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?!     

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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1 reply

  1. Paul said, “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.”

    John McWhorter, “Actually, Scalia had a point”, CNN, opinion, December 13, 2015.

    “Black and Latino students are often less prepared for the pace of teaching at tippy-top schools because of the societal factors that dismay us all: quality of schooling, parents denied good education themselves, complex home lives. The question is: Do we respond to this by nonetheless placing students in schools teaching beyond what they are prepared? The data suggest this harms more than it helps, and that is not a racist observation in the least…

    Imagine being a student who is quite bright but is from a home without many books in it. He isn’t the fastest reader in the world, and his schools didn’t expose him to much discussion of ideas as opposed to facts. All of a sudden, he’s in a classroom where students marinated since toddlerhood in books and top-quality education are confidently discussing this book, blithely tossing off concepts he’s rarely heard of, all doing a fine job of at least faking having gotten through all 300 pages.

    Now imagine this student at a school where about 40 pages of the Republic is assigned, likely including the passage about the cave, with the professor making sure to usher students through the contours of the argument, aware that most of the students have rarely engaged a text of this kind. Which class is this student going to be most comfortable in, and which class is she likely to get a better grade on her paper in?”


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