‘Affirmative Action,’ ‘Black’ GPAs and the Discourse(s) of Black Intellectual Inferiority
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
The racial culture wars (i.e. the demonization of black students) are once again raging on college campuses. A recent study authored by Peter Arcidiacono, Ken Spenner, and Esteban M. Aucejo concludes that African American students are less qualified and academically prepared to succeed at Duke University. “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice” cites evidence of African Americans switching from science (STEM) majors to easier liberal arts majors as evidence for a lack of preparation.
According to a group of Duke Alumni, “The study opens with a bold statement that affirmative action admissions in higher education allow for the college admission of minority students who have ‘weak’ preparation for college-level work. This implies that students of color are not as intelligent or prepared as their white counterparts.” The study is thus not simply an assault on affirmative action and the struggle for diversity on college campuses, but an effort to reassert notions of white superiority. “What many people of color discovered upon entering those previously closed corridors was not white superiority but, for the most part, white mediocrity. Now, to preserve such a system, what is often brought up is the mediocrity of blacks and other groups of color who enter,” writes Lewis Gordon. “What is not brought up, however, is the group of blacks and brown people who were excluded on the basis of their excellence. The prevailing view in predominantly white institutions about such candidates is fear of whether such candidates are ‘controllable.’” Leaving readers with the conclusion that blacks are not controllable (and thus not desirable), the study has dangerous implications.
In relying on and working from a series of stereotypes and accepted narratives, the study fails to answer a number of questions that points to both its deficiencies and its danger:
How does the study define blackness; does it differentiate between first generation African immigrants or students whose family have been in the United States? Does it account for class differences? In talking about SAT courses, and preparation, how does it account for educational inequalities, such as differential resources, access to SAT preparation courses, and the availability of advanced placement courses and countless other examples that point to the ways in which racism produce an uneven playing field?
How does the study account for extracurricular activities, demands of work, student involvement, and engagement with the community? Are there differences between different disciplines? How does it account for the ways that the demands of life, and the potential involvement of students as organizers, community leaders, athletes, artists, and active citizens differs between the sciences and the liberal arts, and the potential impact on grades? How does it explain high rate of entry for black students in STEM majors and how does it account for high exit rates?
In failing to actually talk with students and learn from their experiences, in an effort to understand how the institutions and higher education is potentially failing, the authors instead explain once again put the onus back on black students. Offering a narrative that focuses on “qualifications,” “work ethic,” educational unpreparedness, the authors not only deploy a dominant white racial frame that consistently images whites as superior and deserving, and blacks as inferior and therefore undeserving, but erases the meaningful ways that racism and white privilege operate in contemporary society
The study works from a premise that sciences are harder, demand more study time, and are more demanding; the evidence provided for each of these claims is lower grades amongst students despite greater academic preparation. The authors argue at great lengths – “and perhaps related to the differences in grading practices, students are working harder in natural science and economics classes and perceive these classes to be more challenging than classes in the humanities and social sciences”—that African American students are fleeing from harder classes and majors because they cannot handle them. Without any evidence, such claims should give pause on a number of levels. The assumptions here are extensive as the authors provide little evidence that these classes are harder or more demanding; the authors merely recycle the assumptions that Schwarz Reflection Principle and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are far more challenging to students than understanding the use of metaphors by Shakespeare and Ellison, analyzing Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea of signifier and signified within The Matrix, or applying the theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Walter Rodney to globalization.