John McWhorter on the Georgetown diversity drama

March 14, 2021 • 10:00 am

I’m glad John McWhorter discussed this issue so I don’t have to in detail, though I will adduce some data that he doesn’t provide. First, as has been widely reported, as in the article below from the New York Times, two Georgetown University law professors have been fired or resigned after what they said on a Zoom call (click on screenshot below):


Professor Sellers and Batson had this Zoom call, which was somehow recorded:

As you can see, Sellers says she’s suffering “angst” from the poor performance of some black students at her school. As the NYT reports:

In the clip, Ms. Sellers, a mediator with experience in intellectual property and high-tech disputes, discussed the evaluation of Black students with Mr. Batson after their virtual class had ended, according to the university.

“You know what? I hate to say this,” Ms. Sellers said on the video. “I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks — happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You know? You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

As she spoke, Mr. Batson murmured, “Mm-hmm,” but did not challenge her remarks.

Sellers is the prime offender here, while Batson’s crime apparently consists of murmering “Mm-hmm,” and saying “yeah,” which people took as tacit agreement. For that he had to resign

The video was put on social media, students and alumni objected, and the juggernaut began rolling:

After the video prompted condemnation from students and alumni, the dean of the law school, William M. Treanor, said he had referred the matter to the university’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action, which had begun an investigation. He called the contents of the video, which the university learned about this week, “abhorrent” and said it “included reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of Black students.”

“It includes conduct that has no place in our educational community,” Mr. Treanor wrote to the law school on Wednesday. “We must ensure that all students are treated fairly and evaluated on their merits.”

On Thursday morning, the university’s Black Law Students Association posted a letter to the administration calling for Ms. Sellers to be terminated and urging the law school to audit the grades and student evaluations in her past classes.

The video revealed not only Ms. Sellers’s “true beliefs about Black students,” the association wrote, “it is also illustrative of the conscious and unconscious bias systematically present in law school grading at Georgetown Law and in law school classrooms nationwide.”

Sellers was terminated during a conversation with the Dean, though she said she’d already resigned. Batson soon resigned as well. But for the life of me, I can’t see any conscious or unconscious racism in what Sellers said. She certainly was a bit hamhanded in what she said, and seemed to be disturbed by it, saying that the proportion of black students at the bottom of her class caused her “angst” and “drove her crazy.”  This can be construed as racist only if she is making up what she said. But given the data below, it may well be true, and at any rate Georgetown refuses to release the data that would confirm or deny her claim. But McWhorter has a more thoughtful take on the varieties of racism this might evince, so see the discussion below.

I’ve heard other professors say the same thing, always with a sense of dismay that efforts to beef up diversity are somewhat stymied by a lower average performance of minority students.  And that is not an unexpected result if the “meritocratic” qualifications of minority students put them at a disadvantage from the outset. (Various schools are trying to remedy this by various forms of mentoring and tutoring.)

Here, for example, are some data taken from an article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, about the performance of different races on the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT: the test you take when you are applying to law school:

Very Few Blacks Score at the Highest Levels of the Law School Admission Test

In 1998 the mean score of white students taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) was 151.96. (The LSAT is graded on a scoring scale of 120 to 180.) The mean score for black students taking the test that year was 141.80, about 17 percent lower than the mean score of whites.

The latest data shows a slight improvement for both blacks and whites, but there was no progress in closing the racial scoring gap. In 2004 the mean score for whites on the LSAT was 152.47. For blacks, the mean score was 142.43. The 10 point, or 17 percent, scoring gap has remained constant throughout the period with only very minor fluctuations.

Students seeking admission to the nation’s highest-ranked law schools such as Yale, Harvard, and Stanford have a mean LSAT score of about 170. Data obtained by JBHE from the Law School Admission Council shows that very few blacks nationwide score at this level.

In 2004, 10,370 blacks took the LSAT examination. Only 29 blacks, or 0.3 percent of all LSAT test takers, scored 170 or above. In contrast, more than 1,900 white test takers scored 170 or above on the LSAT. They made up 3.1 percent of all white test takers. Thus whites were more than 10 times as likely as blacks to score 170 or above on the LSAT. There were 66 times as many whites as blacks who scored 170 or above on the test.

Even if we drop the scoring level to 165, a level equal to the mean score of students enrolling at law schools ranked in the top 10 nationwide but not at the very top, we still find very few blacks. There were 108 blacks scoring 165 or better on the LSAT in 2004. They made up 1 percent of all black test takers. For whites, there were 6,689 test takers who scored 165 or above. They made up 10.6 percent of all white students who took the LSAT examination.

The nation’s top law schools could fill their classes exclusively with students who scored 165 or above on the LSAT. But if they were to do so, these law schools would have almost no black students.

Now this is not a racist diatribe, but facts adduced by a journal described by Wikipedia as “a former academic journal, now an online magazine, for African Americans working in academia in the United States.” It is clearly not a conservative site, and is also clearly run by African-Americans and meant to buttress African-Americans and give them academic news. And yet the data above are likely to be at least one explanation for the poorer performance of black students in law school, assuming that there is some affirmative action that gives students of color preferential admission.

What is the antiracist view of this? Ibram Kendi would call such differential performance an “inequity” that is evidence of “structural racism”, and not just in a past history of African-Americans that has deprived them of equal opportunities. No, it would be structural racism at Georgetown itself, as evinced in the students’ accusations that their professors were racist. Kendi would also claim that this kind of evaluation is missing salient characteristics of black students, for example, their higher “desire to know.” (Again, I urge you to read How to Be an Antiracist to see him discuss this stuff.)

At any rate, my impression of this kerfuffle is that two professors were fired for telling the truth about their classes—admittedly, not in a very sensitive way, but not in a racist way, either. John McWhorter, himself an African-American, has a similar take, but goes much further (click on screenshot to read his mini-essay):

McWhorter assumes, as is reasonable, that Sellers was saying that “black students are disproportionately  at the bottom of her classes.”  He then considers several reasons why her words might be considered racist. These include “it’s a lie” (I would suspect not; why would she lie to another professor about this on a supposedly private Zoom call?); “it’s racist because it’s rude to point out such facts about black students” (but if it’s a fact, how is it rude, especially because understanding the existence of inequities is the first step in remedying them?); “it’s racist to point out the discrepancy without noting that the discrepancy itself is due to racism”, which McWhorter says “is getting into Kendi territory”; and, finally, that “Sellers’ racism made it hard for black students to truly excel in her class.” McWhorter says that if this is the contention, it must be supported with facts.

His conclusion?

And note that in the eyes of many, here I am just asking too many questions. I just don’t “get it” – but if I ask what I don’t “get,” the response is suspiciously dominated by buzzwords unsupported by fact, statistics diagonally related to the topic, and in live interaction, impatient, appalled half-sentences you can’t help wondering the person could actually complete in a convincing way.

Our national discussion of matters like these is crabbed and fake.

So he enters that discussion, not content to just point out the fact of disproportionate class rankings.

An intelligent take on this issue need not stop somewhere like that. But plenty of people have taken it further over the years, only to be ignored for the apparent sin of even bringing up the discrepancies at all.

How about this? Systemic racism does affect how well all but a very few black students are prepared to excel in top-ranked law schools. Why would it not, given black people’s history in this country? Not to mention racist white teachers, in the wake of desegregation of public schools, alienating black students in the 1960s to the point that in synergy with the new Black Power ideology, a new element was introduced into black culture of seeing nerdiness – i.e. what you need to do well in law school – as “white.” The effects of this could be subtle – an invaluable study showed black fifth graders more likely to say homework was for the teacher while white ones were more likely to say it was for their parents – but powerful.

However, our culture of racial preferences requires that top law schools admit most black students under different standards of grades and LSAT scores, out of quest for a proper amount of diversity in the school. Some will insist that this isn’t true, but it has been resoundingly proven time and again, such as in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision where it was allowed that the University of Michigan law school admit black students according to “holistic” evaluation that included a point bonus for skin color.

Richard Sander argued in 2004 that when black law students were instead admitted to schools where all students had the same general level of dossier, they perform at a higher level, were much more likely to graduate, and were 50% less likely to fail the bar exam. In such schools, comments like Sellers’ and Wax’s are vastly less likely.

His solution is one people might not find palatable:

One model of making real progress is that black law students whose grades and scores are parallel to those of white students admitted to second- and even third-tier schools are admitted to those schools rather than brought into first-tier ones for their “diversity.”

We might, in a “Modest Proposal” vein, ask law school administrators to consider that their current modus operandi, entailing what they title “inclusiveness” and such, only seems to lead to a critical mass of black students hitting the ground insisting upon any challenge that the law school “is racist.”

The first paragraph suggests in effect a rejection of affirmative action in law school. I don’t completely agree, for if exercising complete discrimination based on scores leads to a near complete absence of black students in top tier law schools (see data above), I would find that morally repugnant. Even as a form of reparations, we need to have some racial balance in the very best schools. And of course there are minority students who would qualify for admission to places like Harvard. It’s just that using scores alone would reduce that proportion considerably.

McWhorter has another solution that’s related:

How about a great many of the same students being instructed in a way that reaches people who haven’t gone to elite prep schools, had test prep practically since birth, and grew up in book-lined homes? At law schools which, though they don’t have the cachet of the top twenty or so, are sterling institutions whose faculty would be justly injured to be dismissed as somehow dismissible for not being at Yale or U. Michigan.

These black law school grads are then in a position to present great grades to employers – grades matter in deciding who gets jobs in law-related professions after law school —  including not needing multiple tries to pass the bar (which also matters) — and thereby furnish their children with the capital to be able to achieve easily at top-ranked law schools. In a brave new world not even so far in the future, there would be no especial disproportion of black students at the bottom of even top-level law schools’ classes.

He adds that these solutions have the advantage of admitting the existence systemic racism (he doesn’t say exactly where), but also “pointing the way toward a better future for black people.” And that is a worthy goal, one sometimes missed by those too quick to cry “racist”. Once we identify the causes of disparities, how can we fix them? This seems to be the difference between Kendi and McWhorter, as Kendi mandates top-down solutions involving the creation of instant equity via what he calls deliberate but antiracist discrimination (affirmative action), but he broaches no longer-term solutions, at least in  How to Be an Antiracist.

McWhorter’s closing (minus the bit where he muses on whether Sellers should have been fired):

And yet to many, what’s key is to simply call people racists, for pointing out what any unbiased observer would see as a problem in need of solution.

And amidst all of this, it would appear that “racist” means “anything that a black person doesn’t like for some reason,” and we are to bow down and accept this as post-Enlightenment, morally binding truth because black people have a hideous history.

That is not a real discussion. It renders black people something less than human, in feigning that we are beyond serious critique. We are lying to one another and nervously hoping nobody will blow the whistle on what we are told to pretend is about “social justice.”

But lowering standards is not “social justice,” nor is pretending that the standards have no value and calling for their elimination. Take a trip back in time and run that by Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, or Maya Angelou.

Nor is it “social justice” to dragoon black students into a diversity diorama and then watch them complain about being foisted with the responsibility of representing their race, while also assailing the school for not addressing their “diversity” in the right way, when what really should have happened is that they settled in at schools prepared to teach them effectively.

McWhorter has some credibility here, for he is a black man and he’s no Uncle Tom. He’s perfectly aware of the history of racism in America and what it has done to African-Americans. But he’s also aware of the history of Critical Race Theory as well, and what it’s doing to African-Americans now.

27 thoughts on “John McWhorter on the Georgetown diversity drama

  1. Missing from the discussion is any information about how blacks who are admitted to law schools on racial preferences, and do poorly, perform as lawyers when they graduate. (And that’s no a knock on Jerry or McWhorter, since that’s specialized knowledge.) If they do well, then the preferences might be worthwhile. If they fail as lawyers, though, the practice should be stopped to prevent negative outcomes for their clients.

        1. My so-called generalization leads to correct predictions (though there could of course be other explanations for them). For example, a cursory search will quickly show you complaints about black lawyers being disproportionally disbarred. These complaints will naturally ignore that Asian lawyers are less affected by this than white ones, and women much less than men.

          The admittedly extreme example of an AA admitted doctor I linked to got several (black) patients killed, and is therefore not wholly irrelevant.

  2. One wonders if students might exclaim of the faculty :

    “You know what? I hate to say this, I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my professors are white — happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You know? You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just racist. It drives me crazy.”

    … but that’s probably a gross misrepresentation.

  3. My interpretation of the offending words:

    “But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

    The speaker is Woke. They believe that “affirmative action” in admission is just correcting for “systemic racism” and thus that such students are just as good as any others. Thus they should perform just as well as others. The “drives me crazy” is them suffering cognitive dissonance, it is real-world facts about performance conflicting with their ideological expectation of what should happen. The speaker is baffled and perturbed that their woke ideology doesn’t seem to be working.

    So is that the real sin here? That highlighting real-world facts shines a light on holes in “anti-racist” ideology?

  4. Foolish to have such a conversation on Zoom, but it is difficult to see racism from what I have read. If she were happy about blacks at the bottom, rather than having angst, it would be a different matter. So much for trying to have “honest” conversations about race.

    1. Always make sure the recording has been turned off. Zoom alerts you when it is recording and it sounds like others has left the call from a previous meeting so the recording should have been stopped. I have to be careful of doing a debrief after a meeting but I rarely record my meetings and make all debriefs public. I am deliberate in my openness.

      1. A malicious person can still record their entire screen using other software, so I wouldn’t consider any conversation over the internet safe from being recorded, regardless of whether or not the program being used to communicate is actually recording.

  5. Sellers and Batson knew the rules. White people can’t talk about Black people except to praise them. Even then, they have to be very careful. Also, there’s the other rule. Don’t say anything on Zoom that you don’t want others to hear. They got their just deserts. /S

  6. What struck me here is the irony. Professors are fired for not noticing race before everything else while at the same time fired for doing just that!

  7. Students “urging the law school to audit the grades and student evaluations in her past classes” are missing the point; if Sellers was truly racist and awarding her black students unfairly low grades either deliberately or as the result of prejudice she wouldn’t have been driven “crazy” or to feel “angst” by the situation. More likely the nature of the conversation, if she had thought the matter even worthy of remark, would have been very different – expressing an inevitably or a “why do they bother admitting these students”, rather than angst and frustration, surely?

    In any case, Georgetown should publish the data so that it is possible to judge whether her (clumsy) remarks were grounded in reality. Without that evidence, we are left only with her words, and as McWhorter says,

    I cannot know whether she is “a racist,” because what she said did not demonstrate that at all, even if not said with optimal grace. (Is gracelessness “racist”? – if so, that’s a whole new discussion we must have.)

    As for the dismissal/resignation of Batson for his “Mm-hmm, yeah”, words fail me.

    1. To see whether there was anything unusual about Sellers’ grading or student evaluations of black students one would have to compare it to the grading of other Georgetown law instructors. Looking just at Sellers’ grading and student evaluations would be uninformative.
      The whole thing is ridiculous. When I read the article in the New York Times about it and I wondered how is what Sellers said in any way racist?

  8. Back in ye olden days, when the answers to law school tests were still scribbled in blue books, exam invigilators would, like the handlers of the secret agent man, give you a number and take away your name, so that tests were scored in the blind by the course’s professor (precisely to prevent any type of favoritism or bias from having an impact on student grading).

    And, I hate to say this, but anytime you start a sentence with “I hate to say this,” the next words out of one’s mouth are rarely salubrious for all concerned, including the speaker.

  9. There is a podcast with Dr. Glen Loury, Brown University, in which he discusses the letters and emails he gets from executives, top law firm recruiters, etc. Given Loury’s views, they feel some degree of safety relaying to him what they see in their own firms.

    Loury discusses a specific example in which a tip-top law firm has hired at least one young black lawyer, who alas, is not performing at the level of other hires…despite being a graduate of a prestigious school. And the writer goes on to speculate about the issues of making that person a partner would entail. Loury discusses other such cases in business.

    The point is that the issue does not vanish even if prestigious degrees are earned. I can’t find that particular podcast, maybe another reader can.

  10. I came to the USA to study at Georgetown (1993) and stayed…now 28 years! (not the law school, I went to law school in NYC later on) but I’ve noticed lately Georgetown is at the vanguard of the Kendi style battle – lots of stuff about slavery at the founding of the school in 1778(ish).

    This latest episode is wrong and silly – the prof seemed to be bemoaning the fact of disparate results. Doesn’t stop a woke mob though.

    D.A., J.D.

  11. If Georgetown is admitting folks with lower LSATs as part of an affirmative action program, then I’d think the rational and responsible thing for them to do would be to simultaneously make additional study support available for any students having trouble in class. Otherwise, you’re setting your affirmative action students up for failure.

    Sounds a bit like they were willing to make a magnanimous gesture, but weren’t willing to put any actual time or money into making it succeed.

  12. Even McWhorter can’t bring himself to identify the real problem. Imagine if we fretted over the lack of women in the NFL. We decided it was systemic sexism that was the cause of the problem because we dogmatically concluded that all people are equal. What could possibly be the outcome? No amount of affirmative football policies will ever make women as good as men at football. Until we identify the real problem we can’t find a real solution. Here’s the problem no one wants to say:

    Black people are significantly less intelligent than white people due in large part to genetic reasons.

    Any solution to the problem that ignores this would be like trying to figure out what 2+2 equals but ruling out 4 as the answer beforehand.

    1. How do you square that hypothesis with the fact that Jamaicans and Nigerians are doing better than whites in America? Do they have better genetics? I think it’s more about certain cultural attitudes of AAs in particular that are holding back than any biological explanations.

      1. Selection bias.

        At this point there is basically zero chance that there isn’t a significant genetic factor to intelligence differences. The cultural attitudes of AAs also suck, but when talking about scholastic accomplishments we can’t keep ignoring the elephant in the room.

        1. My understanding is that the IQ gap largely dissolves once you correct for class. Also, Asians, being at the top of the cognitive ability list, don’t show equal IQs across the board. There is a difference between the Japanese, the South Koreans and , say, the Vietnamese and Monk. I suspect that this also applies to black people of diverse ethnic groups. This suggests that genetic differences are overshadowed by whatever cultural attitudes towards education particular subcultures happen to adopt.

          1. > My understanding is that the IQ gap largely dissolves once you correct for class.

            This is unlikely. Racial disparities that correlate with IQ (like educational achievement, and more controversially, crime) do not disappear if you control for class as measured by income, to the extent that race is often the better predictor. Whatever explanation one favors (wokeish, marxist, HBD etc.) must take this fact into account.

            I am skeptical about the value of class because you can end up in significantly different income brackets due to circumstances like the job you chose or your immigration status, whereas no known intervention reliably increases IQ (unless you are dealing with very rare diseases, extreme iodine deficiency and the like). If money could buy brains, the world would look very different. Oil-rich countries should boast outstanding achievements in cognitively-demanding fields, whereas in fact students from places like Saudi Arabia vastly underperform relative to their wealth (Norway does fine). A hereditarian is not shocked to learn that nuclear weapons were built by China before France, that North Korea got them despite about as little international assistance as possible or that the Manhattan Project was largely a Jewish (immigrant) accomplishment despite the enormous wealth of the US in the 1940s.

          2. I don’t see how differing ethnic or national IQ averages would indicate that genetic influences aren’t a large part of IQ differences. Most of these national groups are also more genetically similar to themselves than they are to other people of the same race.

            To be honest, at this point most of the people who deny genetic influences in IQ do so through obfuscation, ignorance, word games, or outright dishonesty. To most intelligence researchers, it’s not even a question of if, but rather how much influence genetics plays. The problem is that the genetic reality of the situation is dogmatically denied by many people in policy making positions. Again, we’ve decided beforehand that 2+2 can’t equal 4 and are wondering why we’re having so much trouble solving the problem.

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