Magazine article Academe

Promise and Dilemma: Perspectives on Racial Diversity and Higher Education

Magazine article Academe

Promise and Dilemma: Perspectives on Racial Diversity and Higher Education

Article excerpt

Promise and Dilemma: Perspectives on Racial Diversity and Higher Education

Eugene Y. Lowe, ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999,.206 pp., $29.95

DESPITE THE POLITICS OF BACKLASH, two core principles of affirmative action may yet prevail. First, society can and should develop systematic remedies for racial disparities, which continue to affect the life opportunities of African Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color. Second, while race has always been and continues to be a dangerous concept, it may nonetheless be necessary to rely on it to address its own effects. The first principle is the implicit premise of Promise and Dilemma: Perspectives on Racial Diversity and Higher Education. The importance of the second principle is shown in the excellent essays included in the book, especially the respective contributions of Claude Steele and Scott Miller.

The rigorous experiments of Stanford psychologist Steele regarding race and gender have shown that, even among highly talented students, African Americans and women will underperform on standardized tests if they are administered under conditions that bring out a "stereotype threat." The more talented the students, the greater the situational stress they face. Steele theorizes that African Americans and women have internalized allegations about their inferior intellectual abilities and thus fear confirming others' suspicions. His research complements related investigations by John Ogbu of the University of California, Berkeley, of persons who are hostile toward education because of, in Ogbu's words, racial subjugation.

Steele's work is significant, because it highlights the effects of racial stereotyping even in the absence of an identifiable wrongdoer who intends harm and can be assigned blame. While egregious cases of racism persist, subtle yet systematic racial bias also perpetuates the ills of racism. It is, therefore, more than explicit racial discrimination that properly demands our attention; racial patterns of behavior do so as well.

Miller, who wrote the highly regarded An American Imperative: Accelerating Minority Educational Achievement, presents data on the so-called "test gap," or differences in average performance on standardized tests that correlate strongly with race. Like the work of Christopher Jencks and Meredith Philips, Miller's commendable efforts are directed toward improving the academic performance of African Americans. That approach is compatible with attempts to address problems with the tests themselves and exaggerations of their predictive utility.

The test-gap issue is an effective response to those who assert that formal color-blindness is the only racial ideal, and an absolute one at that, because the test gap has been acknowledged by adherents of color-blindness. It serves as an effective rejoinder to ideological color-blindness, because the goal of alleviating the rest gap is race specific.

Acknowledging that goal means more than increasing the scholastic achievement of all American youngsters: a conscious effort must be made to improve the performance of African American children in particular. Both are worthwhile objectives, but to focus on a group is the essence-the highly contested essence-of affirmative action, Accepting the urgency of the test gap in a racial sense is therefore to acknowledge the propriety of affirmative action with a racial basis.

Indeed, the refusal to recognize any effects of race and racism would render it impossible to have research, much less policy, dealing with the test gap, The opponents of affirmative action, if they were consistent, would not be pragmatic. …

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