Those who favor granting minorities college admission despite their inadequate preparation argue racism persists and therefore must be counteracted. They also insist “diversity” is valuable to all students, irrespective of their backgrounds.
Let us start with the racism claim. It is undoubtedly true. Racism has not been eliminated, although it has been greatly reduced. It is then asserted this racism undermines minority self-confidence, which must be compensated for by granting special relief.
One of the key contentions of affirmative action advocates is African-Americans suffer from “stereotype vulnerability.” According to the psychologist Claude Steele, because blacks have been regarded as intellectually inferior, they have come to believe this canard.
In a series of experiments, he demonstrated that if blacks are reminded of their alleged inferiority, they do less well on tests than when not so reminded. In other words, when their self-esteem is shaken, their ability to perform is weakened.
The answer, we are told, is to allow college admissions to those with poor academic records. Since their underlying abilities have been underestimated, they will no doubt benefit from exposure to a first-rate education.
But is this so? The book “Mismatch” suggests it is not. It maintains that when underprepared students are put in the same classrooms as better-prepared ones, the comparison in performances convinces the former that they do not possess the same abilities. As a result, they become demoralized.
I suspect this is the case — yet the problem goes deeper. The fact is being given preferences in admission sends a familiar message. It tells African-Americans they do not have the same capacities as others and hence must be treated as if they were handicapped.
Yet isn’t telling students they are handicapped pushing the stereotype button? Doesn’t it reinforce the widespread belief blacks do not have the same intellectual capacities as others? If so, won’t it do the opposite of what is intended?
Let me make it plain: I do not believe blacks are biologically less intelligent than others. Their potential is every bit as good as whites or Asians. If they don’t think so — for whatever reason — and this belief is reconfirmed by admission practices, might not this bolster the handicap it is intended to counteract?
If people are to win in our society, they must win. If they are to move up the social scale, they must beat the competition on an even playing field. Artificially smoothing out the contest cannot work because those involved know it is phony. As a consequence, stereotype vulnerability once again rears its ugly head.
The only way to counter this problem is to change perceptions by changing reality. Once blacks successfully compete without help, the notion they need extraordinary assistance will fade away. Winners are respected for winning; also-rans, who are deceitfully pushed to the front, are disrespected as losers.
I say African-Americans can win on their own. They can keep up with anyone. A misguided paternalism treating them as crippled children succeeds only in preventing them from getting ahead.
Nor is the diversity nonsense of any use. Yes, students benefit from interacting with people different from themselves. But if these others are there because of their alleged inferiorities, the lesson learned is their peers must pretend they are equal.
Pretend equality, however, is not the real thing. It does not bring respect; it does not undo stereotypes. The only way to change people’s minds about the abilities of a previously pariah group is for them to compete on the same terms and come out on top. Blacks deserve this opportunity! They can handle it.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.