Robert Cherry
Author: The State of the Black Family

Is there an alternative to Affirmative Action at selective colleges?

Many of the leading corporations have filed a brief to the Supreme Court in support of continued college affirmative action policies. “Racial and ethnic diversity enhance business performance,” the companies – including Apple, General Electric, Google and Starbucks – told the high court. “Research and experience demonstrate that racial diversity improves decision-making by increasing creativity, communication, and accuracy within teams.”

In a joint brief, Michigan’s Ann Arbor and University of California at Berkeley officials lamented that the elimination of affirmative action policies in their states resulted in a dramatic black undergraduate enrollment decline. In 2021, the black share was only 3.7% at Berkeley compared to California’s 6.5% black population share. At Ann Arbor, it was 4% compared to the 19% black share of Michigan’s college-age youth.

These colleges could learn from successful preparatory programs offered to promising students. The US Army uses them to prepare Black applicants who seek admissions to officers’ training programs and West Point. The American Economic Association and some medical schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, have intensive summer programs to prepare Black and Latino students for Ph.D programs, and there is a joint Fisk-Vanderbilt masters’ program to prepare them for advanced science degrees. Similar programs have tripled Israeli Arabs enrollment at Technion Institute — Israel’s MIT — without adjusting admissions requirements.
While Michigan and California officials did outreach, they did not generate such preparatory programs. Instead, many social justice advocates strongly favor removing traditional measure of merit from admissions decisions rather than providing skill enhancing initiatives.

A key barrier to Black student advancement is their poor SAT performance. Once you get beyond the notion that the test is racist, the focus has been on Black poverty. However, roughly 54% of Black residents within the 100 largest American metro areas were suburbanites in 2020 so that the image of poor inner-city Black Americans is no longer representative. As a result, low incomes cannot explain why in 2019 only 7% of Black test-takers scored at least 600 on the math portion of the SAT exam. By contrast, 11%, 31%, and 62% of Latino, white, and Asian test-takers, respectively, did that well.

SAT scores replicate the smaller share of college-ready Black high school seniors in math: 21% compared to 30%, 59%, and 80% of Latino, white, and Asian students, respectively. Rather than providing strategies to increase Black test performance, the Brookings report recommended reducing substantially the role of SAT scores because the test discourages Black (and Latino) students from pursuing STEM majors.

Interestingly, MIT issued a public statement justifying its continued use of SAT scores in its admissions process but pressures to eliminate standardize tests are mounting. John McWhorter noted that 84% of white test-takers passed the social work licensing exam the first time while only 45% of Black and 65% of Latino test-takers did. “These numbers are grossly disproportionate and demonstrate a failure in the exam’s design,” a petition demanding its elimination stated, “[A]ssertions that the problem lies with test-takers only reinforces the racism inherent to the test.” The largest teachers’ union, the National Educational Association exclaimed, “Since their inception a century ago, standardized tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system.”

McWhorter pushed back claiming, “Leveling the racism charge … flies past issues more nuanced and complex.” Unfortunately, for some like Ibram X. Kendi, there is no complexity: either the test is racist or you believe Blacks are inferior. “McWhorter has reduced himself to a popular amusement ride,” Kendi tweeted. “He’s an embarrassment.”

There have been cases like the promotion exam for firefighters where a standardized test is balanced by assessment scenerios that test abilities to respond in practical situations; and probably social work licensing should move in this direction. However, standardized exams cannot be avoided.

Instead of vilifying these measures, we must better understand why Black students do so poorly. McWhorter suggests they are more likely to view learnings as purely functional. The black Harvard professor Orlando Patterson claims that many black boys see education as instrumental, doing only what is absolutely necessary to pass their classes. This cultural pattern may explain why, on average, black high school students spend 30 minutes per day on their studies compared to 50, 60, 130 minutes per day among Latino, white, and Asian students, respectively.

In addition, many aggressively pushback at any discussion of the family or community dynamics that worsen the skills outcome of young children: the family churning that results in a sequence of father figures which the liberal sociologist Kathryn Edin labeled the “family-go-round;” or the trauma liberal sociologist Patrick Sharkey documented young children experience in neighborhoods subject to persistent gun violence.

Unfortunately, most social justice advocates have simply given up and want to eliminate any standardized test that yields racially differential results. Claims these testing policies reinforce white supremacy only weaken Black efforts to push forward when confronted with challenging material. But if we are serious about reaching racial parity, we must enable Black students to gain the skills necessary to perform well on these tests and not embrace policies that leave so many behind. This is especially true if, indeed, the Supreme Court strikes down college affirmative action admissions policies.

About the Author
Robert Cherry is a recently retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College. Author of Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021); and The State of the Black Family: The State of the Black Family: Sixty Years of Tragedies and Failures—and New Initiatives Offering Hope (Bombardier 2023).
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