Racism at Georgetown?

With John McWhorter

Here I am discussing the Georgetown controversy, in which a professor’s statement about Black students clustering at the bottom of the class got her fired, with my friend John McWhorter.

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MCWHORTER: Let's segue into Georgetown on this.

LOURY: You should take the lead, because you've been writing about this. 

I wrote about it on my Substack, johnmcwhorter.substack.com.

Basically, a law professor at Georgetown was caught on Zoom talking to another law professor at Georgetown. These are older white professors. 

Sandra Sellers and David Batson.

And Sandra Sellers is saying to David Batson that she is worried that there are so many Black students that cluster at the bottom of the class semester after semester.

She also says that there are Black students who are not like that, which I thought was a good thing for her to mention, especially given that she didn't know she was being listened to. It shows you that even white-on-white, there is at least etiquette, there's an awareness of how you're supposed to look at these things.

But then she says that, you know, the students cluster at the bottom, semester after semester, and she rolls her eyes, and she says she doesn't know what to do about it. And she seems kind of impatient about it. It's unfiltered. You feel like maybe she had half a glass of beer or something like that—I don't mean intoxicated, but she's speaking very freely, she doesn't know anybody's watching.

And so, that got her fired. She offered to resign as well, but she was fired for the simple reason that for her to say that thing is racist. That's the idea. And a great many people seem to think that it's utterly incontrovertible that that is racist.

And that brings us, Glenn, to something that happened on your show, which was in—was it in 2018?—with Professor Amy Wax.

Yeah, it might've been 2017. It was a few years ago.

I just want to give the fact that Sandra Sellers was speaking to David Batson after they had done a Zoom-recorded class on negotiation at the Georgetown Law School. They carried on their conversation, and the recording protocol captured their post-class discussion, which was then disseminated to students, made available to them because the lecture was recorded for the purpose of students viewing it later. And hence this scene that you described went out to the entire class community, and it engendered a firestorm at Georgetown.

The Black Law Students Association there at Georgetown organized the letter. The letter is 35 pages long or so. Three pages of text and 32 pages or so of signatures of people in the Georgetown community and throughout the legal academy in the United States of America who demanded that Sandra Sellers be terminated and that David Batson be disciplined.

He's on leave.

I think he's resigned now, John. I think that's the news this morning. 

I'm not surprised.

He was a bystander who failed to act. 

Because he just nods, yes.

So it wasn't just racism. A crime was being committed, and he was at the scene of the crime, and he failed to rebut or discipline the expression of racism.

So anyway, you say this is reminiscent of the brouhaha around Amy Wax of University of Pennsylvania Law School, who on this show some years ago reported that she rarely saw an African American student in the top of the half, and especially rarely in the top quarter of the students that she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

This precipitated a similar firestorm of people demanding that she be fired. But she's a tenured professor, unlike these adjuncts, she couldn't simply be dismissed. But she was barred from the teaching of required courses in the first year of the curriculum at the law school at the University of Pennsylvania. And that exclusion continues to this day, her dean having decided that she was no longer suitable to teach in any course that a student would be required to take at the law school. Amy chafes at that, even to this day. These are similar situations. 

And I think it also bears mentioning that some students at Georgetown have said that part of the problem with Sellers' class was that a quarter of the grading was done on the basis of participation. And Black students, or at least a critical mass of Black students, were uncomfortable participating because of Sellers’ racism.

The question is, how did she display this racism in the classroom?

So the idea is that maybe the reason that students cluster at the bottom is somehow because of racist discrimination against them, or some kind of racist element in class discussion that makes it impossible for all but a few Black students to perform at the level that they otherwise would.

Now, the problem is we don't hear what this racism consisted of. It's just assumed that it was there because Black students say it's there, and it's considered untoward to ask: what was it? Or, you know, somebody gives half a sentence, rolls their eyes. That's supposed to constitute an answer. I would like to know what this racism is, but I don't think we're going to get an answer to that question.

But that's something that people have said. They said that about Amy Wax, too, that she shouldn't be able to teach classes like that because her racism will make it impossible for Black students to perform. The question is, how does this racism manifest itself? And I don't know. 

Well, let me try and answer. It manifests itself in your willingness to utter certain sentences out loud.

Like, "In my experience, the Black students on the whole cluster near the bottom of my class." You uttered that sentence. That act of uttering that sentence, thinking that thought, of finding it noteworthy, of being willing to express it to others is, ipso facto, racism. What's wrong with that?

Don't you know how damaging that is, uttering a sentence of that sort? Don't you know who else is saying sentences like that? Eugenicists and racists and those who oppose affirmative action, conservatives, Trump voters, and so on. What do you mean, "is it racist"? Saying that Black students are stupid is not racist? That's what you said in so many words. 

(Laughs.) That was good because I really think that that fairly represents the response.

And I think a great many of us are asking: if it's a fact—I mean, if you can't say that it's not a fact, and I remember certain sputtering attempts to claim that what Amy Wax said wasn't a fact, but if it's a fact—what is unethical about pointing out the existence of the fact?

This idea that it's racist is very complicated. Because of course, when a person points it out, generally the reason they're pointing it out is because they're saying that we need to do something to fix this. They may not utter that exact sentence after, but you can find it from context.

I openly say, I know Amy Wax. I talked to her about this, and that is what she meant. She was saying, “We need to be able to have a conversation about it.” She didn't specify what the conversation would be. But in terms of Sandra Sellers, I think we can definitely say that she was saying, “This is a problem.” She wasn't saying, “These Black students are just so stupid.” 

Now there's context involved. You could pretend to think that what she really meant was the Black students are just so stupid. You could propose it. But you'd be rather willfully numbing yourself to the fact that human interchange is based deeply in context. You can't just take isolated sentences and put them up into the sky. You have to think about what people mean when they're speaking to one another. And what most people are saying is, “This is a problem.” But instead, it's just thought of as “It's racist to say it.”

And the only explanation I can think of is that people are thinking, "Don't you, know, dummy, that the reason Black students cluster at the bottom of the class is because of systemic racism (I suppose)?"

And then the question is, in what sense? Which kinds of racism are creating this clustering at the bottom of the class?

And when you ask that, you're considered to be some sort of naive, pedantic, obnoxious jackass. You're not supposed to question that closely, which means something's wrong here. 

Yeah, I think you have your finger on the issue, which is: if you merely report racial difference in performance without an appropriate explanatory context, then you're committing the racist act. If you don't invoke all of the chain of history and of microaggression and of implicit bias and of the systemic racism stuff as an account—you simply state the fact of the difference in performance, but you don't provide the contextual account—then then it's deeply problematic.

But you're also right that people never, or almost never, get down to cases. They rather repair to a kind of generic atmospheric invocation: systemic racism, white supremacy. We're all supposed to know what they're talking about, and it’s supposed to permeate everything. So it's in a way no explanation at all. It’s something that explains everything and hence doesn't really give you any traction about anything in particular.

And what people are really after, of course, is not an argument. They're not after cause and effect. Rather, they’re after a sentiment. They’re after inducing you to join with them in a way of being in the world—a way of being Black in the world, a way of thinking about racial justice in the world. So they're not making cause-and-effect arguments.

I mean, they're very, very thin. 

The disparity in observed performance. We're talking about speaking and writing, about legal analysis. It's a real thing.

Cause and effect. Inferring the structure of an argument from a text. Being able to make deductions and inferences based upon a fact situation. Contrasting relative importance of different assumptions to the validity or the weight of an argument that's being made.

That's what we're talking about.

Being able to see the point of the opinion and being able to compare it to other opinions, and how it is similar and how it is different, so that you can make a judgment about whether or not the appellate court properly, et cetera.

We're talking about the law! It's not nothing. It’s a specific thing.

So people are making these gestures about, well, it's an inhospitable environment. I won't go on for very long about this. I saw a law professor at the Howard University Law School, an African American, on Roland Martin's podcast saying—and you would relate to this, it's about language—that the legal educational pedagogy is about language, and that African Americans come with a different linguistic orientation…

Oh, Jesus fuck. 

...such that, not withstanding the fact that they may actually get it, the interpretation of their written response will be that they don't get it, because you don't really see that they're using the language in a way that African Americans would use it.

The inference was of course at Howard Law School, where we're mostly African Americans, we would understand better the qualities of our students.

But it's basically denying that there is a racial difference in the intellectual performance of the students. That's what Amy Wax reported some years ago. That's what Sandra Sellers was complaining about or was concerned about.

You mean that Black students perform at a lower level. 

Yeah, that they perform at a lower level or…

I want to save you from something. You said “racial difference.” There are people out there waiting to pretend that you meant an IQ difference. I just want to clarify that that's not what you meant. Go ahead.

No, it's not what I meant. I meant a difference in how well they answer the question and do the test. I mean, it could be IQ, but I'm not saying that it's IQ. I don't think that it's IQ, if I need to say that.

In your Substack piece, you cite the statistics that Richard Sander collects in his careful statistical analysis of the Law School Admission Council's data from the 1990s about these thousands of legal scholarship applications. He tracks these kids about how well they do after they get in and they're clustered at the bottom of the class.

163 law schools.  

Because the LSAT performance is so different between the racial populations. Not every individual, but on the average.

And I went and looked at the LSAT, man. I just Googled "LSAT sample questions," and I got 10 questions from the LSAT, and they're certainly not culturally biased.

They're all questions like, “Here's an argument, what are the guts of it?” Five sentences, eight sentences, a paragraph. Here's an argument. How does it work? What does it assume? What does it imply? What would be supporting evidence for it? They're all like that. They're analytical reasoning exercises.

You can't tell me that's not related to being able to write a brief or parse an opinion or argue a case. You can't tell me that the skills that are being talked about here are not real things.

So the underlying reality here is that at some of the best law schools in this country, there is a substantial number of African American students who are performing in a discernibly inadequate manner in the classroom. That is either a true or a false statement. The evidence that we have at hand suggests to us that it probably is true.

It's a consequence of affirmative action in law school admissions. And we have to decide—I guess, we have decided we're going to live with it. I guess what we haven't decided is whether we're going to lie about it or not. 

And you know, as to the degree of racism… For the person on Roland's podcast who said that it's about how people interpret Black language—that's gorgeous music, but unless this person can write a careful presentation of about ten ways in which a Black person's “use of language” in legal, educational, scholastic work can be misinterpreted, when in fact they are exhibiting the same caliber of reasoning as some white kid who's addressing the same subject—unless that's shown—then that is an utterly worthless argument.

You can't toss off a sentence-and-a-half on some podcast and pretend to think that you've made an impregnable case. And I'm not convinced.

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