For my blog post today about John McWhorter’s 2000 book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, I will use as my starting point a story that McWhorter tells on page 172. The context is the controversy surrounding Proposition 209 in California, a measure that banned race-based admissions at public universities. An anti-Proposition 209 organization at Berkeley was By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN.
“Indeed, it is difficult to avoid sensing at BAMN meetings, as well as in their literature and in conversations with their members, a yen for indignation rather than constructive engagement with the actual facts and positions surrounding university admissions and race. Nothing indicated this more strongly than the organization’s treatment of a group committed to class-based, rather than race-based, admissions who tried to make a statement at one meeting. The head repeatedly refused to allow the representative to speak, and when he finally managed to say his piece, predictably with a certain degree of exasperation at having been silenced for so long, she dismissed his position as ‘an attitude.’ This group’s ideas were considered beyond the pale not on any logical basis, but because class, an inchoate concept in America, is less easily harnessed into personal, identity-based grievance, and is thus only fitfully commensurate with Victimology.”
Here are some thoughts:
1. This passage coincides with other themes that McWhorter discusses in this book. McWhorter criticizes a trend that he sees among African-American spokespeople that he believes is knee-jerk rather than intellectually rigorous. In addition, as I talked about a couple of posts ago, McWhorter argues that most African-Americans are not poor. This influences his critique of affirmative action, for McWhorter points to statistics indicating that most African-American students admitted to Berkeley on the basis of race, under lower academic standards, are not from poor families. Moreover, remember that scene in the West Wing in which President Bartlet’s conservative Supreme Court nominee, Christopher Mulready, is debating affirmative action with Charlie? Charlie is defending affirmative action by saying that African-Americans have been historically discriminated against, and Mulready responds that Charlie’s argumentation is stuck in the past, that Charlie should instead focus on the fact that minorities admitted to universities under affirmative action actually perform competently in academics once they get into college. Charlie wants a paper and pen so he can write that down! In any case, McWhorter would probably disagree with Mulready on this, for McWhorter argues that a number of African-American students who got into Berkeley due to affirmative action did not do particularly well in academics once they are in college.
2. I have heard African-Americans who have said that Martin Luther King, Jr. later in his life fought classism, and they appear to praise him for that. Why would BAMN not be open to someone saying that admissions should be based on class rather than race? I can somewhat see McWhorter’s point (if I understand it correctly) that it may be harder to organize a movement against classism. Moreover, there was probably a concern within BAMN that America could go back to the days when African-Americans were not adequately represented within certain fields, such as medicine and law, and that race-based admissions were necessary to keep this from happening.
I’m in favor of everyone having a shot at a good life, regardless of class or race. I question whether having colleges admit people under lower standards is the way to go, however. It’s not that I believe that only the cream of the crop or the best academic performers should have a shot at life, but rather that I think that people should develop competency. The goal should be to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to do this before they apply to college. Unfortunately, we’re arguably a long way off from having a level playing field, when it comes to education in America.