Summers' suggestion about a major academic work reflects a widespread feeling that West has reached the top at Harvard -- he is paid a great deal of money and is one of only 14 professors on campus who carry the prestigious designation of "university professor" -- without adding much to the academic discussion of race or any other subject. Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaris calls West's books "weak and fatuous." In 1995, New Republic critic Leon Wieseltier wrote a long essay concluding that West's books are "almost completely worthless." In this context, Summers was right to urge West to buckle down for academic work and ease up on the celebrity preening.
What Summers failed to figure out -- and his naivete here is stunning -- is that his little chat with West would immediately be defined as a racial incident. Sure enough, West and other stars of Harvard's black studies department threatened to move to Princeton. The circus came to town -- Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showed up to deal with (i.e., inflate) the supposed racial crisis.
In the words of conservative black scholar Shelby Steele, the "predictable choreography of black indignation and white guilt" began to unfold. "Political correctness is what whites have the authority to say about blacks, no matter what they see," Steele wrote. Even pushing for excellence from a talented but underperforming black professor was a horrible violation of the rules of correctness, therefore a racial if not a racist act. If Summers had pushed a white professor to try harder, nobody would have cared.
The script calls for the offending white to cave in, and that's what Summers did. He publicly expressed regrets to West and issued the long-awaited ritual endorsement of affirmative action. A few Summers supporters tried to argue that a cave-in had not occurred, since he had merely praised "diversity," not affirmative action. But no, a close look at what he said showed that the dust-up with West had in fact pushed him to say what he had avoided for five months, that preferences were wonderful.
West has won, and he is no longer in any danger of being pushed to do anything at all. And Summers has fumbled his first big chance to speak out honestly and make a difference at Harvard. Too bad.