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Seeing no evil – Dr Shelby Steele’s speech on race-conscious affirmative action policies at the National Assn of Scholars conference in New Orleans – Cover Story

In their Anti-Affirmative Action Campaign but Plenty of It in Multiculturalism

Although academics who criticize multiculturalismoften gripe about research or activism they contend represents nothingmore than ideology masquerading as serious scholarly activity, a groupof conservative scholars found several things to cheer about when theNational Association of Scholars (NAS) honored the authors ofCalifornia’s Proposition 209 and heard Dr. Shelby Steele deliver awithering critique of affirmative action.

Known as a leading critic of multiculturalism, the NAS also providesa haven for many of academia’s most ardent foes of affirmative actionpolicies in American higher education. At the organization’s annualconference in New Orleans, NAS opposition to race-conscious affirmativeaction remedies was on full display, although most of the conferencecentered on attacking multiculturalism.

Dr. Glynn Custred and Dr. Thomas E. Wood, authors of the CaliforniaCivil Rights Initiative, received the Barry R. Gross Memorial Awardfrom the NAS for their leadership in the passage of Proposition 209.Additionally, Steele, who was the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr.Abigail Thernstrom, and Dr. Carl Cohen argued stridently against theuse of race-conscious affirmative action policies during theirpresentations.

Much of the discussion on racial preferences focused on the academicperformance of African Americans in relation to other racial and ethnicgroups. Steele, who is a research fellow at Stanford University’sHoover Institute, drew a standing ovation for his criticism ofaffirmative action and explanation of its roots. He contended thataffirmative action has failed Black Americans because it was neverintended to ensure Black uplift. Instead, he said it was directed moreat helping Whites to overcome the guilt of being stigmatized for thisnation’s history of White racism.

The speech brought NAS audience members, who were mostly middle-agedWhite males, to their feet with applause in what appeared to be themost moving occasion for conference attendees during the two-and-a-halfday event.

According to Dr. Bradford Wilson, executive director of the NAS, thefocus on race-conscious affirmative action policies fits naturally intoa discussion of multiculturalism because such policies substitutenonintellectual criteria – race and ethnicity – for intellectualcriteria – standardized test scores, grades, and scholarship – in theway that multiculturalism uses group identity to justify curriculumupheaval and faculty hiring decisions.

“Part of what multiculturalism is concerned about is the focus onracial and ethnic identity as the defining characteristic of anindividual. Racial preferences or race-conscious affirmative actionpolicies are rooted in the idea that a person’s race or ethnicity issufficient reason to take them seriously or not take them seriously,”Wilson said.

Opposed to Multiculturalism

Founded a decade ago as an organization “dedicated to therestoration of intellectual substance, individual merit, and academicfreedom in the university,” the NAS held its annual conference – withthe theme, “Multiculturalism and the Future of Higher Education” – inearly December. Nearly 300 people, mostly scholars, attended theconference to network, hear participants debate multiculturalism, andhonor NAS icons such as economist Dr. Thomas Sowell and classicist Dr.Mary Lefkowitz.

According to its literature, the NAS is an organization ofprofessors, graduate students, and college administrators committed torational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free anddemocratic society. In the late eighties and early nineties, battlesover multiculturalism, campus speech codes, and political correctnesshelped fuel a growth in membership that increased from 200 to more than4,000, according to NAS officials. Wilson estimated Blacks representless than 2 percent of the organization’s membership.

“One thing an association like ours can do is hold a conference likethis in which the dominant intellectual ethos of the academy can besubjected to healthy questioning and debate,” Wilson told conferenceattendees.

Wilson said last month’s exploration of multiculturalism was largelythe examination of how traditional liberal arts and general educationstandards have fallen victim to curriculum upheaval and academicappointments based on racial, ethnic, and gender group identity andrepresentation.

“[Multiculturalism] has represented on university campuses anunified opposition to standards for judging academic work andappointing teachers in the academy,” Wilson said. “Those who areself-defined as multiculturalists follow not an intellectual programbut a political agenda. They are more interested in representation thanin ideas.”

From the organization’s start, the NAS has actively opposed racialpreferences in college and university admissions and hiring, accordingto Wilson. Earlier this year, the NAS denounced the Association ofAmerican Universities for endorsing “racial and ethnic discriminationin college admissions.”

The group also filed an amicus curiae brief in the Piscataway v.Taxman case requesting that “the Supreme Court affirm the decision ofthe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that Piscataway’saction violated” a White teacher’s right “not to be penalized in anemployment decision because of her race.”

At the awards ceremony, Custred and Wood, who have been professorsat California state universities, were lauded for their courage inlaunching the campaign to win passage of Proposition 209. Both menthanked the NAS and its California affiliate, the CaliforniaAssociation of Scholars, for its support during the campaign.

A White Loss of Moral Authority

Steele is the author of The Content of Our Character: A New Visionof Race in America. His keynote address was taken largely from the”Wrestling with Stigma” chapter of his forthcoming book. He argued thatpolicies such as affirmative action resulted not from a seriousinterest in Black uplift but rather from the attempt of Whites to seekracial redemption in the form of “deferential policies.”

Steele, whose first book generated controversy for its conservativearguments on race, told the NAS audience that during the civil rightsmovement of the sixties, Whites became stigmatized because of thenation’s past history of slavery and legalized segregation. Thatstigmatization led to a loss of moral authority among White Americans,resulting in their silence in demanding that Blacks uphold high socialand intellectual standards, according to Steele.

According to Steele, the loss of moral authority in our nation’sinstitutions have permitted “deferential policies” leading to socialchaos among the Black poor. In addition, affirmative action policiestolerate mediocre performance from “the best and brightest” of Blackstudents.

Because the “great shaming of White America was a condition of thenew equality,” Steele argued, “deference is in the interest of Whitemoral authority not Black uplift.” And such deference demands “less ofBlacks,” he said.

“Affirmative action is protectionism for the best and brightest of Black America,” Steele said.

Dr. Abigail Thernstrom, who with her historian-husband Dr. StephanThernstrom has recently written a book about race in America, describedrace-conscious affirmative action policies as a failure. In a paneldiscussion that included her, University of Michigan professor CarlCohen, and Dr. Nathan Glazer, a prominent Harvard sociologist,Thernstrom condemned racial preferences.

“They don’t work and they shouldn’t have been tried,” Thernstrom said.

She repeated Steele’s claims to emphasize the idea that “racialpreferences” have failed African Americans, in particular, because itwas aimed to assuage White guilt rather ensure Black uplift.

Thernstrom, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, saidthe debate over affirmative action in higher education would becomeirrelevant once African American students catch up to White and Asianstudents in academic performance at the K-12 level. And catching uprequires massive reform of the nation’s K-12 educational system so thatpoor school districts are improved, she explained.

Glazer, who is widely known as a neoconservative on public policyissues, told the NAS audience that he supported race-consciousadmissions policies because he feared that without them the resultingdrop among African American enrollment at elite institutions would be adevastating blow to African American social progress. He predicted thatif race were eliminated as a positive factor for Blacks in admissionsto elite institutions, the 7-percent average enrollment of Blacks atsuch schools would fall to one or two percent.

However, the University of Michigan’s Cohen argued that AfricanAmericans would be better served at second-tier institutions where, hesaid, their abilities based on standardized test scores and pasteducation would be better matched.

“I don’t think it so terrible” a situation if Black enrollment atelite institutions dropped substantially as long as Black studentsfound worthy alternatives, Cohen said.

Attempts at a Balanced Dialogue

During the conference, panel members offered a wide variety ofopinions on and definitions of multiculturalism. A few panelistsadmitted to being multiculturalists to the extent that it representedfor them an appreciation for and desire to learn about other cultures.One scholar claimed that Western societies can themselves be describedas multicultural because, he alleged, they have nurtured an openness tonon-Western ideas and traditions.

A literary scholar, Dr. Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia,cited Indian writer Salman Rushdie and Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe asexamples of non-Western authors whose English language books haveearned them widespread acclaim in the West. The scholar said thenon-Western authors and thinkers who have earned critical acclaim fromWestern scholars have often been shunned by multiculturalists becausethey have been deemed as too enamored of Western literary styles andtechniques.

Dr. Eugene Genovese, who acted as a moderator in a discussion aboutthe roots of multiculturalism, urged NAS members to support thescholars in fields such as those in Afro-American studies and women’sstudies who are conducting rigorous academic research and seriousscholarship. He said that despite the politicalization of suchdepartments on certain campuses, there are scholars who are doingvaluable work that was once ignored by the academy.

“We’re going to have to face facts that there were real crimescommitted in the past. Black history and women’s history wereshamefully treated by the academy,” said Genovese, a historian who iswidely regarded for his writings on American slavery.

Dr. Gerald Early, an African and Afro-American studies professor atWashington University, told the NAS audience that Afro-American studieshad a long and storied tradition among prominent scholars, such asW.E.B DuBois, at historically Black institutions. And, he noted, thattradition predates its arrival on the heated campus environments of thesixties and early seventies.

However, Early also said that the era of student unrest and campusturmoil contributed to the founding of Afro-American studies programsthat lacked rigorous discipline and serious scholarship.

Other scholars drew a tougher line. They defined multiculturalismlargely in terms of it constituting an ideology-driven threat toacademic freedom and traditional scholarship.

Conference attendees and panel members regaled each other withstories of their experiences on campus. Even Lino Graglia, the recentlyreprieved professor at the University of Texas law school (see story onpage 6), spoke briefly about the limited support he received fromfellow faculty members when he was publicly assailed for controversialremarks he made about the academic performance of Black and Hispanicstudents.

Multiculturalism loomed large as a threat to academic freedom in theeyes of conference attendees. Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt, a sociologist atIllinois College, says he has seen multiculturalism emerge as anideology in the curriculum rather than as a legitimate component ofliberal arts education.

“I think multiculturalists have waged an attack on true liberalarts. I come from Canada, and I have seen what multiculturalism can doto a country,” Schmidt says.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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