Dealing with Race
Where the Races Relate
As the universities struggle with growing racial tensions, they ignore the lessons of the battlefield, and of their own playing fields.
by Steve Sailer
Published in National Review, 11/27/95
Much ink has been spilled bemoaning the rancorous state of race relations on our nation's elite campuses. Our colleges, however, has barely even considered any new solutions, due to the academic industry's institutional tendencies toward timid conformity combined with myopic self-absorption. Rather than look beyond the cloisters for novel answers, administrators at our great research universities merely resort to ever greater doses of the hair of the dog that bit them -- more affirmative action, more diversity workshops, more victims' studies -- with predictably dire results. Yet, during the same quarter century when colleges have managed to exacerbate racial tension among 18-24 year old students, the U.S. Army -- using radically different techniques -- has tremendously reduced racial strife among 18-24 year old soldiers.
Astonishingly, though, colleges have overlooked an even more obvious source of guidance on how to manage race on campus. University presidents methodically ignore the techniques for forging solidarity among their black and white students that are successfully used by their own best paid, best known employees: their football and basketball coaches.
What could colleges learn from the Army and from their own athletes about race?
(1A). Specialization and Critical Mass -- One little-appreciated reason for the impressive record of accomplishment by blacks in the Army (e.g., after Desert Storm there were 26 black generals) is their lack of success in the Navy (only two black admirals). Achievement in one field naturally breeds more success in that same field. Initially arbitrary variations self-perpetuate. Successful immigrant group like Asian Indians rise to affluence precisely by dominating niches of the economy like motel-keeping. As Adam Smith pointed out on P. 1 of The Wealth of Nations, specialization is the road to riches.
According to Charles Moskos of Northwestern, the leading sociologist of military life, one key to the strong performance of black Army officers has been a widespread self-help organization for black officers called Rocks. In it, senior officers mentor younger men in how to live up to the demands of being an officer and a gentleman. In the Navy, however, a lack of critical mass hampers similar efforts: if, say, you are the only African-American officer on your nuclear submarine, you can't turn to another black man for advice for your entire cruise. Thus, it continues to makes more sense for an ambitious young black to join the Army than the Navy.
On campus, however, the automatic reaction whenever an embarrassing shortfall of blacks in any field is pointed out is another affirmative action campaign. For example, architecture schools have been attempting for years to recruit more blacks and Hispanics. Now, I commend a career in architecture to any young person with a trust fund, but the less privileged should remember that architecture pays wretchedly for the first decade or two (or three or four). Conservative critics of quotas often argue that lowering entrance standards for minorities is Bad, but that more intensely recruiting minorities is Good. Yet, seldom does any race-based recruitment campaign stem from a hardheaded analysis of what's in the best interest of the minorities. Instead, affirmative action is an automatic response by white leaders to their discomfort over their Black Lack. African-Americans have enough problems of their own without taking on this new Black Man's Burden of helping whites feel better about themselves.
Before affirmative action, unpopular but "unprotected" minorities tended to initially congregate at certain congenial schools: e.g., Mormons at Brigham Young, Catholic ethnics at Jesuit colleges, lesbians at Smith, or free-market economists at the University of Chicago back during the Keynesian heyday. At these havens, the minorities could be confident of ample role models, freedom from snubs, fair shots at leadership positions, courses addressing their interests, responsive audiences for their ideas, and opportunities for their future leaders to meet. The most striking example of this occurred during the Depression when the Ivy League enforced anti-Semitic quotas. So, brilliant Jews concentrated at City College of New Yorks (e.g., three Nobel Prize winners came from the class of 1937 alone). This critical mass of talent set off chain reactions that energized American intellectual life for decades.
Today, though, a black high school senior looking for universities where blacks comprise a significant fraction of the best minds on campus would end up with the same list as his grandfather: the historically black schools like Howard. In fact, these colleges still appear to produce a disproportionate share of black high achievers, despite debilitating competition from far richer colleges for the brightest black minds.
Why can't wealthy mainstream universities afford the critical mass of top black talent that would make them nurturing environments for black students and professors? Paradoxically, the lock-step obsession of elite colleges with appearing "diverse" has scattered the finest black thinkers in a homogeneously thin and lonely diaspora across every college town in urban and rural America. Consider the career path of the outstanding scholar of African-American literature, Henry Louis Gates. A few years ago he publicly mused about going to Princeton, where he could have teamed with Nobel Laureate Toni Morison, philosopher Cornel West, and other leading black humanists. But hiring Dr. Gates is a quick (though not cheap) way for a school with few first rate black professors to advertise its Commitment to Diversity. Bidding wars have thus carried Dr. Gates instead from Yale to Cornell to Duke to Harvard.
(1B). Racial Favoritism -- College sports are simply too important for racial preferences. Any college president who insisted that his football coach play a representative number of Asians or that his basketball coach recruit more Mexican-Americans would be tarred and feathered by outraged alumni. In contrast, racial favoritism in non-athletic admissions and promotions appears to be universal among elite private colleges. A striking graph in Richard Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (p. 452) shows that for all 24 elite private colleges for which they were able to obtain data, the median black student's SAT score was about 170 points below the average white student's, and nowhere was the margin less than 95 points.
Is any departure from colorblind meritocracy fair? Professor Stanley Fish of Duke, a leading critic of meritocracy, asks why should we assume that a kid with a high SAT score has more "merit" than a kid with low score. From a sufficiently celestial perspective, of course, Dr. Fish might well be right. But, so what? Down here on Earth, the worst problem with quotas is that they are increasingly a net detriment to blacks.
In the event that Dr. Fish wanted to better understand the real world impact, fair or unfair, of the many and vast differences between humans, he could stroll across campus and ask Duke basketball coach Mike Kryziewski: "In what spiritual sense did Christian Laettner, your 7' tall 1992 College Basketball Player of the Year, or Grant Hill, your 6'8" 1994 Player of the Year, more "merit" recruitment by you than a 5'6" player?" I suspect Coach K might reply that maybe his boys didn't merit their heights metaphysically, but they sure used them to beat hell out of their shorter opponents physically. Similarly, Dr. Fish could ask Duke's admissions' department why they have striven so intently and effectively to recruit white and Asian students with higher SAT scores. The outcome in Duke's classrooms is the same as in its fieldhouse: just as Duke's tall, quick teams regularly humiliate their rivals, Duke's hand-picked whites and Asians embarrass their quota-admitted classmates.
Hard data on the impact of racial preferences on "protected" minorities is scarce, since educators strive hard to keep the public and themselves ignorant on the subject. When I recently suggested to the President of a major research institution that he commission a study of the outcome of his affirmative action policies, he responded, "Well, yeah, sure, but there are so many other things to study first." From the evidence that has leaked out, though, the impact of academic quotas on blacks appears to be unsurprisingly severe. As was first pointed out in 1969, lower admissions standards methodically mismatch blacks with schools one tier over their heads -- e.g., a smart black kid who could succeed in mechanical engineering at Purdue instead gets lured to MIT where he barely scrapes by in political science.
More insidious is the damage done to black students' motivation. Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele (Shelby Steele's more liberal identical twin brother) has pointed out that in the Fifties and Sixties the grades of a black student at an elite college tended to rise from freshman to senior year as he became more acclimated. Today, though, Steele finds that their GPA's typically decline. Apparently, many quota kids, who could be doing fine at less selective schools, shield their self-esteem by "disidentifying with" (i.e., downplaying) academic achievement. "To make matters worse, once disidentification occurs at a school, it can spread like a common cold... Pressure to make it a group norm can evolve quickly and become fierce." This fear of being labeled an "oreo" or "incognegro" helps explain Steele's disheartening finding that even blacks more qualified than the average white student on campus also tend to underachieve, with the same grade deterioration.
Quotas also damage the prestige of minority students and faculty, reinvigorating old stereotypes (although black coaches, untarnished by favoritism, have never been more popular). In contrast, since the Army allows only minimal racial bias in promotions (race can be a tie-breaker but little more), the public's confidence in black Army officers is unquestioning. During the Gulf War Americans calmly entrusted the lives of a half million young people to a command structure where the first and third ranking generals (Colin Powell and Calvin Waller) and many other key commanders were black.
(1C). Testing and Leadership -- Despite all the hosannas to "diversity," elite academia is -- and always will be -- academically elitist. Since the early 1950's the most prestigious colleges have succeeded in monopolizing an ever greater fraction of those young people with the brightest scholastic aptitudes. In fact, it's possible that the most important service that colleges provide American business today is not in educating youth, but in using the SAT or ACT tests to sort them into rough IQ strata. Since the 1971 Supreme Court civil rights decision Griggs vs. Duke Power made it legally risky for businesses to objectively test job applicants, employers increasingly rely upon what college an applicant got into as their best clue to how smart he or she is. Griggs adds enormously to the value of possessing an elite degree, and thus to the tuition a top college can charge. These economic incentives explain the otherwise puzzling fact of why the number of schools requiring the politically unfashionable SAT has steadily risen.
While colleges discriminate ruthlessly against Asian and white applicants who score poorly on the SAT, they do find themselves troubled by the lower SAT scores achieved on average by blacks and Hispanics. So, they lower their standards for "protected minorities." One common defense of racial preferences is that the SAT doesn't measure all mental talents. This is certainly true in the case of black students, who tend to exhibit more leadership charisma than scholastic dexterity. Harvard interviewers, for example, routinely rate black applicants stronger than higher-testing Asians in "Leadership" (a category that, by the way, used to be labeled "Manliness" on the interview form).
Unfortunately, it doesn't follow that this black competitive advantage in leadership therefore justifies racial favoritism in evaluating test scores. In reality, preferences nullify black leadership advantages. First, they taint the reputations of black would-be leaders. Second, to succeed as a leader, while you certainly don't have to be smarter than all your potential followers, you do have to be smarter than some of them. Even Colin Powell's vast talent for command would have availed him little if instead of joining the Army, he'd gone to work at Bell Labs. When an admissions office diddles with a test score so they can boast about their student body's diversity, too often they're starting a black youth down a path that ends up leaving a frustrated black man permanently stuck as an underling in a field too intellectually demanding for him to succeed in as a leader. This country has always wasted black leadership gifts, for centuries because of outright oppression, but in recent decades also because affirmative action systematically entices young blacks into colleges and careers over their heads.
The Army also uses extensive standardized intelligence testing, but doesn't play so many games with the results. This frankness means that black enlistees are less likely to become avionics technicians than drill instructors. However, since since being a DI requires less of technical logic and more of those African-American competitive advantages like leadership and a commanding presence, blacks in these roles tend to earn promotions faster than they would if they had been admitted into flight avionics school under a quota.
(1D). Staff vs. Line -- Beginning in Prussia two centuries ago, armies have continually experimented with how to balance staff and line jobs. The unachievable perfect solution would make each officer more rounded by thrusting him into challenging positions -- where the scholarly must lead, and the warlike must research -- while still somehow fully using each individual's natural strengths.
In contrast, top American colleges largely stopped dead at experimenting with staff and line responsibilities when they adopted the German university system over a century ago. Ever since, anyone ambitious to win a line job teaching students is evaluated upon his performance in the staff functions of research and academic publishing. More sensibly, armies and teams often funnel those with the finest theoretical minds into staff roles (e.g., offensive coordinator on football teams), but those who can best translate theory into terms that young people find comprehensible and inspiring get the line jobs (e.g., head coach). The Army and sports teams work hard to make the complex simple, while the publish or perish system encourages the faculty to make the simple complex.
Further, since staff and line skills are not equally distributed among different ethnic groups, colleges set minorities up for humiliation. Berkeley is notorious for routinely hiring brilliant immigrant laboratory researchers from Confucian cultures that honor scholarship but distrust eloquence, then setting them to work delivering unintelligible lectures to hundreds of befuddled freshmen. Conversely, African-American men, raised in a culture that stresses not erudition but oratory, find their path to the lectern too often blocked by the requirement of first performing original research. My admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leapt even higher upon learning recently that when that epitome of the line leader found himself in the mid-1950's wasting his valuable time trying to finish an interminable Ph.D. dissertation, he triumphantly shortcut the credentialization treadmill by simply plagiarizing much of his thesis.
(2A). Being vs. Becoming -- Through racial quotas, mandatory ethnic studies, minority-only orientation weeks, single-race dormitories, and relentless emphasis on the oppression of minorities, colleges today focus incoming freshmen on what each student, unalterably, is and always will be: black or white, Hispanic or Asian.
In contrast, the military stresses only what recruits can become. The Politics of Identity are of no interest to the Army, which instead tries to obliterate its inductees' old identities. Beginning with the ritual haircut, boot camp forcibly impresses upon recruits that everything they used to be is contemptible. Their only excuse for taking up space is that they might, somehow, survive basic training and, out of the ashes of their pathetic civilian lives, begin anew as soldiers.
College coaches may face an even tougher job than drill instructors: making high school hotshots into self-sacrificing team players. How do they do it? First, by emphasizing how lucky each recruit is for the privilege of playing for this great university. That, of course, is the sheerest blarney: in contrast to the many wanna-be victims on campus, the star jocks really are cheated out of the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars per year they could make if the NCAA wage-fixing cartel didn't force them to subsist on scholarships, room, board, and the occasional envelope stuffed with cash. Good old Coach can personally rake in half a million bucks per year by requiring his players to wear whichever shoe he endorses. Nevertheless, through sheer effrontery, the best coaches make their players forget their justifiable gripes. The coaches' second step is to get players to forget what each was -- the star of his high school team -- and focus on what they can all become together: champions.
(2B). Teamwork -- College-age males are at a peak of gregariousness and competitiveness. As Platoon director Oliver Stone has noted, whether they join fraternities, street gangs, rock bands, basketball teams, or military squads, 19 year old males simply like to form aggressive teams. Yet, although the typical elite college loudly bangs the drum about its "commitment to diversity," few universities are committed enough to intelligently manipulate these youthful urges to get students to work together with people they wouldn't naturally choose for friends. For example, undergraduate classwork is a lonely business, with few of the group projects that were the only truly valuable feature of my MBA schooling.
In comparison, American soldiers train incessantly as competitive teams. Exhaustive analysis of WWII combat by General S.L.A. Marshall validated this tradition, showing that the difference between victory and defeat in battle was often "small group cohesion." "When a soldier is ... known to the men who are around him, he ... has reason to fear losing the one thing he is likely to value more highly than life -- his reputation as a man among other men."
The second arena for campus competition, social rivalries, has long been dominated by ethnically biased fraternities and sororities. And the third, campus politics (whether contending for old-fashioned student offices or for the new and lucrative handouts for ethnic studies centers, race sensitivity training contracts, etc.) is now ruled by racial blocs.
In contrast, soldiers don't get to pick their own teammates. Training squads are assigned largely at random, and thus each demographically resembles its rivals. Blue Unit skirmishes fiercely with Red Unit, fostering within each squad friendships that sometimes last a lifetime. Yet, the antagonism between the Blues and the Reds, being wholly arbitrary and lacking any ethnic basis, evaporates as soon as the soldiers are reassigned.
Rice University in Houston imposes an effective military-style compromise between the Kafkaesque facelessness and transience of dormitories and the self-selecting Lord of the Flies tribalism of fraternities. Rice permanently assigns students at random to residence halls, which replace fraternities as the hubs of social rivalry. Within each residence hall the students come from many backgrounds, yet each hall is practically identical overall. Since the organized enmities that Rice fosters between halls are artificial, they're forgotten upon graduation, while the memories of teamwork within halls endure. The average American college, however, is so little inclined to study new ideas that few have imitated Rice's now 40 year old success story.
(2C). Racial Sensitivity Training -- Each decade colleges spend more on professional divisiveness consultants who have a vested interest in fomenting racial strife. Guess what? Each decade colleges get even more of what they paid for.
According to Dr. Moskos, in the early 1970's, when relations between white and black soldiers were viciously hostile, the U.S. Army also began race sensitivity training. Experts lectured recruits for 14 hours on black victimization and white guilt. Just like on campus, this only worsened white ill will. In stark contrast to academia, however, the Army then decided to try something different. Today, race-relations are taught by career soldiers deeply loyal to the best interests of the Army. Rather than expound to new recruits about their personal rights, the Army now focuses on training sergeants and officers how to pragmatically carry out their duty to the Army of getting full value from each soldier, regardless of race. Instead of wallowing in provocative but counterproductive historical discussions of who's to blame, the new courses use role-playing to show how to find solutions: "Tomorrow, your squad goies into battle, but tonight a spat of racial name-calling has broken out. If your unite is divided, you could all get killed. How are you going to solve this problem, Sergeant?"
(3). Why the Differences? -- Why do generals and coaches follow more realistic and effective policies than college presidents? Because they have to. They compete in arenas where failure can't be glossed over. In contrast, competition among colleges is superficial and innocuous: try naming three colleges that have suffered a significant decline in the value of their degrees in recent decades. Although Stanford has become synonymous with grade inflation and Berkeley with 500 student classes harangued by teaching assistants with incomprehensible accents, do either fear bankruptcy or hostile takeover bids from institutions more effective at educating? Have either seen the number of applicants or corporate recruiters wither? Administrators are protected by the collusion among the alumni of top colleges to maintain the prestige of each other's resumes, no matter how badly their alma maters screw up. (For example, my plug above for Rice U. was not wholly disinterested: that's where I went.)
Strange but true, undergraduate teaching institutions compete primarily upon the research performed by their graduate schools and upon the SAT scores garnered by their students while they were in high school. True competition would require objective tests of how much value each college adds to the brainpower their students started with. Don't hold your breath waiting for this.
Although the war among colleges is almost casualty-free, the onslaught of the academic industry upon the rest of society has inflicted substantial costs. Since WWII, the college business has grabbed a far larger cut of the national wealth (in part through shameless price-fixing, behavior that would send corporate CEOs to prison), while concurrently tightening its grip on entry into the professions and even into business. In order to persuade everybody to pursue higher education, whether they would get anything from it or not, the academic complex has undermined the status of everybody lacking in academic credentials, no matter what their other talents.
Elite colleges may ritually condemn discrimination, but they discriminate wholeheartedly against Asians and whites deficient in the scholastic forms of intelligence. With the publish or perish rule forcing professors to specialize in making the simple complex, the collegiate juggernaut has taken a particular toll on groups that at this point in time tend to be less proficient in academic styles of thinking, especially black males. Compounding this, academia's remedy, affirmative action, is simply cruel. The beginning of a general solution to the problems of race on campus is to stope subjecting intelligent minority youth to the Peter Principal -- promoting them to the level of their incompetence before they turn 20. The next step is for all of us to start taking academia and its credentialist paraphernalia a little less on faith.
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Steve Sailer is a businessman and writer, whose "The Secret Zora Neale Hurston" appeared in NR on 4/3/95.
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