The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
with John McWhorter
Here’s part of a recent conversation I had with John McWhorter about attempts to increase “racial diversity” in schools by changing the standards for admission. Both John and I find this trend extremely worrisome. Not only does it risk damaging educational institutions by deemphasizing student academic achievement; it delegitimizes the accomplishments of those students who work hard to achieve at a high level. Such a strategy reeks of racism, though not of the kind we’re used hearing about.
GLENN LOURY: To the extent that people are prepared to impute to African Americans a different set of standards of expectation about their acquiring mastery over reading, writing, and arithmetic, to the extent that they're prepared to accept that that is a kind of racism—a “soft bigotry of low expectations”—that is very debilitating. It has very substantial deleterious consequences for the kids who are in that charge.
And another thing that I want to say since I'm clearing my throat here, is if you fixate on the anecdote that you told—too many brown and yellow kids walking through the doors of an advanced school that happens to be located in a neighborhood of mostly Black kids—if you keep fixating on the race of the achievers, I mean, the presumption is that somehow their achievement is illegitimate. To the extent that your exclusion is said to be not because of your effectiveness and your performance, but because of your race and because of bias, the unspoken but tacit concomitant claim there is that the success of the people who were walking through the door is somehow illegitimate.
Now, where have we heard this before? Too many Jews in the banking industry. You want to talk about a wealth gap? What about the Jewish/non-Jewish wealth gap? It would be humongous if you were actually going to take a look at it. The success of the Asians is somehow not a reflection of their cultivated acquisition of performative skills and mastery of their discipline, of the extent to which they have worked hard at investing in something, but rather it's supposed to be what? What is it? Is it a model minority favoritism? Is it that they are the beneficiaries of a certain kind of spillover white privilege? Is that really the way that you want to talk about five, soon to be six, soon to be eight or ten percent of the American population going forward 30 or 40 years?
Here's my bottom line: racism has many, many faces. It has many dimensions. Resentment and envy of a group's success who happen to be identifiable in terms of race—Jews, Asians—is racism! It's a kind of racism that has led to horrific crimes in human history. And the presumption that somebody who happens to be brown should be ipso facto exempted from the expectation of performance, patted on the head rather than guided to the challenge, is racism.
So you want to bandy about the label racism? Well, then let's get serious about who are the actual racists here. Very few of them are wearing pointy hats and holding bonfires. Most of them, many of them, are on the left, the self-consciously progressive in this conversation. There's enough racism to go around.
JOHN MCWHORTER: And you know, we're supposed to say that for Black people it's different. We can't be racist because we are oppressed. I can go with people about halfway on that. I know what they mean. But there is some outright tribalism, dismissive tribalism going on here.
The idea that, how dare those Asians—and it spills over into notions that the Asians are somehow overly self-regarding, that they think they're so great in taking over these institutions. They think of themselves as having a privilege, as former New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza put it. He said—and he said it orally in passing, but I think it therefore represented his true belief—he implied that Asian people feel like it's their privilege to occupy these schools, as if they're somehow taking up too much space. As if they aren't just doing what you need to do to pass the goddamn tests. As if there's something wrong with that? As if that's not authentic for people who aren't white? I think that's a part of it.
So yeah, this is a crabbed kind of dialogue. But you're right. It has taken over the educational establishment. I remember having a very unpleasant encounter with a student, a Latina for the record, and this was long enough ago that I'll recount. A good six years ago. We had a little bump in a seminar where I was saying that the SAT is not completely worthless in terms of predicting school performance. It's by no means perfect, but I said it's not worthless.
It's rare that I would have ever said that in a class, but we got onto the subject. I wasn't pushing it, and it wasn't a class about race issues, but we were talking about that. It was a class about language. We were talking about the vocabulary that you used to have to know on those tests. I just said that, and it got a little ugly. Yes. It was one of the very rare times that a student got a little bit insubordinate with me because she felt so strongly about it.
There were tears in her eyes, and she was using a word whose meaning I didn't completely understand even then. She was a junior teacher of some kind. She was passionately training to be a teacher. And she was saying, “Well, what I want to teach my students is empathy. Not these old $10 words, but I want to teach them empathy.” That was the word that elicited the tears.
And from listening further, I know now what she meant by empathy. It's a euphemism used in those circles. It is teaching people about oppression. It's teaching people about white supremacy. It's teaching people that the paramount goal of education is teaching children to battle power differentials. And it's rather artful to call that empathy, but that's what she meant. She's just one of many. She's part of this establishment. I imagine at this point, she's probably part of it. She was a very nice, very smart person, won some awards, but I am quite sure that at this point she is in these Zoom sessions espousing exactly the kind of things that you were talking about and quite convinced that it is truth incarnate.
That's where it is. Because she was normal. And I know that this sort of thing is taught rather furiously at Teacher's College, which is part of Columbia where I work, by people who genuinely think that this sort of thing is truth. And that's why in a previous edition with you, I was saying that I wonder if we might not just accept that educational institutions are gone. There isn't much that you can do about that tilt in education schools that starts in the late sixties and has been given major sanction by this racial reckoning since last summer.
These are people who simply cannot be reached. What worries me is that they're going to affect our children. I don't know how many grandparents I hear from who are chilled that their grandkids are jumping on them for saying the word "nigger" in reference to it. You know, they'll just talk about the word, often criticizing it, because they grew up in pre-2000 America. And now the kids are saying, “How dare you utter that word,” as if there's no difference.
Is the n-word one of your “nine nasty words”?
It is. And there's a delicate balance because Nine Nasty Words is the happy me. And so my n-word chapter in Nine Nasty Words is not editorial me. I don't get into how I feel about the increasingly taboo nature of the word. I just describe it. You have to read me elsewhere to see how I feel that things have gone too far. But it's become a taboo word. It's no longer just a slur. We treat that word the way a small group of indigenous people would treat the name of somebody who died 50 years ago whose name you therefore don't say, nor do you say any word that sounds like it. We are doing precisely that thing with the n-word.
Let me offer a pet theory of mine, that, I think, flies in the face of all this standard-lowering-to-compensate lunacy. The Tuskegee Airmen, it is ostensibly well-known, never lost a bomber they were escorting. This is celebrated and a point of pride, I believe. One might ask, "Why?" The answer is simple, assuming I have my history correct. They were, in fact, better pilots that others! If one asks why to that, the answer is also relatively simple. They were challenged more in training, maybe even unfairly. There was a time, in my distant childhood, when Black people celebrated "doing more" and "being better" because we were, frankly, "up to it." Now, we have begun to accept pats on the head in the place of kicking ass, and that makes me sad. (Please feel free to correct my historical understanding, if necessary!)
I have often wondered what happens to those students after their first year. That is, how well does a student do when they were perhaps not as well prepared at the commencement of their studies as they should have been? Are their failure rate significantly higher than the candidates that were well prepared when they started out? Perhaps the first year smooths thing out? Or perhaps it turns out that those that were allowed in, but now fail disastrously were the one's that were ill prepared; which would lead me to believe that the issue is perhaps that there exists a somewhat cynical scheme on the side of the administration to earn extra income for the university. What does the data say?