In many quarters, it’s considered bad form to even dwell on questions such as these. Equity is the goal, and so, Black and Latino kids, we won’t require you to ace tests the way white and Asian American kids are expected to. We’ll factor race into admissions decisions and then applaud the diversity that brings to college campuses, but we won’t redouble our efforts to make Black and Latino students better at the tests.
As I wrote in January, I am fully behind the rationale for adjusting admissions standards based on socioeconomics. Where I lose the thread is with the imposition of low expectations on Black and Latino students who are middle class or affluent. As I’ve discussed before in greater detail, my hypothesis is that some Black students underperform on standardized tests in part because of subtly internalized attitudes, persisting over time, about the scholarly endeavor. As I wrote in September, in the period that followed Brown v. Board of Education:
Old-school open racism was still in flower, and Black kids in newly desegregated schools experienced it full blast — and not just in the South.
It was then that Black kids started thinking of school as the white kids’ game, something to disidentify from. While it hurts to be called a nerd when you’re white, the sting is worse when you are called disloyal to your race.
I also noted a quieter idea, explained in a 1997 study, which found, as I wrote, that “white eighth and ninth graders tend to think of themselves as doing homework to please their parents, while Black ones think of themselves as doing it for their teachers.”
Surely, the academic field of education is up to the task of forging ways of getting kids past these barriers. But in the meantime, we’re stuck with the equity approach. And what is happening, in essence — whether anyone is willing to say it out loud — is that we are gradually getting rid of standardized tests less because alone they aren’t perfect predictors of performance (no one ever thought they were) and more because some students of color have more trouble with them than others.
I would prefer that we address the value of the tests second, after first showing that these minority students — including those middle-class and affluent kids who don’t lack resources — can take standardized tests and do just as well, in the aggregate, as white and Asian American students. To me, as a Black American (and, I assume, to many Latino or Hispanic Americans as well) this is Black, or brown, pride.
To some, that take may seem backward. But I think of it as progressive, and as a demonstration, I ask the reader to consider: What happened to the idea of “tokenism”?
In the not-so-old days, treating people of color as tokens — placing us in positions just to achieve numbers — was not only considered bigotry, but was also the kind of thing that was endlessly pilloried in the media as well as casual discussion. Opposing supposed tokenism was central to the arguments of those rejecting George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. The concept has faded from general discussion of race issues, but still manages to pop up in conversations about Black Republicans, particularly Black supporters of Donald Trump. But on matters leftward, we instead talk of equity. We constantly hear the phrase “representation matters.”
Too often, we forge this equity by tokenizing people of color, declaring that we have achieved the proper representation after pretending that race or ethnicity entails alternate conceptions of excellence from those we unquestioningly expect of everyone else. And I think much of the motivation for that pretense is to allow white teachers and administrators to inoculate themselves against the accusation that they’re denying the existence and impact of racism. Maybe that helps them, but that’s another kind of low expectation.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”