Ronald Reagan used to talk about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” It was his expression for the belief held by many white people that blacks had to be given special breaks because they simply could not achieve at the same level as other students, workers, etc. In some earlier articles I mentioned the various things we “knew” about colored people during my growing-up years of the 1940s and ‘50s. We absolutely knew that blacks were intellectually inferior and could never be good students or work at occupations that required brainpower. This included being mechanics, doctors, football quarterbacks, and any number of other jobs. There was no real debate about the issue.

woody zimmerman 118 2007All those things we thought we knew were lies, of course, in the same way that we thought Chinese women were genetically disposed to walk with those funny little steps. The truth, of course, was that the cruel custom of binding the feet of young Chinese girls tightly, so the bones of their feet could not grow normally, produced that curious gait – which we now know to be very painful – in Chinese women.

In exactly the same way, generations of black people in America have been subjected to intellectual foot-binding that kept them from developing normally in schools. The dirty secret of the academic crippling of black American children by our educational establishment is exposed in the following Socratic exchange – i.e., a progressive series of questions and answers meant to uncover a particular truth:

Question: Why do college educators think a “diverse” student body is important?

Answer: They believe it improves the quality of education in their schools.

Question: Is there any evidence to support that belief?

Answer: No credible scientific measures have been presented to support it. The “diversity” that administrators seek goes no deeper than skin color. They want their student bodies to look a certain way.

Question: Why are racial preferences needed to achieve the desired racial “diversity”?

Answer: If standard academic admissions criteria were applied, very few black and Hispanic students would be admitted. Their academic levels are too low.

Question: Why do black and Hispanic students have such poor academic credentials?

Answer: Public schools have failed to educate them at an acceptable level.

Question: Is that failure due to lack of funding?

Answer: No. School funding in Washington, DC, for example, is the highest in the nation – $29,300 per pupil – while student achievement (of mostly minority students) is the lowest.

Question: Then what is the problem?

Answer: Primarily, it is the “soft bigotry” of low expectations. Educators do not believe that these minority students can learn like whites or Asians, so they are held to a lower standard.

Question: Is it possible that they are correct?

Answer: No. Like other racist legends, it is a lie. Wherever blacks and Hispanics are challenged to high academic standards, they have shown that they are capable of responding and learning.

Question: Then why are high expectations not applied? Is it all because of racism?

Answer: No. It is because of politics. Some political interests find it valuable to cultivate an electoral power base consisting of low-achieving minorities who need special privileges. Should most minorities become students able to compete and achieve on their own, the influence and power of such politicians would diminish. This is why they fight measures like state graduation requirements, higher teacher-standards, and more demanding curricula.

Fortunately, American society has largely emerged from the fog of racist myth. We no longer believe that blacks cannot do things that require intellectual ability. During my work career I personally saw people who came from a long tradition of deep-South racism learn that blacks could be sound, capable colleagues, valuable neighbors and good friends. Society was transformed during my adult lifetime, as millions of colored Americans came out of the shadows into the bright sunlight of American life.

Notwithstanding this hard-won transformation across much of the country, a residue of bigotry has remained among educators. A deeply held belief in blacks’ intellectual inferiority has prolonged educators’ obsession with affirmative action as a solution for the “problem” of racial imbalance in colleges, universities, and workplaces. After a decades-long battle over the practice, however, a recent Supreme Court decision has upheld an amendment to the Michigan state constitution which bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities. The Court did not say that racial affirmative action cannot be used as part of college admissions policies. But it did say that the people of a state have the right to decide whether or not the practice can be used. It will no longer be a “football” for the Congress or the federal courts to kick around for political advantage.

Depending on your vantage point, that Supreme Court decision is good, bad or ugly. I view it as a positive step toward breaking our long obsession with race, but many educators and minority “leaders” are outraged – seeing it as an intrusion on the “sacred ground” of racialism that they have staked out over the 60 years since Brown vs. Board of Education. The issue is far from settled, as many states will undoubtedly use the Michigan case as a platform for moving away from racially based admissions and hiring. My assessment is that we’re going to have a heckuva scrap before we become truly able to treat all people the same, no matter what shade their skin happens to be.

In fact, implicit affirmative action is how we came to elect Barack Hussein Obama as president in 2008 – and re-elect him in 2012. Only aliens newly arrived from Mars could have missed the fact that Mr. Obama brought no governing credentials with him to the office. He had no experience running anything, but we evidently didn’t care. We elected him on how he looked and sounded – basically on the fact that he was a “clean, bright, articulate” colored guy, as Joe Biden famously said. We gave him a break on his lack of executive experience. We held him to a lower standard, based on the color of his skin. Affirmative action had hit the big leagues, and soft bigotry was playing for high stakes.

Critics of affirmative action have commonly asked the policy’s advocates to answer these questions:

Would you want to fly on a plane whose pilot was chosen by affirmative-action?

Would you accept a doctor who was admitted to medical school by affirmative action?

Would you choose an affirmative-action CPA to handle your business affairs?

Naturally, most people would answer NO to these questions because they demand the best candidates for such critical occupations. Somehow, though, not enough Americans asked themselves the same question about the world’s most powerful and consequential job. Did we assume that the presidency was so simple that anyone who delivered a good speech (from a teleprompter) and looked good in a $3,000 Armani suit could do the job? Did we believe that a person of mixed race brought a special ability to the office? Or did race simply trump all, without reference to competence?

I don’t know what we thought – if we thought at all – but certainly the soft bigotry of low expectations was in play. In retrospect, I think our collective mind was like the mind of a teen-aged boy who sees visions of becoming a rock-star in long hair and a guitar. The magical guitar (and perhaps the magical hair) will short-cut the need for long, arduous years of musical study and practice. Just so, we seemed to believe that a man who sounded bright, and who had the right skin-color, needed no real experience. He would stop the rise of the oceans by the word of his mouth, and bring all the warring factions of the world to the Table of Brotherhood. He would heal the economy. He would be the ‘post-racial” president. He would be a rock-star. All would be well.

Unfortunately, we were mistaken about most of that – possibly excepting the rock-star part. The plane flown by our affirmative-action pilot is going down, and we’re going down with it. The landing looks to be a hard one.

Soft bigotry can make us feel good about ourselves, but it is no substitute for ability and a clear mind in critical areas of governance. We need leadership that is competent – not just good-looking. I devoutly hope that the American people can grasp this before we are presented with another bogus opportunity to elect a president who brings the right race or gender identity to the table as his/her primary credential.

I know it’s hard for some of us to accept, but neither racial- nor gender-solidarity is a good enough reason to elect someone to the presidency. We need a pilot who knows how to fly the plane. Looking (and sounding) good won’t cut it. The country will be ready to fly high when this central truth is understood once again.

The American people have made mistakes before, but we have corrected them and moved ahead. We can do it again.