John McWhorter [7.29.98]
Introduction by:
John McWhorter

I recently received an email message from Steven Pinker urging me to interview a young Berkeley linguistics professor named John McWhorter for EDGE. Pinker was very impressed by McWhorter's new book, The Word on the Street , about to be published by Plenum, particularly by its "fresh and scientifically sophisticated positions on hot topics such as Ebonics, bilingual education, and how English literature (particularly Shakespeare) should be taught." He described McWhorter as a "rising star with a razor-sharp mind and a lot of guts." Attached was his blurb for the book:

"The Word on the Street is one of the best books ever written on language and pub- lic affairs. John McWhorter shows us how English is, was, and will be spoken, and spells out the implications for how it ought to be used and taught. His arguments are sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, thoroughly original, and — befitting a book on language — are lucidly and elegantly written. The Word on the Street is important, eye-opening, and a pleasure to read."

I then contacted John McWhorter who had other things on his mind. He proposed that instead of talking to him about the ideas in his book, that I publish a rather lengthy essay he had recently written on the subject of affirmative action at Berkeley. Herewith, the essay, "The Demise of Affirmative Action at UC Berkeley: Dissecting the Stalemate." It is passionate, courageous, bound to stir controversy, and, hopefully, to "advance the dialogue."

JOHN H. MCWHORTER is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. Born in Philadelphia, he earned a master's degree in American Studies at NYU and received his Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University in 1993. He taught at Cornell University before entering his current position at Berkeley. He specializes in pidgin and creole languages, particularly of the Caribbean, and is the author of Toward a New Model of Creole Genesis. One of the few accessible linguists, he has been interviewed widely by the media, including The Today Show, Dateline NBC, National Public Radio, The New York Times, and Newsweek. He also teaches black musical theater history at Berkeley and is currently writing a musical biography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.





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.

It is not difficult to see the source of this sense of disinclusion. It would be unusual if a race just a few decades past institutionalized racism did not bear the legacy of centuries of a justified distrust of the oppressor's frames of reference. The question which arises now, however, is this: Does this culturally ingrained sense of disinclusion from education ÷ as opposed to growing up under concrete, externally imposed disadvantage ÷ justify lowering the bar for middle class black students indefinitely?

In my opinion, the answer to this question is no. This is because despite its initial necessity, Affirmative Action in university admissions has always come at an extremely high price, begging curtailment at the earliest possible opportunity. This price has consisted of four factors.

One: As Stephen Carter has told us, the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action can never be sure of the extent to which their accomplishments were based upon their own merit. Nepotism and favors (as well as dumb luck) play a large part in the trajectory of most lives, but these things are a matter of chance. As an institutionalized leg up, Affirmative Action leaves black Americans with the most systematically diluted responsibility for their fate of any group in America. This perpetuates the fundamental insecurity already bedeviling a recently oppressed race, and reinforces blacks' general suspicion of whites' opinion of them. The white student who gets a letter announcing their admission to UC Berkeley can go out and celebrate a signal achievement, although the luck of the draw almost always plays some role in a white or Asian person's admission to a school. Can the black middle manager's daughter getting the same letter have the same sense of achievement if her SAT scores would have barred any white or Asian from admission? The truth is no ÷ she can only celebrate having been good enough among African-American students to be admitted.

Two: With it widely known among the student body that most minority students were admitted with test scores and GPAs which would have barred white and Asian applicants from consideration, it is difficult for many white students to avoid beginning to question the basic mental competence of black people as a race, especially when most black students are obviously of middle class background. A white person need not be a racist to start wondering about this ÷ black students could not help wondering the same thing about whites in a situation in which middle-class whites were almost all let in under the bar. This undermines the mutual respect which successful integration requires.

Three: When Affirmative Action was aimed at improving the lot of the disenfranchised, then its displacement of some qualified white applicants was in my view thoroughly justifiable in the name of a greater good. However, when aimed at admitting middle class black children, whites' complaints of reverse discrimination acquire more resonance. The defense that white athletes and children of the wealthy have always been admitted to elite universities under the bar is surely the weakest from the Affirmative Action camp. The common consensus has always held legacy students and semiliterate athletes with BAs in bad odor, and thus to argue that minority students ought be allowed the same privilege does not put us in the best company ÷ two wrongs do not make a right.

Not one but two black friends of mine reported the searing experience of revealing, during one of those late-night freshman-year hallway group discussions, that their test scores and/or GPAs had been lower than the norm for white students, only to be have an impolitic white student charge that they had taken someone's place. I could not help noticing that behind the indignation with which they recounted these events was the sad fact that in the end, neither had been able to effectively defend themselves, both coming from stable, two-parent homes and fine schools. Few undergraduates ÷ or even adults ÷ command the spontaneous rhetorical resources to explain the subtle cultural barriers to scholarly achievement among middle class black children; those with middle class upbringings are generally barely even aware of these things on a conscious level; and few of those that were would be comfortable directly applying such an analysis to themselves in any case. Clearly, encounters like these subvert the goal of peaceful integration.

Four: As applied primarily to middle-class black students, Affirmative Action becomes simply insulting ÷ especially given the lack of interest its advocates have in coherently defending its maintenance under such conditions. The implication has become that no matter how comfortable their lives, no matter what their opportunities have been, black children cannot be expected to manage test scores or GPAs as high as white and Asian students. Racism is surely not dead, but it vastly underestimates a person to declare that the extremely occasional and abstract nature of the racism the typical black child encounters in today's California makes it inappropriate to expect them to turn in an SAT score above 1000. Let us recall that the conscious life of a freshman entering Berkeley in fall 1998 began in the mid-1980s, not 1964 or even 1974 ÷ these students have only vague memories of Ronald Reagan being president!

These things said, I reiterate that Affirmative Action in university admissions and beyond was crucial thirty years ago. The benefits were well worth the cost of the four problems above. However, these problems have always conflicted in so many ways with effective integration that in university admissions, Affirmative Action is best seen as a desperate emergency measure, to be eliminated at earliest possible opportunity.

Indeed, one suspects that part of the reason even better-informed Affirmative Action advocates insist on depicting the policy as an opportunity for disadvantaged minorities is because it is virtually impossible to compellingly defend a policy aimed primarily at middle class minorities in the rabble-rousing sound-bite terms of rallies, flyers, and T-shirts. It would be a delicate matter indeed to rally the American public behind the idea of admitting middle class African-American students under the bar indefinitely on the grounds that African-American children tend to discourage each other from reaching that bar. Although the ultimate cause of this was bygone institutionalized discrimination, we can't do anything about that now ÷ today the problem is generated from within the community, and in such a way that external intervention cannot solve it. Affirmative Action can certainly give a student a Bachelor's Degree, but it cannot calibrate sociocultural attitudes ÷ if we hoped that it would indeed dilute the sense of separation black students feel from school and books, it is painfully clear that it has not and will not. Today the problem can only be solved from within, whether we be optimistic or pessimistic on the likelihood of this in the near future. Of course, as we have seen, some of middle-class black students' poor test scores and GPAs could be ascribed to lower-class cultural patterns persisting in some families despite rising incomes. The problem here, however, is a simple one: how could evaluators decide whether or not this was the case on the basis of a particular evaluation, an interview, or really anything less than living with each black applicant for a month?

The blanket abolition of Affirmative Action at UC schools was crude, although advocates of the policy are so resistant to constructive discussion that I suspect that this H-bomb approach was the only way to make any change at all. If it were up to me, I would follow many commentators on the subject and maintain Affirmative Action based on class. To the extent that Affirmative Action had actually been achieving its official goal of bringing disadvantaged minority students to Berkeley (which was slight, but nevertheless), this would maintain this obvious good, while extending the same privilege to the increasing ranks of white disadvantaged people. At this point, many will have already objected that the problem is with the very nature of the bar to be reached; specifically, that the emphasis in admissions on standardized tests is misguided, because their predictiveness of scholarly success is not absolute. This objection lends itself to two alternative solutions.

One would be to abolish standardized tests as a criterion for admission. Simply de-emphasizing them would not work: this year Berkeley did just this in evaluating undergraduate applications, but the discrepancy in scores was still so great that the number of minority admits plummeted nevertheless. However, the sheer volume of applications received would make this extremely difficult.

Thus as long as elite universities continue to use SAT scores and GPAs as a significant factor in admissions, then the other avenue would be to coordinate a concentrated effort to bring minority students' test scores up to the level of those of white and Asian students. We ought devote as much time to arguing for regular standardized testing starting in junior high school as we currently devote to issues such as classroom size, vouchers, computers, and phonics, especially in communities with large minority contingents (middle class ones most importantly). Minority students ought be encouraged to adopt the feverish use of SAT practice workbooks that Jewish high schoolers in Scarsdale do. It is often said that minority students cannot afford Kaplan courses and the like, but this again runs up against the fallacy that most Affirmative Action beneficiaries have been of humble origins. Many middle class families today could indeed afford such courses, especially since their proliferation has led to some competitive prices ÷ and in some areas there are even such courses aimed at minority students.

One almost never hears such a seemingly obvious prescription as this one in discussions of Affirmative Action, apparently out of a conviction that the problem is with reliance on the tests at all. However, the arguments levied for this position simply do not hold up.

For example, the old argument that SAT tests are culturally biased will not do anymore. It is unclear how this problem could apply in any significant way to middle class blacks who grew up shopping in the same stores, watching most of the same television shows and usually going to the same schools as their white equivalents, and nowadays often even dating them. The people who drag this one out these days never give examples that would apply to anyone who grew up outside of the cultural deprivation of a ghetto, and the writers of the SAT are now dedicated to the point of obssession to expunging their questions of any possible cultural bias.

There is also the going wisdom on campus that Affirmative Action admits end up performing at the level of white students in the end anyway, but this is based more on wishful thinking than reality. For one, black students remain considerably more likely to drop out before graduation than white students regardless of class. Furthermore, my years of teaching thus far have driven me to an unfortunate but painfully obvious conclusion: at Berkeley there is a sharp discrepancy between the average schoolroom performance of black students and white and Asian students. There are exceptions, of course, but too consistently for it to be accidental, I have found that the only way of avoiding flunking most of an all-black class has been to water down my lectures, write spoon-feeding examinations, and vastly lower my expectations for written assignments, and attendance is shockingly poor unless factored into the final grade. It is particularly dismaying to see the stark contrast in performance between these students and the occasional two or three white or Asian ones in such classes. As Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom have pointed out, it is hardly unreasonable to suspect a link between lower test scores and GPAs and this lackluster college performance. It is also clear to me that this tendency is a matter not of ability but attitude. Far from being embarrassed or frustrated, a great many of these students are almost smug about this behavior, a clear reflection of an a priori sense of cultural separation which most likely also depressed their high school GPAs and SAT scores. It would be considered extremely incorrect of me by many to air this discrepancy so bluntly, but any black professor attests to it privately (in which case they generally euphemize it with a sigh as "underpreparation", which would seem to undercut the prevailing wisdom that such students are as qualified as white ones).

Thus there is nothing unjust in the inevitable processing of standardized tests as a rite of passage ÷ namely, a crucible not necessarily pertinent to the whole range of skills needed in college, but a hurdle which members of the community are expected to have jumped to the extent that it is a challenging task with at least some perceptible application to college-level work. The prospective police officer who fails the entrance examination might well have made a fine officer, but no one decries the fundamental usefulness of the tests as a way of choosing candidates from a large pool of applicants. It is widely known that there are great teachers who fail teacher certification examinations and awful ones who pass, but again, we understand the usefulness of the examination nevertheless, and would be uncomfortable entrusting our children to a teacher who had not been able to pass it.

It follows that if there is a race-wide tendency to post low scores even among middle class students, then the solution is not to simply let these students loose in a culture in which they are saddled with an immediate badge of inferiority, but to do all that we can to enable them to ace the tests. How insurmountable a hurdle could it be for middle class children two generations past the Civil Rights Act to develop a knack for drawing some vocabulary analogies, performing some eighth grade math, and solving a few logic problems within a set amount of time?

To be sure, there would be an unpleasant by-product of this approach: it would take several years before the effects of such an effort resulted in an increase in the numbers of minority students admitted to Berkeley. However, this would be a temporary drop in the minority population, intended as an intermediate stage in a project explicitly devoted to bringing minority students into the school.

Moreover, one thing which has been completely lost in the campus "discussion" is that this, after all, is UC Berkeley, considered the best public university in the state and one of the best in the country. There is an argument that at least some schools be reserved for students who give all indication of performing at a particularly outstanding level, in order to provide the most nurturing student atmosphere possible. One could argue that to the extent that letting any student in under the bar entails running a risk that the student may not perform at the level expected, that set-asides be emphasized less at such institutions. Thus during the interim period I have mentioned, many of the black students refused admission to Berkeley according to the standards applied to whites and Asians would be admitted to other UC schools, as well as to other fine California universities with less stringent admissions standards. The cumulative difference a degree from one of these schools as opposed to Berkeley would make in their futures would be minimal in the long run, especially since the moderate numbers of black admits to Berkeley would be a temporary situation. The goal here is for every black student at Berkeley to know that their admission had been based not on things as abstract as wrongs done to their ancestors, or a racism which the typical young middle class black person encounters only in vestigial, ambiguous form, nor upon anything else which people are barely comfortable arguing for in full voice. Instead, their admission would be based upon their having hit the same high note as the white students. Surely this is better than asking middle class black students to content themselves with being compared to legacy students and athletes slipped in under the door.

To many, to even ask these questions directly is to be either naive, insensitive, or a racist. This, and the uproar over this year's admissions figures in general, raises a number of questions which signal two tragic detours which strong currents in African-American thought have taken.

One of these detours is traceable, ironically, to something miraculous, the forced desegregation of the United States in the 1960s. It is historically unprecedented that a disenfranchised group effect an overhaul of its nation's legal system to instantaneously abolish centuries of legalized discrimination. The country as a whole can congratulate itself on this, as well as the Affirmative Action programs established to ensure that this worked.

One result of this situation was that it set up a context in which black Americans were free to confront whites with their indignation and frustration on a regular basis and be listened to. White Americans have surely learned some long-needed lessons from the endless harangues they have had to suffer at our hands over the past thirty years ÷ I grew up watching my mother, who had participated in sit-ins in segregated Atlanta, taking active part in this throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and I'm glad she did it.

Where this has become a problem has been in combination with something else, a post-colonial inferiority complex. After centuries of degradation and marginalization, it would have been nothing less than astounding if African-Americans had not inherited one, and the very need for a Black Pride movement pointed this up. However, genuine pride comes from accomplishment in the present tense, and after a mere thirty years we naturally have a way to go. One of countless ways this reveals itself immediately is in the battle cry "You're still black!", often hurled at an African-American who appears to question their membership in the group for one reason or another. The implausibility of a Jew telling an assimilated child or acquaintance "You're still Jewish!" points up the heart of "You're still black!" ÷ the statement implies that being black is in some fundamental way a stain, incommensurate with the hubris perceived in the addressee, and the fury in the delivery makes this even clearer.

Strawberries are great, but not marinated in crushed garlic. In the same way, the privilege of dressing down the former oppressor becomes lethal when combined with this inherited inferiority complex. Encouraged to voice umbrage on one hand, and on the other hand haunted by the former oppressor's lie that black is bad, many African-Americans have fallen into a holding pattern of wielding self-righteous indignation less as a spur to action than as a self-standing action in itself. This behavior is a strategy to detract attention from the inadequacies we perceive in ourselves by highlighting those of the other. An analogy, partial but useful, is the classroom tattle-tale, ultimately motivated less by a desire to improve the student body than personal insecurities. My debt here to Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character is obvious, and the quick dismissal of his book by so many black thinkers was, in its way, a sign of its accuracy.

I in no sense mean to imply that we need not sound the alarm, and loudly, at remaining strands of racism. However, when the whistle is frozen at a shrieking level while the conditions which set it off recede ever more each year, it becomes clear that what began as a response has become more of a tic, endlessly retracing the same cycle like a tripped off car alarm. In other words, Orlando Patterson is correct in identifying a cult of victimology which has infected a great many African-American thinkers, characterized by a quest to tease a racist interpretation out of every possible interracial encounter in America, while fiercely downplaying signs of progress or harmony.

Of course, many feel that racism actually does persist on the virulent level which the victimology cult claims, but all indications are that it simply does not. Housing segregation is now a marginal phenomenon, much of it now due to harmless and ordinary self-segregation by working and middle class blacks. Even when I was a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the "interracial couple" was a curiosity, their children automatically "torn". Today, black-white relationships and marriages are nothing less than common in many parts of the country, and George Jefferson's hostility towards the "zebra" couple the Willises on the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons looks downright quaint to many modern teenagers. The proportion of black men in the prison population is a horror, but the implication often drawn from this by victimology hounds that all black American men labor under a shadow of potential imprisonment is a fiction: these statistics are skewed by the tragic state of the underclass who, let us recall, constitute less than 3% of all black Americans. African-Americans now hold so very many top-echelon positions in American public life that they barely bear listing, all unthinkable as recently as thirty years ago. Police brutality and harrassment is one of the most recalcitrant problems, but because even this is now increasingly reported and condemned, this shows all signs of being yet another facet of institutionalized racism gradually on the wane. Overall, the idea that "racism is the same as it was 50 years ago ÷ it just went underground", no matter how gracefully expressed, is a gravely ahistorical statement which does not begin to fit reality.

Yet in a recent New York Times article, Manning Marable grimly intones that "a segment of the minority population moves into the corporate and political establishment at the same time that most are pushed even further down the economic ladder" (emphasis mine), drawing a parallel with South Africa. If Marable is committed to the full enfranchisement of the race, we would think that he would be carefully following the figures over the years, rejoicing in the steady progress they display, even while remaining vigilant that the progress continue. But his confident dissemination of this distorted, self-indulgent cartoon leads one to suspect that in the end, he has little interest in this progress. What appears to drive people of this frame of mind is the cheap thrills of perpetual self-righteous indignation, dragging new generations of gullible students into the same self-defeating holding pattern of paranoia and insecurity.

This kind of talk is often depicted as a fringe phenomenon, wielded by a few melodramatic loudmouths for purposes of power. However, this frame of mind in fact percolates downward into every crevice of black American society, where it is felt fiercely and deeply, not simply "put on" for utilitarian purposes. To be considered "authentic", all African-Americans are expected to subscribe to these statistics simplistically conflating underclass conditions with the lot of the race as a whole, even those driving Lexuses and eating gourmet pasta.

One vignette will illustrate the lay of the land here. I will never forget seeing a black undergraduate at Stanford in 1991 stand up during a question session after a speech by a visiting black college president to recount a white mathematics professor telling her to withdraw from a calculus course because black people were not good at math. This professor may well have told the student that she couldn't do math, but I frankly cannot believe that anyone with the mental equipment to obtain a professorship at Stanford would, in the late 1980s in as politicized an atmosphere as an elite university, blithely tell a black student that black people cannot do math. Even if he were of this opinion, he would have to have been brain-dead to casually throw this into a black student's face, risking his job, reputation, and career. Yet the student felt free to tell this story to an auditorium of black students, and was vigorously applauded for airing this demonstration that nothing has changed ÷ by hundreds of black students who owed their very admission to Stanford to the massive societal transformation they had been taught to dismiss. This was a nothing less than typical event; I have witnessed countless similar episodes over the past fifteen years.

Things like this illustrate a conviction among a great many African-Americans that virulent racism in America is eternal. What people of this mindset seem to miss is that in a transition between one phase and another, there will inevitably be transitional points. The underclass is a tiny segment of the African-American population who are now caught in a self-sustaining tragedy; most African-Americans have benefitted from desegregation, and two generations are have now lived entire lives with an upward mobility, a freedom of travel, and a richness of social life unthinkable even in 1970. Because we are at a point of transition, nasty episodes, although increasingly occasional, are nothing less than inevitable ÷ the glass ceiling black executives often encounter, racially motivated hate crimes, Abner Louima. These things must be identified, condemned, and stamped out. That is what we are doing. However, there are no logical grounds whatsoever for reading these things as a slide backwards, as so many seem so inclined, even anxious, to do. If someone puts down mothballs in their house, if they encounter a couple of moths in a closet a couple of days later, they do not claim on this basis that mothballs do not work. The professional pessimism maintained by so many African-American people of influence in the face of a miraculous social revolution has fallen so starkly out of sync with reality that it reveals itself to have become a self-perpetuating cancer. Many of our thinkers and educators are simply not interested in the good news, because it is out of step with the agenda, which has, oddly enough, become to carefully collect the bad news ÷ in order to maintain an image of white America as an implacable enemy.

This victimology cult is crucial to fully understanding the atmosphere at Berkeley this spring, where it has deeply colored the reception of the news from Admissions.

First result: Many blacks consider Affirmative Action necessary out of a sense that black Americans in 1998 are still engaged in an interminable struggle against pervasive race-based discrimination, and view the ban as part of a general racist "backlash" (in which case the legions of white professors and deans working overtime at UC schools trying to figure out how to preserve diversity on their campuses despite the ban must be among the most consummate actors the world has ever known).

Second result: The abolishment of Affirmative Action is automatically interpreted as callous neglect of the disadvantaged, the assumption being that most African-Americans are being "pushed down the economic ladder" while the tens of thousands of middle class black people driving, shopping, walking, riding trains, eating in restaurants, at the movies, or comprising most of Berkeley's black undergraduates are all "exceptions".

The most frightening thing about this victimology cult is that it leads directly to the other obstacle to constructive discussion of Affirmative Action in our present moment, which is the separatist strain in modern African-American thought.

Nothing illustrates this better than "Afrocentrist History", for example, primarily founded upon a fragile assemblage of misreadings of classical texts to construct a scenario under which Ancient Egypt was a "black" civilization (was Anwar Sadat a "brother"???), raped by the Ancient Greeks who therefore owed all notable in their culture to them. Professional classicists easily point out the errors in these claims, only to have their proponents dismiss them as "racists" for having even asked the question. Indeed, to insist upon facts ÷ or apparently, to master the complex classical languages which the original documents were written in ÷ is "inauthentic". Yet these people are respectfully addressed as "Professor" by gullible students, and an eminent black undergraduate profiled in a recent issue of Ebony cited a book of this kind of history as the most important one she had read that year. Meanwhile, black student associations invite unthinking, anti-Semitic zealots of the Nation of Islam to university campuses, black students coming away saying that the speaker "had some good things to say", unfazed by the ignorant xenophobia and sexism.

Like the victimology cult, this separatist current also puts a stranglehold on true engagement with the Affirmative Action issue. It is negative, rather than positive, evidence which reveals this. In meetings and conversations on Affirmative Action at Berkeley, what is consistently missing is any sustained discussion of how we might bring black students' scores up to par. One may not agree with positions like mine, but such problems are at least worth discussing if only to be refuted, especially since most of the problems have been brought up by others, many African-American, long before. Nevertheless, one can sit through entire two-hour meetings of concerned faculty and administrators about how to achieve diversity on campus with none of these issues ever so much as mentioned, in favor of endless talk about "outreach", as if most Affirmative Action had been going to people difficult to "reach". At the end of the day, one perceives a consensus that the sheer presence of minority faces at Berkeley outweighs all other considerations by a wide margin, and that as long as there is some cut-off point in scores and GPA below which even minorities are not admitted, all talk of merit or excellence is, at worst, racist, or at best ÷ and it is this which I find most alarming ÷ utterly unimportant.

I believe that it is the separatist current which makes these pressing issues seem so utterly marginal to black Affirmative Action fans. For one, the determined unreflectiveness smacks of "Afrocentric Historians"' dismissal of reasoned argument. After a while one gets the feeling that the notion of looking into the issue any further than "diversity at all costs" is considered to issue from another world, even among people who constitute some of the world's most eminent thinkers. Discussion is instead carefully limited to a small set of endlessly reiterated declarations ÷ "Athletes and alumni's kids have been slipping in the back door for years", "I remember when you barely saw a brown face on campus and I'm afraid we're on our way back to that", "Ward Connerly just wanted to ride Pete Wilson's coattails to power", etc.. I refuse to believe, for the sake of the dignity of these advocates, that they sincerely believe that the issue has been addressed in any honest, truly constructive fashion. However, the blissful comfort with such patently incomplete, evasive, line-