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.”