Journal piece, “March of the Revisionists”