John McWhorter favors affirmative action, but based not on race but on disadvantage, not race; also says that there’s little evidence that racial diversity improves schools and education

June 3, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Every time I say I favor affirmative action for minorities as a form of reparations, someone makes a counterargument that makes me examine my position. I haven’t changed it, but this new piece by John McWhorter, while also favoring affirmative action, favors affirmation based not on race but on “disadvantage, not melanin.” Further, he argues that diversity as an “innate good” that improves universities turns out to be an unproven assumption, and in fact has been disproven, depending on your definition of “improves”. Only a black man could get away with writing such a column, but it does make one rethink one’s views, and points to some research that I didn’t know about.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are McWhorter’s two points, and his quotes are indented.

1.) Affirmative action should be based on the disadvantages faced by a student, not by their ethnicity. Fifty years ago race-based affirmative action was a useful thing; now it’s not.

I do not oppose Affirmative Action. I simply think it should be based on disadvantage, not melanin. It made sense – logical as well as moral – to adjust standards in the wake of the implacable oppression of black people until the mid-1960s.

When Affirmative Action began in the 1960s, largely with black people in mind, the overlap between blackness and disadvantage was so large that the racialized intent of the policy made sense. Most black people lived at or below the poverty line. Being black and middle class was, as one used to term it, “fortunate.” Plus, black people suffered open discrimination regardless of socioeconomic status, in ways for more concrete than microaggressions and things only identifiable via Implicit Association Testing and the like. In a sense, black people were all in the same boat.

Luckily, Affirmative Action worked. By the 1980s, it was no longer unusual or “fortunate” to be black and middle class. I would argue that by that time, it was time to reevaluate the idea that anyone black should be admitted to schools with lowered standards. I think Affirmative Action today should be robustly practiced — but on the basis of socioeconomics.

A common objection is that this would help too many poor whites (as if that’s a bad thing?). But actually, brilliant and non-partisan persons have argued that basing preferences on socioeconomics would actually bring numbers of black people into the net that almost anyone would be satisfied with.

I’m no odd duck on my sense that Affirmative Action being about race had passed its sell-by date after about a generation. At this very time, it had become clear, to anyone really looking, that the black people benefitting from Affirmative Action were no longer mostly poor – as well as that simply plopping truly poor black people into college who had gone to awful schools had tended not to work out anyway. It was no accident that in 1978 came the Bakke decision, where Justice Lewis Powell inaugurated the new idea that Affirmative Action would serve to foster “diversity,” the idea being that diversity in the classroom made for better learning.

McWhorter has a point, for “black” or “Hispanic” is almost automatically acquainted with “disadvantaged” these days, but the correlation is not perfect. However, if you conceive of affirmative action as reparations for centuries of race-based oppression, as I do, then “disadvantage” becomes less important, as there are advantages in divers in sociopolitical views, life experiences and the chance to know people from different backgrounds that provide compensatory advantages. Whether this warrants McWhorter’s recommended change in affirmative action is a question above my pay grade. Remember, the Bakke case approved a form of non-quota affirmative action based on the inherent advantages of racial diversity, not as a form of reparations.

2.) But does affirmative action really “make for better learning”? McWhorter says that the evidence is thin. And again, I must plead ignorance of the literature and let you follow McWhorter’s references. He does cite one recent case that seemed to show a genuine educational advantage to diversity, but rushes past it, counterbalancing the data with other references claiming to show that diversity has no substantive effect. To wit:

Of late, we hear that when standards are “adjusted” to be more “holistic” (ahem) to get more black law students editing law schools’ law review journals, the journals’ articles are cited more widely – i.e. that diversity among the editors creates a better publication. This is a weird result but we must accept it – while still asking whether even this justifies basing Affirmative Action on “diversity” overall. Law review editorship is but one thing. How will diversity enhance learning how to do differential quotients or mastering the mechanics of immunology?

Our question is whether diversity is important enough, to enough classes, to justify lowering standards for black kids. To never really ask that question is terribly, terribly fake, and is much of why the nation never comes to any real conclusion about Affirmative Action despite endless starry-eyed perorations about diversity.

And his data:

Students themselves do not seem to find diversity terribly important to their classroom experience. Minority graduates of the University of Michigan law school from 1970 to 1996 were surveyed as to what aspects of their education they most valued. Of the seven aspects given as choices, “ethnic diversity of classmates” was at the bottom. Mitchell J. Chang examined whether diversity affected GPA, social self-image, intellectual self-image, likelihood of graduating, general satisfaction, whether one talked about race, and whether one spent time with people of different races. Surprise – only the last two mattered. The first five are the kind of thing diversity is supposedly so good for – but this study showed that they apparently aren’t. Stanley Rothman, Seymour Lipset and Neil Nevitte showed that on 140 campuses, the more diversity there was, the less satisfied students were with their college experience.

So maybe the idea is that these students are just naïve, or closet racists, or closet self-haters if black, and we must impose diversity upon them as a kind of medicine because it makes them learn better? But the thing is, it does not seem to. Alexander Astin compared degree of racial diversity with grades, test scores, graduation rates and admission to graduate programs at 184 schools. Diversity had no effect on these things.

Or, remember when the University of Michigan was on the griddle about racial preferences for undergraduates and in its law school twenty years ago? You might recall a certain “Gurin Report” that supposedly proved that diversity enhances learning. There was an Amen chord on the soundtrack whenever this Gurin Report was brought up. But did you ever actually read the thing? It was, frankly, a joke.

It asked students whether they exhibited 11 traits which, in fact, no sentient member of human society would disavow having — such as whether they thought about the influence of society on other people, whether they thought they had a greater desire to achieve than the average person their age, etc. Patricia Gurin scored positive answers as evidence that “diversity” had made the subjects “better students.”

The National Association of Scholars rightly answered:

Nowhere in society – not in graduate school admissions, college rankings, job recruitment – do we measure a student’s academic success by asking him how much he personally values artistic works or whether he enjoys guessing the reason for people’s behavor. Very few parents would be likely to accept a transcript that reported not grades but their child’s self-rating of his abilities and drive to achieve.

And finally, black undergrads regularly bridle at the idea that they are on campus to be “diverse.” I recall a good line in an undergrad-penned Black Guide to Life at Harvard a generation ago — “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world.” Yes, that was a while ago, but black students’ feelings about this have not changed about who we might now call Chloe and Jacob.

I’m not sure that last paragraph makes sense, as black students want to be on campus not to be a component of “diversity”, but because they feel they deserve to be there. Yes, we often hear minorities say that they don’t want to enact the “emotional labor of anti-racism—though they don’t seem to tire of that readily—but that’s irrelevant to McWhorter’s point.

McWhorter’s article didn’t change my mind, though I can see that one could add to affirmative action a “hardship” score independent of race. I think some schools already do that, using criteria based on poverty, first-generation status as college students in a family, and so on.

McWhorter’s book, to be published by Portfolio, will be out October 26; click on the screenshot to see the Amazon site.

17 thoughts on “John McWhorter favors affirmative action, but based not on race but on disadvantage, not race; also says that there’s little evidence that racial diversity improves schools and education

  1. Jason Riley’s much-acclaimed new biography (Maverick) of Thomas Sowell, the brilliant nonagenarian economist who has written often on the topic of affirmative action, has just been published.

  2. I grew up white, poor, and very intelligent. I struggled at University mainly because I lacked the resources that made life so much easier for my wealthier classmates. I had to work a job year round while also taking a full class load. I never got to go on Spring Break. I went on to graduate degrees. But there were many setbacks and ultimately I did not achieve my goals. I’m happy in my life today, but I cannot help what might have been had I some aid. I submitted grant applications and thought the competition was fair. But for me, a declined grant could leave me almost homeless during summer. Grants covered my research but rarely had funds for living. So much of my time was spent trying to make ends meet. I could have been doing research. My wealthier cohorts had no such worries. I’m not bitter — I do not feel entitled to study what I wanted to study. But, in retrospect I never had much of a chance at success.

    1. I grew up middle class in Minnesota in the USA.

      I, too, worked all through university (and before). I worked full-time in summer. Never had a “spring break” or a cruise, etc. We went camping for a week or so in the fall, just before school started. We never went out to eat. I couldn’t afford to drink. I walked or rode my bicycle to school much of the year.

      Tuition cost went up by a factor of 10 (yes, ten) during my 4-1/2 years at university. I also had some minor student loans. No direct cash support. My parents provided a very small starting nest egg, a home to live in, and use of a (very crappy but functional) car.

      I did get my degree and it has been overwhelming beneficial to me, economically (I’m an engineer, BS in engineering). I never thought I’d be in the economic position my wife and I are in.

  3. …. favors affirmation based not on race but on “disadvantage, not melanin.”

    I would agree with Prof. McWhorter. I don’t see a moral case for helping, say, the Obama daughters, but not the trailer-park kid of a drug-addict, single-mom on welfare, just because the kid is white.

    (And, in the UK, working-class white boys are *less* likely to go to university than ethnic-minority boys.)

    … if you conceive of affirmative action as reparations for centuries of race-based oppression, as I do, …

    Except that it’s not today’s kids who suffered from the centuries of race-based oppression, and it is rather weird to give the “reparations” to someone else, just because they’re in the same group. And if the argument is, yes, but because of that history, those kids are likely to have lower starting points, then we’re immediately back to McWhorter’s suggestion of judging on individual disadvantage.

  4. For decades now, study after study has shown that the number one predictor or future outcomes — from economic success, to living conditions, to “happiness,” and just about everything else — is the economic situation into which a person is born, and all other predictors don’t come even close. This is why affirmative action shouldn’t be based on race, but on economic disadvantage. I really think it’s that simple. The number one reason by a country mile that people end up locked out opportunities is because of their economic status. That’s what we need to ameliorate. That’s where we need to level the playing field.

    And, while we’re at it, let’s help level this playing field by not making college the number one goal of such programs. We need to help more disadvantaged people get into trades that we know provide excellent opportunities for jobs, climbing the economic ladder, and even starting their own businesses. Increase scholarships to trade schools for things like plumbers, electricians, HVAC, and so on. These kinds of work create jobs for services that people will always need and that will not be supplanted by office drones, the internet, or algorithms. Water heaters will always be leaking, pipes will always be bursting, sockets will always be blowing out, and cars will always be breaking down.

    1. Make two-year community college tuition free. I’d be willing to pay higher taxes for that. That covers trade training and a good chunk of 4-year degrees.

      1. Why stop there? Why not all tuition? It works in many countries. Why can‘t it work in the USA?

        Yes, you might pay slightly higher taxes. But what does it cost to put three children through college?

        1. Because it won’t fly politically in the USA. (Much like the get-out-of-jail-free card so many people are clamoring for these days — student loan forgiveness*.) I’ll be surprised if the 2-year thing does (though I support it).

          Less than 30% of USians get a university degree. Many simply aren’t cut out for it or are not interested.

          Providing the first 50% of a Bachelor’s degree and all of a trade degree/training seems fair.

          (* I’m sort of OK with the 10K relief Biden proposes: That’s targeted at the needy end of the spectrum. If you borrowed $200K to get a sociology degree at a private university, I am not sympathetic. You should not have done that. That was completely uneconomical (it has a negative NPV). I don’t think that the taxpayers should pay for people to be economically unrealistic. Schooling paid for by taxpayers isn’t a game or an “experience”. There are millions of taxpayers who deferred gratification for decades to pay for their educations.)

  5. I once worked for a greedy and unethical institution in LA, where faculty asked applicants during interviews what their ancestry was and if they qualified for the NIH’s other types of diversity (i.e., disadvantage based on family of origin making <20,000/yr for a family of four, if memory serves correctly).

    The faculty were hiring people based on whether or not the applicants could be used to get the NIH's diversity grants.

    I'm not sure, but isn't it illegal to ask someone what their ancestry is in an interview?

    I'll just say that I was offended by the overt coercion. Knowing I'd likely not get the job otherwise, I coughed up that my parents were poor.

    Later while attending grant-writing workshops there, it was manifest that an enrichment of African Americans postdocs and early-career investigators were the ones putting in grants. In LA, as most know, most of the population is white and Hispanic. So, it was odd that the majority of those putting in grants were Black and, dare I say it, Muslim. Several of the faculty even flew to Israel to fetch a Palestinian graduate student. It didn't matter that the student was an outright homophobe. Her wearing of the hijab brought prestige because the institution could visibly show off their token Muslim.

    You can probably guess some of the topics of the grants: race-based health disparities!

    So, the institution manipulated diversity in the hiring process to coerce people of color and people from economically wasted backgrounds into putting in grants and on topics too dumb for people not manipulated to waste their early years in science working on. When I raised the topic, I was told that the grantees were just enthusiastic about the health disparities and were freely choosing the topics. Right… But what an insult to their intelligence! And what a narrowing of their possibilities to serve the selfish and greedy needs of the institution. Now, any time I meet an African American bioscientist I cringe while waiting to hear what they do. I want to tell them they can do better! They don't have to let the political will of white faculty wanting institutional prestige channel them into woking on dead-end topics. They can come up with hypotheses that push science forward and make discoveries that change the world! They don't have to be mediocre. Even though horrors and racism still exist, I have not heard anything novel about health disparities, ever.

    I felt resentful that I was included in the mess. Fortunately, I left before they forced me to compete for NIH grants based on being poor.

    So, McWhorter's take that affirmative action should be based on "disadvantage, not melanin" hits home. I agree with him, and I know I still would not want to be forced into putting in grants on disparities or competing with others just because they were also once poor.

  6. I’m glad to see an individual of McWhorter’s stature arguing a position I’ve espoused for decades but without much success. A case I remember vividly: in a panel I served on that awarded postdoctoral fellowships, a candidate was given preference on the basis of an Hispanic surname. She was, in fact, daughter of a wealthy Argentinian father and an Irish woman he met while serving a diplomatic mission.

  7. Hmm I don’t think I agree with him, for one primary reason: resume studies and the like. A similar example: in 2015 a published woman author submitted the first page of her new book to 100 agents; 50 using her name (Catherine), 50 using a man’s name (George). Can you guess what happened? ‘Catherine’ got 3 positive responses; ‘George’ got 17.

    When you can switch the name or sex on a resume and get a different result, it is pretty clear that affirmative action has not yet gotten to the “no longer needed” stage. And it would be naive to think that this sort of bias isn’t also occurring in other (i.e. beyond resumes and authors) submissions processes – such as school applications. So I disagree with Mr. McWhorter’s thesis that current disadvantage comes (solely) from socioeconomic differences.

    Having said that, I’m all for socioeconomic-based support too. I just don’t think we’ve reached the stage yet where it’s the only.

    Last thought: diversity in the classroom and workplace is valuable precisely because of such issues. How else are we going to solve the resume problem, if not by giving everyone the experience of working around “others”, so they grok that ‘other’ is no reason to say no and they start accepting as many Catherine submissions as George submissions?

    1. You’re implying sexism based on names used in resumes rather than racism and affirmative action applies only to the latter. That said, there is analogous inherent bias against resumes that have ethnic sounding names or lingo. One solution is to blind all of the resume readers to applicant names entirely to neutralize such biases and make the admission process more objective but guess what the outcome is then? Fewer blacks and latinos get hired and less diversity as a result. And those groups generally disapprove of measures like this.

  8. Here’s an interesting discussion of how the question “Is Diversity Good” can be interpreted in a number of ways, and an exploration of how one might answer the different interpretations:

    From the abstract:

    “Prominent ethical and policy issues such as affirmative action and female enrollment in science and engineering revolve around the idea that diversity is good. However, even though diversity is an ambiguous concept, a precise definition is seldom provided. We show that diversity may be construed as a factual description, a craving for symmetry, an intrinsic good, an instrumental good, a symptom, or a side effect. These acceptions differ vastly in their nature and properties. The first one cannot lead to any action and the second one is mistaken. Diversity as intrinsic good is a mere opinion, which cannot be concretely applied; moreover, the most commonly invoked forms of diversity (sexual and racial) are not intrinsically good. On the other hand, diversity as instrumental good can be evaluated empirically and can give rise to policies, but these may be very weak. Finally, symptoms and side effects are not actually about diversity. We consider the example of female enrollment in science and engineering, interpreting the various arguments found in the literature in light of this polysemy.”

  9. I agree with everyone that John McWhorter’s position is, as usual, thoughtful and sound.

    A historical and, in way, academic question arises: why wasn’t a policy as reasonable
    as the one McWhorter recommends adopted back in the 1980s when, as he points out himself,
    the deficiency of melanin-based affirmative action was becoming clear? The answer to this
    question is that by the 1980s, a mandarin class of bureaucrats administering affirmative action
    as it had been defined was ensconced in higher education. Their continued positions,
    meaning both employment and status, depended on worshiping the doctrine of melanin-based Diversity. An example of how these programs creates bureaucratic corruption like this is described
    by Roz in post #6 above, and I am sure plenty of other examples are known.

    This represents a difficult, paradoxical, and even tragic problem in the implementation of social
    reform: if a bureaucratic class is in charge of reforms of some kind, then the class interests of that
    bureaucracy will come to dominate the implementation of the reforms. In Eastern Europe, we saw
    where the empowerment of such a “New Class” (in Milovan Djilas’ terminology) leads. Conservatives
    (e.g., Hayek) took this difficult problem as an argument against reform. At the least, the problem
    should lead to careful thought about how proposed reform is carried out—like John McWhorter’s.

  10. If anyone professes to believe in equality of opportunity and not be simply paying lip service to it, it’s hard not to think some form of affirmative action is required. The sheer amount of evidence that disadvantage hinders and advantagev exacerbates requires some rectification.

    What that constitutes and how it is implemented is another matter. The worry I’ve seen that when it’s spoken of in racial terms, disadvantage is only seen through the racial lens, which would be fine in an otherwise classless society. But since there is such thing as class (in multiple forms) it’s worth looking at how such disadvantage can be addressed without it being a debate about ones moral beliefs regarding race. If it is the latter, affirmative action becomes a taboo or a chance to preach one’s enlightened piety.

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