Affirmative Action Privilege, and Other Reasons Human Life Is Complicated

Ibram Kendi recently committed a classic “Jesse Jackson gaffe”—he slipped and told the truth.

On October 29, the newly minted MacArthur “genius” posted the results of a widely discussed survey project on Twitter, saying simply: “More than a third of white students lied (about their race) on their college applications.” Kendi went on to claim that about half of the students who chose dishonesty falsely identified themselves as Native American—presumably to benefit from affirmative action programs—and that “more than three-fourths” of all students who lied about their racial background were accepted to colleges they applied to. As any academic should, Kendi duly linked his source, which I also provide here.

The backlash to Kendi’s comments was immediate, and, frankly, rather predictable. As Oliver Traldi details for Quillette, and as Jerry Coyne does for the popular blog Why Evolution Is True, conservative and heterodox intellectuals pointed out that Kendi’s claim about white students seeking to benefit from affirmative action logically debunks the main thesis of his scholarly work. Founder and former editor of The Intercept Glenn Greenwald not only questioned the objective accuracy of Kendi’s data, but also noted that his argument “negates every core contention about American society on which his career is based.” Journalist Alex Griswold described Kendi as having “blown up his life’s work,” noting that Kendi would “have to delete” his tweet, which, in fact, he did.

Jokesters got involved as well. Witty right-leaning troll Siraj Hashmi added Kendi’s remarks to his weekly list of the worst tweets and accounts on Twitter, and right-wing polemicist Jack Posobiec claimed that he “broke” Kendi in a short debate about the How to Be an Anti-Racist author’s claims. Kendi tried to respond, taking down the original post and lamely arguing that just because white students see affirmative action as an advantage for people of color during the college application process does not mean that it always is.

Several things about this whole tempest-in-a-teapot fracas are worth discussing in more detail. First, there is substantial evidence that Kendi was probably right. His widely mocked original tweet was not simply a product of his imagination, but instead based on a carefully conducted survey project from the team at Intelligent, reported on by The Hill. This study, which involved more than 1,200 Caucasian American students contacted using the Pollfish platform, found that almost 35 percent of white college applicants (among those surveyed) had lied about their race on applications, and 48 percent of the students who lied claimed to be “Native American” or American Indian. A remarkable 48 percent of male applicants, as opposed to 16 percent of female applicants, engaged in significant dishonesty about their race. And, indeed, 77 percent of students who lied were accepted—from my reading—by at least one college to which they were dishonest.

I, a cranky Methods professor, do have some questions. Notably, was there a control group of some kind? And if not, what was the college acceptance rate for those students who honestly identified as white? These caveats aside, however, the survey data seems quite plausible. Colleges do not, in fact, conduct DNA tests to verify the racial background of everyone who claims to be one-fourth Cherokee, and the self-reported diversity of the student population currently enrolled on U.S. campuses certainly is increasing.

In 2015-16, years before today’s “racial reckoning” really got off the ground, 45 percent of all American undergraduate students identified as being members of “a race other than white.” This represented a substantial 15.1 percentage point and 51 percent overall jump from the 29.9 percent figure reported as late as 1996. There are fewer Native American students enrolled today than Intelligent’s data would indicate, but this could easily be the result of applicant versus on-campus student data being collected by different university departments (as is sometimes the case), or of students who self-report as partly Native being counted as more than one race or as Hispanic/Latino—two categories which make up 23.1 percent of the student body when combined.

Whether or not the new survey data is exactly accurate, it is very easy to see why white students would behave as Kendi and Intelligent argue they do. Although it is rarely discussed in our current moment, massive affirmative action advantages are an everyday feature of upper-middle class American life. Simple mathematics underlie this reality. For a variety of reasons—including our country’s legacy of racism, as well as culture and other factors—different groups currently perform differently on the aptitude metrics that we use to place and track citizens involved in certain competitions.

In the representative year of 2017, the mean-average SAT math/verbal scores on the SAT exam were 941 for blacks, 963 for American Indians, 986 for Pacific Islanders, 987 for Hispanics, 1118 for whites, and 1181 for Asian-Americans. It should be noted that the relative positions of the bottom four groups can change, and that the low score for blacks partly reflects very high rates of participation in the SAT. However, the plain fact is that the mean Asian score is 240 points higher than the mean black score, and a black applicant would thus have an advantage of roughly that size against an Asian applicant, when applying to a college which wants both groups proportionately represented on campus—as almost all colleges do. Applicants understand the reality that colleges treat these applicants differently, although it is Not to Be Spoken Of. It is little wonder that some would take this into account, even to the point of submitting false statements about their heritage.

At a deeper level, it is true that the hard data on programs like affirmative action effectively debunk Dr. Kendi’s entire worldview. One of the foundational claims not just of Kendism but the entire “white privilege/critical theory” body of literature, dating back perhaps to Peggy MacIntosh, is that the USA is an individually and institutionally racist country where non-white people, or people of color (POC), are measurably disadvantaged relative to whites. However, as we have just seen, this is often empirically incorrect. A middle-class white male doing a whole range of things—applying to college, or prep school, or graduate school, or a government or Fortune 1000 job—is not “privileged,” but rather at a 200-odd point disadvantage relative to an equally qualified minority candidate.

Some might argue, coherently, that this sizable edge for POC exists to compensate for contemporary racism within society, and it is true that surveys and audit studies do find residual prejudice in multiple sectors of the job market. However, it is also true that the reach of this sort of bias is broader than most people seem to think, affecting high-performing groups like Jews and Asians roughly as much as blacks. Further, prejudice today is not exactly what it was in 1953. The percentage of Americans currently expressing strong racial bias in response to questions about inter-racial dating, or to the classic “vote for/work for” question, seems to be about eight percent. At the very least, we should recognize that race relations in the United States of 2021 are complex—with advantages sometimes on one side, and sometimes the other—rather than a single stable reality of grinding oppression.

The affirmative action and SAT data also debunk Kendi’s core argument: that gaps between racial groups must indicate racism (if not genetic “inferiority”). According to Kendi, there is no other possible explanation for them. From this standpoint, Asian kids could not score almost 100 SAT points higher on average than longer-settled and often wealthier whites; Caucasian Hispanics should not perform on par with African Americans rather than whites; and Nigerian Americans could not be the most educated group in the country. Yet these are all facts, borne out clearly in the data. From a center-right perspective, these questions can be answered very easily. Groups which differ in terms of big and ‘important’ traits like race or ethnicity also almost inevitably differ in terms of cultural variables like study time, median age, region of residence, and the crucial presence of a father in the home. While racism is real and still present in America today, it is these other variables that largely predict success for humans of all colors.

The Kendi debate reveals this essential message. People—human beings—are complex creatures, defined by a countless number of traits. Thus, we should be judged as individuals, almost defined by life’s complexity, rather than solely as members of set groups based on immutable characteristics. Be pro-human, you might say.

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Wilfred Reilly is an associate professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University. His most recent book is Taboo: Ten Facts You Can’t Talk About. You can follow him on Twitter @will_da_beast630.


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A guest post by
Wilfred Reilly is an associate professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University. His most recent book is Taboo: Ten Facts You Can’t Talk About. You can follow him on Twitter @will_da_beast630