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‘It was time to revise our idea of what disadvantage is’

‘It was time to revise our idea of what disadvantage is’
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John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University in New York, specializing in Creole languages, sociolects and Black English. He is the author of numerous books on linguistics, most recently Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (Swift Press, 2022), in which he criticizes what he calls the “anti-racist third wave” as infantilizing Black people. He is also a columnist for the New York Times. In an interview, the African-American intellectual reflects on the implications of the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision ending affirmative action for racial minorities to access certain elite universities.

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Read more Subscribers only The United States after affirmative action

What do you think of the Supreme Court’s decision?

It’s a wonderful decision. And I think what stands out the most is the very coded way that we’ve learned to talk about it, which is why I think a lot of people are processing it as worse than it is. So the idea is whether or not a school can take race into account. But that’s very set and ambiguous for what we’re really talking about, [which] is whether Black and Latino students should be admitted with lower standards than other students. Now, if you go back to what America was like in the 1960s, that was sloppy, even then, but it made a certain sense because most Black people were poor. Racism was much more overt, basically. Blackness was a disadvantage, even if you happened to be rich.

That’s not true anymore and a lot of the reason it isn’t true is because affirmative action worked. So the question is, how long do you consider the idea of Blackness as justifying lowered standards and admission to elite universities? Some people think the answer to that question is you do that until there’s no such thing as racism or inequity at all. And I think that this is great because nobody has said that disadvantage can’t be taken into account.What you can’t take into account quote unquote now is just color alone.

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Do you consider this decision to be in line with the Supreme Court’s decision to abolish the federal right to abortion?

No, this is much, much different. The abortion decision was out of step with the way most Americans feel. This decision is in step with the way most Americans feel. And one of the most inconvenient things for the people who hate this decision is that so often, time and time again, even Brown people vote down proposals to keep this kind of thing going. [According to a Pew survey, 59% of Blacks and 74% of Americans as a whole think that race and ethnicity should not be considered in admissions decisions.] Are we too ignorant to understand what would be good for us? A lot of the editorials that I’ve been reading are written by middle-class Black people like me, beneficiaries of the affirmative action that was established when we were children, basically saying you have to take disadvantage into account. And they’re pretending that to be Black and to be disadvantaged are the exact same thing. They genuinely don’t consider that if you grew up like, for example, me, not rich but middle class, that you’re not disadvantaged. Even less so for my children. I don’t share the Supreme Court’s overall rightward tilt, and perhaps the motivations for this decision are not the right ones, but it was time to revise our idea of what disadvantage is.

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