Imagine two colleges side by side with everything being equal, save that one has all and only white faculty and students, the other all and only black faculty and students. Imagine too that there’s some objective measure of student outcomes. Of course that couldn’t be placement, since residual racism can be counted on to play a role there. But if there were no objective measure, it would be hard to say what quality of education amounts to.
So whatever it amounts to, let’s compare. And the not-unreasonable conjecture is that the white college will score higher than the black one. Or in Canada the white higher than the indigenous. Or in Europe the white higher than the Roma.
The reason for this should be obvious, and it’s not because white people are somehow superior. It’s because of differentials in what each brings with her to the academy. Were this not so no sense could be made of the concept of ‘disadvantage’. Unless, of course, by disadvantage is meant nothing more than being less likely to be admitted or hired in the first place. But my thought experiment rules that out.
So under the segregation scenario just outlined, white economic advantage would perpetuate itself. And so if we’re committed – as I trust most of us are – to working on these race-based advantages and disadvantages, then a) white students and students of colour need to be integrated in the hallway. And, putting role-model arguments aside for the moment, b) these integrated colleges should boast a preponderance of white faculty. If I’m wrong about this – and maybe I am – it’s hard to make sense, for example, of bussing programs in the United States.
The push for the former, i.e. (a), is happening, but for the latter, i.e. (b), is not. In fact quite the contrary. Colleges and universities are moving away from merit-only hiring towards what might rightly be called cosmetic hiring. Why? For three very good reasons. First, because the role-model argument cannot be so easily set aside. Second, because racism operates at the symbolic level as much as at the material. And third, because utilitarian and social justice desiderata are sometimes incompatible. Adding the three together, the cosmetics of white noblesse oblige would be just too offensive to fly in this post-colonial 21st Century.
Now replace racism with sexism and we get the same result. Yes, affirmative action gender hiring has been at a cost; but cost is only one of several considerata. The same can be said of the proliferation of what critics have been calling ‘grievance studies’ in academia. And of what they call ‘grievance culture’ in society at large. So the struggle for and against is marked, as is always the case when desiderata compete, with escalating rhetorical vitriol, vitriol that’s as unhelpful as it is inevitable. The smart money goes to just letting the rhetoric play itself out. But who among us is that smart?!