Affirmative action may be out of favor at the Supreme Court, but it is becoming a stronger force on the nation’s campuses. Until a decade or so ago, questions of ethnicity and equity could be considered as involving mostly blacks and whites. Now Asians and Hispanics among others are making their claims as well, and the rules determining which groups will be given preferential treatment have been changing. To take only two examples:
In California, 33 percent of all Asian high school seniors have academic records that qualify them for the state’s university system. However, in 1988 they were allotted only 27 percent of the places at Berkeley and 18 percent at UCLA. Many believe there is an Asian quota. One young Asian woman argued that she does “not seek special consideration because of her race, but equitable treatment regardless of her race.”1
During the last five years, the University of Virginia has deliberately doubled its admissions of black students, while cutting back white enrollments. It now accepts over half the blacks who apply, but only a quarter of the whites, even though the average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of the black group are 240 points lower. An admissions dean has admitted: “We take in more in the groups with weaker credentials and make it harder for those with stronger credentials.”2
Today, every college and university says it is committed to “equal opportunity” in faculty hiring and student admissions. On its face, the principle would seem undeniable: all applicants should be given full and fair consideration, regardless of age or race or sex, or other characteristics or conditions. Under equal opportunity, standards would be set and all applicants would stand the same chance in the competition to meet them. If this seems a commonplace, it was often not the case in the past, and it is far from being so now. In the past, colleges turned down qualified candidates because they were Jewish. And today, as we have seen, some Asians protest that they satisfy admission standards, but are not getting their fair share of college places, while whites complain that blacks with relatively low scores on admissions tests are given places sought by higher scoring whites.
“Affirmative action” is different. No colleges today turn down black applicants who meet their academic criteria. Virtually all say they would like to attract even more black students. Indeed, small black enrollments have become a matter of embarrassment. In 1988, only 4 percent of the students at Smith College were black. Bowdoin has only 2 percent, and Reed College has even less. Few schools simply wait for black candidates to apply; almost all try to recruit them. The difficulty has been to find candidates the schools believe are qualified. Not only elite private schools, but many state universities want to maintain minimal standards for the people they admit. Hence their quandary when few black applicants meet those standards. To solve this problem, “affirmative action” now goes beyond recruiting drives and financial aid. “Action” must mean more than opportunity: it has to register results. To ensure that entering classes will display a certain composition, applications from black students are judged by a different set of standards.3
Separate standards can be rationalized in several ways. Ira Glasser of the American Civil Liberties Union, a contributor to Eliminating Racism, offers a spirited summary of the argument. Unfortunately, he starts out somewhat disingenuously, saying he knows no one who “advocates placing people in positions for which they are not qualified.” Well, yes: no one champions incompetence. Even so, advocates of affirmative action know that they are claiming that blacks or Hispanics should have places that could go to others who are better qualified. Indeed, Glasser seems to grant as much by noting that preferential treatment is by no means new. For years, Ivy League colleges acted “affirmatively” by giving places to mediocre students from fashionable prep schools. Even today, children of alumni often receive special consideration, as do applicants from distant states. And if a college’s orchestra needs a cellist, that skill can make up for a middling academic record. As Justice Powell wrote in the Bakke case, institutions should be allowed to assemble a varied student body. In this vein, the Faculty Senate at Berkeley has argued that certain ethnic backgrounds should themselves be taken as qualifications for admissions, since such diversity encourages “a more dynamic intellectual environment and a richer undergraduate experience.”
A further argument is that blacks, in particular, are entitled to special consideration, in order to compensate for having been held back by enslavement and discrimination. (Just as veterans, who lost time serving their country, have points added to their civil service scores.) Nor is this a simple reparation for injustices suffered by earlier generations. It can be maintained that even today blacks face greater obstacles than those confronting current immigrants. John Fischer, a former dean of Columbia’s Teachers College, said of a typical black child, “On the day he enters kindergarten, he carries a burden no white child can ever know.”4
A third view goes beyond fairness for people who have been treated unjustly. Here the claim takes a practical turn, arguing that for its own well-being the nation needs blacks in a wider range of positions. Cities would be better served if they had more black police officers, not only on the streets but in positions where they would decide how to deal with crime and drugs. We should also have more black physicians and judges and college professors, as well as corporate executives and foreign service officers. Yet at the current pace, racial ratios will improve only marginally during the coming decades. Moreover, since we tell young blacks to apply themselves, they should be given evidence that their aspirations are realistic. In Glasser’s view, the need for more black models is immediate: “Skills will not be developed if there is little expectation of employment and mobility.” So “opportunity” comes to mean placements and promotions by race-based assignments.
Perhaps the most graphic case of affirmative action in action has been on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. It is an intricate story, involving at least four ethnic groups. In 1973, an official plan recommended that
each segment of California public higher education shall strive to approximate by 1980 the general ethnic, sexual, and economic composition of the recent high school graduates.
Even so, a count taken in 1981 found that only 3.8 percent of Berkeley’s students were black and only 4.4 percent were Hispanic, while blacks and Hispanics made up 27 percent of California high school graduates. The reason for the low percentage was not overt discrimination but the prevailing standards for admission. To be accepted at Berkeley and seven other selective California campuses, applicants had to rank in the top 12.5 percent of the state’s high school graduates, determined by an index combining high school grades and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Unfortunately, few blacks and Hispanics were in that 12.5 percent.
As Table A (on page 65) shows, by 1988 only 5 percent of the Hispanics and even fewer of the blacks were eligible for Berkeley.
Using these and other figures, the authors of Freshman Admissions at Berkeley found that a class admitted solely on academic grounds would be less than 4 percent black and Hispanic. The only way to raise their representation would be to waive the admission rules, and this was done. In the 1988 entering class, Hispanics and blacks were given 31 percent of the places, four points ahead of their share of high school graduates. It also meant that more than two thirds of those entrants had not met the old academic requirements.
Since enrollments at Berkeley have remained fairly stable during the past dozen years, if some groups receive more places, others will get fewer. Table A also indicates that of those admitted to the 1988 freshman class, 27 percent were Asians. Even more striking, only 39 percent of its places went to whites, although they numbered 61 percent of the state’s high school graduates, and received 65 percent of the admissions just seven years earlier. Yet it was not easy for Californian whites to complain, since only some 16 percent of their high school graduates could meet Berkeley academic standards. Asians might have been expected to be content, since their share of the entering class was three times their representation among high school graduates. However, they were not. For Table A reveals that a considerable number of Asians who had the required academic scores were still rejected by Berkeley. They claimed they had been subjected to a quota system. Equally disturbing, the number of places based on academic criteria—which they had worked to satisfy—had been reduced substantially.
At the same time, Asians have been circumspect about who is replacing whom. For one thing, they tend to concentrate their applications at Berkeley and UCLA, raising their chances of rejection. Had they applied to less metropolitan campuses, like Davis or Santa Cruz, they would have had little trouble getting in. Still, they say they are confronted by fears on the part of whites that if admissions were based solely on academic scores, those two schools might become overwhelmingly Asian. Splintering the discussion even further is whether ceilings for Asians result from the expansion of black and Hispanic admissions, and are thus the result of affirmative action. An Asain law school student has insisted that Asians are not hostile to that kind of affirmative action:
An Asian applicant would not challenge the legality of preferential admissions nor allege that a Black or Hispanic had gained entrance in place of a better qualified Asian. Instead the basis of the claim…would focus on the treatment of Asian Americans compared with Caucasians, a group never intended to be the beneficiaries of affirmative action. An Asian applicant would not seek special consideration because of her race, but equitable treatment regardless of her race.5
Since Asians are willing to compete in meeting academic standards, they wish to distinguish themselves from affirmative action groups. In other words, they want to compete against whites. And that is just what they have been doing at Berkeley and elsewhere. Yale and Harvard, which draw on national pools, now have entering classes that are 13 percent and 15 percent Asian. At Stanford, the figure is up to 19 percent. These numbers would have been even higher had more been athletes or the children of alumni. Indeed, the US Office of Education is investigating charges that the fear of “too many” Asians is a replay of attitudes colleges once had about Jews.
How will white applicants react to having competitors? At many colleges and professional schools, many more whites will no longer get their first choice. Of course, someone who might have made it to Berkeley in the past can still get into Santa Barbara or San Diego, where the competition is less stiff. When Ivy League schools started admitting more Jews—and, after that, women—many children of alumni had to give up their dreams and go elsewhere. It is doubtful that Ira Glasser’s explanation will console them. “Fairness,” he says, “requires ending discrimination, not perpetuating it, and that includes ending the advantages that whites enjoyed.”
Many are waiting to see how Berkeley’s new student body will work out in practice. In introductory courses, on one side of the room will be Asians admitted on the academic track. Across from them will be blacks and Hispanics with classroom skills at a rather lower level, almost as if two dissimilar colleges were sharing the same campus. One test is to see how many actually will make it to graduation. Figures for members of Berkeley’s class of 1987, also included in Table A, are not very encouraging. All told, 71 percent of the whites and 67 percent of the Asians received their bachelor’s degrees by 1987 or 1988. For Hispanics and blacks, the respective rates of completion were 43 percent and 37 percent, and this was when admission standards for those groups were rather higher than they are now.6
Studies of attrition suggest that affirmative action programs may do some students a disservice by placing them in colleges for which they are not prepared. Pennsylvania State University has even tried cash incentives to stem the rate of failure. Black students who manage a C-plus average are given awards of $550; higher grades can win them double that. Harvard has sought to avoid the problem by ensuring that most of its black students come from middle-class families and predominantly white schools. As an admissions officer explained, “It is right for Harvard and better for the students, because there is better adjustment and less desperate alienation.”7
Most colleges remain committed to their affirmative action programs. Smith College, with its 4 percent black enrollment, has pledged to double that proportion by the end of the coming decade. Since this step will almost inevitably bring in students who cannot keep up with their classmates, it seems proper to ask why Smith and other schools persist in this effort. The candid answer is given by the black economist Thomas Sowell. In Choosing a College, which has a special chapter of advice for black students, he writes that
the drive to get a good-looking “body count” of black students leads the top colleges and universities to go way beyond the pool of black students who meet their normal admission standards.
To be able to point to increased black enrollments may ease some academic consciences. Unfortunately, Sowell adds, “many black students discover too late that the opportunity’ to go to a big-name school turns out to be a trap.”
In considerable measure, the debate over affirmative action arises from demographic changes in the nation as a whole. Table B (on page 65) shows that the white share of college enrollments has dropped by almost 10 percentage points during the last two decades.
And the proportion of blacks, after an initial rise, has also begun to decline. Just as Asians have been replacing whites, so Hispanics are supplanting blacks. These shifts result partly from immigration patterns and declining birth rates; each year black and white Americans account for a smaller share of the total population. However, other factors are important as well.
Even if blacks are the special concern of most affirmative action programs, Hispanics are still filling college places at a faster pace than blacks. Indeed, growing numbers of Hispanics prefer, like the Asians, not to be judged by separate standards. Nor is this surprising, since the newcomers have better academic records. A good measure of commitment to college is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is taken by a million high school seniors every year. This is not to defend the SAT. On the contrary, I believe that it, and tests like it, have had a pernicious influence, not only within education, but on the ways we use our minds. Still, the SAT is an accurate test of how well students have prepared for the admissions competition.
Table C (on page 66) gives partial and total scores for the four principal groups, plus some personal information on those taking the test.
One might think that Hispanics and blacks would have similar scores, since they have comparable backgrounds so far as income and education are concerned. However, Hispanics average 66 points higher in the overall scores, which is even more impressive, since two thirds come from families in which English is the second language or hardly spoken at all. That Asians come in only five points behind whites is at least as striking, since in most cases their native language is not English and their economic status is often low. Yet despite these disadvantages, they still rank higher on the mathematics part of the test. And, as the graph on page 67 shows, they move ahead of whites as their economic standing improves.
This is not the first time that immigrants and their offspring have surpassed native residents. Hard work and ambition still count; and today, as in the past, they accept jobs no one else will take. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Many Asian immigrants belonged to the middle class in China or Hong Kong or Saigon, or they aspired to that status, and they bring middle-class values with them. Note how many Hispanics and Asian students have college-educated parents, even if they turn out to have Korean or Guyanese degrees. Nor do they experience much culture shock when they arrive: in an electronic age, most are already aware of American ways.
Figures from the census and related sources, also included in Table C, suggest some of the social underpinnings of their current success. Asian students are as likely as whites to have both parents at home, and are much less prone to out-of-wedlock births, while Hispanics show greater family stability than blacks. Foreign-born Asians attend college at a higher rate than whites. If the rates of black and Hispanic young people attending college are about equal, this is so because many of the latter are recent arrivals holding unskilled jobs. The most important factor of all is that immigrants come here voluntarily, prepared to accept American society’s prevailing rules and cultural demands—including the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The SAT reveals how far students have adapted to the kinds of thinking that are widely thought to be necessary for success in the United States. The test calls for an ability to impose formal systems on reality. Arithmetic, mathematics, and standard grammar are such systems; so are other modes of thinking central to academic work such as reasoning by analogy and quickly extracting the point from passages of exposition. Ours is a society built on science and technology and on highly organized activities concerned with abstractly formulated pieces of information (however useless some of that information may be). Those who wish to join these enterprises must have minds attuned to the ways that world works.
Like all standardized examinations, the SAT requires that the student choose the one correct answer from four or five options. Some are mathematics problems, with several specious solutions. Or short paragraphs of prose, whose precise meaning must be divined. And analogies, like: “Runner is to marathon, as…”
A correct answer requires an affinity for logic, supported by an extensive vocabulary and a fairly large fund of information. Students must also have the confidence to record their choices at a rapid pace, since the test only allows about a minute for each question.
Do the tests discriminate? In The Case Against the SAT, James Crouse and Dale Trusheim present statistical evidence showing that given the way colleges use the test, it “has an adverse impact on black applicants.” They reject contentions that the tests are colorblind, or that they “help colleges admit black applicants who would succeed and reject applicants who would fail.” Their main argument is that high school grades, which show fewer racial disparities, can be quite accurate in predicting college performance. Unfortunately, they end their analysis there. What they might have added is that tests like the SAT call for approaches to thinking and learning associated with modern Western culture, a culture from which blacks have been to a considerable extent excluded.
Such a bias, however, is less an obstacle to Hispanics and Asians, even those who are foreign-born, than it is for blacks. It is of interest, for example, that both Puerto Ricans and Chicanos accept the term “Hispanic” with its emphasis on Iberian linguistic culture rather than Native American roots or links with Africa, even though the Chicanos are of American origin and many Puerto Ricans are partly black. Much of Asia has become westernized, in ways few would have predicted a generation ago. Taiwanese teen-agers come here already acquainted with the multiple-choice method. The issue is less one of assimilation than of adaptation. While Asian immigrants may spend much of their time together and preserve their identities, they do not lead isolated lives. They not only learn English, they do so in “Western” accents. It is also worth noting how many young Asians and Hispanics pass what could be called a telephone test: one cannot identify their ancestry simply by hearing their voices. That is seldom the case with black Americans.
Recent studies show that black Americans spend more of their lives in segregated neighborhoods and schools than even recent immigrants do. 8 Nor is this segregation chiefly a function of class. Even middle-class blacks have difficulty moving into preponderantly white neighborhoods; and if they do, the racial balance usually begins to change. White Americans are much less averse to having Asians or Hispanics as neighbors, or as classmates for their children.
At the same time the distinctive culture and distinctive forms of English that have emerged among black Americans during the long history of segregation seem less suited to preparing students to pass scholastic aptitude and other academic tests than the cultures of Asians and Hispanics; and the fact of continuing segregation makes it much harder for blacks to become, in effect, bicultural and bilingual. This helps to explain why black students in the highest economic bracket still end up with lower scores than Asian and Hispanic students from less well-to-do families. As it happens, blacks from the West Indies do better educationally, not least because their schools still adhere to an English regimen. Also, as Table C shows, family stability has a high correlation with academic success. But for marriages to remain durable and teen-agers to avoid pregnancies requires traits of personal character and social discipline that are not easily taught if they are not part of family experience. Yet even after citing these and similar conditions, it would be well to admit that the comparative academic performance of American-born black students still is not fully understood.
Nor has the recent record of whites been improving. As was noted earlier, white high school seniors in California are half as likely as Asians to qualify for the university system. That ratio is consistent with a US Department of Education review of high school grade transcripts, which found that only 13 percent of white students took a full academic curriculum, whereas 26 percent of Asians did.9 Whites also tend to avoid programs at the college level that require mathematical skills: 21 percent major in science or engineering, half the figure for Asians.
This and other evidence suggests that native-born white youths are less and less inclined than they used to be toward academic pursuits and the discipline they require. Insofar as performance on the SAT is a measure of this commitment, the scores for whites are well below what they were twenty years ago. (Some recent gains can be attributed to coaching courses, which many students now take.) Moreover, doing well requires a certain deference: you must not argue with the test; the trick is to identify the answers the testers want you to pick. Asians tend to understand this, whereas white youngsters tend to have a higher estimate of their own opinions. Particularly revealing is that white students from well-off families average only 107 points higher than those at the lowest economic level, whereas Asians ascend 217 points on the same scale. While higher income helps in raising scores, the effect is less great for those who do not apply themselves.
Two thirds of black undergraduates now attend integrated colleges. Jacqueline Fleming’s Blacks in College shows that they are far from happy there. She has conducted a sophisticated study, well conceived and carried out, containing some disturbing information. Aided by several associates, she questioned over a thousand students at eight schools in four states. On the whole, black undergraduates at predominantly white colleges felt they were “abandoned by the institution, rebuffed by fellow students, and inhibited from taking part in any but all-black organizational activities.” Most who make it to the senior year give evidence of “intellectual stagnation” and “frustrated academic drives.” Many divert that “frustration into less constructive outlets,” like attacking the school’s administration or its curriculum.
Many black students feel a sense of isolation. At the University of Georgia, they comprise less than 5 percent of the student body, even though blacks make up 27 percent of the population of the state. Feeling engulfed on a white campus, they tend to stick together. They feel unsure of themselves, Fleming writes, and “identity problems frequently surface that tie up intellectual energies.” For many, it is their first time in a dominantly white setting, and this is compounded by the fact that surrounding communities are often virtually all white. While outright racist acts are not everyday affairs, students of college age are not notable for tact. Nor can they count on professors to make the kinds of overtures that would be genuinely helpful.10
Fleming also studied students at seven predominantly black colleges, including Morehouse in Atlanta and Wilberforce in Ohio. There she found a more encouraging situation. By every measure, “black students in black schools show more academic progress than their counterparts in white colleges.” Fleming makes no great intellectual claims for the black schools. At Morehouse, known as a selective school, only 12 percent of the students have verbal SAT scores of over 500. At Georgia’s Albany State, only 2 percent rank that high. But the strength of black colleges rests on their “unique experience in providing higher education to students from inadequate secondary schools.” Thus they take their applicants as they find them, and help them move up from there. In an all-black setting, undergraduates have a less limited social life, and a wider range of out-of-class activities. On the other hand, Fleming found that too many of the women students settle for the attitudes of a sorority belle.
Blacks in College makes a persuasive case that black colleges “impart the orientation and skills that allow black students to function well in the larger society.” Greater academic success means they graduate with fewer feelings of resentment or emotional strain. Indeed, studies of alumni suggest that black colleges do as well as racially mixed colleges in preparing their students for careers in a dominantly white society. For example, over half of the black professors now teaching in white universities did their own undergraduate work at black colleges.
Of the nation’s historically black colleges, almost half are public institutions. These schools have recently become embroiled in controversy, the issue being whether they are “segregated,” and hence violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. For example, the enrollments at Louisiana’s Grambling State University and Southern University are both 96 percent black, which would make them all but single-race schools. Together, they enroll most of the blacks in the state, which means that the effect of those colleges is to segregate higher education in the state as a whole. Nor is this so only in the South. Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania has a 95 percent black enrollment; and on Ohio’s public Wilberforce campus, every student is black.
In Louisiana and several other states, steps are under way, in the name of ending segregation, to merge black public colleges with nearby white institutions. Ironically, this is being done despite the objections of most black students and faculty members.11 If these colleges are segregated, it is not because apartheid is being imposed from the outside; rather, their students have selected black colleges over integrated schools. Legally, anyone is free to apply. At Texas’s Prairie View A&M, for instance, a fifth of the students are not black.
Jacqueline Fleming emphasizes that students at black schools have enrolled “of their own volition.” In so doing, they have much in common with women who decide to go to Wellesley or Bryn Mawr. Indeed, forms of self-segregation have been accepted not only for women’s colleges but also for schools with strict religious rules. So far, Mount Holyoke and Smith can legally refuse to admit men, even when they receive some public funds. However, a military academy like The Citadel may be taken to court by women who wish to attend. And a college would be courting trouble if it chose to publicize itself as a “historically white” institution.
Are there double standards here? When women or blacks say they prefer their own company, they are widely seen as having a right to do so. If men or whites express similar sentiments, or, more likely, exclude women or blacks from their group, they are denounced as sexist or racist. The difference turns on the consequences of not belonging. When people who are powerful belong to organizations from which they derive some added advantages in the material world, the categorically excluded woman or black cannot enjoy those advantages. That is why women wish to break down barriers at men’s clubs. Persons without power also find it comforting to associate with others like themselves; but there is less likelihood that in so doing they will be causing harm to anyone else.
That many blacks wish to attend “their own” colleges removes a burden from many white consciences. Most white Americans feel uneasy in the presence of blacks, unsure of what to say, and uncertain about their motives. Whites would like black Americans to “be happy,” and if they say they are happier among themselves, that would be a double benefit. By and large, whites prefer not to inquire what goes on in black colleges, so long as the students seem satisfied there. Accordingly, self-segregation by blacks is supported by many whites, since it reduces the obligation to diminish racial double standards.
In addition to affirmative action, there is another route by which black students are brought to college campuses—not liberal arts colleges or Ivy League universities but the schools that are particularly concerned to have their athletic teams win. Such colleges, often big universities where sports are a money-making business, have been shameless in recruiting black players, of whom many have barely made it through high school. A survey of the 291 members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association with the biggest sports budgets shows that 56 percent of their basketball players were black, as were 37 percent of their football players. Overall, blacks comprise about 6 percent of the men attending college. 12
Few of the black scholarship athletes do well in their studies, and most do not graduate. The coaches use them for as many seasons as possible, abetted by cynical interpretations of academic standing by the school administration. That many drop out is hardly surprising in view of the long hours of practice, trips to distant games, and the sheer physical ordeal of the all-but-professional regimen. Moreover, today’s athletes bear a further load, equal to a difficult academic assignment: memorizing, analyzing, and applying the voluminous play-books compiled by the coaches.
From time to time, the NCAA decides to crack down on the colleges that give financial aid to athletes with academic deficiencies. Last year, over 90 percent of the scholarship athletes barred from playing were black. The NCAA is now considering even stronger rules, requiring a total SAT score of 700 to participate in intercollegiate athletics. This might not seem an arduous requirement—it means getting fewer than 40 correct answers out of some 150 questions. Still, most aspiring athletes have test scores below 700. The new NCAA rule might make athletics more sanitary, but it would remove even more blacks from the college scene.
The schools that play what amounts to big league college sports have opposed the rule, since they recruit black players with their eye on the box office. But also opposed are black colleges, which maintain teams on a more modest basis. (Among their popular events are women’s track and basketball.) However, scores of 700 are not that common at black colleges, so the rule would curtail many of their sports programs. In view of these and other objections, the NCAA decided that the new rules would not be applied until 1992. For many black students, playing football or basketball does not differ much from gladiatorial combat, with the risks almost as high. For others, it opens the way to a college degree and a career in later life. Not many, however, achieve either goal; for the rest, the odds of being chosen by a professional team are even smaller. As Thomas Sowell comments,
the grim truth is that more than 90 percent of all college athletes in football, baseball, and basketball never sign a professional contract, much less have a career in sports.
Either way, the schools that recruit black players for their teams are predominantly white.
A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, a $2.7 million study financed by seven foundations and the National Research Council, concludes that young blacks continue to experience “low-quality, unequal, and segregated schooling.” In addition, “low teacher expectations” and a less demanding curriculum result in “lower levels of attainment and achievement.” For example, blacks who finish high school are half as likely as whites to have studied algebra, hardly an auspicious way to start college.
The report’s analysis centers on attitudes black children bring to school. In all too many cases, “the texture of their parents’ own lives…make[s] them less likely to perceive high educational achievement as an unambiguously desirable goal.” This is especially true in neighborhoods where few of the adults hold steady jobs. By the junior high school years, teen-agers may begin to view their schools as “alien and hostile,” where one gets ahead only by “acting white.” A “student peer culture” grows up, which ridicules and ostracizes classmates who strive to get good grades or even speak standard English.
A Common Destiny, a joint effort of black and white scholars, ends on an ambiguous note. On the one hand, its authors believe that “what the schools do substantially affects the amount of learning that takes place.” Still, given the temptations and terrors of the street, teaching can only do so much. While exceptions can be cited, on the whole “students leave the schools with black-white achievement gaps not having been appreciably diminished.” The report is very much an academic effort, largely filled with reviews of published research. From these sources, it concludes that black students do better in integrated schools, which is to say classrooms where they are outnumbered by whites.
Visions of a Better Way, a pamphlet by the Joint Center of Political Studies, takes a different position on the issue of integration. The report is signed only by blacks, including Roger Wilkins, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and John Hope Franklin, and its principal author is the sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot. The authors say at the outset that they will not comment on “alleged inadequacies of black family life.” If some children start with deficiencies, they say, it is still each school’s responsibility “to take children as it finds them and educate them.”
The proposals in the report are based mainly on the work of James Comer, a professor of psychiatry at Yale, who has had dramatic success working with predominantly black elementary and junior high schools in Connecticut and Maryland. His major thesis is that what happens in the classroom is only a small part of education and that it is particularly important to get parents involved, not only by bringing them into the school, but also having them serve on school committees. Joining in this “team” approach are counselors and social workers, who get to know what is going on in the pupils’ homes and how it affects their work. (By making Comer’s work central, the report indirectly takes up the problems of black family life it started out by dismissing.) Comer says that too many schools function in isolation, run by professionals who hardly know the neighborhoods. Schools must join with churches and local associations to work with children and parents. Comer concludes there are lessons from the days when blacks were on their own: “Broad-based black community support for achievement…is precisely what happened when we were largely located in the small towns and rural areas of the South, and in segregated schools.”13
The sponsors of Visions of a Better Way emphasize that black Americans have their own culture, partly because it is one they have chosen, but also because they never have been allowed to take part in white American cultural life. While the authors of the report draw the line at “the inclusion of rap music” in school programs, they go on to say that
it takes nothing away from Shakespeare or Emily Dickenson to include the dramas of August Wilson and the poetry of Langston Hughes as an integral part of the school curriculum.
They also confront the reality that most black children speak a language with rules and expressions of its own. If teachers are to work with “children as they find them,” they must come to realize that “black English possesses a grammar, a system of deep cultural meaning, and a linguistic integrity on a par with that of standard English.” The report does not propose parity for black English, but rather urges teachers to be aware of it so they can better help children to become proficient in standard English. After becoming bilingual, they can decide which speech to use on which occasions. The authors of Visions of a Better Way seem to be saying that they want to preserve black English for times when blacks themselves get together, and such a position is understandable. But as black intellectuals with impressive careers who must know they are looked to as models, they cannot understate the importance of standard English for black youngsters who hope to succeed in this country’s schools.
A related issue has to do with whether there are different “learning styles” associated with race. A year or so ago, a handbook issued by New York State’s Department of Education14 was withdrawn, after protests over a section suggesting that many black pupils do not easily respond to “the Anglo-American cultural learning style.” For example, it noted that black youngsters tend:
to approximate space, number and time instead of aiming for complete accuracy;
to focus on people and their activities rather than objects;
to view things in their entirety and not in isolated parts;
not to be “word” dependent, but proficient in nonverbal as well as verbal communication.
Black organizations claimed that these statements were “racist.” But if the generalizations were sweeping about the members of a particular race, no one showed they derived from racial antipathy or prejudice. Nor did it help to point out that the report merely cited “tendencies,” thereby allowing that there are children to whom the propositions do not apply. The issue, rather, was that many black adults would prefer not to see these matters mentioned in print, or at least in a document issued under “white” auspices.
It did not matter to the protesters, moreover, that the handbook cited as its source a study by Janice Hale-Benson, a well-known black scholar.15 Her book has gone through several printings, not least because it is assigned by black professors concerned about the education of black children. The question, of course, is whether the tendencies Hale-Benson analyzed will be construed not simply as different, but also as inferior. In truth, most white people, and more than a few blacks, view the traits—or tendencies—Hale-Benson ascribed to blacks as less advanced than the tendencies with which they are contrasted in the report, and of more limited utility in the modern world. (Some of the tendencies could be inferred from the SAT results I discussed earlier and the same limiting considerations apply to them.) In reply, many blacks would insist that modern American society is obliged to give equal respect to the several cultures in its midst.16
As it happens, black women, when given the chance, have less trouble adapting to white expectations, and consequently do better in integrated settings, both in education and in employment. There are many reasons, not least that they sense less hostility, since the white world finds them less threatening. Beginning about twenty years ago, black women in college began to outnumber black men. By 1986, the most recent year for figures, they accounted for some 60 percent of black enrollments and a similar proportion of the degrees granted. Minorities in Higher Education, issued annually by the American Council on Education, concludes its current report by considering why so few black men are attending college. It notes that “black men are disproportionately at risk in American society” and “begin life in circumstances that diminish their chance of educational attainment.” The causes cited are familiar, ranging from masculine bravado to drugs and death at an early age. We are also told that “educational institutions tend to have low expectations of black males,” while “the dominance of elementary and secondary education by women diminishes the number of role models in the schools.”
There is much truth in this analysis. To be both black and a man in America is to be continually “at risk,” with as many hazards from one’s peers as from outside authorities. Black men who complete college must overcome obstacles whites cannot begin to imagine. At the same time, as Table B noted, it is not only black men who are falling away from higher education. Since 1976, the enrollments of white and Hispanic men have dropped by even more percentage points than those of blacks. Since no one would argue that white youths are “at risk” in the ways that blacks are, something more must be going on here. If current trends continue, even Asian students will soon have a majority of women, suggesting that whatever forces are at work often cross racial and ethnic lines.
But a real and deep racial dilemma remains, and it must not be obscured. Whites feel blacks and others should adapt to white ways. (Hence the labeling of Asians as “the model minority.”) Most blacks want it both ways: to hold on to their own culture and still be able to succeed in the white world. Hence their desire for integration in some situations and self-segregation in others. And that is what whites already have. White Americans can carve out spheres of their own, whether on a college campus or in choosing where to live and work. Needless to say, being the majority gives whites not only a wider range of choices, but also the confidence to comment on the limitations of others.
For all the talk of local standards and control, education in America is a highly rationalized enterprise, symbolized by the central role of tests like the SAT. And despite talk of slipping standards, those with hopes for a degree from a creditable college must still meet fairly rigorous requirements. The competitive emphasis of the system has been reinforced by the arrival of Asian students, who adhere to the rules and perform well under them. This, along with pressures for a more literate work force, makes it unlikely that the regimen will change. So all young Americans—blacks especially, but many whites as well—will have to learn to conform if they wish for careers in the mainstream of society.
October 12, 1989
Grace Tsuang, “Assuring Equal Access of Asian Americans to Highly Selective Universities,” Yale Law Journal (January 1989), p. 659. ↩
The Washington Post (December 26, 1988), p. C1. ↩
This and some other parts of the review will concentrate on race. Most affirmative action programs also provide for Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. Berkeley has added Filipinos and the “disabled” as meriting dispensations. The City University of New York has decided that Italian-Americans should not be held to customary standards. ↩
Quoted in Eliminating Racism, p. 348. ↩
Tsuang, “Assuring Equal Access of Asian Americans to Highly Selective Universities,” p. 659. ↩
The Department of Education reports slightly different results. It followed high school seniors who graduated in 1980 to see how many had completed college by 1986. Among the Asians, 27 percent had bachelors’ degrees, as had 20 percent of the whites. For blacks and Hispanics the respective rates were 10 percent and 7 percent. See Digest of Education Statistics (US Government Printing Office, 1988), Table 214. ↩
Quoted in David Karen, “Who Gets into Harvard?,” Ph.D. Thesis in Sociology, Harvard University (1985), p. 147. ↩
The most important are cited in Lawrence Bobo’s essay in Eliminating Racism, pp. 92–93. ↩
Reported in Washington Times (May 5, 1988), p. 25. However, a recent study by Philip Ritter and Sanford Dornbusch shows that subsequent generations of Asian and Hispanic students expend less academic effort (“Ethnic Variation in Family Influences on Academic Achievement,” delivered at the American Educational Research Association, March 1989). ↩
Harold Gerard’s essay in Eliminating Racism reports similar conditions in high schools. Studies of black students in predominantly white schools has found that “stereotypes tend to persist rather than dissolve in the mixed classroom”; and that, contrary to the Supreme Court’s Brown opinion, black “self-esteem diminishes after desegregation,” pp. 229, 233. ↩
See Chronicle of Higher Education (July 26, 1989), p. A19. ↩
The Experience of Black Intercollegiate Athletes at NCAA Division 1 Institutions (American Institutes for Research, Palo Alto, 1989). ↩
See James Comer, “Educating Poor Minority Children,” Scientific American (November 1988), pp. 42–48. ↩
Increasing High School Completion Rates (New York State Department of Education, 1987) pp. 15–16. ↩
Janice E. Hale-Benson, Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). ↩
The US Employment Service has sought to solve this problem by giving equal-but-different grades to people seeking jobs. Under “within group scoring,” everyone takes the same test, but ranks are computed by ethnic categories. Thus a Hispanic, a white, and an Asian would all be reported as ranking in the 79th percentile inside their own groups, even though they had very different scores. See James Douglas, Daniel Field, and Nancy Asquith, Employment Testing Manual (Warren, Gorham, and Lamont, 1989), pp. 79–80. ↩