Turning the Tide on Affirmative Action
with John McWhorter
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the affirmative action cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Court will issue its decision next year, but if it goes the way that many predict, we may finally see the end of racial preferences in college admissions. If that happens, it will become much more difficult for universities to rig their admissions processes in order to increase “diversity” (i.e., more black students) at the expense of merit (i.e., more qualified students, whatever their race).
This has been a long time coming. The Court will make its decision on the merits of the arguments, but it seems to both John and me that this case exemplifies broader trends in the culture. The tide is turning against nonsensical “anti-racist” doctrines pedaled by hustlers cloaked in the borrowed finery of intellectual respectability and moral authority. Their ideas have done nothing but exacerbate racial tensions, distracting us from real problems that threaten the stability of the US. As John says, more and more people now recognize the empty rhetoric of so-called racial justice for what it is. All that remains is for these people to act on what they know to be true.
Easier said than done. Reasonable people who abhor racism but oppose the DEI hustle can still face negative consequences for speaking out. It is therefore incumbent on John, me, and everyone else who can do so to signal to these people that they are not alone. The spiral of silence that has prevented moderates who simply want fair policies in schools and workplaces from making their views known is, I believe, finally unraveling. It won’t continue to do so on its own, so we need to keep pushing. And I have no intention of stopping until the job is done.
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GLENN LOURY: You know, I think you're selling your readers short. I think you and your life would be of great interest, and I think many people, particularly of you, given your mastery of the writing craft and the interesting style I think that you bring to your prose, I think it would be ... I don't have a dog in this fight. You could write or not write. I'm not trying to persuade you of anything, but I do think that if you were to produce such a work, it would be of lasting value and it would be appreciated.
Yes, you would be seen as a black man. I mean, that's not insignificant to who you actually are. Given that you said, you talk about “my people,” you say what we do is important. You're defending the idea of doing it. I want to come back to that later, because I had this interesting conversation with Shelby Steele and Robert Woodson and Kmele Foster that I want to talk to you about. But yeah, this typical reader that you envision who might be drawn to your book and who will be drawn to mine will come with this curiosity driven through the filter of seeing you in that particular role as a controversial African American intellectual and not seeing your ...
I like that tour. I like that tour of your interior there in your office or whatever it is.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I just carried the laptop around. Yeah.
I'm not at all surprised to learn that you are a cosmopolitan individual of a kind of sophisticated, refined sensibility.
But aren't we all?
I know that's not what you were trying to say. I know you weren't bragging.
No, that's the point.
You were just saying this is you, and I agree. I mean, I feel that way all the time, man, because, if I may just for a moment, I've lectured at the London School of Economics. I've lectured at the Delhi School of Economics. I've lectured in Korea and in Ghana and South Africa. If I say it, it'll sound so self aggrandizing, but I'm a lot more than a black conservative writing at Substack and disagreeing with Michael Eric Dyson or some of these dudes.
I mean way, way, way more, okay? And that's why, and I know you share this with me, I take umbrage at the lionization of lightweight, empty-suited, empty-headed motherfuckers like Ibram X. Kendi, who couldn't carry my book bag, who hasn't read—no, no, I'm sorry—he hasn't read a fucking thing. If you ask him what Nietzsche said, he would have no idea. I'm sorry! I'm sorry! He's an unserious, superficial, empty-suited lightweight. He's not our equal. Not even close. Fuck.
[Laughing uncontrollably] I'm sorry. I can't join you.
[Laughing] You made me do it, John! You made me do it!
[Laughing] Oh God. Oh, I will say this. Glenn, it's going to happen to you, and it would happen to me. We would write a memoir. You're going to write a memoir. And you're going to go to something called a “bookstore” if it still exists. And you know where they're gonna put it. They're gonna put it in “African American Issues,” “Black Studies,” as if that's all that you are. I've seen some of my books put in the black section that weren't even about race, just because my name is mine. And that's the way it would be. Even on websites: “black books.” That's where they're gonna put you, and that's where they would put me, as if that that sums up our entire existence. Maybe I'm making too much of that.
I think you are. I'm feeling liberated, man. I mean, that little rant that I just went on, I apologize to those who were offended by my dismissive reaction of the great Ibram X. Kendi. I apologize. I did not mean to offend you. I got carried away.
I really like where we are, Glenn, actually.
I feel like we're gonna win, John.
I could not ask for more.
I think we're gonna win. I think history is on our side. Really. I think this is such a bad equilibrium. That's how economists think. We are in a box here, socially, intellectually, in terms of the political public reflection, the large conversation about the issue that we care about so deeply, which is race. But it's not only race. Free speech, intellectual integrity, honesty in the public discourse, and stuff like that. And don't patronize. I mean, you and I both have the same thing. Don't patronize me. This is what you're saying right now. Don't put me in the black book section when I'm not just a black book. Don't patronize me. I think we're going to win that argument. They're so far off. Empty suits get paraded around as if they're real. It's called papier mâché. It's the emperor who has no clothes.
And we can go down the list of things. This affirmative action case is going to come to a head now, because the court is going to hear oral argument, I think on Monday. Just a couple of days from now. And then there's going to be a decision handed down at the end of the term in May or June next year. This is fundamental.
You could remember the Bakke case and all of that, and then the the challenges to affirmative action that came up to the Supreme Court in the early ‘00s. It's like we're gonna finally work this out. The court is very conservative, and they're going to do something very significant in terms of the jurisprudential foundation of racial discrimination by public agents and interpretation of the Civil Rights [Act] of 1964, which may extend to private [institutions]. Anyway, it's coming to a head.
There's an election coming. I don't know if you want to talk about the election. I'm not a prognosticator, but it seems pretty obvious that the wind is blowing at the Republicans' back, and there's gonna be a sweeping thing. The Biden Administration, the whole 2020 election, and now the aftermath of that. It's so partisan. It's so intense. And I know we disagree about a lot of the politics, but I'm just saying I think we are winning in terms of the intellectual arguments that we're having over the race question. And I feel optimistic about it.
I agree. I think you have to sometimes know what era you're in. People talk about, “Well, the Golden Age of Television was the '50s.” No, the Golden Age of Television is right now. We're living through it. In terms of television having a 200-year history, this is it. In the same way, you look back, and you noticed that the golden age of classic black conservatism was the '90s. I doubt if any of you were thinking about that then.
But you look back and you see that it kind of hit the skids around 2003 with the affirmative action decision then, which unfortunately was right around when I was starting. I noticed all of a sudden in 2003, all anybody wanted to talk about was whether hiphop is good or bad. The reason that was the big thing until Katrina and Obama is because there was nothing left to talk about. And so now this is the golden age of black “heterodoxy.” I think it started partly because of technology, such as what we're using right now.
Partly because of a chance confluence of people, such as finally there being a kid who does this. Coleman is part of it. Finally, somebody who's in their 20s who adopts this line and isn't afraid, and so you can't say that it's just a bunch of older people. And then also it's the racial reckoning in early 2020, where so much foolishness was being put forth that there was something that we needed to push back against.
I think that it's at the point, based on everything that you just said, I think that there is definitely the emperor has no clothes out there. I can see that, looking at how things were three years ago versus how things are now. And I think that the only issue at this point is not whether or not a critical mass of people understand where we're coming from but whether they have the bravery to act on it. I think we still have to wait to see a little bit more of the Spartacus. That's the issue. It's clear what people think. It's just whether they're gonna act on it, whether academia specifically is just lost.
But then thinking about the rest of the world. Most of the world is not academia. But yeah, there's been a major pushback. We've been part of it. I do not feel like we're losing. I don't think we have a small coterie of fanatics behind us. I think that we're hitting a middle ground. Yeah, I feel good about that at this point.
I'm really looking forward to seeing if the Supreme Court will overturn past precedent with their upcoming decisions in the Students for Fair Admissions cases against Harvard and UNC. At the risk of sounding like I'm tooting my own horn I can't help but notice that Asian Americans are at the vanguard of the defense of meritocracy in this country. Asian Americans played an outsized role in getting three former school board members recalled in San Francisco earlier this year after the board decided to focus on renaming schools and scrapping the merit-based entrance exam to Lowell High School instead of focusing on getting kids back to school during the pandemic. The new school board recently voted to reinstate the merit-based admissions system.
In Virginia, Asian Americans also played an outsized role in fighting back against the erosion of meritocracy both in Loudoun County and at Thomas Jefferson High School. In February of this year a federal judge ruled against the admissions changes at Thomas Jefferson finding that they were discriminatory in nature. The case is currently being appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
One of the more interesting but underdiscussed points was that the case against Harvard University by SFFA alleged that Harvard engaged in crude stereotyping of Asian Americans through the use of holistic admissions criteria. The very institutions that widely condemned Amy Wax for supposedly perpetuating negative stereotypes about Asian Americans engaged in the same behavior through their admissions processes. Hypocrisy indeed.
Despite the pushback against the anti-meritocratic ethos, I'm less confident than Glenn and John that long term victory is assured. I find that there's an increasing schism in the cultural mindset between immigrant groups and native-born Americans. The fact that Asian American immigrants are at the forefront of defending meritocracy in this country doesn't surprise me. Although polls do seem to suggest that the majority of Americans in both political parties are against outright race based affirmative action, when push comes to shove it's not clear to me the extent to which native born Americans are willing to fight in defense of an abstract principle at the expense of narrower group interests.
I should also add as an aside that the erosion of meritocracy and the increasing prevalence of cancel culture is manifesting itself in another manner not widely discussed on this blog. I've spoken out against the excesses of the recently ended China Initiative that targeted academics of Chinese descent purportedly out of a desire to root out espionage but ultimately prosecuting individuals mostly for administrative lapses such as failing to disclose ties to Chinese institutions. The LA Times recently published an op-ed pointing out that a growing number of Chinese academics were giving up their spots at American universities and returning to China in part based on no longer feeling safe working in this country. Academics of Chinese descent are at risk of being cancelled simply based on perceived ties to China regardless of whether or not anything legitimately untoward resulted from such connections. Given Glenn's strong opinions in defense of Asian Americans and school admissions, I'm curious what his thoughts are regarding the larger geopolitical forces at play.
One of the most monumental events in recent weeks was the Biden administration imposing sweeping controls on technological exports to the Chinese semiconductor industry. Not only did America sanction the selling of technology and tools to China, it even imposed restrictions on American citizens and green card holders being able to work for Chinese companies in the semiconductor sector. This suggests to me that the decoupling will not merely be technological in nature but will also apply to the realm of human capital. There were already calls by some politicians to ban Chinese nationals from studying STEM in the US and I imagine that if the Republicans take back the House and the Senate in the midterms as predicted that scrutiny of China and ethnic Chinese will only intensify. Personally, I’d put the odds at 50-50 as far as Chinese nationals being banned from studying STEM in the US in the next 5-10 years. This may very well have residual effects as far as DEI goes and I'm thinking back to Glenn's earlier conversation with Amy Wax about whether or not native born Americans might benefit from affirmative action at the graduate school level given the disproportionate presence of foreigners in many graduate programs in this country.
We live in truly interesting times.
Next time your at the dmv and the only line moving is the one white guys who worked there and the 3 affirmative action black woman talking about getting they nails did while the lines they work only grow longer . Let me know then how great affirmative action is . I already know because I was in the line I just described