Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: On race, black power, black studies and affirmative action / "It really meant that blacks would be recognizably second-class citizens"

The following is an essay taken from Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, subtitled "How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students". Published in 1987, the book was a clarion call to university administrators and concerned citizens alike, warning them that American university students were in the midst of an intellectual and moral crisis as a result of -- among many other things -- "cultural relativism" (i.e., "No one can say which culture is better because all cultures are equal").

Along with essays plotting the cultural deterioration among students in such areas as sex, divorce, self-centeredness, books, and music, Bloom charts his thoughts on affirmative action, black studies programs and race relations on elite university campuses in general.

On race and affirmative action
(from Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind)

The one eccentric element in this portrait, the one failure -- a particularly grave one inasmuch as it was the part most fraught with hope -- is the relation between blacks and whites. White and black students do not in general become real friends with one another. Here the gulf of difference has proved unbridgeable. The forgetting of race in the university which was predicted and confidently expected when the barriers were let down, has not occurred. There is now a large black presence in major universities, frequently equivalent to their proportion in the general population. But they have, by and large, proved indigestible. Most keep to themselves. White students act as though their relations with black students were just as immediate and unself-conscious as with other (including Orientals). But although the words are right, the music is off-key. Here there is an atmosphere of right-thinking, principal and project -- of effort rather than instinct. The automatic character of current student camaraderie is absent; and the really intimate attachment that knows no barriers stops here. The programmatic brotherhood of the sixties did not culminate in integration but veered off toward black separation. White students feel uncomfortable about this and do not like to talk about it. This is not the way things are supposed to be. It does not fit their prevailing view that human beings are all pretty much alike, and that friendship is another aspect of equality. They pretend not to notice the segregated tables in the dining halls where no white student would comfortably sit down. This is only one of the more visible aspects of the prevailing segregation in the real life of universities -- which includes separation in housing and in areas of study, particularly noticeable in the paucity of blacks in the theoretical sciences and humanities. The universities are formally integrated, and black and white students are used to seeing each other. But the substantial human contact, indifferent to race, soul to soul, that prevails in all other aspects of student life simply does not usually exist between the two races. There are exceptions, perfectly integrated black students, but they are rare and in a difficult position.

I do not believe this somber situation is the fault of white students, who are rather straightforward in such matters and frequently embarrassingly eager to prove their liberal credentials in the one area where Americans are especially sensitive to a history of past injustice. These students have made the adjustment, without missing a beat, to a variety of religions and nationalities, the integration of Orientals and the change in women's aspirations and roles. It would require a great deal of proof to persuade me that they remain subtly racist. Although preferential treatment of blacks goes against a deep-seated conviction that equal rights belong to individuals and are color-blind, white students have been willing by and large to talk themselves into accepting affirmative action as a temporary measure on the way to equality. Still this makes them uncomfortable because, although they are very used to propaganda and to the imposition of new moralities on them, in daily life they like to act as they think and feel. And they do not think that black is beautiful any more than they think that white is beautiful, and they do not think that a student who is not qualified is qualified. So the tendency among white students is to suppress the whole question, act as though it were not there, and associate with the minority of blacks who want to be associated with and forget the rest. They cannot befriend blacks as blacks, and the heady days of a common purpose are gone. The discriminatory laws are ancient history and there are a large number of blacks in the universities. There is nothing more that white students can do to make great changes in their relations to black students.

Thus, just at the moment when everyone else has become a "person," blacks have become blacks. I am not speaking about doctrine although there was much doctrine at the beginning, but about feeling. "They stick together" was a phrase often used in the past by the prejudiced about this or that distinctive group, but it has become true, by and large , of the black students. In general, the expectation of anything other than routine contact in classes or campus jobs -- usually quite polite -- has vanished. This is peculiar inasmuch as race is less spiritually substantial than religion, and also inasmuch as integration was both the goal and the practice of blacks in universities prior to the late sixties, when numbers were smaller and human difficulties greater. Further, it is peculiar in that blacks seem to be the only group that has picked up "ethnicity" -- the discovery or the creation of the sixties -- in an instinctive way. At the same time, there has been a progressive abandonment on their part of belief or interest in a distinctive black "culture". Blacks are not sharing a special positive intellectual or moral experience, they partake fully in the common culture, with the same goals and tastes as everyone else, but they are doing it by themselves. They continue to have the inward sentiments of separateness caused by exclusion when it no longer effectively exists. The heat is under the pot, but they do not melt as have all other groups.

There are obviously some good reasons for this, and it is the right of any part of the large community in a pluralistic society to separate itself. But the movement of the blacks goes counter not only to that of the rest of society, and tends to put them at odds with it,but also to their own noblest claims and traditions in this country. And it is connected wit a dangerous severing of the races in the intellectual world, where there can be no justification for separatism and where the ideal of common humanity must prevail. The confrontations and indignations of the political realm have become firmly fixed in the university. For this the university's loss of conviction in its universalizing mission must bear a part of the blame. Since the end of World War II there was in most major universities an effort -- ever increasing in intensity -- to educate more blacks, in the sincere American belief that education is good and the inclusion of blacks at the highest levels of intellectual achievement would be decisive in the resolving of [the] American dilemma. Practically nobody hesitated, and there were private discussions about whether, at least in the beginning, standards should not be informally lowered for talented but deprived blacks in order to help them catch up. Decent men took different sides on this question, some believing that blacks, for the sake of the example they were to set for their own self-respect, should be held to the highest standards of achievement, others believing that gains would be incremental over generations. No person of goodwill doubted that one way or another it would work out, that what had happened with respect to religion and nationality would also happen with race. At the peak of the civil rights movement there was a sense of urgency about enrolling greater numbers of blacks in order to prove the absence of discrimination. A sign of the times was the reappearance of pictures on applications so that blacks could be identified, whereas pictures had been banished a decade previously so that blacks could not be identified. High school records and standardized tests began to be criticized as insufficient guides to real talent. But the goal was unchanged -- to educate black students as any student is educated and to evaluate them according to the same standards. Everyone was still integrationist. The belief was that insufficient energy had been devoted to the recruitment of black students. Cornell, where I taught for several years, was one of many institutions that announced great increases in goals for enrollment of blacks. The president, adding a characteristic twist, also announced that not only would it seek blacks, but that it would find them not among the privileged blacks but in the inner cities. At the beginning of the 1967 academic year there were many more blacks on campus and, of course, in order to get so many, particularly poor blacks, standards of admission had silently and drastically been altered. Nothing had been done to prepare these students for the great intellectual and social challenges awaiting them in the university. Cornell now had a large number of students who were manifestly unqualified and unprepared, and therefore it faced an inevitable choice: fail most of them or pass them without their having learned. Moralism and press relations made the former intolerable; the latter was only partially possible (it required consenting faculty and employers after college who expected and would accept incompetence) and was unbearably shameful to black students and university alike. It really meant that blacks would be recognizably second-class citizens.

Black power, which hit the universities like a tidal wave at just that moment, provided a third way. Integrationism was just an ideology for whites and Uncle Toms. Who says that what universities teach is the truth rather than just myths necessary to support the system of domination? Black students are second-class not because they are academically poor but because they are being forced to imitate white culture. Relativism and Marxism made some of this claim believable. And the discomfort of the timesmade it more so. Blacks were to be proud, and from them the university could learn its failings. Such a perspective was decidedly attractive to the kids who were the victims of the university's manipulations. Courses in black studies and black English, and many other such concessions became the way out. It was hopefully assumed that these would not fundamentally transform the university or the educational goals of black students. They were merely supposed to be an enrichment. But this was really a cop-out, and the license for a new segregationism that would allow white impresarios to escape from the corner they had painted themselves into. The way opened for black students to live and study the black experience, to be comfortable, rather than be constrained by the learning accessible to man as man.

When the black students at Cornell became aware that they could intimidate the university and that they were not just students but negotiating partners in the process of determining what an education is, they demanded the dismissal of the tough-minded, old-style integrationist black woman who was assistant dean of students. In short order the administration complied with this demand. From that moment on, the various conciliatory arrangements with which we are now so familiar came into being.

The black studies programs largely failed because what was serious in them did not interest the students, and the rest was unprofitable hokum. So the university curriculum returned to debilitated normalcy. But a kind of black domain, not quite institutional, but accepted, a shadow of the university life, was created: permanent quotas in admission, preference in financial assistance, racially motivated hiring of faculty, difficulty in giving blacks failing marks, and an organized system of grievance and feeling aggrieved. And everywhere hypocrisy, contempt-producing lies about what was going on and how the while scheme is working. This little black empire has gained its legitimacy from the alleged racism surrounding it and from which it defends its subjects. Its visible manifestations are to be found in those separate tables in the dining halls, which reproduce the separate facilities of the Jim Crow South. At Cornell and elsewhere, the black militants had to threaten -- and to do -- bodily harm to black students with independent inclinations in order to found this system, Now the system is routine. For the majority of black students, going to the university is therefore a different experience from that of the other students, and the product of the education is also different. The black student who wishes to be just a student and to avoid allegiance to the black group has to pay a terrific price, because he is judged negatively by his black peers and because his behavior is atypical in the eyes of whites. White students have silently and unconsciously adjusted to a group presence of blacks, and they must readjust for a black who does not define himself by the group. he is painfully conscious that many whites, well-meaning ones, judge him by special standards. All this is daunting. The university's acquiescence in the interference with its primary responsibility of providing educational opportunity to those capable of education should be a heavy burden on its collective conscience.

Affirmative action now institutionalizes the worst aspects of separatism. The fact is that the average black student's achievements do not equal those of the average white student in the good universities, and everybody knows it. It is also a fact that the university degree of a black student is also tainted, and employers look on it with suspicion, or become guilty accomplices in the toleration of incompetence. The worst part of all this is that the black students, most of whom avidly support this system, hate its consequences. A disposition composed of equal parts of shame and resentment has settled on may black students who are beneficiaries of preferential treatment. They do not like the notion that whites are in a position to do them favors. They believe that everyone doubts their merit, their capacity for equal achievement. Their successes become questionable in their own eyes. Those who are good students fear that they are equated with those who are not, that their hard-won credentials are not credible. They are the victims of a stereotype, but one that has been chosen by black leadership. Those who are not good students, but have the same advantages as those who are, want to protect their position but are haunted by the sense of not deserving it. This gives them a powerful incentive to avoid close associations with whites, who might be better qualified than they are and who might be looking down on them. Better to stick together so these subtle but painful difficulties will not arise. It is no surprise that extremist black politics now get a kind of support among the middle and upper-class blacks unheard of in the past. The common source that united the races ate the peaks in the past has been polluted. Reason cannot accommodate the claims of any kind of power whatever, and democratic society cannot accept any principle of achievement other than merit. White students, as I have said, do not really believe in the justice of affirmative action, do not wish to deal with the facts, and turn without mentioning it to their all-white -- or rather, because there are now so many Orientals, non-black -- society. Affirmative action (quotas), at least in universities, is the source of what I fear is a long-term deterioration of the relations between the races in America.

Originally posted: 5/11/2011