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Racial Preferences May End, but the Fight Will Continue
A guest essay by John McWhorter
Today, in lieu of a clip or transcript or an essay of my own, I’m very pleased to present an essay by John McWhorter. The Supreme Court will hand down its decision on affirmative action any day now, and most observers expect it to mark the end of racial preferences in college admissions. While the decision will have the force of law, I don’t expect that advocates for racial preferences will give up the fight. It will still be incumbent on those of us who believe it is time to move past this outmoded policy to make the public case for real racial equality, which means removing race from all college admissions decisions, to whatever extent possible. As John notes below, some racial preference advocates are willing to go as far as encouraging civil disobedience to defend what they view as a necessary bulwark against “systemic racism.” I’ll leave it to John to present his own case against this misguided perspective.
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Racial Preferences May Be Ending, but the Fight Will Continue
by John McWhorter
A recent argument about racial preferences gets me thinking about John Stuart Mill’s suggestion in On Liberty that a society regularly review arguments for and against controversial ideas, to ensure that all understand both sides. It is widely expected that the Supreme Court will soon outlaw racial preferences in university admissions.
Many, including me and Richard Kahlenberg (see his book The Remedy), have argued that preferences should continue, but based on socioeconomics rather than race. Under this view, the simplistic equation of blackness with significant disadvantage, while understandable fifty years ago, is now obsolete.
As my New York Times colleague David Brooks has recently flagged here, Kahlenberg has even calculated that socioeconomic preferences would actually bring in more black people than race-based ones, because of the very disproportion in poverty between blacks and whites that dismays us all. This would seem a kind of wisdom, but historian Richard Rothstein is against socioeconomic preferences, arguing that they would leave unaddressed the needs of middle-class black applicants. Rothstein is so sure of the moral unassailability of his position that he urges that schools and judges engage in civil disobedience if preferences are banned, modelling themselves on resistance to the Dred Scott decision.
Really, though? Here, we need to review what constitutes the kind of obstacles that proponents of racial preferences cite to justify changing standards in college admissions.
Yes, changing standards: We must use language as clearly as possible rather than settle for euphemism. Much discussion of racial preferences operates according to a polite pretense that brown students are chosen only from a pool in which all applicants have equivalent grades and test scores, with admissions committees then assembling a class seeking diversity. However, it has been resoundingly demonstrated in a large number of cases—such as this one—that racial preference policies involve, to various degrees, admitting brown students according to a lower bar of quantifiable performance than others. The only question is the degree to which standards are relaxed and whether the changes are justified.
Returning, then, to Rothstein’s concern that socioeconomic preferences will unduly bypass middle-class black ones, a recent Times editorial by an Asian-American teen poses a relevant question: “How fair is a system that seems to give an affluent African American student an advantage over an underprivileged white or Asian American one, simply on the basis of skin color?” Rothstein thinks such a system is indeed fair, because almost all black people face race-based inequities, regardless of class. This perspective is hardly uncommon, if my twenty-five years’ experience in debates on preferences is any guide. But the argument is, frankly, a dud.
Rothstein notes, for example, that middle-class black people have much less accumulated wealth than whites tend to. This is true, and the wealth gap between black and white people has actually increased of late. But the question is whether the wealth gap, in particular, requires that we change standards.
In New York City, for example, immigrant families with little accumulated wealth regularly send their children to the most competitive high schools in the city. It is often argued that it is unfair to compare black students to immigrants, because they had a particularly pronounced incentive to come here and are therefore likely to push their kids harder than we have a right to expect native-born parents to. There is merit to the observation, but it leaves the wealth gap explanation wanting nevertheless. If South Asian immigrants’ kids can overcome the wealth gap, just why is a lack of inherited money and real estate suddenly a key factor for black American kids?
Then Rothstein argues that middle-class black kids have an additional problem: that they often live near poorer ones and thus acquire some of the reflexes that race-based inequities instill in their less advantaged neighbors, including a temptation to skirt the law. “Students from these middle-class Black neighborhoods who avoid such temptations are more likely than low-wealth Black students to be academically competitive, and they deserve affirmative action,” Rothstein notes.
But let’s be clear about what Rothstein is actually arguing. We might reword the passage as follows: “Students from these middle-class Black neighborhoods who avoid such temptations are more likely than low-wealth Black students to be academically competitive, and they deserve to be evaluated according to lower standards on their grades and test scores.”
The idea here would seem to be that, regardless of circumstances other than serious affluence, black students require a pass in order to compete with their non-black peers. Rothstein is hardly alone in such a perception, which in itself is humane and sincere. It demonstrates an understanding that racism and its legacies persist, and that in assessing a socioeconomic profile, the socio is as important as the economic. For example, black law professor Sheryll Cashin documents in her The Failures of Integration that, after a while, poorer black people have tended to relocate to or near the middle-class black communities that began flowering after the demise of redlining in the late 1960s, changing the general condition of the neighborhoods.
But to take this as meaning that to be black and middle-class is to be so disadvantaged that one must adjust standards of scholastic evaluation is, I submit, a leap. It is even, albeit unintentionally, dismissive of the achievement of middle-class black families who have striven so hard, and successfully, to give their children comfortable lives.
As a middle-class black kid in the 1970s and 1980s, I encountered racism now and then. Once a white kid called me “blackie.” Once a store owner quietly refused to hire me for a summer job because of my color (you could kind of smell it, and later I met an ex-employee of his who confirmed it). Also, in the neighborhoods I lived in—the very integrated Mt. Airy in Philadelphia and Warwick Hills in Lawnside, New Jersey, a then-newly built section of an all-black town— some black kids did drift into seedier activities in identifying with less fortunate peers (one neighbor kid of mine ended up actually doing time). And a middle-class black kid can be more subject to being stopped by police than middle-class white kids are, which is in line with what Rothstein and Cashin describe.
However, the idea that these factors make it immoral to expect a middle-class black kid to pull off the grades and test scores that a white middle-class kid does is, frankly, condescending. In this, I speak not just for my nerdy self but the legions of middle-class black kids I grew up around, and the further legions there are today.
I am not opposed to racial preferences in principle. I just think that they should be time-limited, and that at this point, the time limit is long past. In the 1960s, lowering standards for black kids overall, as justifiable redress of the past, was a fine idea in itself, especially as a greater proportion of black Americans were poor. The question is how long preferences should be maintained. Preferences inevitably entail that white and Asian kids of the same ability are somewhat “dispreferenced.” To insist that the ills of the past justify this dispreference for, say, one generation is one thing; to insist that the dispreference must be maintained until there are no racial inequities in society will never fully assuage families who are working just as hard as black ones are. Cases like Grutter v. Bollinger, Gratz v. Bollinger and Edward Blum’s cases against Harvard and North Carolina will never cease, and to dismiss those who initiate them as racists or ignorant of the nature of privilege is facile. The solution is not to never apply racial preferences—it’s good that we did a long time ago. But the idea must be to apply this compensation for the past—a reparation, as it were—in a time-limited fashion. That time came long ago.
Contrast this with Rothstein arguing, almost six decades after racial preferences were first adopted, that we must maintain altered standards even for middle-class black kids. that this is so urgent that universities must flout the Supreme Court’s ban in the way that courts defied the Dred Scott decision. In our race discussions, I often can’t help detecting a quiet sense that black people just aren’t made for the school thing and that a moral society must grade all of us on a curve. I see this less as antiracism than condescension, a mild form of racial prejudice, which is neither a gift nor a compliment.