The case for colorblindness in the age of genetics.

Science, technology, and life.
May 5 2009 9:11 AM

Personal Best

The case for colorblindness in the age of genetics.

John McWhorter has attacked me.

Well, not really. He has actually written a very polite spanking of me in his blog at the New Republic. But I like to think of it as an attack, because coming from McWhorter, there's no higher compliment. I remember watching him give a talk on C-SPAN years ago. The subject was black underachievement and its politically correct apologists. It was like one of those action-movie scenes where the hero takes on 50 guys in hand-to-hand combat. He was fearless and funny and brutally incisive.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

McWhorter believes in holding people to high standards. He despises excuse-making and wallowing in victimhood. I'm a huge fan of his argument and his attitude. As a prescription for underachievers, I think it's both the best medicine and the highest form of respect.

McWhorter thinks I've undermined this no-excuses policy. The subject of his critique, he explains, is last week's New York Times report "that No Child Left Behind is not closing the black-white student performance gap" and my reaction to the report, which, as he puts it, was to ask "why we need to even tabulate the results by race anyway." Here's his rebuttal:

Why would a nationally prominent journalist pretend not to understand why National Assessment of Educational Progress data is broken down by race, as if he lives in a different country—or century—than his own? Because what he learned from his drubbing in 2007 is that any findings that shed less than positive light on black people are, quite simply, inappropriate for public viewing.

People of Saletan's new leaning have things like the New Haven shell game as a model, where when black applicants don't hit the highest note on a promotion test, the PC solution is to craftily tar the test as "racist" and discount its results. … [W]e will not pretend that it's okay that black students don't read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren't racists.

That last bit is an ungentlemanly lapse, but I'd better answer it, because it obscures the larger problem and why I keep coming back to it. Incredible as it may seem, not every white person who argues against racial scorekeeping is trying to earn a merit badge, just as not every white person who argues for it is a Klansman. For the record, here are my views as of today—and yes, I reserve the right to change them as evidence and arguments warrant.

Advertisement

1. I detest the New Haven shell game (in which a promotion test was thrown out because black firefighters failed to score high enough on it). McWhorter's critique of it is dead-on.

2. I don't have to accept racial classification just because it influenced NAEP and No Child Left Behind. Education is for everybody. There's nothing inherently racial about helping kids who lag. And guess what? We are living in a different century.

3. Broadly speaking, I don't agree that "any findings that shed less than positive light on black people are, quite simply, inappropriate for public viewing." If your kid gets a D, you have a problem. If a city full of kids gets D's (or A's when they deserve D's), the city has a problem, and that's certainly appropriate for public viewing. But why does it matter what color these kids are? And why aggregate the scores of kids of some other race to concoct a standard of achievement? Are the white kids getting C's? Screw that. Aim for an A.

4. My daughter came home from kindergarten this year with a school form instructing us to check a box designating her race. I resent this. She's not playing for the white team. She's a little girl. She's there to learn. Teach her.

But let's get back to McWhorter's point. He's for airing "findings that shed less than positive light on black people." Not bad parents. Not people with low-performing kids. Black people.