A Professor's Controversial Analysis of Why Black Students Are 'Losing the Race'
The Chronicle of Higher Education, from the issue dated August 11, 2000
Berkeley scholar says their own anti-intellectualism prevents academic success
By LEO REISBERG
One recent fall at the University of California at Berkeley a black student proposed turning her family history into a fictional short story, peppered with socioeconomic commentary. This, she told her professor, John H. McWhorter, would be her senior honors thesis.
The months passed with only two visits from the student and no written drafts, while Mr. McWhorter's white students consulted him once or twice a week. At the end of the semester, she handed in a family tree -- sketched in pencil on notebook paper. The professor never saw her again.
In another class, a black student turned in a midterm examination that was so bad that Mr. McWhorter wondered whether he had attended the lectures. Even after that disastrous midterm, the student rarely appeared in class. His final exam was worse, and he never turned in a final paper. Not surprisingly, he failed the course.
"Sad as it is to say, I have gradually had to admit that this sort of thing has been the norm for black students I have taught," the professor writes in ‘ Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (Free Press)’, to be published this month.
Mr. McWhorter, a black associate professor in Berkeley's linguistics department, who flirted with controversy in the past when he argued against the use of Ebonics as a teaching aid for black students, now tackles affirmative action. In the book, he calls for an end to racial preferences in college admissions.
Mr. McWhorter says he came to realize that not only were black undergraduates at Berkeley "among the worst students on campus," but that black students in general -- from kindergarten to graduate school, and from the ghettos to middle-class suburbia -- were the weakest in America.
He says that black Americans tend to blame their plight on racism, oppression, poverty, and underfinanced inner-city schools.
But Mr. McWhorter argues that black students of all classes and income levels lag behind their white counterparts, because of
a mindset endemic to black culture that discourages learning.
None of the students he mentions in his book grew up in a ghetto or has ever known poverty, he says. "Black Berkeley undergraduates are almost all upwardly mobile, bright-eyed young people, many with cars, none of whom would be uncomfortable in a nice restaurant and many of whom probably do know what wine goes with chicken," he writes.
Citing figures from Berkeley's office of public records, Mr. McWhorter notes that, of the 257 black freshmen who entered
Berkeley in the last class before the ban on racial preferences took effect," only 83 had parents whose total yearly income was
$30,000 a year or less, a commonly used metric for 'lower income.'"
"Year after year, only about a third of the black entering class could be considered lower income even by the most liberal metric, while the parents of about half and often more of the class made at least $40,000 a year, with quite a few in brackets much higher than that," he writes.
Many of those students enrolled at Berkeley before the passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, which banned the use of racial preferences in California university admissions, and touched off a fiery debate on the campus. Defenders of affirmative action argued that the policy would bar black children who grew up in poverty, even though Proposition 209 allows preferences based on economic status.
That debate is what motivated Mr. McWhorter to write his book. Affirmative action, he says, contributes to a spirit of "anti-intellectualism," and to a "deep-reaching inferiority complex" that encourages blacks to portray themselves as society's victims.
Affirmative action -- a necessary evil 30 years ago, he says, comparing it to chemotherapy's role against cancer -- has now become a way for black students with mediocre academic records to leap ahead of more-qualified white and Asian students in gaining admission to elite colleges. Once they are there, he says, the black students on average continue to do poorly. Many of them graduate, but without learning much.
"If every black student on a selective college campus were admitted according to the same criteria as other students," Mr. McWhorter writes, "it would help to erode lingering feelings of inferiority to whites, and lessen the drive to assuage this by taking refuge in dwelling unduly upon vestiges of victimhood and passing this on to children."
Abandoning racial preferences would surely weaken racial diversity at many colleges -- another necessary evil, he says. That would be unfortunate, Mr. McWhorter said in an interview, "but the reason I think it's tolerable is that it would be temporary. It would get around in the black community that there are efforts that need to be made, that you have to work harder, and what would happen is there would be a reason to embrace school."
Affirmative action, he says, encourages certain "defeatist thought patterns."
"Black America is currently caught in certain ideological holding patterns that are today much, much more serious barriers to black well-being than is white racism, and constitute nothing less than a continuous, self-sustaining act of self-sabotage," writes the 34-year-old professor.
In his book, Mr. McWhorter defines the three thought patterns:
* Victimology -- a tendency of black Americans to blame their problems on often nonexistent white racism. He argues that black people have made such tremendous progress since the start of the civil-rights movement that their frequent cries of racism are no longer justified.
For example, he writes, less than one-fourth of black Americans live in poverty today, compared with 55 percent in 1960; twice as many blacks were doctors in 1990 as in 1960; and by 1995, Congress had 41 black lawmakers, up from four in
* Separatism -- a mindset that encourages black people to separate themselves from anything "white." He writes of a black freshman at Berkeley who depicted himself as "black-identified" and thought of Berkeley as a "racist school" after only a few months on the campus.
"Spiritually he had ensconced himself in 'black Berkeley,' living on a black dormitory floor and majoring in African-American
Studies," Mr. McWhorter writes. "Many people would see this student as 'nurturing his cultural identity,' or as having 'inherited the fears of his ancestors.' Perhaps -- but so determinedly reserving his sincere and open engagement for interactions with blacks only, he, too, is likely to have some trouble getting internships and jobs, and will be warmly supported by his friends in attributing this to racism."
* Anti-intellectualism -- an attitude that "subtly but decisively" teaches black students "not to embrace schoolwork too wholeheartedly," because taking an interest in academics is the same as "acting white." Mr. McWhorter tells of a middle-class black student who registered for Advanced Placement classes in an integrated high school in Illinois, and was called an "oreo" by his black classmates because "getting good grades was always connected to white people."
"It is this, and not the unequal distribution of educational resources, that is the root cause of the notorious lag in black students' grades and test scores regardless of class or income level."
What do Mr. McWhorter's subjects think of his theories?
Preston Taylor, a black student who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Oakland, Calif., and graduated from Berkeley in May with a sociology degree, agrees with some of Mr. McWhorter's theories. Mr. Taylor hasn't read Losing the Race but did read an essay the professor wrote about the affirmative-action debate.
"He's on the right track when it comes to understanding that there's an internal factor as to why black students don't do well academically," says Mr. Taylor, who was president of the student government in 1998-99. Indeed, he says, black students who do well in college are "shunned by others in the black community."
But Mr. Taylor and others at Berkeley say that the reluctance to apply themselves to academics is not limited to the black population.
This is "not a country that's known for its embrace of intellectual pursuits," says Samuel R. Lucas, a black assistant professor in Berkeley's sociology department. "We shouldn't be surprised that students think more about the party they're going to on
Friday or the football game than they do about their studies."
He adds, "White students, Latino students, Asian students, black students are all represented among the worst and among the best in terms of the grades they get, the seriousness with which they engage the materials, and the creativity they bring to the assignments."
One black magazine columnist expects the book to make Mr. McWhorter a "hero for the black-bashing crowd."
"Maybe because I'm the grandson of a freed slave who died with a book in his hands, the idea that there's a historic 'pan-racial' black bias against braininess strikes me as absurdly simplistic," Jack E. White writes in last week's issue of Time.
"We've got a problem all right," he continues, "but it reflects everything from the fact that white families on average have 10 times more wealth than black families, to the larger proportion of uncertified teachers in black schools, to the hopelessness some black kids feel because so-called experts have told them so many times that they don't measure up."
On the flip side of the coin, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, who criticize racial preferences in America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1997), call Losing the Race a "brilliant, sparkling, effervescent book." They say that Mr. McWhorter "courageously confronts the problem of black academic underachievement."
But Mr. McWhorter doesn't expect to make many friends when the book hits stores. "It'll be hard to walk around my own campus starting in the fall," he says. "A lot of black academics will never speak to me again. Frankly, though, I don't need to be liked by everyone."
Others who are sure to dislike Mr. McWhorter's book are those defenders of affirmative action whom he sharply criticizes, including William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, two former Ivy League presidents who wrote The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1998).
That book -- based on a study of 45,184 students who entered 28 selective colleges in the fall of 1976 or the fall of 1989 -- has been lauded by many academics as the most comprehensive look ever at how students who benefited from racial preferences have fared both during and after college.
"Every smug, fawning review I read of this book was as irritating as an eyelash in my eye," Mr. McWhorter writes, "and reading the book I had to pause several times to avoid throwing it across the room."
What frustrated him about The Shape of the River is that the authors "breezily presume that the disadvantages I have mentioned -- high-achieving blacks never sure whether they deserve their success and generally assumed not to, blacks looking and feeling stupid, blacks never knowing the test of real competition, blacks having no incentive to put forth their best efforts -- are somehow unimportant in view of the fact that their interviewees who were admitted to universities under set-aside policies are now happy campers."
Mr. Bok and Mr. Bowen were unavailable for comment.
Mr. McWhorter, who grew up in a "solidly middle-class home" and attended private schools, is familiar with the disadvantages
of affirmative action.
By the end of the book, he acknowledges that his race helped him land a couple of fellowships at Berkeley and Stanford and a
faculty post at Cornell University.
"I am often congratulated on my career," he writes, "but the sad fact is that as much as I enjoy my job in many ways, I will never get beyond the sense of diminishment in having gotten it to such an extent 'through the back door.'"