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We Shall Overcome—But Only Through Merit By: Shelby Steel
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 16, 1999

Wall Street Journal | September 16, 1999

THE AFFIRMATIVE-ACTION DEBATE comes to us every season in a different guise. Last year—as if to illustrate the degree to which race has corrupted the practice of social science in America—Derek Bok and William Bowen used their Ivy League imprimatur (they are, respectively, the former presidents of Harvard and Princeton) to assert that "the data" showed preferential treatment for blacks and Hispanics in college admissions to be a great success. So, "the data" became accepted as fact until people like Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom showed that "the data" in this case constituted a mask. When, for example, a survey that found black students were happy with their college experience was used to dismiss the complex matter of blacks being stigmatized by racial preferences, it was clear that "the data" really meant, as T. S. Eliot said in another context, preparing "a face to meet the faces that you meet."

This season's affirmative-action debate seems to be shaping up as an argument over the meaning and relevance of merit. For decades racial preferences in college admissions have effectively preserved higher standards of merit for whites and Asians by lowering standards for blacks and Hispanics. Academic merit, as the quality most prized by universities, could go relatively undisturbed as long as it did not prevent schools from bringing in more blacks and Hispanics.

But now that court decisions are making it clear that universities (and society in general) will have to move away from racial preferences, it is also clear that merit stands in the way of diversity. On average, black students from families earning $70,000 and up do worse on the SAT than whites from families in the lowest income bracket. Without a racial preference, blacks and Hispanics must compete unaided in an academic contest that can only be decided on merit.

Thus, diversity suddenly requires a direct assault on merit. Merit must be weakened and relativized as a principle. Its decisiveness must be recast as unfairness. And, most of all, it must be smothered in sophistications. What is merit really? Isn't academic ability only "one kind" of merit? Should higher education "referee" opportunity? Today, the educational establishment finds itself devoted to an odd kind of innovation: schemes in which the mechanism of social inclusion is tolerance for academic mediocrity.

One such scheme, the new "strivers" formula for the SAT developed by the Educational Testing Service, would effectively handicap students by race and social disadvantage. The more markers of disadvantage a student has—the number and kind of electrical appliances in the home is one such marker—the more points are deducted from a projected score. When a student scores 200 points over this obviously low concocted score, he is designated a "striver"—someone with more potential than his actual score reveals.

If this formula errs by using dubious arithmetic to arrive at a judgment of human potential, its worse offense is to count being black, by itself, as a handicap. In fact, unless blackness is thrown into the calculation, this formula fails to bring in the desired number of blacks.

Fortunately, the strivers proposal has met widespread criticism, most recently from the president of the College Board. But tolerance of mediocrity as the mechanism of inclusion is nonetheless fast becoming the norm. Thus, according to guidelines issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education, if standardized tests have a "disparate impact" on minorities (that is, if minorities do poorly on them), then schools that use them may be in violation of civil-rights laws—as if laws designed to protect black freedom were also intended to protect black mediocrity. Similarly Texas and California have developed plans that make the top ten percent or four percent respectively, of every high school's graduating class eligible for admission to the state's most selective schools. Neither state considered such schemes until racial preferences were no longer available.

All these ingenious assaults on merit suggest a loss of faith in a racial equality grounded in merit—in comparable levels of competence and skill between the races. They effectively sever racial equality from merit in order to engineer equality between unequals. But even more than faithlessness, there is a certain desperation in this. Where does it come from?

It comes, I believe, from the mid-'60s victories of the civil-rights movement, which among other things caused American institutions to suffer a great loss of moral authority. Guilty of preserving white privilege for centuries, these institutions now had to prove they were not racist in order to function in a society profoundly shamed by its racism. This need to prove a negative on pain of being stigmatized as racist bred the desperation that, in turn, led to the two great themes of racial reform since the '60s: deference and license.

To reclaim their lost moral authority, institutions had to offer policies to blacks (and other minorities) that deferred to their history of victimization and gave them a license not to meet the same standards and expectations as others. The result was a welfare system that asked nothing at all from its impoverished recipients—no work, no educational development, no family responsibility, nothing. Following quickly thereafter came deference and license for the black middle class in the form of racial preferences.

The separation of racial equality from merit, the assault on merit in the name of black inclusion, the engineering of an "equality" between unequal groups—all this is the inevitable fallout of racial reform based on a trade of deference and license to blacks for moral authority to whites. But the civil-rights victories left black America with a very different goal than larger America. We did not need moral redemption from a racist past; we needed to develop the skills that would make us competitive with others, and to further embrace the value system that would help us do that. We needed to ask more of ourselves, not less. Only a rigorous and unbending adherence to the principle of merit would give us a shot at real equality.

Instead, what we got from the great and powerful institutions around us was deference and license. This seduced us into a void where nothing much was expected and where failure brought few consequences save more government money—where all incentives pressed toward inertia. Single-parent homes, gangs in the neighborhood, poor schools—things that can be overcome when a nation-building ethic prevails—became immutable barriers that actually excused us from overcoming. We bought into a liberalism that subsidized our inertia as it sought to redeem the moral authority of American institutions.

And now we get a "strivers" SAT formula and ten-percent and four-percent plans that open up an avenue toward acceptable mediocrity. I can only hope that we are coming into an era—after so much failure—when moral authority goes to institutions only when they approach minorities in a spirit of expectation and consequences rather than deference and license. It is no coincidence that black excellence, even superiority, is so visible in those areas where we live by high expectations and enforced consequences—sports, music, entertainment, literature. The "inclusion" we most need now is in the realm of intellectual respect—which can be gained through merit alone.



Copyright © 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Mr. Steel, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America (HarperCollins, 1998).

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