THE REALITY CLUB
The Demise of Affirmative Action at UC - Berkeley:
Dissecting the Stalemate

An Essay by John McWhorter


David Bunnell, Daniel C. Dennett, Howard Gardner, Richard Dawkins, Philip W. Anderson, and John McWhorter on The Demise of Affirmative Action at UC - Berkeley by John McWhorter


From: David Bunnell
Date: 8-15-98

There is a terrible flaw in this, which is, middle class cannot and is not defined by income level. Just because a family has an income of $30,000 or more does not mean they are middle class. These "middle" class black students he talks about are in reality from the working class. They come from families where both parents work one or two jobs so that their kids can have opportunities like going to Berkeley. I know people exactly like this.

You are making a huge mistake by giving McWhorter a platform for his diatribe. You should not be so quick to judge, this is a much more complicated issue than he makes it out to be. This guy has his head in the sand.


From: Daniel C. Dennett
Date: 8-18-98

McWhorter's thoughtful essay usefully takes the wraps off some ideas that have long lain uneasily just below the surface of public discussion of Affirmative Action. Thanks to his courage, and his clear exposition, messy points of "faith" and "principle" (in other words, political shibboleths) have been turned into difficult but investigatable empirical questions. He thinks he knows the answers to these questions, and he well may, but also he may not. I certainly don't know and wonder if anybody does--yet. But the right course of action is to find out, and then act.

One must assume that the intent of Affirmative Action was always to be a corrective policy whose eventual success would render it not just unnecessary but positively harmful--at which point it would presumably be gratefully dismantled one way or another. (That is, its proponents have seldom if ever flatly denied the various unfortunate side effects of such a policy, but instead have argued, with some plausibility, that these were worth bearing--for as long as we had to bear them--in order to correct a worse situation.) But then everybody ought to agree that whether or not Affirmative Action is (still) justified depends on shifting empirical conditions.

If it is true that Affirmative Action (in college admissions) now primarily impacts middle-class (at least not hugely disadvantaged) minority students, then McWhorter is certainly right that some of the standard justifications for it have simply lapsed, however ringingly they might have justified the policy thirty years ago.

Just how widespread and influential in contemporary African-American culture is the "distrust of the nerd'" that he identifies so vividly? If "victimology" and the conviction that it is "inauthentic" for an African-American to be a good student plays the dominant role he claims it does, then he is surely right that Affirmative Action, by reinforcing these attitudes, is going to become ever more self-defeating. We all know what he is talking about, but anecdotal evidence is a poor substitute for a careful survey and statistical analysis.

Certainly he is right that many, many individual African-Americans (and women, and other presumed beneficiaries of Affirmative Action) are cruelly denied the precious opportunity to prove their powers, to celebrate untainted achievements. And certainly he is right that this also preempts the very demonstrations that would confirm what every goodwilled person wants to believe, and hence also leaves residual racist skepticisms largely unrebutted. These and other well known costs, moral as well as financial, mount daily, and are, indeed, terrible. But we need to keep asking: has the balance sheet yet turned red? I am inclined to think it has, but I wish I were better informed about what benefits might actually (still) be flowing.


From: Howard Gardner
Date: 8-21-98

The McWhorter essay is a serious piece of work and deserves to be read and pondered. I think some of the arguments are stronger than others, and I certainly don't endorse the idea of everyone cramming for the SATs or there being no admiration within the black community for high performing scholars. But the analysis of the rhetoric of those who support Affirmative Action is telling. I certainly think that you should send it to leading African American scholars (like Henry Louis Gates and Orlando Patterson and Sara Lightfoot and Anthony Appiah at Harvard) and to others who have been engaged in this public discussion, particularly my Harvard Colleague Nathan Glazer. I appreciate the chance to read this and expect to be rereading and thinking about it more this summer.


From: Richard Dawkins
Date: 8-18-98

I do not know enough about Berkeley today to judge the facts (I left in 1969, nearly 30 years ago when things, according to John McWhorter, were very different). But I recognize the authentic tone of clear, incisive reason when I hear it. It rings unmistakably through John McWhorter's words. I also know a diatribe when I see one (I've written a few myself). This is not a diatribe. McWhorter is as balanced and scrupulously fair as he is lucid. He is also courageous, as the response from David Bunnell illustrates. I salute John McWhorter, and hope that his essay on Affirmative Action will receive the widest possible dissemination. If I can be of any assistance in getting it published in England, please let me know.

Richard Dawkins


From: Philip W. Anderson
Date: 8-21-98

Anyone who has taught blacks even briefly is likely to have encountered the syndrome which McWhorter is talking about. It is good to have it openly discussed and I enjoyed his piece. But I found my quantitative sense somewhat disturbed by the statistics he gave. When one has figures near 50% of single-parent families and 20% young blacks unemployed (admittedly, my memory may predate Clinton prosperity) it is hard to fit these numbers into a 2 1/2% underclass. Not to mention everyone's anecdotal evidence based on his neighborhood problem city, in my case Trenton - and NJ has ten Trentons at least.

It seemed to me that the argument did not need to rest on arguable statistics.

One of the problems with Affirmative Action is that it seems to be perpetuating a racist definition of race. We are all using an antebellum Southern definition of black as - ugh!! - any 'touch of the tarbrush". When I have to fill out the official report of a hiring, no matter in what capacity, I have to classify all of the candidates considered in a truly weird set of categories, especially so because there are a lot of physicists all over Asia, and a lot of Latin American refugee intellectuals who would spit if they knew that they willy-nilly have to be Hispanic whether they speak Portuguese, Italian, or for that matter Nachua. But the worst is that black trumps all other identities - like Tiger Woods. And what is Vijay Singh? - Fijian, for those who don't follow the sports news. In India, incidentally, blacker is often more intellectual.

A possibly irrelevant diatribe, but the point that the problem, insofar as it is one, is cultural, is a good one - it's the culture, stupid!


Anyone reading my essay will clearly see that I carefully address the income/class discrepancy in many black families; as it happens, I lived in a whole neighborhood of such families for half of my childhood. I know that scene well - however, the simple existence of such families - which is nothing less than unexpected - does not automatically signify that they are a norm, and in my view there is nothing whatsoever that suggests that they are. I can assure Bunnell that if he had occasion to spend time teaching Berkeley's African-American undergraduates, he would be hard put to characterize any but a fraction of them "working class" in any sense of the term.

The very fact that Bunnell is so quick to designate as a norm what is more likely a subsidiary lag is telling. Never have I heard anyone even consider it germane to specify how prevalent this income/class discrepancy might be; instead, the simple fact that such families exist is automatically taken to mean that this is the typical situation. The very sorts of thinking people who decry the public's tendency to conceive of the black fraction of the welfare caseload as its totality have, on the other hand, no problem treating this income/class discrepancy as the lay of the land.

Bunnell's perspective is understandable in its way, demonstrating how difficult it is for us to shake the habit of associating "blackness" with lower-income culture. The problem is that this tendency is now the source of the latest roadblock Affirmative Action fans have begun to throw in the path of constructive engagement with the issue.

My mother worked two jobs at a time (social work professor and child psychologist); my father worked as well (public university administrator). In no sense of the term were we "working class" people; on the contrary, my parents were paradigm examples of the modern middle class family struggling with overextended credit cards and extra jobs to make ends meet. My parents were not atypical among black couples of their generation. Both grew up working class, and were beneficiaries of desegregation, earning their degrees in the 1970s while raising children. Nor, as one might object, were their jobs ritzier than most of today's Berkeley undergrads' parents'. Ask any number of black Berkeley undergrads what their parents do, and you will hear precious few say that their parents drive buses or work part-time at UPS.

Finally, even if in the aggregate one might suppose that black middle class families lean closer to the working class cultural band than whites, this would not suffice as an explanation for the lag in black/white scholarly performance. For example, even low-income Asians score much better than blacks on average on tests and also make higher grades, and yet many of their parents are uneducated and work two jobs at a time, there are few books in their homes, etc.

What, then, makes us so naturally perceive these problems as crippling in black homes as opposed to Asian ones? "Well, Asian culture values scholarly achievement more than black culture" would be almost anyone's answer. Which is precisely my answer. Black students do not lag behind because of working class cultural echoes. They lag behind because of ingrained aspects of the culture which transcend class and reach even into the ritziest households which no one could begin to call "working class" on any level.

Most dismaying, though, is Bunnell's conviction that my opinion should not even be heard. Let us recall: I favor Affirmative Action in the business realm, and would even support it in university admissions if based on class - and yet my essay is a mere "diatribe" written by someone with their "head in the sand". The serene conviction among Affirmative Action advocates that opposing opinions deserve no more of an airing than a speech by Adolf Hitler stems from a sense that all forms of Affirmative Action - except perhaps the most glaringly inefficacious misapplications - are as morally unassailable and celestially anointed as feeding the hungry. Clearly, however, the mounting body of sober objections indicates at the very least that some issues are up for debate.

The insistence among many that they are not - and what is frightening is that I believe that this conviction is genuine, not a mere strategical ploy as Shelby Steele argues in his latest book - is precisely what prevents so many "discussions" of Affirmative Action from being anything but disguised pep rallies for the old status quo. John Hope Franklin's casual rejection of Ward Connerly and the Thernstroms from the "national debate" on race, and members of the African-American National Bar Association's recent attempt to bar Clarence Thomas from speaking before them, are further examples of how on this topic, people who consider themselves more open-minded than those they would designate "conservative" have become as reflexively resistant to even civil dialogue as the Jesse Helmses most of us are so secure in dismissing.

In reference to Daniel Dennett's comment, I have not meant to imply that there is no respect for education in the black community. However, while most African-Americans would certainly praise education on the overt level, there is an underlying ambivalence towards the black "braniac", the sense being that too hearty an embrace of book knowledge tends to draw a person away from identification with "black" concerns. To be fair, it often does - but the fact remains that this ambivalence profoundly affects black students' school performance - most importantly, on all class levels, not just in ghettos.

An illustration: As a graduate student, I once gave a report on the verb "to be" in Swahili. Some months later, a fellow black graduate student told me that the zeal with which I had approached the subject had made them wonder whether I was "a brother" or not. In other words, even for this graduate student in my own department, my commitment to knowledge for knowledge's sake - as opposed to their study of Black English - was suspicious. Yet this type of sentiment is so typical that at the time it barely threw me; it is part of the warp and woof of growing up African-American. Any black kid - on ANY class level - is suckled on this attitude from birth. Only later have I come to reconceive this as having been a demonstration of a grave cultural problem.

This tendency continues even among tenured university professors. When the Oakland school board declared that black children were to be taught standard English via translation from their "native language" Ebonics, when consulted by the media I argued that Oakland was on the wrong track. I brought various data to bear, such as showing that children worldwide learn standard dialects in school without translation when their home dialects are so different from the standard as to be practically a different tongue; that Black English is not in any sense an "African" language; and even that over the years a great many studies have shown that the "Ebonics" method of teaching black children does not work.

Unfortunately, I found myself alone here. The sister currents of victimology and separatism led black linguists and educators to stand behind Oakland's decision almost to a man. Few of my observations were unknown to them, but my choosing to say these things rather than politely skirting over them in favor of a vague "support for addressing the needs of African-American children" was nevertheless considered a breach of racial solidarity. To this day several are distinctly cool in their relations towards me, with the guru of the "Ebonics" approach even having sent me a string of invective-laced hate mail. The crucial thing here was this: barely any of my critics has ever even considered it germane to address my reasoning itself, and never in anything approaching detail. The message is painfully clear - whatever its validity, the primary value of knowledge is its usefulness in The Struggle, to the extent that even distorted knowledge is permissible; otherwise, it is of marginal concern.

Thus few blacks would overtly condemn education, but underlying this formal support is a sense that books for books' sake is essentially for whitey. My Black Musical Theatre history class at Berkeley has been a kind of laboratory test of this. The first time I taught it most of the students were white, the next time, almost all black. I could count on the black students' ears to perk up when I discussed racism and segregation in the industry. However, when it came to things such as what decade (not even year) a musical appeared in or who the principal performer was, whereas most of the white students delighted in this sort of thing as interesting "lore", for most of the black students it was clear that the very same lectures I had given the white students might as well have been pages from the Pittsburgh phone book. A few of them even casually expressed surprise and dismay that I expected them to know such things for the midterm.

I don't mean to sound dismissive of these students; the appearance of such may be part of what arouses Bunnell's response. Although I openly admit that my patience wears thinner with tenured colleagues, on the individual, social level the students tend to be my favorites. However, I at the same time see that they are almost all under the sway of an understandable but pernicious culturally-based holding pattern, whose depth I can only get across with unvarnished descriptions. My main intention is to explore what we can do about this. My ideal would be for this tendency to decrease with the generations to come, rather than increase, as I fear the current sociopolitical climate is ensuring.





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