And in line with this version of racial reckoning, we are seeing one institution after another eliminating or altering testing requirements, from the University of California to Boston’s public school system.
The idea that this is the antiracist thing to do is rooted in an idea that there is something about Black culture that renders standardized tests inappropriate. After all, Kendi certainly doesn’t think the issue is Black genes. Nor, we assume, does any responsible person think it’s genes, and it can’t be that all Black kids grow up poor because to say that is racist, denying the achievements of so many Black people and contradicting simple statistics.
So it’s apparently something about being a Black person. Kendi does not specify what this cultural configuration is, but there is reason to suppose, from what he as well as many like-minded people are given to writing and saying, that the idea is that Black people for some reason don’t think “that way,” that Black thought favors pragmatic engagement with the exigencies of real life over the disembodied abstraction of test questions.
But there is a short step from here to two gruesome places.
One is the idea getting around in math pedagogy circles that being precise, embracing abstract reasoning and focusing on finding the actual answer are “white,” which takes us right back to the idea that school is “white.”
The other is the idea that Black people just aren’t as quick on the uptake as other people.
Yeah, I know — multiple intelligences, “energy” and so on. Taking a test of abstract reasoning is just one way of indicating intelligence, right — but folks, really? I submit that few beyond a certain circle will ever truly believe that we need to trash these tests, which were expressly designed to cut through bias.
One of Kendi’s suggestions, for example, is that we assess Black kids instead on how articulate they are about their neighborhood circumstances and on their “desire to know.” But this is a drive-by notion of pedagogical practice, with shades again of the idea that being a grind is “white.” I insist that it is more progressively Black to ask why we can’t seek for Black kids to get better on the tests, and almost phrenological to propound that it’s racist to submit a Black person to a test of abstract cognitive skill.
To get more Black students into top schools, we should focus on getting the word out in Black communities about free test preparation programs, such as have long existed in New York City. We should resist the elimination of gifted tracks as “racist,” given that they shunted quite a few Black kids into top high schools in, for example, New York back in the day. Teaching Black kids to work together should be even more of a meme than it has become since Treisman’s study. And the idea that school is “for white people” should be traced, faced and erased, reified and rendered as uncool as drunken driving and smoking have been.
Boy, that was some right-wing conservative boilerplate, no? Of course not. Many would see these prescriptions as unsatisfying because they aren’t about wagging a finger in white America’s face. But doing that is quite often antithetical to improving Black lives.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” forthcoming in October.