It isn’t fashionable these days to recall anything good that came out of the George W. Bush era, but the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was one. It has never been forgotten, and justly so, because our society is rife with exactly such attitudes.
There is much rumbling about the likelihood that the Supreme Court will deal a coup de grâce to racial preferences in university admissions when it takes up two cases, probably in its next term, challenging affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To some, this suggests an impending crisis — writing for The Nation in 2019, Mark Huelsman assessed the potential impact of the U.N.C. case thusly: “If the goal is to resegregate higher education, the efforts have largely worked.” Last year, The Atlantic’s Adam Harris wrote that the end of affirmative action would mean that “the United States will have to face the reality that its system of higher education is, and always has been, separate and unequal.”
But I find myself thinking about other things, including how we’ve allowed ourselves to all but give up on the idea that many Black and Latino students, as well as Pacific Islander and Native American students, can compete.
When we expect less of people it’s often because we think less of them: In 1974, the linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs documented that in rural villages in Madagascar, women were associated more with direct and therefore less refined speech than men. Their culture heavily valued circumlocution — diplomatic, even delicate speech — but it was still considered socially acceptable for women to speak bluntly, sometimes even coarsely, because less was expected of them.
I think of this kind of thing in reference to altering standards of evaluation so that Black and Latino students are represented proportionally in various institutions. These days, one is to think of this sort of thing as “equity.” The idea seems to be that until there is something much closer to equality — as in equal access to resources — throughout society, we must force at least the superficial justice of equity in sheer percentages.
But too often, the message being communicated to Black and Latino people is that our presence is what matters, not our performance. I am uncomfortable, for example, with the domino-effect elimination of standardized testing requirements in university admissions policies across the country.
According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, around 1,800 colleges and universities will not require high school graduates “applying to start classes in fall 2022 to submit ACT/SAT results,” with a list that includes not only U.N.C. and Harvard, but also prestigious public and private institutions including the University of California, the University of Texas, Yale University and Princeton University. Many of the schools cite the pandemic as the reason for making standardized testing optional, but I don’t buy it. I’ve been in academia long enough, and have experienced the decades-long debate over racial preferences long enough, to suspect that this is cover for a policy change that some schools wanted to make anyway.
Questions about how predictive the tests are of student performance are welcome, and it’s certainly true that some students with high scores struggle in college while some with low scores thrive. But those questions don’t conclusively refute the utility of the tests as a tool for evaluating which students are ready to succeed in college. And one of the motivations for eliminating these tests or making admissions “test-optional” (as some colleges now say, as if students are eager to sit for optional exams) is to allow more Black and Latino students to be admitted.
This impulse is based on an assumption that because Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native kids, on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, don’t perform as well on these tests as their white and Asian peers, the tests must be, in some way, racially biased. But what, really, does that mean? Is it that the tests ask racially biased questions? Which ones? Is it that it is somehow unfair to give a Black or Latino student a test of abstract cognitive skill and that Black and Latino students should be tested differently? This would seem dangerously close to saying that they aren’t as intelligent as others. If that isn’t the intention, then is the inference that there is something cultural, broadly speaking, that hinders their ability to perform well on these tests? If so, what?
In many quarters, it’s considered bad form to even dwell on questions such as these. Equity is the goal, and so, Black and Latino kids, we won’t require you to ace tests the way white and Asian American kids are expected to. We’ll factor race into admissions decisions and then applaud the diversity that brings to college campuses, but we won’t redouble our efforts to make Black and Latino students better at the tests.
As I wrote in January, I am fully behind the rationale for adjusting admissions standards based on socioeconomics. Where I lose the thread is with the imposition of low expectations on Black and Latino students who are middle class or affluent. As I’ve discussed before in greater detail, my hypothesis is that some Black students underperform on standardized tests in part because of subtly internalized attitudes, persisting over time, about the scholarly endeavor. As I wrote in September, in the period that followed Brown v. Board of Education:
Old-school open racism was still in flower, and Black kids in newly desegregated schools experienced it full blast — and not just in the South.
It was then that Black kids started thinking of school as the white kids’ game, something to disidentify from. While it hurts to be called a nerd when you’re white, the sting is worse when you are called disloyal to your race.
I also noted a quieter idea, explained in a 1997 study, which found, as I wrote, that “white eighth and ninth graders tend to think of themselves as doing homework to please their parents, while Black ones think of themselves as doing it for their teachers.”
Surely, the academic field of education is up to the task of forging ways of getting kids past these barriers. But in the meantime, we’re stuck with the equity approach. And what is happening, in essence — whether anyone is willing to say it out loud — is that we are gradually getting rid of standardized tests less because alone they aren’t perfect predictors of performance (no one ever thought they were) and more because some students of color have more trouble with them than others.
I would prefer that we address the value of the tests second, after first showing that these minority students — including those middle-class and affluent kids who don’t lack resources — can take standardized tests and do just as well, in the aggregate, as white and Asian American students. To me, as a Black American (and, I assume, to many Latino or Hispanic Americans as well) this is Black, or brown, pride.
To some, that take may seem backward. But I think of it as progressive, and as a demonstration, I ask the reader to consider: What happened to the idea of “tokenism”?
In the not-so-old days, treating people of color as tokens — placing us in positions just to achieve numbers — was not only considered bigotry, but was also the kind of thing that was endlessly pilloried in the media as well as casual discussion. Opposing supposed tokenism was central to the arguments of those rejecting George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. The concept has faded from general discussion of race issues, but still manages to pop up in conversations about Black Republicans, particularly Black supporters of Donald Trump. But on matters leftward, we instead talk of equity. We constantly hear the phrase “representation matters.”
Too often, we forge this equity by tokenizing people of color, declaring that we have achieved the proper representation after pretending that race or ethnicity entails alternate conceptions of excellence from those we unquestioningly expect of everyone else. And I think much of the motivation for that pretense is to allow white teachers and administrators to inoculate themselves against the accusation that they’re denying the existence and impact of racism. Maybe that helps them, but that’s another kind of low expectation.
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