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Affirmative action meets white mediocrity

Date Released: Mon, 1 December 2014 10:16 +0200

Henry Louis Gates Jr's admission reflects a fundamental problem with affirmative action.

Henry Louis Gates Jr, the famed African-American literary scholar and director of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, recently reflected in an interview on National Public Radio that if it hadn’t been for affirmative action, he would not have been admitted to Yale University, regardless of how high his credentials were, and he would not have had the opportunities to demonstrate his talent over the past four decades.

Gates’s admission reflects a fundamental problem with affirmative action. It works. I had the opportunity to reflect on that out loud during the race and higher education round table at Rhodes University when I asked: “Are there no mediocre white people in South Africa? Is every white person hired, every white person offered admission to institutions of learning an excellent candidate?”

My rhetorical question was premised upon what Gates and many other high-achieving blacks know and this is that the myth of white supremacy is the subtext of the “qualifications” narrative that accompanies debates on affirmative action. When I was tenured at Brown University the process required evaluations of my work from five referees.

Expected performance was a published monograph, several articles, satisfactory teaching and service and signs of international recognition. My dossier had the following: three monographs (one of which won a book award for outstanding work on human rights in North America), an edited book, a co-edited book, 40 articles (several of which had been reprinted in international volumes), two teaching awards and service that included heading a committee that recruited 20 scholars of colour to the university.

The processes for my promotion and tenure were dragged out because of continued requests for more referees. The number grew to 17. There was a comparable white candidate in the philosophy department. He also supposedly worked in existentialism, one of my areas of expertise. His dossier? A contract for his dissertation and a few articles. His case was successful.

His contracted dissertation was published several years later. He has not since published a second book. He is now a full professor at that institution. Over the years I have met only one person in his field who knew and spoke well of his work. That person was a classmate of his in graduate school.

Was affirmative action necessary for my promotion and tenure? Yes. But as should be evident in this example, and no doubt in Gates’s and many others, there is another truth. Was investment in white supremacy necessary for less than stellar whites to be promoted? Yes.

Affirmative action, which brought people of colour to the table to learn first-hand about the level of performance of their white predecessors and contemporaries, stimulated a reflection on standards in many institutions. As more people of colour began to meet inflated standards, what was being concealed were the low standards available to the whites who preceded them (and no doubt many who continue to join them as presumed agents of excellence).

So, what is the truth about the qualifications narrative, the claim about having to lower standards for the admission of people of colour? It masks racial hegemonic mediocrity. There is another truth. There are few systems that depend on excellence to function.

Most of the services we rely on to get through our lives depend on average levels of performance. And that’s pretty much it. The rewards lavished on many whites in the modern world have not been based on merit. What many people of colour discovered upon entering those previously closed corridors was not white superiority but, for the most part, white mediocrity. This is not to say that there is no excellence among rewarded whites.

It is to say that, as with every group, high performance is by definition a virtue of those who are devoted and talented. But as Anna Julia Cooper had shown, far too much is invested in those who fail to meet such traits in white supremacist society. Very little is put towards those who, with few incentives, produce more.

Could one imagine what proper social investments in the people who are resourceful enough to survive in the shacks of South Africa, the favelas of Brazil, the slums of India and the ghettos of the United States could mean for the future of humankind? To make some headway on these matters demands, then, bringing to the fore the truth about affirmative action and the so-called post-apartheid world in which we now live.

It requires admitting the onus of past victories is the next stage of struggle, a reality that, unfortunately, never fails to come but whose battle must be waged, however weary our souls may be, because, as many of us in higher education know and those who sacrificed their lives to make access to it possible knew, what is at stake is no less than humanity’s most precious resource, which speaks, in the end, to the future of all.

Lewis R Gordon is the Laura H Carnell professor of philosophy and Jewish studies and director of the Centre for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, United States. He was formerly professor of Africana studies, modern culture and media and contemporary religious thought at Brown University, where he was also the founding chairperson of Africana studies. His most recent books include An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2008) and, with Jane Anna Gordon, Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age (Paradigm Publishers, 2009). A longer version of this article can be found at truth-out.org

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as a sponsored supplement by Rhodes University

Article by: Lewis R Gordon

Article source: Mail & Guardian

Source:Mail & Guardian