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An Essay by John McWhorter





So reads one of a series of flyers plastering the UC Berkeley campus this spring. As I write this, it has been a month since the announcement that the percentage of African-American students admitted to UC Berkeley for fall 1998 has fallen 43% from last year's total, as the result of Proposition 209's ban on the use of race as a factor in evaluating student applications. While this flyer is couched in an especially apocalyptic tone, it is taken for granted that a young, African-American professor such as myself considers the drop in minority admissions at Berkeley a heinous mistake and betrayal. People at Berkeley of all ages and stripes bring up the issue with me with as blithe an assumption that I share their anger as they would have brought up their support for Anita Hill in 1991.

Yet while the new percentages are hardly a situation to be accepted as standard, the truth is that I think this new admissions policy is a step in the right direction.

This view does not stem from the in my view rather ahistorical and oddly unfeeling line taken by some that Affirmative Action is simply wrong across the board. On the contrary, when applied reasonably, Affirmative Action is nothing less than a badge of moral generosity and sophistication. For example, in the business realm, hiring and advancement is based as much on personal contacts and social chemistry as merit. After a mere few decades of desegregation, most African-Americans, even when successfully employed by predominantly white organizations, are ultimately most socially comfortable with members of their own race, and lack the decades-deep networks of contacts which so decisively affect the lives and careers of many whites. It follows from these two facts that left to their own devices, even without any racist bias whites will naturally tend to promote other whites more readily than blacks.

However, things are different when it comes to university admissions, in which case one is dealing not with interpersonal dynamics but with application in writing. Here, Affirmative Action is not justifiable on the basis of the inexorable realities of social chemistry. Instead, the basic argument would appear to be that societal conditions make it impossible for most minority students to achieve the grade-point averages and test scores that whites and Asians routinely do, and that in the higher interest of integration, minority students ought therefore be held to a lower quantitative standard in admissions.

Indeed, the Affirmative Action adherents at Berkeley generally base their furious conviction upon a scenario in which the policy benefits lower-income blacks and Latinos with uneducated parents, often instable home lives, and grossly inadequate schools barring them from the preparation available to white kids in manicured suburbs. The fairness of such a policy would be so evident that one would not be unreasonable to suspect racism, or at least arrant thoughtlessness, in those who would reject this approach in favor of people "pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps".

Along these lines, I vigorously applaud the fact that Affirmative Action was instituted in university admissions thirty years ago, when concrete disadvantage was still a reality for so very many minority applicants. In the 1960s, racism was still so deeply entrenched in all levels of American society that getting substantial numbers of African-Americans into universities was only feasible via fiat. Furthermore, there was even a compelling case for lowering standards of admission in order to do this, since in the late 1960s, concrete disadvantage was prevalent enough among African-Americans to be considered a virtual default.

However, almost thirty years have passed since those days, and today, there are two facts which occupy only the margins of discussion about Affirmative Action at Berkeley which are in fact, absolutely central to any constructive evaluation of the policy. They are the following:

1. Most Affirmative Action at Berkeley was going to students of the middle class and above. This is not only common knowledge among university administrators and admissions officials, but readily confirmable by a quick look at the student body. In recent times, most of the black students admitted to Berkeley with substantially lower test scores than whites have been children of middle managers, municipal administrators, and even doctors and lawyers not food service workers and bus drivers. For example, of the 257 African-American freshmen who entered Berkeley last fall, only 83 had parents whose total yearly income was $30,000 a year or below, a commonly used (and generous) metric for "lower income". No less than 174 of the 257 (65.2% of the class) came from homes where the parents' income was at least $40,000 and usually much more. For those who resist considering even this a middle class income, the parents of 107 of the 257 made at least $60,000 a year. Importantly, the 1997 figures were nothing less than ordinary, looking much like those throughout the 1990s. The only significant change over the years is a general gradual increase in the proportion of students whose parents made $40,000 a year or more. (Figures courtesy of the UC Berkeley Office of Student Records.)

2. The vast majority of African-Americans are neither poor nor close to it. One reason the above fact plays so little part in most Affirmative Action adherents' thinking is a fundamental conception that poverty, or at best, just getting by, is still the default condition in black American life, with middle class and wealthy blacks as lucky exceptions. This idea appears to be perpetuated by the W.E.B. DuBois' memory-friendly phrase "the talented tenth", which sets a schema in our minds of 9 out of 10 blacks standing on inner city street corners at two in the afternoon. This conception is in fact utterly obsolete. According to recent figures, about a quarter of African-Americans are poor. That's not great, but it's a far cry from nine tenths. More specifically, according to figures cited in Orlando Patterson's The Ordeal of Integration, the underclass constitutes about 900,000 African-Americans specifically, only ten percent of the quarter of blacks who are poor. The tragedy of the underclass is unspeakable and is the country's most pressing problem. However, this does not belie the fact curiously uncelebrated that massive progress has been made. Analysts quibble over the criteria for membership in the "middle class", but at this point none could quibble with the basic, unassailable fact that most black Americans are neither poor nor even close to it. It would interesting to see how black America would receive Ross Perot or Strom Thurmond claiming that the typical black American is poor, and since it would be an insult for them to say it, then why is it okay for us to say it about ourselves?

I cannot speak for Affirmative Action on all of the nation's campuses, and I think it best to leave it to others to evaluate the situation as regards Latinos. However, I would like to venture some insights from my corner of the world, the situation regarding African-American students at UC Berkeley.

Specifically, because of the two facts above, after years of wrestling with the issue, I have come to believe that the time had indeed come to retire the policy which regularly admitted African-American students to Berkeley with lower scores and grades than white students. Affirmative Action had come to operate in an environment in which its initial goal had come such a long way towards realization that a policy once intended to bring blacks to the socioeconomic level of whites was now being applied to blacks who had long done so.

Indeed, one might wonder why, if Affirmative Action was going primarily to middle class students, the policy was still thought to be necessary. The answer is that even middle class African-American students tend not to score highly on standardized tests, a well-documented phenomenon familiar to anyone with even moderate experience in university admissions. The SAT performance of black freshmen at Berkeley in 1995, for example, had clustered in the lowest quarter of SAT scores among the whole student body (courtesy of Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom's America in Black and White).

Why is this? To the extent that Affirmative Action supporters ever clearly acknowledge that this discrepancy persists even in the middle class, they tend to point out that a middle-class income does not guarantee a middle-class lifestyle, especially in a group so recently past official disenfranchisement. There is a point here. I recall some high-income black families in the all-black town I spent part of my childhood in whose cultural profile strongly reflected their working class background, including attitudes towards books and education. However, it would vastly contradict my life's experience to say that this is the norm for middle-class black families in 1998, and I can also attest to a lifetime's intimate observation of the fact that these lower scores and GPAs are equally typical of black students who grew up in more Beaver Cleaver-esque circumstances. (Once again, imagine the outcry from the black community if Daniel Moynihan claimed that blacks with middle class income generally remain working class in terms of culture.)

This discrepancy today stems less from deprivation than from a cultural tendency which expresses itself in black culture regardless of class, namely the well-documented one of black children to associate doing well in school with selling out to "whiteness". The few hopelessly nerdy black kids such as myself plow on in the face of this, but often at the expense of general social acceptance, and the majority of African-American children inevitably fall into line to some extent with this evaluation of scholarly achievement with "the other", even in comfortable middle-class circumstances.

This in no sense means that all black students fall by the wayside, nor does it mean that anywhere near all white and Asian students live and breathe their textbooks. However, in my experiences as both student and professor, a certain correlation has been too clear not to notice even the black student committed to earning a Bachelor's Degree is less likely to have an integral, personal relationship to "the school thing" than the white student is. Too often for it to be accidental, one finds somewhat less desire to go the extra mile on a paper or on a problem set, less interest in engaging closely with readings, less interest in learning simply for learning's sake. I have not only encountered this myself, but have had many white professors and teaching assistants reluctantly confide having noticed the same tendency. This orientation reflects a subtle but powerful sense that things like book reports and SATs are of a realm which they are less living in than visiting.

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