The Ethics of Race-Baiting

GUEST COMMENTARY

On October 9, 1995 an article appeared in the newest conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, criticizing the government department for its affirmative action policies in graduate admissions. Characterizing the department's policy as "race norming"--an unfair admissions process where blacks are compared solely with other blacks--the author insinuates that unqualified minority students are admitted into the department and white students, as a consequence, are unfairly rejected. The article claims, in addition, that once admitted, these students are provided "free rides" irrespective of financial need. The moral of the story contrived by the article is that Harvard University and the government department are guilty of impropriety.

Affirmative action as a procedure is considered wrong because it unfairly rigs the admissions process and therefore produces unjust outcomes. And, because Harvard and the government department employ a procedure that is wrong, they are wrong as well. Standing alone on the Right side of this issue (publicly at least) is Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. In addition to a selective interpretation of an article co-written by Professor of Government Gary King, much of the rhetorical force of the article is provided by an interview with Mansfield. (Indeed, the term "Race-norming" is a direct quote.) Inasmuch as The Weekly Standard and Mansfield seized an opportunity to reflect publicly on the ethics of race-norming, we, the undersigned, feel compelled to reflect publicly on the ethics of race baiting.

Race baiting is the deliberate effort to stir racial animosity among different racial groups. In the past, this was often done by claiming that some black person, usually a black male, was guilty of some crime, usually against a white woman. Contemporarily, this is often done by calling attention to the special privileges blacks purportedly enjoy, always at the expense of whites, most often at the exclusive expense of white males. Always, race baiting is disingenuous; it is based on partial, misapplied, misinterpreted or simply false information. Because it is deliberate and disingenuous, race baiting is never justified nor justifiable.

Ordinarily, malicious efforts to this effect should be simply dismissed without providing the dignity afforded to principled debate. Refusing to participate in a destructive dialogue of this nature prevents the antagonist from achieving the desired goal of stirring racial animosity. In the absence of constructive dialogue however, the antagonist, by simply being audible, is often able to set the tone of the debate. Thus, while effective in denying him or her the attention he or she craves, ignoring the antagonist often facilitates his or her goal by allowing such claims to monopolize the discourse. As such, in the absence of principled dialogue and where the discourse is vital, the destructive nature of the antagonist's speech act must be exposed.

Professor Mansfield's charges of race-norming are simply the most recent expression of a distinguished record of unprincipled vitriol against efforts to increase diversity at Harvard. The claim that African-American applicants compete solely against other African Americans is clearly at odds with what is stated in Professor King's description of the admissions process. King's description of this process is contained in his original article, upon whose selective interpretation the Standard article is based. According to him, affirmative action policies are not employed until after primary cuts have been made. After the primary cut, minority applicants who did not make the primary cut are re-examined to "ensure that we do not miss anyone who meets these same criteria [of the primary list]" (PS: Political Science and Politics, December 1993, p. 773).

As is well known, admissions decisions are based upon a range of non-quantifiable criteria, including strength of undergraduate institution, research interest and letters of recommendation. If, as King describes, affirmative action is employed after initial cuts have been made, then membership within an underrepresented minority group is simply one qualitative attribute among others that may be considered a positive feature of a candidate's total application. Indeed, in King's view, the admissions process is designed precisely to preclude arbitrary numerical cutoffs that may obscure other important qualifications. Professor Mansfield's charges of race norming, then, are as spurious as they are inflammatory.

Moreover, the assertion that minority students receive a "totally free ride" is equally ad hominem and groundless in fact. Many minority students arrive at Harvard having already secured outside funding. Having successfully competed for and won national competitions, these students, like other fellowship winners, are a financial boon to their departments as well as to the University. Had Mansfield bothered to inquire which minority students received Harvard funding and which students had outside sources, he would have been forced to acknowledge the groundlessness of this generalization. Based on hasty generalizations and factual inaccuracies, Mansfield's claims are neither interested in an inquiry into the facts nor designed to promote a constructive discussion of the issues involved.

Constructive discussion presupposes a measure of equality among persons that, regrettably, sits uncomfortably (if at all) with Professor Mansfield's public statements. A fearless and robust discussion of affirmative action would feature vigorous disagreements and sustained criticism. Given the variety of perspectives and breadth of political commitments within the Harvard community, this would be welcome indeed. But when disagreements assume the form of ad hominem arguments by tenured faculty toward graduate students' qualifications, the discussion is no longer principled disagreement but, rather, personal attack. Without evidence or credible justification, such accusations amount to little more than ideologically-charged assaults upon individuals within minority groups. The intellectual competence of tenured faculty is virtually unassailable, but as graduate students, we are inescapably vulnerable to such charges. Such attacks are, therefore, an abuse of a natural but unequal power relationship. Professor Mansfield's abuse of this relationship is both ethically repugnant and professionally indefensible.

Attacks on the capacities of African Americans and other minority groups are as pervasive as they are historic. Institutionalized disadvantage still circumscribes our best efforts to gain a foothold, let alone credibility, within American institutions. Professor Mansfield would trivialize the persistence of racism in this country by propagating the absurd notion that unqualified minorities are swelling the ranks of Harvard and decimating its standards as a result.

The truth of the matter is that after only two decades of a half-hearted commitment to racial justice, the presence of African-American students at American university campuses remains woefully negligible. The idea that standards are jeopardized as a result of this marginal African-American presence is simply absurd. Lacking credible intellectual or moral justification, irresponsible and malicious claims such as these, by stirring racial animosity, contribute to institutionalized discrimination.

A terribly false assumption is that African Americans are either unwilling or unable to engage in discourse about affirmative action. As graduate students of political science, we understand and affirm the necessity for a legitimate and timely examination of this issue in addition to a long overdue examination of America's will to racial justice. As engaged members of this intellectual community, we affirm each individual's claim to intellectual freedom and dissent. We also understand and affirm the dignity and respect that each of us is entitled not simply as members of the Harvard community, but rather, as members of a larger community of persons.

While we welcome lively debate, we cannot but reject and condemn race baiting and other efforts to belittle, stigmatize, and/or de-legitimize persons whether because of race or because of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. As no doubt all members of this community demand, we simply expect that debate, about whatever subject, adhere to standards of intellectual honesty and factual accuracy. It is certainly ironic that those persons who champion the cause of standards the loudest are often the ones who make this expectation the most precarious.

The authors are graduate students in Harvard's government department.