John McWhorter says ‘woke racism’ hurts black students


The year before California banned race-based affirmative action in public schools, only one out of 3,268 black college freshmen earned honors at the University of California, San Diego.

But in 1998, after the racial preference ban came into effect, One out of five black students did honors at UC San Diego—the same ratio as white students.

Where previously these students would have been accepted through affirmative action at a higher-level campus like UC Berkeley, they were now matched to UCSD, where they excelled.

John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor, columnist and “gritty liberal Democrat,” tells this story in his New York Times bestselling book, Racism Awakens: How a New Religion Betrayed Black America. His argument is provocative: Race-conscious admissions processes hurt the black students they claim to help.

On the one hand, there is the possibility that some students may be “misfits” and placed in programs where they struggle unnecessarily. “[T]he discussion of affirmative action implies that the choice is somehow between Yale or prison,” writes McWhorter. But as we saw in the case of UC San Diego, the alternative to “Yale” is a lower-tier university that might better position the student for success. McWhorter points to a Duke University study that found that mismatch in STEM reduced the number of black scientists by funneling them into the toughest programs. Richard Sander, UCLA law professor and author of Disconnect: How Affirmative Action Harms the Students It’s Supposed to Help and Why Universities Won’t Admit Itrevealed “a particularly tragic pattern in this vein,” writes McWhorter, “showing that ‘mismatched’ law students are far more likely to cluster at the bottom of their classes and, crucially, fail the exam for the bar”.

Even if you ignore or dispute the mismatch theory, there is a deeper level at which racial preferences in college admissions do harm.

When a university admits minority students in order to “realize the educational benefits that flow from the diversity of the student body,” as Harvard University wrote in its May 2021 brief in Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvardthe university treats these students as means to an end, reducing them to representatives of a racial group identity and communicating that their value on campus is intrinsically linked to the color of their skin.

It’s an offensive and dehumanizing way to treat individuals – and many minority students don’t like it.

“We are told that one of the main reasons for adjusting college admissions standards is to foster diversity so that ‘diverse’ students can bring their perspectives to the classroom,” McWhorter writes in Awakening of racism. “But then ‘diverse’ students regularly say they hate being responsible for representing the ‘diverse’ perspective in the classroom.”

Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia University, spoke similarly about how alienating it can be for black students to feel like their role on campus is to educate other students about race. . “White students, and students in general, are being told that they’re supposed to defer to people of color — their experiences, their perspectives on a lot of these issues,” al- Gharbi during a 2020 panel on Free University. word. When race is brought up in class, white students “all turn and look at the person of color. And it’s incredibly alienating,” al-Gharbi said. “If you’re a black college freshman, you’re not an expert on race, are you? You don’t have much more data or information on these issues than any other undergraduate student. And your own experience as an African American might not be representative of most other black people.

By evaluating applicants on the basis of race and then expecting minority students to represent their racial identity on campus so that other students can benefit from diversity, these universities are committed to the ” woke racism” – or third-wave anti-racism, as McWhorter calls it in his book.

Whereas first-wave anti-racism fought slavery and segregation, and second-wave anti-racism fought racist attitudes, third-wave anti-racism now teaches people that “[w]Whatever color you are, in the name of recognizing “power” you must divide people into racial classes, exactly the way first and second wave anti-racism taught you not to do it,” writes McWhorter.

It is an ideology that undermines human dignity. It ignores the breadth and depth of individual human experience and encourages us to make assumptions based on skin color.

And yet third-wave anti-racism is common, popularized by evangelists like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo (whom McWhorter memorably broached in Atlanticarguing that DiAngelo’s #1 bestseller white fragility “diminish black people in the name of our dignity”).

McWhorter is a black relative. In the preface of Awakening of racismhe says he ‘shudders’ at the thought of third-wave anti-racism seeping into the curriculum of his daughters’ schools: ‘bright-eyed teachers at the thought of showing their anti-racism by filling their heads of my daughters with performance art telling them that they are posters rather than individuals.

Awakening of racism was released in October 2021. A few months later, in January, after the Supreme Court announced it would hear race-based affirmative action challenges in Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard– a case in which the Pacific Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief – McWhorter once again imagined someone devaluing his daughters’ individualism.

“My daughters are spirited young people taking their place in this thing called life,” he wrote in his New York Times column. “I shudder to think of someone on a college admissions committee in the not-too-distant future reading their records and finding out that they’re biracial…the most interesting thing about them. Or even, frankly, interesting at all.

McWhorter says it’s time to end racial preferences in college admissions. And despite the influence of third-wave anti-racism, most Americans agree with it: A Pew Research Center poll found that 73% of Americans oppose the use of race or ethnicity in university admission decisions. (Interestingly, polls have consistently found that Americans are generally supportive of affirmative action if you use vague language to describe it – one Gallup poll asked respondents if they “generally favor or oppose to affirmative action programs for racial minorities” and found that 61% were in favor – yet when people are specifically asked if they support the use of race in hiring or enrollment decisions , the majority disagrees.)

But some still argue that race-based affirmative action is necessary to address historical inequalities, even though McWhorter and others, including Matt Yglesias, have pointed out that universities could redirect resources to help economically disadvantaged students without categorizing people by race. Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University, argued in The Washington Post this race-based affirmation action is necessary because “[d]Decades of research have shown that unequal opportunity continues to shape the educational experiences of black, Latino, and Native American youth,” while “white youth tend to enjoy many privileges in the United States.”

While this is undoubtedly largely true, it does not follow that supposing a black college applicant has been disadvantaged is a gesture of respect rather than a condescending generalization. And it’s reminiscent of a great line that McWhorter – the son of a college administrator and a professor – wrote in his Robin DiAngelo takedown: “I don’t need or want anyone to think about how the whiteness favors them over me.”


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