The year before California banned race-based affirmative action at state schools, only one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors at the University of California, San Diego.
But in 1998, after the ban on racial preferences went into effect, one in five black students made honors at UC San Diego—the same ratio as white students.
Whereas previously these students would have been accepted through affirmative action at a higher-tier campus like UC Berkeley, now they were matched with UCSD, where they excelled.
John McWhorter—Columbia University professor, columnist, and “cranky liberal Democrat”—relays this story in his New York Times bestselling book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. His point is a provocative one: Race-conscious admissions processes harm the black students they purport to help.
For one thing, there’s the possibility that some students are “mismatched” and placed in programs where they struggle unnecessarily. “[T]he discussion of affirmative action implies that the choice is somehow between Yale or jail,” McWhorter writes. But as we saw in the case of UC San Diego, the alternative to “Yale” is a lower-tier university that might better position the student for success. McWhorter points to a Duke University study that found mismatching in STEM has lowered the number of black scientists by funneling them into the toughest programs. Richard Sander, UCLA law professor and author of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, has revealed “an especially tragic tendency in this vein,” McWhorter writes, “showing that ‘mismatched’ law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam.”
Even if you ignore or dispute the mismatch theory, there’s a deeper level at which racial preferences in college admissions cause harm.
When a university admits minority students in order to “achieve the educational benefits that flow from student-body diversity,” as Harvard University wrote in its May 2021 brief in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the university is treating those students as means to an end—reducing them to representatives of a racial group identity and communicating that their value on campus is intrinsically linked to the color of their skin.
That’s an offensive and dehumanizing way to treat individuals—and many minority students don’t like it.
“We are told that a major reason for adjusting standards for university admissions is to foster diversity so that ‘diverse’ students can contribute their perspectives in the classroom,” McWhorter writes in Woke Racism. “But then ‘diverse’ students regularly say that they hate being responsible for representing the ‘diverse’ view in the classroom.”
Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia University, has spoken similarly about how alienating it can be for black students to feel like their role on campus is to educate other students about race. “White students, and students in general, are told that they’re supposed to defer to the people of color—to their experiences, to their perspectives on a lot of these issues,” al-Gharbi said at a 2020 panel on college free speech. When race is brought up in class, white students “all just turn and look at the person of color. And that’s incredibly alienating,” al-Gharbi said. “If you’re a black undergraduate in your first year of college, you’re not an expert on race, right? You don’t have much more data or information on these issues than any other undergrad. And your own experience as an African American might not actually be representative of most other black people.”
By evaluating applicants on the basis of race, and then expecting minority students to represent their racial identity on campus so that other students can benefit from diversity, these universities are engaging in “woke racism”—or Third Wave Antiracism, as McWhorter calls it in his book.
While First Wave Antiracism battled slavery and segregation, and Second Wave Antiracism battled racist attitudes, Third Wave Antiracism now teaches people that “[w]hatever color you are, in the name of acknowledging ‘power,’ you are to divide people into racial classes, in exactly the way that First and Second Wave antiracism taught you not to,” McWhorter writes.
It’s an ideology that diminishes human dignity. It ignores the breadth and depth of individual human experience and encourages us to make assumptions based on skin color.
And yet Third Wave Antiracism is mainstream, popularized by evangelists like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo (whom McWhorter memorably skewered in The Atlantic, arguing that DiAngelo’s #1 bestseller White Fragility “diminishes black people in the name of dignifying us”).
McWhorter is a black parent. In the preface to Woke Racism, he says that he “shudders” at the thought of Third Wave Antiracism seeping into the curriculum at his daughters’ schools: “teachers with eyes shining at the prospect of showing their antiracism by filling my daughters’ heads with performance art instructing them that they are poster children rather than individuals.”
Woke Racism was published in October 2021. A few months later, in January, after the Supreme Court announced it would hear challenges to race-based affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard—a case in which Pacific Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief—McWhorter once again imagined someone de-valuing his daughters’ individualism.
“My daughters are lively young people taking their places in this thing called life,” he wrote in his New York Times column. “I shudder at the thought of someone on a college admissions committee, in the not-too-distant future, reading their dossiers and finding their being biracial…the most interesting thing about them. Or even, frankly, interesting at all.”
McWhorter says it’s time to end racial preferences in college admissions. And despite the influence of Third Wave Antiracism, most Americans agree with him: A Pew Research Center poll found that 73% of Americans oppose the use of race or ethnicity in college admissions decisions. (Interestingly, polling has consistently found that Americans are generally supportive of affirmative action if you use vague language to describe it—a Gallup poll asked respondents if they “generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities” and found that 61% were in favor—yet when people are specifically asked if they support the use of race in hiring or enrollment decisions, the majority disapprove.)
But some still argue race-based affirmative action is necessary to remedy historic inequality—even though McWhorter and others, including Matt Yglesias, have pointed out that universities could redirect resources to help economically disadvantaged students without categorizing people by race. Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University, argued in The Washington Post that race-based affirmation action is necessary because “[d]ecades of research have shown that unequal opportunities continue to shape the educational experiences of black, Latino and Native American youths” while “white youths tend to enjoy many privileges in the United States.”
While that is no doubt broadly true, it doesn’t follow that presuming a black college applicant has been disadvantaged is a gesture of respect rather than a condescending generalization. And it calls to mind a great line that McWhorter—the son of a college administrator and a professor—wrote in his takedown of Robin DiAngelo: “I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me.”