Saturday, May 15, 2004

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Dilemma: Diversity or Honesty?

The New York Times recently interviewed Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the legacy of Brown v Board. Most of the video consists of them agreeing with each other and criticizing Clarence Thomas (with one exception - Gates agrees that separate does not necessarily mean unequal). But this portion caught my interest:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr: If we could make these predominantly black schools excellent, would that be a satisfactory goal? I say yes. Because I don't think there's anything magical about being around white people, necessarily. Inherently.

Cornell West: Yeah, yeah.

HLG: It's good for a multicultural society to have as much integration [as possible], but unless we have economic integration, we're not going to have residential integration.

So wait, there's nothing inherently good about being around white people? I must say, I wholeheartedly agree. Many white people are boring. Some have no sense of humor too. There are some I don't even like. And what's up with the Friends thing?

But Henry, you can't say this kind of stuff. Once you admit that there's nothing inherently valuable about the skin color of those around you from educational perspective, you've repudiated the whole basis for diversity-based college admissions. This is the last argument pro-affirmative action people can use to justify rich black kids getting into colleges ahead of poor white kids, even if the white kid has a lot of potential and the black kid is boring, has no sense of humor, etc. And goodness knows the horrors reversing that system would bring! Please try not to be so honest next time, Professor Gates.

Come to think of it, another interesting part of the interview is when Gates discusses "diversity" at Yale. He notes that most of the black students are middle- to upper-middle class. Moreover, an uncanny amount are the children of Gates' fellow black students when he attended Yale. He concludes that affirmative action is no longer a "class elevator" so much as it is a "class bridge" (citing Lani Guinier), benefiting the children of those who utilized it a generation ago.

So affirmative action isn't even helping the poor black kids get in to the top schools. I'm sure there are few poor applicants, but I'm also willing to bet that if Yale focused more on bringing bright disadvantaged kids to the institution, and less on meeting racial quotas, the poor black students would have a better chance. But hey, it makes the admissions officers feel just as good about themselves to admit a rich black person as a poor one, so why should they care? They all need our help, after all. The important thing is to temper one's guilt with paternalism and subtle condescension.

What a crock.

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