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The Continued Importance of Affirmative Action

Guest Column Basil Enwegbara and Zhelinrentice L. Scott

As the mental testing debate raged on at the beginning of the twentieth century, Walter Lippmann did not hesitate in 1923 to hit a heavy, deadly blow on Carl Brigham, the Princeton psychologist who claimed that heredity, rather than education or experience, was the determinant of the scores on the army tests. Lippmann, unable to see any rationale in Brigham’s conclusion and insistence that educational opportunity and environmental situation didn’t improve people’s ability to use language, numbers, geometrical figures, grammatical constructions, logical choices, etc., called Brigham and his colleagues “the Psychological Battalion of Death” and practitioners of “a yellow science.” He went further to accuse these psychologists of using misleading statistics to generate panic aimed at destroying confidence in the value of education and the possibility of using it to improve the social and economic state of less privileged Americans. William Bagley, in full support of Lippmann, also accused the heredity thesis of unscientific sentimentalism, racial prejudice, and dogmatic disregard of the consequences of environmental agents -- a plan to weaken public efforts in narrowing the society’s economic and cultural differences through universal education.

But this was not the first time this type of argument generated fierce criticisms. Thomas Jefferson, the political radical, and Alexander Hamilton, the architect of American modern capitalism, completely disagreed on the superiority of one race to another. Although Jefferson, in his writing of the American Constitution, declared all men equal, he never believed in the extension of that equality to blacks, who he argued were inferior to their white counterparts. It was this contradiction, coming from a founding member of American democracy, that stirred Hamilton’s fierce criticism. For Hamilton, “experience has by no means justified us in the supposition, that there is more virtue in one class or race of men than in another.”

Adam Smith also had his own disapproval for using the success of one civilization as the benchmark for other civilizations. But rather, as he viewed it, “the difference between a philosopher and a porter is purely a result of upbringing and as such a function of the particular civilization.” Smith, therefore, rejected with contempt the doctrine that whites in America were superior to the blacks they enslaved. Adam Smith had to conclude that the white man’s so-called superiority was nothing but a propagandistic justification of America’s centuries of atrocities meted on the black man, and also a means to continue to deny the black man access to equal education feared to challenge white man’s only power. The consensus reached by the critics of the heredity thesis was that it was a racist armchair science, being pursued by social Darwinists, who had no reason to expect social investments in education and training be extended to African Americans, a race still burdened by centuries of prejudice and physiognomic identity.

Even the mid-twentieth century discovery of the seriousness of the damage done to the education of the disenfranchised African Americans, which later led to the institution of affirmative action as the only way to place faith in the universal education and equal opportunity for all, is today generating fierce criticism. The justification in attacking affirmative action in education is that it gives African Americans preferential treatment at colleges and universities, which as the attack goes, is breeding laxity in African-American students, and a new form of racism against other races in America -- that have to work harder than blacks in order to achieve the same results. But these critics have failed to give affirmative action all the weights it deserves. In short, their argument is broadly ahistorical, as they have failed to propose what would replace affirmative action as the remedial measure to erase the raw aggression and brutal domination of members of one race by another for centuries in their efforts to achieve their own comfort and peace. If not affirmative action, as Martin Luther King queried, “how can the black man, who has suffered for hundreds of years, be absorbed into the mainstream of American life? Doesn’t the present America owe it a duty to do something special for him in order to balance the equation and equip him with the means to compete on a just and equal basis?”

If we then believe that affirmative action is no longer necessary in the field of education, then we can equally argue in favor of dismantling the present social welfare system that poor citizens of all races in America enjoy as their civic rights. Unless we are able to make the argument reflect on the environmental and physiognomic conditions as the consequences of the present preferential treatment, we may be equally repeating the historical injustices by asking for the premature dismantling of affirmative action. Wasn’t Edward Bellamy right when he argued that many centuries of injustice and prejudice against blacks in America deserve equally many centuries of special treatment if America should be able to erase the agony from the minds of its African descents?

The opponents of affirmative action in education investment should first read the writings of Heine, the German poet, who threatened the French to fear the power of knowledge; they should come to terms with the realities education presents as the very heart of America’s opportunity engine. These critics should no longer see only the disadvantages of affirmative action, but should also recognize it as the article of good faith -- that is, not only that it opens the doors to better education for the less privileged, but also gives him/her the competitive edge in today’s American employment world. In fact, Du Bois's “The Talented Tenth” reveals that the gains in intelligence, knowledge, and culture not only would lead and save black race, but also correct the popular propagandistic fiction about the intellectual capacity of the black race currently being used to prolong economic and social inequality.

Basil Enwegbara is a staff member of The Tech. Zhelinrentice L. Scott is a member of the Class of 2001.