John McWhorter: a personal take on affirmative action

July 4, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Lately John McWhorter appears to be injecting more personal information about his life into his discourse. On a recent podcast with Glen Loury, McWhorter admitted sadly that because of his heterodox writing and ideas, he’s been more or less ostracized from the community of academic linguists, and will likely not be invited to go to meetings or give talks on his field.  In his column in the NYT today, he recounts how his blackness helped him rise in academia over people with better qualification. In other words, he talks about being a beneficiary of affirmative action.  And at the end he gives his views about the issue. Like me, he appears conflicted.

Click the screenshot below to read or, if you don’t subscribe to the NYT, someone has archived the piece here.

Here are three episodes from McWhorter’s academic career:

I was hired straight out of my doctoral program for a tenure-track job at an Ivy League university in its august linguistics department. It became increasingly clear to me that my skin color was not just one more thing taken into account but the main reason for my hire. It surely didn’t hurt that, owing to the color of my skin, I could apparently be paid with special funds I was told the university had set aside for minority hires. But more to the point, I was vastly less qualified by any standard than the other three people who made it onto the list of finalists. Plus, I was brought on to represent a subfield within linguistics — sociolinguistics — that has never been my actual specialty. My interest then, as now, was in how languages change over time and what happens when they come together. My dissertation had made this quite clear.

This still rankles, and especially did so when he met one of the better-qualified candidates who wasn’t hired.

McWhorter eventually chose as his academic niche the development of creole languages, which served him well. He did get tenure, but again he says that his race helped. Referring at first to his efforts to get up to speed into linguistics beyond than his speciality, he says this:

But it all felt like a self-rescue operation, an effort to turn myself into a good hire after the fact. That backfilling of needed skills is a lot to ask of someone who also needs to do the forward-looking research necessary to get tenure.

Of course, not everyone endeavors this Sisyphean task, and the culture I refer to has a way of ensuring others don’t have to. There is a widespread cultural assumption in academia that Black people are valuable as much, if not more, for our sheer presence as for the rigor of what we actually do. Thus, it is unnecessary to subject us to top-level standards. This leads to things happening too often that are never written as explicit directives but are consonant with the general cultural agenda: people granted tenure with nothing approaching the publishing records of other candidates, or celebrated more for their sociopolitical orientations than for their research.

Above we see him suggesting, as he has before, that it is patronizing to hold black academics to standards lower than you hold white ones. He makes this explicit when he talks about his own experience on admissions committees.

I had uncomfortable experiences on the other side of the process as well. In the 1990s, I was on some graduate admissions committees at the university where I then taught. It was apparent to me that, under the existing cultural directive to, as we have discussed, take race into account, Black and Latino applicants were expected to be much more readily accepted than others.

I recall two Black applicants we admitted who, in retrospect, puzzle me a bit. One had, like me, grown up middle-class rather than disadvantaged in any salient way. The other, also relatively well-off, had grown up in a different country, entirely separate from the Black American experience. Neither of them expressed interest in studying a race-related subject, and neither went on to do so. I had a hard time detecting how either of them would teach a meaningful lesson in diversity to their peers in the graduate program.

Yes, that’s a good question, and one that deserves an answer. As for the last bit, where he sees affirmative action as patronizing and condescending, there are black academics who would disagree with him—not just ones who didn’t need affirmative action to achieve their positions, but also ones who admit they did, but don’t care:

Perhaps all of this can be seen as collateral damage in view of a larger goal of Black people being included, acknowledged, given a chance — in academia and elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, my feeling uncomfortable on a graduate admissions committee for a few years during the Clinton administration hardly qualifies as a national tragedy. But I will never shake the sentiment I felt on those committees, an unintended byproduct of what we could call academia’s racial preference culture: that it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.

That kind of assumption has been institutionalized within academic culture for a long time. It is, in my view, improper. It may have been a necessary compromise for a time, but it was never truly proper in terms of justice, stability or general social acceptance. Whatever impact the Supreme Court’s ruling has on college admissions, its effects on the academic culture of racial preference — which by its nature often depends less on formulas involving thousands of applicants than on individual decisions involving dozens — will take place far more slowly.

But the decision to stop taking race into account in admissions, assuming it is accompanied by other efforts to assist the truly disadvantaged, is, I believe, the right one to make.

And yet, at the beginning of the piece, he says that by the time of the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard decision, “I’d personally come to believe that preferences focused on socioeconomic factors — wealth, income, even neighborhood — would accomplish more good while requiring less straightforward unfairness.” There’s a good case to be made for that, as it seems fairer, though some readers here think that using socioeconomic standards—giving a leg up to those most disadvantaged, regardless of race—won’t advance diversity at all.  I’m not ready to give up and go by a procedure that completely ignores race, and though we can’t take race into account, we can, perhaps, eliminate the complete erasure of ethnic diversity in elite colleges via using socioeconomic standards.

Another advantage of socioeconomic considerations is that, to me at least, they’d seem to create more intellectual diversity than would simply upping ethnic diversity. For some reason I think that mixing disadvantaged people from all groups (and also taking account of political and ideological diversity during admissions) would generate more useful discussion among students than simply race-based admissions. Those late-night bull sessions were pivotal in my education, and you don’t have them without discussion and disagreement.

Finally, I do agree with McWhorter’s views expressed elsewhere: the time is coming when affirmative action for race has to come to an end, for if it hasn’t done what it was supposed to after sixty years, it’s time to contemplate other methods, methods that involve creating equal opportunity from birth. And I also agree with him that, as far as we possibly can, we should not lower admissions standards for some ethnic groups. As McWhorter notes, “it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.”

33 thoughts on “John McWhorter: a personal take on affirmative action

  1. Addressing admissions to universities by race is coming to the solution too late. It needs to be addressed in elementary and high school.
    There must be a serious address of the disparity of resources and support for schools in the disadvantaged areas compared to affluent neighbourhoods. Until the children of economically challenged families have a chance of getting to the level to succeed at university race based admissions are just window dressing that fails to address the real problem.
    I know it’s not popular to say but I would gladly pay higher taxes if I could be assured that this disparity was being seriously addressed.

    1. My understanding is that while teachers in elementary schools in disadvantaged areas do talk about the need for more programs or academic changes, as often as not they emphasize a disparity in family structure and background. Students who come from a home environment with at least a few books lying around and at least one authority figure telling them it’s important to do well in school have a noticeable advantage over those without either. This apparently holds true even for children in preschool — and is difficult to overcome despite targeted programs and additional help. On average, the richer the home environment and more engaged the parent, the better the student.

      Prenatal and antenatal parenting classes usually just focus on basic baby care. Years ago, the local Woman’s Club I belonged to regularly raised money to add some children’s books to the hospital package the new mothers took home. I don’t know if this had any real effect on future students, but focusing very early indeed on the parents probably wouldn’t hurt.

      1. It’s sad how few books some children are exposed to. Having a parent read to their child for 30 minutes each night can make a world of difference in that child’s life. Unfortunately for many parents they don’t have that inclination or are too overwhelmed with work (multiple jobs) to have the time.
        That’s why schools need to help as best they can. On can encourage home reading by supplying books and supporting local libraries but some times it all comes down to the school as a last resort.

        1. “Multiple jobs”? Where? McWhorter himself says that the War on Poverty has led to entire conurbations where no one has any living memory of knowing anyone who has ever worked at a legal job. Left-behind white families in the north of England same thing. After three generations on the Dole (or “benefits” as they call it now), no one in that family will ever work.

          If working for a living is no longer necessary and there is no role model other than nerdy short kids with glasses and acne (while crime buys social status), why would anyone bother to sit still in school for six hours a day where they don’t get (unearned) “respect”?

          Besides, no matter how many hours the two-parent family is working in their ethnic restaurant to better themselves, the children have to be fed and minded by someone. Surely grandma, especially if she is only 35 herself can find the energy to read a bedtime story. I don’t think you’ll find the children of the long-hours strivers in the remedial classes, though.

          When people say you can’t fix someone else’s toxic culture for them, this is what they mean.

          (Sastra’s group sending books home from the hospital is one of those wonderful ideas that has to be the right thing to do.)

          1. I have no idea what you are talking about except for the part about agreeing about giving books to families (like Dolly Parton has done).

            My point was the one thing we can do as a society is to make sure the schools for these children are good, no disparity between wealthy and poor neighbourhoods. In fact it can argue the poorer neighbourhoods should have better schools to give those students the chance to overcome their challenges.

            1. They do have better schools, Mike. At least they have more expensive schools. Per student funding in most states is higher in poor districts—in blue states often much higher—than in wealthier districts because the state tops up funding beyond what local taxes will support in order to address those very disparities you cite. Where this is not done it should be. But it’s not not being done now.

              And this per-student funding is per enrolled student. If you count it according to the number of students who actually show up on any given day, it’s a lot of money being spent on a small number of students. (A friend of my wife’s tells us that typically three students would attend her high school math class in one of Toronto’s blighted neighbourhoods. And it was always the same three. So it’s not a slavery legacy exclusively.)

  2. Coleman Hughes quotes Martin Luther King in support of preferences based on economic rather than racial categories: “While Dr. King did not live long enough to comment directly on racial preferences in college admissions, we know that he had a stable preference, up until his death, for class-based policies––policies that would target the black and white poor alike––over race-based policies. ” See:

    1. Someone Woke MLK up and he began to look at everything with Critical Methods, AKA Marxist/collectivist sunglasses. If you go by “class,” and admit a candidate by “class” without looking at the actual character of the actual living person … well I believe that is not in The Dream.

    2. That’s a good essay. I particularly like his observation that black students admitted to increase diversity promptly segregate themselves into affinity housing, black-studies courses (having washed out of STEM), and segregated graduation. So what benefit did the university get from all this diversity effort?

      I’m not convinced that King would have opposed race preference in favour of economic preference, though. First in his 1964 Playboy interview with an anonymous interviewer who turned out to be Alex Haley, the Roots fantasist and so a “friendly”, he called for racial quotas in hiring. When Haley asked him would this not lead to backlash from white workers already being displaced by automation (then the great social panic), he proposed a vast national public works program—men using shovels instead of backhoes to dig ditches I guess (why not spoons?)—that would hire enough white people that they wouldn’t notice the black quotas. Well, perhaps.

      Second, even though black people were/are more likely to be poor, and thus benefit disproportionally from class preference, there are so many more poor white people than black people that the cadre of “poor people getting benefits” will still be mostly white. Not 87% white (today’s pop.) but not 90% black, either, which is what the proponents (including King) really want(ed.). The first report that shows that the program “admits more whites than blacks” there will be hell to pay.

      MLK is a minor quibble in a well-argued essay, though.

      1. While “integration” of college campuses is a theoretical good, and clearly one of the “optical” motivations College admissions departments have in promoting AA, I don’t think we can blame black students for self-segregating socially if they feel they must. If an undergraduate black student never interacts with a white student but still goes on to medical school and becomes a doctor, that is a social good, and justifies the AA in the first place. AA is not only about creating idealized liberal colorblind ivory towers.

        1. That’s only a social good if the resulting doctor is up to scratch. We have to be careful about admitting people with lower grades in fields where competence does matter.

        2. Yes, of course there are legions of white supremacist thugs on college campus who will lead pogroms against black students (or even worse, disagree with them in discussions, the dorm bull sessions we recall so fondly.). So of course they must hive together in their ghettos and devote their time to activism, secure in the knowledge that they don’t need those marks to get into medical school anyway. And maybe they just all hate white, Asian, and Hispanic students.

          Apologists for AA say that we do need to get “diversity” somehow “for the sake of the campus”. That’s what they say. What I want to know is “why?” And why does only black diversity count?

          A black student who never interacts with students of any other race is not going to make much of a doctor unless he works as a felcher loooking after only simple conditions in all-black neighbourhoods.

          Oh well, that’s all ending. Good riddance.

  3. Experiences generally similar to McWhorter’s are common, including mismatched abilities or background (what he calls backfilling), feeling inadequate relative to others who didn’t get the job, and sensing that your colleagues also view you as unqualified (even in cases where mismatch or inadequacy don’t apply). IDK whether he’s right that this is acceptable collateral damage from necessary efforts to redress historical wrongs.

  4. I read it at dawn this morning. I was shocked and disgusted by the last paragraph. I’m trying not to let it ruin my Independence Day joy in freedom.

    He relates all the negatory of AA, and ends with this:

    “But the decision to stop taking race into account in admissions, assuming it is accompanied by other efforts to assist the truly disadvantaged, is, I believe, the right one to make.”

    So, ‘get going Uni and figure out covert methods to achieve the same results as overt racial preference, since we can’t say that out loud any more.’

    Frankly, it is easy. Act blind, but keep racial preference alive in your heart and rationalize some other non-competence method of quota. Nice. Drive it underground.

    I don’t actually think he thinks about it this way — he thinks going by poverty or zip code or Whatever is moral and fair, as long as it is not race. Yet how is it any different?

    Sanction of “other efforts” keeps the core concept intact: “Anything but pure competence.”

    Woke/Left very often suggests … in public print …. that the slogan “Make America Great Again” is an unsubtle signal from Trump “Let’s get the white people back in control and things will be fine again.”

    Well, Mr. McWhorter, what if “Other Methods To Assist” is code for “racial preference by another name.”

  5. Affirmative Action in higher education had to stop because it does not work as it is supposed to. McWhorter testifies to that. And there is more. For example (which hits harder than McWhorter’s article):

    Richard Sander & Stuart Taylor: Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. Basic Books, 2012
    “This lucid, data-rich book is simply the best researched and most convincing analysis ever done of affirmative action in higher education, a work at once impeccably scholarly and entirely accessible to anyone interested in the social and legal ramifications of well-intentioned policies that, as the authors show, have a boomerang effect on the intended beneficiaries.”
    ——Judge Richard A. Posner, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School
    “[Sander and Taylor] are intelligent critics who support the modest use of race in admissions but think very large preferences have harmful effects…. [T]his book is at its best when it skewers college and university officials — who feel morally superior for defending affirmative action — for in fact pursuing what Yale Law professor Stephen Carter has called ‘racial justice on the cheap.’”
    —Richard Kahlenberg, The New Republic
    “[Mismatch is] a fine book, and the evidence gathered under the first part of the subtitle is convincing…. I was even more intrigued by the second part — about the reluctance of the universities and respectable opinion in general to recognize the defects of the policy. It’s a subject that cannot be discussed, least of all in the precincts of American institutions dedicated to fearless free inquiry.”
    —Clive Crook, Bloomberg View

    If one is sufficiently interested in the topic, this article (and the book by Sander and Taylor) are must-reads:
    The Liberal Maverick Fighting Race-Based Affirmative Action. New York Times, March 2023
    For decades, Richard Kahlenberg has pushed for a class-conscious approach to college admissions. He may finally get his wish, but it comes at a personal cost.
    From the comments on this article:
    – Read Henry Louis Gates on Harvard admissions and the 2020 article by Josie Abugov in the Harvard Crimson. The majority of Black-identifying students at Harvard are from immigrant or mixed backgrounds, and from wealthy households. Race-based affirmative action at Harvard is also leaving behind the African American students it was designed to help, the descendants of people enslaved in the United States, Generational African Americans.
    – Giving some benefit to kids who grew up in under-privileged circumstances makes perfect sense. Instead, colleges assume that every Black kid grew up in the ghetto, and that every white kid is the child of an investment banker. The current system of affirmative action is literally just racism.

    A Student Sleuth Found Evidence that Our University Practices Reverse Racism. Here’s Why I Advised Him Not to Publish It

      1. My argument is that if there are kids smart enough to go to university but don’t because of the expense, we are wasting their brains. One of them might make a huge scientific breakthrough, or write a wonderful symphony. Are we so blessèd with Einsteins and Mozarts we can afford to do that?

        1. What about the waste of upperclass brains who get blocked from admission due to less qualified candidates who got the slot because of being in a lower class?

  6. A friend of mine talks about “the wind at your back” to describe the little advantages that circumstances can offer us. I think it is great for people who have had successful careers, like McWhorter, to reflect on what kinds of winds were at their back and to talk about it. One thing we can learn, for instance, is that I think most (all?) academic feel under-prepared for our first teaching/research job. For some people, doing a post-doc might be the answer, but not for everyone. The fact that he felt under-prepared for teaching graduate classes doesn’t indicate a problem with the hiring process. It’s more a problem with the culture of linguistics that simply dumps people in the deep end.

  7. Well, I was one of the “vastly” more qualified folks that didn’t get hired because of the color of my skin. I thought that this was just the price to be paid for progress, and I got a good job so that helped. I too am conflicted.

  8. Commenters under #1 emphasize the importance to later life of family experiences in early childhood—especially, by implication, those determined by two individuals who used to be referred to as mother and father. I write “used to” because the busy compilers of problematic words have begun to recommend against use of these words. At the Australian National University, for example, that august institution’s Gender Institute Handbook proclaims: “While many students will identify as ‘mothers’ or ‘fathers’, using these terms alone to describe parenthood excludes those who do not identify with gender-binaries.” Similar recommendations against these words were part of proposed rules for U.S. Congressional records. The problematic words are not only insufficiently “inclusive”, they also carry implications of old, oppressive cultural norms. In fact, the mere discussion of the role “mothers” and “fathers” used to play in children’s personality formation and hence academic abilities is probably itself, uhhh, very problematic indeed.

    As the existence of the old-fashioned nuclear family is Progressively abandoned, I suppose that its former role in personality formation will be transferred to professional consultants, state-supervised parenting committees, and other official entities. It will be a brave new world, and of course the various committees and commissars will make sure that the resulting brave new culture is Diverse, Inclusive, and Equilateral.

  9. I was saddened to read McWhorter’s piece. Saddened that he feels like he was hired and retained because of his race. Saddened that he can never really know if he was ever really appreciated in the academy for his talent. And saddened that his heterodox ideas have led him to be ostracized by other academic linguists.

    Perhaps admissions practices *can* be improved at the margins by taking socioeconomic status into account; many discussants on this site seem to be willing to at least try. And maybe this would allow more minority applicants to attend college. But maybe not; there are a great many whites who are economically disadvantaged as well, which may in practice frustrate the goal of admitting a higher proportion of minority students. It depends on how the numbers turn out.

    All that said, I truly believe that college admissions practices cannot compensate for entire childhoods spent under disadvantaged circumstances. What if all of the monies (and talent) currently expended on increasing minority college enrollments were spent on prenatal care, childcare, early childhood education, middle and secondary school enrichment programs, and all the other things that can be done to fix a broken academic pipeline? What if colleges and universities did something that would help address the root problem, rather than try to fix the pipeline at a point where all the damage has already been done? If they spent their monies this way, colleges would not be able to trumpet how many minority students they have enrolled. But by investing their attentions further upstream they might achieve something of greater value in the long run.

    1. Agree completely. The real solution is to change the societal conditions earlier in the life cycle- early childhood, early adolescence. College admissions is too late, unless we just want to have a large number of ethnic studies majors, who will go on to become…DIE consultants?
      To make more black doctors, engineers, scientists, programmers, social scientists, historians, economists, etc. we need to start earlier- much earlier.

      1. Much earlier. Black fathers need to stick around and help mothers raise their kids. It’s something the community can do for itself. And it doesn’t cost billions in welfare programs. Living in a neighbourhood where black fathers are generally present is good for a kid, even if his own father is absent.

        1. Leslie, ‘absent father’ may well be the choice of the woman. The phrase “he is out of the picture” comes to mind — code for either “he abandoned me and I can’t get him tied down by the courts,” or “I don’t like him, I want complete control of the children, and I can do better financially if there is no man in the picture.”

          1. Well, yes, doubtless often true but men ought not to be of a constitution that women and the children they fathered are better off without them. That’s a broken culture.

            1. My implication was that the woman in my example “claimed” she was better off, not that indeed she was … nor would the children be necessarily. This is emotionally (she simply does not like him) and financially (state pays more than alimony/ would.)

              I’m trying to be polite, but it is not working, so here it is bluntly … I’m conjecturing that woman are more responsible for the fatherless home than men.

              1. No need to be polite if you think I’m not understanding you. And I don’t think you were being impolite when you were being blunt. It’s a broken culture either way: broken people, broken incentives creating a vicious circle. Spending more money on public schools in certain Zip Codes (which you already do) isn’t going to fix it.

  10. “we can, perhaps, eliminate the complete erasure of ethnic diversity in elite colleges via using socioeconomic standards.”

    I think you said something similar in a post from a few days ago; are you forgetting that Asians exist, are hugely overrepresented at selective universities, and have a fair degree of internal ethnic diversity?

    I’m reminded of that genre of opinion piece from several years ago, where journactivists would tell brazen lies about tech companies being overwhelmingly white, when in fact many of the largest tech companies have roughly equal numbers of white and Asian workers.

    That aside, giving a bonus for socioeconomic background would likely have limited effect on black and Latino admissions at highly selective universities, because at any given level of parental SES, white and Asian students dominate the ranks of top performers. The College Board doesn’t publish this data anymore, presumably because it’s so damaging to the narrative, but if you look back through the older reports you can get race/income crosstabs, and black students from families in the highest income brackets do about as well on the SAT as white students from the lowest income brackets.

  11. I think it needs to be stated clearly – despite the misgivings, McWhorter is successful at what he does.

    Maybe he isn’t the best at lecturing (doubt it), research, and other not-so-visible activities in academics.

    Consider – if I understand him, he easily could have put on a career cruise control of sorts. But he – as I understand him – did not, and on purpose. He seemed energized by the position.

    In summary : he used what resources he had available to him at the time, and used them well. That is everything I hope everyone could do.

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