John McWhorter Versus Affirmative Action

John McWhorter is one of the sharpest analysts of race relations in America. Born in Philadelphia in 1965 in a middle-class family, he earned a doctorate in linguistics and taught for several years at the University of California before accepting his current position as a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute. McWhorter rejects just about all of the “conventional wisdom” regarding race, especially the idea that the great obstacle to black progress is lingering racism.

When McWhorter engages a subject, he does so with relentless logic. I would bet that as a professor, he was known as one whom students couldn’t “BS.” In Winning the Race, his tenth book, McWhorter tackles a number of contentious issues revolving around the failure of many black Americans to advance and prosper despite ever-improving conditions in America. “It’s not that there is ‘something wrong with black people,’ but rather that there is something wrong with what black people learned from a new breed of white people in the 1960s,” he writes. That something is an attitude McWhorter calls “therapeutic alienation” – a preference for anger and scapegoating as opposed to the work needed for success.

I have neglected to mention as yet that McWhorter is black himself. That shouldn’t matter in the least since good analysis is good analysis no matter what the physical characteristics of the analyst. But if you’re inclined to think that it’s more persuasive when a black writer looks at black problems, now you know.

McWhorter fully explicates his argument, and one of its facets concerns education. Why is there such a large achievement gap between black students and white and Asian students when the whites and Asians come from families of similar or even lower socio-economic status than the blacks? A lot of ink has been spilled on explanations rooted in therapeutic alienation, but McWhorter is persuaded that the problem is to be found by looking in the mirror. Too many young blacks who pursue education at all — and many don’t – do so in a desultory fashion, expecting high grades just for showing up. “My people suffered in the past, so now I’m entitled,” seems to be the prevailing attitude.

That attitude simply won’t get the job done.

And what about the policies of racial preference (a.k.a. “affirmative action”) that most of the higher education establishment so vehemently defends? McWhorter attacks them. “To set the bar lower for black students out of a sense that the achievement gap is due to socioeconomics is mistaken. Because the factor is not socioeconomic but cultural and self-perpetuating, the lowered bar only deprives black students and parents of any reason to learn how to hit the highest note.” Thus, affirmative action is actually counter-productive in that it seduces its beneficiaries into believing that mediocrity is fine. In the cocoon of higher education, it may be, but in the tough competition afterward, it isn’t.

But don’t colleges need a substantial percentage of black and other minority students in order to gain the benefits of “diversity?” Fealty to the concept of diversity has become an absolute requirement for anyone who wants to be considered for almost any administrative or faculty position in higher education, but McWhorter finds the idea nothing but condescencion:

“[T]he ‘diversity’ cult is a direct manifestation of the therapeutic alienation meme: This is why it is argued for so desperately despite something that makes no sense on its face. Namely, being cherished for one’s color and how it contributes to the local diorama used to be called being a token black…..Even in the face of an institutionalized dismissal of blacks’ abilities to compete seriously on an academic level, the oppositional bedrock of the ‘diversity’ rationale – celebrating being different from whitey – is so seductive that it becomes a mantra warmly cherished.”

At this point, diversity advocates chime in that it isn’t just tokenism – they want to make sure that classes are “enriched” by the addition of distinctively “minority” points of view. That argument usually skates by unchallenged, just like the BS answer on an exam with an indifferent or inattentive professor. You can’t get away with that with McWhorter. He writes,

“It is unclear just what a ‘black’ opinion is. Even the most doctrinaire radical shies away from supposing that in the real world, pigment and politics walk in anything approaching a lockstep. After all, if there really are ‘black views,’ then couldn’t professors just learn them from a gathering of black students over a summer and then recite them from their own notes during the school year? Besides this, the entire notion applies logically only to a mere sliver of any curriculum. What is the ‘black view’ on systolic pressure? Le Chanson de Roland? Contract law? Musical counterpoint? And what, pray tell, are the distinct Latino views on these subjects?”

See what I mean? Feeble justifications don’t have a chance against McWhorter’s probing, logical mind.

Most satisfying of all is his demolition of the arguments made by the University of Michigan in its 2003 battle over its race-preference policies. The University was desperate to argue that there were educational benefits to its policy and commissioned Professor Patricia Gurin to do a study demonstrating the existence of such benefits. Her approach had nothing to do with knowledge of history or understanding of chemistry, but rather involved asking students for self-reports on questions like whether they prefer simple rather than complex explanations, whether they think about the influence of society on other people, and whether they had more general knowledge and problem-solving skills than when they entered college. From the responses, Gurin claimed to have proved that more “diverse” campuses led to better educational outcomes.

While affirmative action defenders go around saying that the Supreme Court agreed that there are important educational benefits from “diversity,” McWhorter gives the Gurin report the scrutiny that the Supreme Court didn’t bother to. “For one thing,” he writes, “that all of these things are self-reported is almost flabbergastingly irresponsible of someone purporting to address as grave and crucial an issue as diversity on university campuses.” Then the fatal blow: “What was presented as eleven ‘questions’ was actually eleven statements of Gurin’s impressions of what diversity is good for – rosy, PC propositions that only the most idiosyncratically contrarian undergraduate would venture to disavow.” Gurin report, r.i.p.

Winning the Race is a fabulous book and I recommend it cover to cover. If, however, you only have time for McWhorter’s brilliant discussion of education, go right to Chapter Eight.