Professor John McWhorter, a black faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a suggestion that is explosive in itself and directly the opposite of what is being said by those who are seeking to promote lower college admissions standards for blacks through affirmative action.
One of the reasons given for wanting more black students on a given campus, even if that means lowering admissions standards, is the claim that a certain number of blacks -- a "critical mass" -- on campus is necessary, in order for these students to feel comfortable enough to relax and do their best work. It sounds plausible, but lots of things have sounded plausible.
Professor McWhorter says just the opposite in his book "Losing the Race." According to McWhorter, anti-intellectualism in the black culture keeps many black youngsters from doing their best. If he is right, then creating a critical mass is creating a bigger handicap for black students.
There have been many media stories about hard-working black school children being ostracized, or even threatened with or subjected to violence, for "acting white" by trying to succeed academically. Creating a critical mass with that attitude is unlikely to help anyone.
More direct factual evidence is available, however. A study of the effect of an increased proportion of black students in a racially integrated school found little effect of this on the academic performances of most other students -- except for high-ability black students, whose performances declined.
Another study, about the effects of ability-grouping, found that high-ability students performed better when put into classes with other high-ability students -- and that this was especially so with high-ability minority students. In other words, a critical mass of students sorted by high ability did more for bright minority students than a critical mass of students sorted by race.
If Professor McWhorter is right, then his thesis might also help explain another puzzling phenomenon. A study of black orphans adopted by white families found their test scores to be higher than those of black youngsters raised by their own biological families. However, this initial finding eroded away when these same students were tested again in later years.
One of the things that can change as black kids grow older is that they become more conscious of race as they go into adolescence -- and more responsive to peer pressure. If Professor McWhorter is right, then an anti-intellectual culture would be more likely to handicap them in the later period.
In an earlier era, when there were seldom enough blacks on most elite white college campuses to form a "critical mass," did those students not do as well as in the post-affirmative action era, when blacks became more numerous on such campuses?
It is significant that no such evidence has been sought by those promoting the critical mass theory. However, students who graduated from an academically outstanding black high school in Washington between 1892 and 1954 left an impressive academic record at Amherst College during that era, even though there were seldom more than a handful of black students on that campus at that time.
About three-quarters of these black students graduated from Amherst and more than one-fifth of these graduates were Phi Beta Kappas. This was long before the era of grade inflation or affirmative action.
None of this is definitive proof. But those with the critical mass theory offer no evidence at all and none is asked. Their views prevail by default -- and dogmatism.
The time is long overdue to judge beliefs and the policies based on them by what actually works, not by what sounds good or what makes people feel good.
Having opposed the racial inferiority thesis in various writings over the years, I have in my own teaching held black students to the same standards as white students, though not all black students appreciated this kind of equality. Many of those who promote double standards for blacks seem convinced that blacks cannot achieve what whites have achieved. That is part of the ugly secret behind affirmative action.