City Journal

John H. McWhorter
The Campus Diversity Fraud
Colleges justify racial preferences in the name of diversity. It’s a hokey defense of a bankrupt policy that they should scrap.
Winter 2002

In September, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the crude “black bonus” in the University of Georgia’s admissions policy wasn’t what the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision meant when it allowed colleges to take “diversity” into account in admissions decisions. Let’s hope that this decision spells the beginning of the end for the “diversity” argument in college admissions. It has been, from the start, an argument shot through with duplicity and bad faith. It is a craven, disingenuous, and destructive canard, antithetical to interracial harmony and black excellence—and racist besides.

The diversity imperative now so powerful on campus arose almost by chance, springing from a remark Justice Lewis Powell made in his concurrence in the Bakke decision. Allan Bakke had charged the medical school at the University of California at Davis with discrimination for twice turning him down, despite his high grades and admissions-test scores, while routinely admitting black students with C averages and poor admissions-test scores. The court found that quota systems like Davis’s were unconstitutional, but Powell’s opinion hedged slightly, asserting that it was appropriate for schools to base their admissions decisions upon a quest for a “diverse student body.” Powell’s statement provided a justification that universities, including the University of Georgia, quickly seized upon as a cover for admitting black students with significantly lower qualifications than those of white or Asian students. Instead of ending campus affirmative action, Bakke became its license.

White guilt is a dangerous and addictive drug, and for 20-plus years the Bakke decision has supported stricken higher-education administrators in their habit. Meanwhile, the diversity shibboleth has taught a generation of young Americans that black students are more important for their presence in promotional brochure photographs than for their scholastic qualifications—an essentialization now as rife among black as among white students. This message ultimately perpetuates the very underperformance that has made the fig-leaf diversity notion necessary.

The very term “diversity” craftily overshoots the actual goal in question. Mormons, paraplegics, people from Alaska, lesbians, Ayn Randians, and poor whites exert little pull on the heartstrings of admissions committees so committed to making college campuses “look like America.” The diversity that counts is brown-skinned minorities, especially African Americans.

Affirmative action at its inception in the late 1960s, when college administrators supposed that blacks’ low representation on campuses was simply a matter of discrimination, meant nothing more than opening the doors and providing some remedial help where needed. But these efforts to bring in qualified blacks ran up against the uncomfortably small number of such people in an America just past legalized segregation. Faced with those who were admitted, university professors, not surprisingly, proved unequal to the task of undoing the effects of 14 years of poor preparation in the basic skills necessary for college course work. Meanwhile, the triumph of the separatist belief in black America that scholastic achievement was a “white” endeavor rather than an American one further decreased the numbers of black students qualified for top schools, and it holds down their numbers to this day.

As a result, though Justice Powell doubtless had intended his diversity imperative to play out as a mere thumb on the scale, giving the edge to a brown-skinned candidate where his qualifications were equal to a white-skinned one’s, brute quota systems quickly came to reign on selective campuses. After my first year at Rutgers University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in the mid-1980s, it was painfully clear to me that the black students were generally a rung below the general preparation and performance level of the white ones. Certainly there were excellent black students—but they were exceptions rather than the rule. Even as a teenager unconcerned with social policy or admissions procedures, I couldn’t but notice that black students had gotten in under some kind of quota system.

Rutgers top brass long maintained that race was used as just one of many factors, as the Bakke decision had directed. But a few years after I graduated, a student working in the admissions office blew the whistle, revealing that black students were put into a special pool and admitted according to significantly lower criteria than other students. Nor was Rutgers unique. Similar disclosures have emerged in school after school, including the University of California, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, and, most recently, the University of Georgia. Even in their pro–affirmative action manifesto, The Shape of the River, William Bowen and Derek Bok admit—and painstakingly document—that this practice has been routine in selective universities across the nation for 30 years.

At the University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, the quota system was as obvious on the ground as it had been at Rutgers in the 1980s. One older white professor, an avowed leftist, confided in me that since the early 1970s black students had done badly in his classes so often that he had found himself viewing any black student who appeared on the first day of class as a potential problem. A white remedial-composition tutor observed that he had worked with so many minority students hopelessly underprepared for Berkeley-level work that he had found himself questioning the wisdom of racial preferences, despite his leftist persuasion. Professors across the country have expressed similar views to me.

Many would dismiss such observations as bias and stereotyping. The facts are otherwise. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom note in America in Black and White that black Berkeley students who enrolled in 1988 had an average SAT score below 1,000, compared with white students’ average of over 1,300. The highest quartile of black SAT scores in this class clustered at the bottom quarter of the SAT scores of all students. The high school grade average among black students was B-plus, rather than the straight-A average required of white students. Nor was this a mere Berzerk-ley aberration: in 1992, the gap in average SAT scores between black and white entrants was 150 points at Princeton, 171 at Stanford, 218 at Dartmouth, and 271 at Rice.

Graduation rates reflect this gulf in preparation. The Thernstroms document that, of the black students who entered Berkeley in 1988, 41 percent did not graduate, while only 16 percent of their white classmates did not. Bowen and Bok report that, at 28 top universities, black students in the class of 1989 were about three times more likely to drop out than white students.

Many ascribe these higher dropout rates to financial pressures rather than to the sharp deficits in high school grades and SAT scores. But the burden of proof is upon such people to identify just why grades and scores would not correlate significantly with a student’s chances of finishing college. Few have any problem seeing a causal link here when it comes to white students.

The argument that grades and scores are irrelevant to assessing a candidate defies both logic and experience. Consider the SAT. No one would argue that a student with a perfect SAT score is only a possible good match for Harvard or that a student with an abysmal SAT score was prime Harvard material. Precisely what, then, leads to the conclusion that SAT scores in between have no predictive power? In fact, as the Thernstroms show, graduation rates for black students who started at Berkeley in 1988 closely tracked their SAT scores: students with lower SATs were correspondingly less likely to get their degrees. Bowen and Bok acknowledge that SAT scores actually overpredict black students’ college performance—that is, black students do less well than their scores would predict, not better.

Faced with such hard facts, diversity fans have asserted that leadership skills, helping to put together the high school yearbook, and spunk are as relevant to assessing a student’s scholastic potential as . . . well, how they did academically in high school or how they scored on standardized tests. But aren’t leadership skills and spunk equally prevalent among white students? Surely, blacks aren’t innately perkier than whites. College-admissions committees that cheerily emphasize such extra-academic factors in evaluating black applicants basically are saying that blacks can’t compete in the truly decisive arena: the classroom. In the name of diversity, black students find themselves patronizingly exempted from serious competition.

Can we justify this exemption from standards by saying that it leads to a larger good? Supporters of campus diversity have made three broad arguments to this effect. The first is that bending the admissions rules to ensure diversity helps foster an interracial fellowship that all students will carry with them into society after they graduate. I tried to hold on to this idea for years, but in the end it just doesn’t wash.

In truth, “diverse” college campuses are among the most racially balkanized places in America. Separate black fraternities and sororities thrive. They first emerged in the early twentieth century, when white fraternities and sororities didn’t welcome black applicants. Today, black Greek organizations are thoroughly unenthusiastic toward whites. Reinforcing this separatism, some universities host all-black graduation ceremonies—the idea, apparently, being that one’s achievement is less a human or American one than a black one. In addition, black students typically cluster in their own section of the dining hall, throw their own parties, have their own theme houses, and leave college with a separatist ideology that they often didn’t hold when they first arrived. Interracial fellowship this is not.

Nor is one likely to find much interracial camaraderie in African-American studies classes. Supporters of such classes say that they help blacks learn about their rich heritage, but in practice, they often double as exercises in stoking hatred of the White Man. At Stanford, I was a teaching assistant in a predominantly black class on Black English. In itself, the subject encompasses much more than mere street slang—extending to grammatical structure, literature, and educational issues. Yet, class discussion devolved into visceral dismissal of whites so often that one white student complained to the professor that he felt any opinions he ventured beyond genuflections to black victimhood were unwelcome—and he was right. When, in a course I taught at Berkeley on the history of black musical theater, a female white student observed that rap lyrics were misogynistic, several black students dressed her down so vehemently that they left her in tears.

Confronted with such racial enmity, white students understandably start shunning blacks. John H. Bunzel documents in Race Relations on Campus: Stanford Students Speak Out that white Stanford students who endured constant vague accusations of racism from black students often became less interested in interracial outreach than they had been as freshmen—a trend I’ve noticed on other campuses where I’ve taught or visited.

For the black student who doesn’t toe the separatist line but really seeks interracial fellowship, university life can be uncomfortable. Blacks quickly discover that black authenticity means hunkering down behind a racial barricade, glaring angrily at the symbols of white “hegemony” that supposedly surround them, and believing that they are eternal victims in their own land. Edgy conversations with other black students who question the authenticity of one’s own “blackness” become a regular feature of life. Bunzel reports that black Stanford students told him they were expected to “talk black, dress black, think black, and certainly date black.” A black student who joins a traditionally white frat or sorority will face accusations that he or she is a self-hating sellout. A black acquaintance once told me that the overwhelming hostility she met with during her college years from black students scornful of her white friendships was far worse than any white racism she experienced at the time.

Scratch the surface, it seems, and diversity really means maintaining one’s separatist missiles at the ready. After black University of California regent Ward Connerly helped launch an ultimately successful campaign to outlaw racial preferences in U-Cal admissions a few years back, some black locals formed a committee called “Citizens Against Ward Connerly.” At one event, a committee representative joked, “Ward Connerly wants the University of California to be all vanilla—and I don’t like vanilla.” She sought audience approval, but given that at least half of her listeners were white, all she got was some nervous laughter. She quickly backtracked, adding, “I like to have some mix-ins—chips, nuts.” Her initial remark, though, revealed the truth: the people so furiously committed to campus diversity aren’t interested in a color-blind America. Their real goal is to ensure that the privileges of a college education don’t distract black students from the urgent task of keeping the fires of black alienation burning.

Since the notion that diversity encourages interracial bonding is so patently false, its defenders frequently make a second, somewhat different, argument. Racial preferences in admissions, they maintain, are crucial in order to ensure, if not fellowship, then at least exposure to different ethnic and racial groups, teaching a valuable lesson about the many equally valid viewpoints in a multicultural society. This view received official imprimatur in Powell’s Bakke concurrence, where the justice asserted that universities would benefit from selecting “those students [i.e., dark-skinned minorities] who will contribute most to the robust exchange of ideas.”

Given that Bakke concerned a medical school, just how being black qualifies one to make especially vigorous observations about surgical incisions and metabolic pathways is unclear, but never mind. The real, if implicit, assumption behind the exposure idea is that whites will learn about—and learn to respect—blacks from the other side of the tracks, whom they supposedly find so alien, despicable, and threatening. But in practice, what white students often learn at a university that lets in blacks under the bar is that blacks may not be as sharp as whites. It’s difficult to imagine how even the most well-intentioned white students could have avoided such a conclusion at Rutgers when I studied there in the 1980s.

More fundamentally, the “exposure” argument rests on a falsehood: that black students typically come from disadvantaged circumstances, unfamiliar to their white classmates. In fact, at selective schools, inner-city blacks have been vanishingly rare since the late 1960s, when a handful of top schools briefly—and unsuccessfully—experimented with admitting unqualified urban blacks to see if they could cope. But among black students in the last class admitted to Berkeley under the old racial preferences regime, more than 65 percent came from households earning at least $40,000 a year; the parents of 40 percent earned at least $60,000 yearly. Of blacks admitted in 1989 to the 28 selective universities that Bowen and Bok survey, just 14 percent came from homes earning $22,000 or less.

Precisely what traits do middle-class black kids display that a white student must learn about so that he won’t wash out in the management job he starts after graduation? I’ve found that middle-class black students asked to list a few such traits usually draw a blank. Even if many blacks from the ‘hood did show up at selective schools, however, why would learning about their cultural traits be vital to white students’ education? In African-American studies courses on the same campuses, blacks regularly—and rightly—decry the stereotype that all African Americans are poor. Surely a firsthand, four-year tutorial in the vibrancy of ghetto life would simply reinforce that stereotype. Poverty is a tragedy, not a life-style.

If neither the hope for greater interracial harmony nor the idea of whites learning from blacks justifies diversity policies, there is, finally, the moral argument that blacks deserve compensation for their tragic history. Centuries of disenfranchisement and segregation bar most blacks from really qualifying for top schools, affirmative action’s defenders charge, so it’s the right thing to do to let them in through the back door. “How, without racial preferences, can we make up for the fact that whites benefited from socially ingrained preferences for centuries?” furiously asked one black man at a talk I gave recently. Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer, reversing his longtime opposition to race-based admissions, claims that whites “owe” blacks due to past injustices. For all their sincerity, however, people like Glazer don’t understand that this tit-for-tat defense of racial preferences bars the only path that can lead us beyond our racial dilemmas.

It’s indisputable that historical disenfranchisement has left many blacks ill equipped to compete even when ladders to success beckon, as they do today—partly because of the economic and social obstacles to achievement that disadvantaged status entails and, even more, because long-term oppression helped create a black cultural identity opposed to mainstream success. For blacks to rise to the top, they must learn new skills and cultivate new attitudes. Those who’ve grown up under conditions that don’t offer direct paths to accomplishment have the task—unfair, but hardly limited to blacks—of discovering the knack of turning lemons into lemonade, as oppressed groups in America have done for centuries. A group that believes that mainstream achievement is inauthentic will have to refashion its self-conception if it is ever to get ahead in the only society it will ever call home.

Lowered standards are antithetical to both of these vital goals. A fundamental tenet of economics and psychology is that most people will do their best only if they have the incentive to do so. Lowered standards have robbed blacks of that incentive. One can only learn to ride a bicycle by mastering the subtle muscular poise of the endeavor oneself; as long as the training wheels remain on, one isn’t really riding the bike.

The point here isn’t moral but logical: black students will only reach their full potential if the affirmative-action safety net is withdrawn and they’re required to strive for excellence. Perhaps the most sobering reality black Americans face today is that even our tragic history cannot exempt us from this hard truth of the human condition. Asian students have never had the illusion that there was any path up other than showing their best stuff, come hell or high water, which is why so many of them excel. Students, though, who daily hear the message, “You only have to do pretty well to get into a top school” will—a few naturally gifted stars excepted—only do pretty well. To elevate diversity over true excellence condemns black students to mediocrity and is, quite simply, racist.

To call today’s university administrations racist may seem a bit strong. Yet what else should we make of university officials’ apparent belief that blacks are the only group in American history incapable of overcoming social and historical obstacles? So troubled is University of California president Richard Atkinson by the fall in black and Hispanic admissions to his flagship Berkeley and UCLA campuses since the end of racial preferences in the system that he has proposed eliminating the SAT from admissions requirements altogether.

Never mind that, after the overturning of preferences, black admissions fell only on these two top campuses, rising at several other UC schools; and that the University of California is now trying diligently to prepare minority students in middle and high schools throughout the state to submit competitive dossiers to UC. Atkinson is so skeptical that the new race-blind regime will ever bear fruit that he doesn’t consider it worth waiting to see what might happen over time. Instead, all he sees is the “re-segregation” that black and Latino faculty and administrators and their white fellow travelers warned about when the battle over preferences was raging. Implicitly, he seems to think that Berkeley and UCLA are the only California colleges worth attending, so that black students who don’t get into them have no choice but to fail.

This is offensive nonsense. Sure, over the past few years, many black kids who would have gone to Berkeley under the old system now attend UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, or other solid second-rank schools. But so what? They’re much more likely to thrive on these campuses than if they found themselves, unprepared, at legendarily demanding Berkeley and UCLA. And isn’t Atkinson’s conviction that the new system re-creates the era of Orville Faubus strangely dismissive of California’s non-elite state schools for the man entrusted with their stewardship?

Equally important, under the new race-blind system, black students know that they are as qualified academically as other students on campus. Armed with a confidence based on reality, black students will be more comfortable in white company and less likely to compensate for feelings of inferiority by retreating to their own section of the dining hall.

Affirmative-action supporters retort that under-qualified black students must be admitted to top schools, because the prestige of such institutions and the connections one makes attending them are essential to success in later life. This claim doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Journalist James Fallows notes in a recent piece in The Atlantic that “the four richest people in America, all of whom made rather than inherited their wealth, are a dropout from Harvard, a dropout from the University of Illinois, a dropout from Washington State University, and a graduate of the University of Nebraska.” Top universities, he adds, rarely show up on the résumés of congressmen, Nobel laureates, industry leaders, and even U.S. presidents. As for blacks, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom show that, of today’s African-American congressmen, army officers, recent Ph.D.s, MacArthur Foundation genius-award winners, and top business officials, only a tiny sliver attended elite colleges.

None of this is rocket science. Every college administrator knows that diversity is really a code word for “at least 5 percent black faces with a good sprinkling of Latinos,” and that this outcome is attainable only through quotas. Racial preferences continue to receive protection from the diversity fig leaf. It’s a powerful rhetorical weapon. The question, “Aren’t you in favor of diversity?” today means, “Don’t you like black people?”—and nothing chills most thinking white Americans more than the fear of being deemed racist. At the same time, many blacks cheer preferences under the misguided impression that racism is the only possible cause of unequal performance, and thus they remain blind to the importance of the perseverance and individual initiative that will truly succeed in fostering black excellence.

A university culture truly committed to erasing the sins of the past would champion diversity in its true sense, infusing its discourse on race with a range of views wider than variations on victimhood. Since 1978, diversity has served as a flimsy and evasive perversion of justice. It has helped no one, least of all black students. It’s high time we swept it into the dustbin of history.

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