Unfinished Business

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Back in the mid-1990s, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind chronicled the struggles of a poor, black honor student named Cedric Jennings as the latter aspired to get out of an inner-city high school and into a top-notch university. Suskind’s pieces garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and led to a book-length treatment of his subject, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League (Broadway Books, 1998, 372 pages).

Cedric, a junior at Washington DC’s Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, has to suffer the slings and arrows of a student body that largely takes a dim view of academic achievement. Part of a small group of accelerated science and math students, he dreams of being accepted into MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, offered the summer before his senior year. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of those successfully completing the program go on to matriculate at MIT, and Cedric has his heart set on being one of them and majoring in mathematics.

The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor at Brown. Why?

Although he makes it into the MITES program, he quickly finds himself outclassed: most of the black students are middle-class, hailing from academically superior suburban high schools and having much higher SATs. Decidedly at a disadvantage, he nonetheless manages to complete the program. But during a meeting with academic advisor Leon Trilling, he is told that his chances of getting into MIT aren’t that good. Particularly telling are his SAT scores, 380 verbal and 530 math, for a combined total of 910 out of a possible 1600. Professor Trilling suggests that he apply instead to the University of Maryland and Howard University, even giving him the names of particular professors to contact. The distraught Cedric will have none of it though, even going so far as to accuse Trilling of being a racist.

If he can’t get into MIT, he’ll prove the critics wrong by getting into an Ivy League school. Pulling his SATs up to 960 from 910, he applies to Brown University because it has an impressive applied mathematics department. He’s accepted, and Suskind chronicles the trials and tribulations of his freshman year. The book came out during Cedric’s junior year, Suskind commenting in the Epilogue, “His major, meanwhile, is in applied math, a concentration that deals with the tangible applications of theorems, the type of high-utility area with which he has always been most comfortable” (364).

Thus concludes the summary of the book published 17 years ago. As the years went by, I wondered how Cedric had fared during the remainder of his Brown experience and after graduation. Every now and then I came across some tidbit of information. Although I was expecting to find him putting his major in applied mathematics to work in that field, I discovered instead that he had gone back to school, earning a master’s in education at Harvard and a master’s in social work at the University of Michigan; he had been involved in social work and then had gone on to become a director of government youth programs. Nothing particularly unusual about that, though; lots of folks get graduate degrees in fields other than their undergraduate major and end up veering off onto other career paths.

But I discovered that a revised and updated edition of A Hope in the Unseen had come out back in 2005, and I was surprised to come across this statement in the Afterword describing Cedric’s graduation from Brown: “Then Cedric proceeded, arm in arm with Zayd, Nicole, and a many-hued host of others, to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in education, a minor in applied math, and a 3.3 grade point average” (377). Suskind casually lets slip that Cedric didn’t end up with a major in applied mathematics after all! That he only minored in that field means he didn’t have to take the final upper-level courses required for a major.

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization.

Although the book does have Cedric contemplating a second major in education along with his original major in applied mathematics, doubling up in that way just didn’t make much sense. As with his MITES experience, he found himself outclassed at Brown, having to compete with students from academically superior suburban schools, students with SATs hundreds of points higher than his own. He had trouble with some of his freshman courses, even his specialty, having to drop a course in discrete mathematics. Would it not have been more prudent, under those circumstances, simply to focus on one’s original major and on required courses without having to worry about the additional academic load of a new, second major? And if one did take on a second major and then had to scale back on the total number of courses taken, would it not have made more sense to scale back on the second major, getting a minor in that field instead, while going on with the original major? Something just wasn’t adding up here.

Although Brown had been unaware that Cedric was the subject of a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal when he was admitted under Brown’s affirmative action program, the college most certainly would have found out in short order, and it would have been in its best interest that this particular admit not get in over his head. Education is a much “safer” major than applied mathematics, and it is a popular major with many African Americans.

Cedric believed that getting into a top-notch university was a reward of sorts for all that he had to put up with through high school: “I could never dream about, like going to UDC or Howard, or Maryland or wherever . . . It just wouldn’t be worth what I’ve been through” (49). But it appears he may have had to strike a bargain in order to achieve that end. The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor. Why was the motivation behind such a tantalizing shift of academic focus not duly chronicled by Suskind in the Afterword to the revised and updated edition? He offers no explanation whatsoever for Cedric’s stopping short of a full major in applied mathematics, furtively sneaking the fact by as if hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.

Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization. In 1995, the mean math SAT score of entering freshmen at MIT was 756 out of a possible 800; Cedric’s score was 530. Dr. Trilling was absolutely correct to wonder whether Cedric was a good fit for MIT at the time. Trilling’s advice to Cedric to apply to the University of Maryland and Howard University was based on the fact that those schools were involved in a project with MIT called the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL), a program aimed at underrepresented minorities in the field of engineering. Had Cedric been accepted by either of those schools and majored in engineering, he could have had another shot at MIT as a transfer student if his grades had been good enough and if he had been able to boost his SATs. Trilling was actually trying to keep Cedric’s STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) aspirations alive. Even if Cedric still fell short of getting into MIT, he could have gone on to get an engineering degree from Maryland or Howard and contribute to a STEM field in which blacks are woefully underrepresented relative to such fields as education and social work.

During the drafting of this review, I discussed its content with a friend who urged me to check out chapter three of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, 2013, 305 pages). That chapter was titled, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Caroline Sacks — a pseudonym — is a straight-A “science girl” all the way up through high school in Washington, DC. Applying to Brown University as first choice, with the University of Maryland as her backup choice, she’s accepted by both and of course chooses Brown. But she has to drop freshman chemistry at Brown and take it over again as a sophomore. Then she has trouble with organic chemistry, finally having to leave her STEM track altogether and switch to another major. She achieves an Ivy League degree from Brown, but at the expense of her passion for science. Had she gone to Maryland instead, she believes, she’d still be in science. Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

A Hope in the Unseen has become widely assigned classroom reading, even spawning a number of accompanying classroom study guides. Although it is indeed an inspiring story, it’s simply not all that it’s cracked up to be. Legions of readers have assumed as a matter of course that Cedric proved the naysayers wrong by earning a major in applied mathematics at Brown when his dream of earning a major in mathematics at MIT was derailed by his low SATs. In reality, Cedric had to leave applied mathematics at Brown — and had he instead been admitted to MIT and attempted a major in mathematics there, he probably would have had to leave much earlier, perhaps even having to forgo the consolation prize of a minor.

Although many consider Cedric’s experience at Brown an affirmative action success story, his experience actually highlights the problems inherent in affirmative action policies that lower academic standards for minorities.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," by Ron Suskind. Revised and updated edition. Broadway Books, 2005, 390 pages.



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Mudblood

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In the August 2010 issue of Liberty I wrote an essay about racism. But that article was largely theoretical. Now I would like to share my personal experiences about the topic.

To do so I must first disclose my own racial identity. I am what might be called a mutt or a mulatto, although I prefer the term “mudblood,” which is the Harry Potter name for wizards who come from Muggle bloodlines. My mother is a white American woman of Russian Jewish lineage, and my father is a Muslim man with brown skin who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. My parents were married at the time of my birth but later divorced. My childhood religious and cultural education was a mixture of Judaism and Islam, although I never felt completely comfortable among either Jews or Muslims and as an adult I have abandoned organized religion. I have light brown skin but I am sometimes able to “pass for white.”

For my reader’s education let me mention that Bangladesh is a country with a population of mostly Muslim brown-skinned people located on the Indian subcontinent. (I doubt that I need to explain where Russian Jews come from.) What insight into race relations do I have as one of the world’s few part-Bangladeshi-Muslim, part-Russian-Jewish people?

The amazing thing about knowing Jews and Muslims is how distorted and out of touch with reality are the stereotypes and preconceived notions that some people have about members of other racial groups. Let me discuss the Bangladeshi stereotype first.

What most Americans know about Bangladesh, if anything, is that we are Muslims. Many Americans believe that most Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists who oppress women and support terrorism. My experience is that Bangladeshi Muslims are all different kinds of people, each with an individual identity. A minority of Bangladeshis are deeply religious, Islamic conservative fundamentalists. Some Bangladeshis are modern-liberal or leftist Muslims. However, I have found that most of the Bangladeshis whom I know are religious but not fanatical. I strongly believe that most Bangladeshis do not sympathize with or support Islamic terrorists. In fact, Bangladesh has something right now that the United States has never had, a female head of government.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it?

On the other hand, what can I say about Jews? Aside from a general enjoyment of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup and the other festive ornaments of Yiddish culture, the Jews whom I have known each have different individual personalities with traits that could not be predicted on the basis of knowing that they are Jews. I do not believe that most Jews are unusually smart or that most Jews are greedy, although the argument can be made that Jewish culture places a high value upon learning and intelligence and is conducive to a successful career as a lawyer. I recall with a certain fondness the Jewish custom of Hanukkah gelt, which is children's chocolate wrapped up to look like gold coins. I also recall pressure to study Hebrew and read Jewish books, but it is a stretch to find some special meaning in those customs. I regard “smart” and “greedy” as compliments, but I have known Jews who are neither. Yet some people have bizarre stereotypical pictures of Jews, as if all were identical.

When you have no firsthand knowledge of something it is easy to have a two-dimensional understanding of it. If I have any insight to offer it is that no two people are the same, and racial or ethnic generalizations have no relation whatsoever to how any real human being behaves. There is a notorious academic argument that if you were forced to form a basketball team to win money it would be logical to include no one but African-Americans. I suspect that athletic talent varies widely among blacks, and the idea in question is a thinly disguised excuse for racism. It is plausible to think that bigotry and racial hatred begin innocently enough as a crude cognitive technique of relying on racial generalizations for the purpose of understanding people. But this evolves into racism as the natural result of thinking about humans in terms of groups rather than individuals. I believe that racial stereotypes have no predictive accuracy.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it? One likely reason is that if race blindness were prevalent then the people who purport to speak for oppressed racial minority groups, the leaders of the racial special interests, would have no power. Unlike some libertarians, I have always believed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a hero and that the civil rights movement was a good thing. But I believe this only because in the Jim Crow South, blacks were second-class citizens who were not legally equal to whites. Segregation was the result of racist laws as well as the actions of racist owners controlling their private property. In my opinion, the civil rights movement was a success. Blacks achieved legal equality. There are still parts of America where racism is common, and I have been told that some data suggest that certain areas of the United States have noticeable numbers of white racist police officers. But the use of the machinery of government to enforce racist laws has disappeared in the United States, and this precisely is the victory of the civil rights movement.

Now, in the post-civil rights era, socialist blacks such as Al Sharpton and Cornel West have hijacked the civil rights movement and preach to the members of racial minorities that we remain locked in a racial war against the white supremacist conservative Republicans. They claim that the Democratic Party with its modern liberalism is the only place where we can find refuge and protection from the evils of the white racists. The desired protection takes the form of special programs to favor non-whites, or certain non-whites. This is an Orwellian nightmare — like saying that racial equality is our ideal but non-whites should be more equal than whites.

It is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not their race.

It is probably true that there are more pro-white racists in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, but I think that the American Right is a racially diverse group of people. Most conservatives, and the vast majority of libertarians, are good people who oppose racism. Only a small but vocal minority on the Right are Nazis or Klansmen who give the Right a bad name. It is worth noting that at various times in American history the Democratic Party was associated with the racist South and the Republican Party with the slave-freeing North. It is merely another absurd stereotype to say that the “average” right-winger is a white racist.

It is clear that racism and racial stereotypes have their philosophical basis in the doctrine that people are defined by their memberships in groups. If there is any hope of ending the blight of racism, it will come by taking an individualist approach. We libertarians are the world’s best advocates for individualism, and it is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not which race they are members of. I think that individualism will ultimately produce more diversity than state-sponsored affirmative action, because individualism attacks the root cause of racism, whereas affirmative action merely treats the external symptoms.

My friends in high school used to tell me that I should bomb my own car, and there have been many times when I got the sense from some Jews that they didn’t like me because I was Muslim, and received the same feeling from Muslims who did not like my being Jewish. I have never been beaten up as a result of racism (although my father has, and my maternal ancestors endured the Russian pogroms), but my entire life I have felt abnormal because it was not easy for me to fit into a traditional established role as a member of a specific race. I cannot be “a Jew” or “a Muslim” or “a white person” or “a dark-skinned person,” although I can be on the receiving end of discrimination against all of those categories. But it is still possible for me to be “an individual.” And being an individual is what each member of every different race on the planet has in common. It is what unites us and brings us together.

It’s liberating to be a mudblood, and it’s comforting to think that there are libertarians out there in the world who believe in individualism and represent the possibility that the human race will one day outgrow the abomination of racism.




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