MSNBC anchor Joy Reid, who attended Harvard, and John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, both weighed in on the Supreme Court’s decision to do away with affirmative action, a law that allowed for colleges and universities around the country to take race into account when considering who to admit into their institutions.
Reid appeared as a guest on “All In with Chris Hayes,” explaining “I got into Harvard only because of affirmative action.” While Reid said that she did well in high school, getting good grades and scoring high on the SAT exam, she was “pulled in” to Harvard when a recruiter made a special trip to Colorado to see her.
However, McWhorter does not give affirmative action as much credence as Reid. In a piece for The New York Times, McWhorter concedes that affirmative action was “understandable” or even “necessary” 60 years ago, but that this is not the case anymore. He offers another solution to effectively address the potentially disadvantaged, which includes addressing “socioeconomic factors,” such as “wealth, income, even neighborhood.”
McWhorter, too, received good marks in school, though not perfect ones. He made grades that would land him at a good college or university, but he mentioned he was told by his mother, who taught at a university, that “Black kids didn’t have to achieve perfect grades and test scores in order to be accepted at top colleges.”
As a “direct result” of his mother’s words, McWhorter settled for an “A- or B+,” understanding that there was no pressure to have perfect grades. He mentioned he does not believe affirmative action played much of a role in getting admitted into an undergraduate program, but things appeared to change when he made it into graduate school.
When he was a linguistics graduate student going on the job market, he said he was told “that I needn’t worry whether I would get bids for tenure track positions because I was Black and would therefore be in great demand.” He expressed how he felt that he was in danger of being “tokenized,” adding that he knew he did not have the “academic chops at the time” to justify being hired for a top job right out of his graduate program.
McWhorter was subsequently hired for a tenure track job at an Ivy League school, which is very rare. Additionally, he said that “it became increasingly clear to me that my skin color was not just one more thing taken into account but the main reason for my hire.” He admitted he was vastly under-qualified relative to the other three applicants vying for the position. Not only this, but he was placed in a subfield of linguistics that was not even his specialty.
The linguist did not condemn anyone for using affirmative action to get him hired, but it was clear that he was “hired by white people who, quite innocently, thought they were doing the right thing by bringing a Black person onto the faculty. I bear them no malice; under the culture we were all living in, I would have done the same thing.”
This uncomfortable feeling of being hired merely because he was black continued when he became part of the graduate admissions committee at the university he taught at. He noted it was “apparent” that “under the existing cultural directive to … take race into account, Black and Latino applicants were expected to be much more readily accepted than others.”
But he said that he felt this procedure was “improper,” and concluded that “the decision to stop taking race into account in admissions, assuming it is accompanied by other efforts to assist the truly disadvantaged, is, I believe, the right one to make.”