RACIST ANTIRACISM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IS BACK

Because to be black is to be poor. And the SAT is un-black. And because black people are "holistic." You know.

When I taught at UC Berkeley in the 1990s, it was an open secret that there was a two-tier undergraduate student body. Namely, black and Latino students tended to be considerably less prepared for the workload than white and Asian students.

No one talked about it openly, but plenty attested to it when they were sure the wall didn’t have ears, and to notice it was not racist – it was simple fact. Of course there were weak white and Asian students; of course there were excellent black and Latino students. But a tendency was unmistakable. It was painfully obvious that brown students were admitted according to very different standards than white and Asian ones.

Proposition 209 barred racial preferences of that kind in the UC system as of 1998, and of course, fewer brown students were admitted to the flagship schools Berkeley and UCLA after that. There were still plenty of brown students – the “resegregation” so many furiously predicted never happened. But not as many as before. And there has remained, for almost a quarter century now, a contingent who have never gotten over thinking UC would be better by going back to the way it was.

First there was the addition of a “hardship” bonus to the admissions procedure, with standards relaxed for applicants who could attest to having faced obstacles to achievement such as the death of a parent or serious illness. Formally this was supposed to apply to kids of all races. But immediately evaluators started weighting black and Latino hardship heavier than that suffered by white and Asian kids, as in rejecting an Asian applicant who had gone through the same kinds of hardship as a Latino one who was admitted.

I criticized this in the media, and will never forget when the suits assigned a kind, academically accomplished administrator to take me to lunch to “talk to me.” The poor man did his duty and … sat there lying to me. I genuinely felt sorry for him. But this showed how impenetrably committed to antiracism – or at least what they think is antiracism – these admissions officials are.

But even this kind of thing hasn’t been able to return Berkeley and UCLA to the good old days of having a “representative” number of brown students (apparently “representative” means in lockstep with their proportion of the state population). The problem is that pesky SAT, and at last, UC has gotten rid of it. The SAT will no longer be used to evaluate students for admission or even for scholarships.

A lot of people must have clinked their glasses of Pinot over this. But what they’ve done is not antiracist at all.

* * *

For one, as my colleague at the Atlantic Caitlin Flanagan has noted, the SAT was helping brown applicants in many ways. Contrary to common wisdom, the SAT has not been proven to be irrelevant to predicting students’ performance. A study of UC, specifically, showed that the SAT nicely predicts who will graduate and even tracks with GPA. Also, for students at schools not offering enough Advanced Placement courses to qualify for UC schools – and such students are disproportionately brown: systemic racism, anyone? – the SAT was a way of qualifying anyway.

How antiracist to pull the test out of the equation.

More to the point, the idea that if you don’t get into Berkeley or UCLA you’re doomed to a life selling apples on the street is fantasy. Here’s a type of story you don’t hear much – at the University of California, San Diego the year before the preferences ban, one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors. A few years later, after students who once would have gotten into Berkeley or UCLA were now admitted to schools such as UCSD, one in five black freshmen were making honors, the same proportion as white ones.

That kids do better at schools that their grades and test scores prepared them for is 1) intuitive and 2) proven by this study by Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Ausejo and Joseph Hotz, as well as another two I am aware of. Brown kids mismatched to their schools tend not to do well and to be unhappy.

How antiracist to pretend this isn’t true.

Okay, to be fair, there has indeed been a study recently that argues otherwise (also key to engaging the author’s position is this). However, just as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man will eternally be cited as having disproved the existence of IQ, and this study will eternally be held up as disproving that black teens tease black nerds as “white” when it actually demonstrates it, I suspect Zachary Bleemer’s work on mismatch will be treated as a scripture on the mismatch hypothesis.

But to actually read it is to be almost perplexed that it will be. It makes some valid points, of course, but a central assertion is that kids admitted to second- rather than first-tier UC schools did not do any better in STEM subjects than they would have at Berkeley or UCLA. How this is an argument for going back to the old two-tier secret is unclear to me, as is the assumption that we are interested only in STEM subjects, as if there weren’t dozens of other types of study.

And then, there is an idea that brown kids went on to earn lower salaries in their 30s because they did not attend Berkeley or UCLA. But Bleemer simply declares that Proposition 209 “caused” these drops in salary while ignoring two things. One is the recession of 2008. Another is that if you read the fine print, it’s actually that Latino 30-somethings saw this decline but black ones essentially did not. If Proposition 209 “caused” this slump in salary, then why did it somehow skip black graduates?

How antiracist to ignore that.

* * *

An objection will be to ask why people like me are so het up about a few hundred black kids going to a couple of schools. It’s a valid question, and the answer is that actions like UC’s are part of a grievously widespread pattern these days where what’s called antiracism is racism in a new guise.

One aspect of that racism is how blithely these goodly people neglect the notion of helping brown kids do better on the test. Threaded throughout all discussion of black kids, especially, and standards for admission to selective schools is a quiet assumption that there is something inauthentic about being a true grind if you’re black, that there is something almost inhumane in stipulating that black kids have to work harder at it than they do.

It reminds me of the black undergraduate who told me after Proposition 209 came down that she and people she worked with in the office dedicated to helping minority prospectives choose Berkeley were afraid that black students who came in without needing preferences wouldn’t be interested in “a black community at Berkeley.” Yes, she meant that if black kids are too studious they aren’t “really black,” she said it without the slightest irony, and she was not a “character.” And wouldn’t you know that several years later, I heard, unbidden, from not one but two black Berkeley grads admitted around that time that the black students admitted before the ban were indeed often wary of the new admits for that reason.

All of that is black people – and, I highly suspect, UC administrators -- coming alarmingly close to the take on black intelligence I addressed in Charles Murray a little while ago.

How antiracist to exempt black students from serious competition.

But the racism here will possibly be less abstract than this.

All in all, let’s take a look at how this has come out in five years. Apparently students will be evaluated “holistically.” Cue the person saying “holistically” while putting thumb and middle finger together on both hands and pointing at various places in the air, as if this body language were a form of argumentation.

In real life, when it comes to black students, “holistic” means looking for “spunk.” That very word is often used. I recall a rare moment of honesty – oddly, in front a room full of black students – where a black professor told me in a question session that if it weren’t for evaluating according to spunk, none of the black kids in the room would be there. I won’t out him or the school, but suffice it to say it was a selective one often in the news, and the year was 2007.

The problem is that under this evaluation system, it is reasonable to predict that brown kids’ graduation rates will go down. Quite simply, the SAT did predict performance in a way that nothing else does; not using it will, via sheer logic, hobble the admissions procedure.

It is also reasonable to predict that brown students will tend to have a harder time coping with what is expected of them regardless of how spunky they are. Get ready, UC: the same administrators feeling so good about being “antiracist” right now will be assailed by the benficiaries of this “antiracism” for giving them inadequate “support” – although few will explain just what additional support could be offered – and hot on the heels of that will be plangent cries that Berkeley and UCLA are “racist” hellholes.

And let’s not even mention that white and Asian kids will see that a suspicious many of the brown kids around them are not performing on the level that they are. Even if they resist acknowledging the pattern, in line with the antiracist training they will receive in today’s context, they will not be able to help internalizing the reality of what they see. This will include that only some of the brown students around them will come from impoverished or even working-class backgrounds, something which all understand can affect one’s preparation for high-level schoolwork. This will mean a new generation of people thinking of blackness and nerdiness as antithetical (and studiously hating themselves as “racist” for feeling that way when it’s put to them in twenty years).

Gosh, this antiracism is bracing, isn’t it? Oh yes, “complicated,” too. But it’s all worth it, right? Because doing things the old way was letting in too many Asians, and, well, they aren’t really “racial,” are they? Real antiracism is for black people. Who enjoys a glass of wine over something like this?

Make no mistake: I am not simply enjoying objecting to something. If the UC people have come up with a promising new way of assessing applicants, great. If that new way means that the predictions I just made do not come true, then I will not be disappointed to be proven wrong – I will be happy that black (and Latino) students are thriving, and will own it.

You see, we should be committed less to being right than to seeing things be right for actual people. Others, though, are more concerned with “getting right with contemporary concepts of antiracism,” as Flanagan artfully puts it, than with things being right for actual people.