Friday, December 11, 2015

Scalia and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia waits during an introduction before speaking at the University of Minnesota in October 2015. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia again stirred controversy in the high court with his questions on Wednesday during a hearing regarding the race-conscious admission plan at the University of Texas at Austin, appearing to scoff at the value of diversity at selective universities by sharply questioning whether African Americans might instead be helped by “having them go to a less-advanced school . . . a slower-track school where they do well.”

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have thought he was simply debating the merit of race-based admissions at the University of Texas. But he lit a fire when he cited a friend-of-court brief that argued some blacks would do better at “slower-track” schools instead of being “pushed ahead in classes that are too fast” for them.

Scalia’s comment came from “mismatch theory,” which ironically advocates for the soft bigotry of low expectations.

According to its proponents, affirmative action harms students who aren’t ready for a strenuous academic environment. In a ripple effect, they will avoid struggle by opting for easy majors or dropping out altogether. Therefore, it’s best that they be guided to the shallow end of the educational pool: less-selective institutions where they can be more comfortable and successful.

The only thing new about the mismatch theory is the name. It’s actually the same old institutionalized racism that steered generations of African Americans into trade schools instead of universities. It’s the pernicious whisper beneath current suggestions that perhaps college isn’t for everybody.

The mismatch theory gets one thing right: Under-prepared black students will struggle at a demanding educational institution.

I know, because I was one.

Affirmative action helped me get into the College of the University of Chicago back in 1971. The school had not been closed to blacks. Carter G. Woodson, the originator of Black History Month, got a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the university around 1907. But pressure to integrate brought dozens of African Americans to the college, not two or three.

The university touted its “life of the mind.” The atmosphere was so intense, college students joked it was the place where fun went to die. I remember an institution with meager student services and a stunning insensitivity to black youngsters. During a weekend recruiting visit for students of color, economist Milton Friedman explained how laws barring discrimination interfered with a business owner’s right to determine his customers.

Still, I figured I could hang. My standardized test scores were among the highest at my integrated school in Nashville, Tenn. I thought I was a prodigy.

I was 16 when I moved into my dormitory. Immediately, I realized how inadequate my education had been. My high school teachers had just made mention of Plato and Aristotle. Several of my college classmates had read them. I had two years of high-school Spanish, but I couldn’t pass the college’s proficiency test. By the end of freshman year, I knew I’d have to grind to graduate.

I finished in four years with a degree in Russian and a 2.5 grade-point average. Perhaps I’d have made better grades at a “slower-track” school. But all lessons aren’t academic. Here’s what struggling at an advanced institution taught me:

How to set my own standards for success: My second-year Russian teacher calculated his grades on mistakes made. By chance, I compared notes with a white, male student. I’d made 11 mistakes. He’d made 10.5. Yet I was a C+ and he was B-. When I approached the teacher, he suggested I consider another major.

The pattern continued throughout the year. Clearly, the professor had made up his mind. He was the only instructor for the required class, so I couldn’t avoid him. Instead, I studied for knowledge instead of a grade. I relied on intrinsic motivation, instead of going for the extrinsic reward.

That teacher helped me make another major decision. After reading “The Death of Ivan Ilych” in Russian three times to prep for his final, I was thoroughly done with Russian literature. I got my doctorate in Slavic linguistics.

How to advocate for myself: My teachers showed me subtly and overtly that they didn’t think I was smart enough to attend the university. I stopped trying to show them otherwise. My goal was to become a University of Chicago alumna. I found a mentor. I pulled all-nighters studying and writing papers. I raised the money to attend a summer language institute in Vermont. My teachers marveled when I returned speaking fluently. I knew then that my work had paid off.

How to become entitled: I watched the white kids around me with awe. If they wanted to drive across country, somehow they finagled a car, gas, and places to stay. If they decided to learn the blues, they ended up hanging out with the best guitarists on the South Side of Chicago. They took their good fortune in stride, as if it was the way of the world.

Until I came to college, I’d never lived intimately with people who assumed life would unfurl for them. My expectations swelled. I might have to yank at the knobs, but doors would open for me.

How culturally limited white people really can be: My dorm kitchen was the hangout, where we cooked and chatted. One evening a couple friends glanced at the vegetable I was chopping.

“What’re you fixing?” one asked.
“It’s a sweet potato,” I said, puzzled.
“A what?”

I was stunned. If sweet potatoes were foreign to them, what else was? More importantly, what did I know that they didn’t? Growing up in the South, I’d placed white folks on a pedestal. In college, I began to dismantle that throne.

Compassion: My tenure at the University of Chicago was punishing, competitive and life- changing. Throughout my academic career, I’d been one of the smartest kids in my school. My test scores were high. So were my grades. At college, I wasn’t just ordinary; I was ignored.

In Nashville, my teachers expected great things from me. At Chicago, my teachers expected nothing  — and seemed surprised when I disappointed them.

Ultimately, my confidence in my intellectual abilities got me through. Along the way, however, I wondered about students who didn’t have my assurance. What would happen to them?

The mismatch argument is flawed because it assumes under-prepared black students will opt to fail instead of push to succeed. Ultimately, I wonder what proponents are actually trying to protect: a system that includes black students who are like I was, or a status quo that keeps them out?
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