JOHN MCWHORTER MAY 1, 2009
It looks like William Saletan over at Slate learned his lesson too well. He was shot at like a varmint a couple years ago after writing some columns on evidence that black people are genetically less gifted mentally than whites. Now, announcing that he "learned his lesson the hard way," reads evidence in the Times that No Child Left Behind is not closing the black-white student performance gap and studiously asks why we need to even tabulate the results by race anyway.
Studiously, indeed, because Saletan is too bright and too seasoned a writer not to understand the simple fact that No Child Left Behind was part of a quest to raise black students' scholarly performance to the level of other students'. This is hardly an obscure historical datum folks may reasonably have forgotten.
I find it hard to imagine that Saletan has seen the countless books and articles on the black-white performance gap and scratched his head wondering just what the epistemological or historical groundings were for addressing race as a metric. He may well have attended events on the subject--and not as an unenlightened naif slipping under the tent to get a gander at mysterious goings-on. Saletan knows the score.
Why would a nationally prominent journalist pretend not to understand why National Assessment of Educational Progress data is broken down by race, as if he lives in a different country--or century--than his own? Because what he learned from his drubbing in 2007 is that any findings that shed less than positive light on black people are, quite simply, inappropriate for public viewing.
People of Saletan's new leaning have things like the New Haven shell game as a model, where when black applicants don't hit the highest note on a promotion test, the PC solution is to craftily tar the test as "racist" and discount its results. Just as that is antithetical to what getting past race is supposed to mean, we will not pretend that it's okay that black students don't read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren't racists.
What worries Saletan, he says, is that openly racist bloggers like Steve Sailer are using the NAEP results as evidence that black people really are less intelligent than others. That is a lovely gesture of concern--but only that, and we forget how feeble these kinds of gestures are.
Sailer is a distinctly unlovely phenomenon, I know. When I started writing about race, he contacted me, out of a mistaken sense that as the "black Republican right winger" many assumed I was for simply having certain "controversial" views. It's the kind of thing people sometimes warn me about, as if merely having an exchange with such a person leaves me physically tarred with some substance that will impede my life thereafter.
It did not. I read some of Sailer's work and that of people in line with him; I perused on line discussions. Nasty little business, it was: yes, ladies and gentleman, there are racists "out there." And not just skinhead types talking violence--these people were latte-sipping burghers with advanced degrees.
And here is the very simple question: what effect do people like this have on, well, anything the rest of us care about? Yes, the inevitable observation must be made - here it comes: while those bozos were chattering away year after year, we elected a black president (a look at Sailer's blog lately shows he doesn't like that either--and can't do a thing about it).
So--I am uncompelled by the argument that we must hide the NAEP data because of people like Steve Sailer and his pals.
As is, I suspect, Saletan. He is gesturing, idly. It reminds me of the grammatical hoax that the pronoun me can't be used as a subject, such that Billy and me went to the store is "a mistake" (never mind that it would not be in French, as well as countless other arguments). Because the rule has nothing to do with how English grammar works, all most people learn when swatted at for saying Billy and me is "don't use me after and." The result: people saying between you and I, in which I is not a subject, thus creating another "mistake" people sneer at.
In the same way, when Saletan wrote about the evidence on black intelligence, in a polite, informed way, it was a sign of our times that so many people were appalled at his having even brought up the topic. Counterarguments were appropriate and welcome, but the moral crusading was PC at its worst. Its lesson was that certain things simply cannot be even broached regardless of evidence--and even if ample data exists to contradict said evidence.
That is a visceral, unscientific position, of the kind that leads to similarly visceral, unscientific positions--such as that we should stop attending to the black-white performance gap (or at least only do so under wraps, which largely amounts to the same thing) because of the chipper chatterings of some smug bigots huddling together in chat groups here and there.
Mr. Saletan, I'm sorry, but we don't need that kind of protection. I'd almost take the open racism of Sailer to anti-racism that makes no coherent sense and calls for putting a brake on the progress of those the racism applies to.