Randall Kennedy vs John McWhorter: Highlights From Debate On Affirmative Action Ruling

Randall Kennedy vs John McWhorter: Highlights From Debate On Affirmative Action Ruling


(L)John McWhorter (Photo: Flickr)/Randall Kennedy (Photo: Harvard University)

On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court ended affirmative action, ceasing race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities nationwide. In the late 1960s, college admissions departments began considering race as a factor when admitting new students.

The SCOTUS’s landmark ruling determined that race should not be a factor in achieving educational diversity. The controversial decision is expected to decrease the admission rates of Black students at elite universities. Pro-affirmative action advocates argue such programs provide opportunities to underrepresented members of society. Others say the programs should be based on class, not race.

Recently two experts, Randall Kennedy and John McWhorter, debated the decision. The debate was hosted by Munk Debates.

Scholar and author McWhorter is a linguist with a specialty in Creole languages. He teaches linguistics, American Studies, and music history at Columbia University. He has written 20 books, including “Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” which argues that an illiberal neo-racism, disguised as anti-racism, is hurting Black communities.

Kennedy, who attended Princeton University and Yale law school, is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts and the regulation of race relations. He served as a law clerk to SCOTUS Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The two are on opposite sites of the affirmative action coin.

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McWhorter argued that there was a time and place for affirmative action programs, but that time has passed. If any preference is given in college admission, it should be based on class, meaning the underprivileged class should be given a preference.

“We use expressions like taking race into account…but it’s getting old. It means admitting Black and Latino students under lower standards. This started making perfect sense in the ’70s but getting old by the ’80s… The question is how long to subject Black people to that condescension,” he noted, adding that affirmative action programs in 2023 are “obsolete.”

Kennedy shot back that various factors should be considered. “My question is that class should be taken into account, race should be taken into account, gender should be taken into account,” he said, adding that the two agree there should be some preference, just that they disagree on which preference.

“It may be that my colleague and I are not that far apart. Maybe a well-defined affirmative action program would not help out affluent Black people. Maybe it’s the case…Black people who are not privileged as me, including middle-class Black people (should be excluded). (But) Black people who make the same amount as white people might still be suffering from the invisible disadvantages that our horrible history of racial oppression in America has imposed on Black people…there is still a racial hierarchy.”

McWhorter said the main problem with affirmative action is that it stigmatizes Black students and that since the programs are based on race, Black students are viewed as lesser than.

“The question is, do we lower standards for race alone? Of course, there is a difference in being a Black middle-class person as opposed to a middle-class white person…the issue is do those vestiges justify lowering standards for Black kids….it’s human to surmount those problems.”

Kennedy said proudly, “I’m an affirmative action baby. I would not have gotten into Yale law school without affirmative action.” He added that just because Black students are admitted on affirmative action, doesn’t mean they won’t succeed and that he is an example of that.

“Affirmative action enables them to get things they might not have been able to do,” Kennedy pointed out, and added that students are admitted on the basis of legacy if they have had prior family members who were students at the Ivy League institutions. “Take George W. Bush,” Kennedy started to say.

McWhorter shut him down, jokingly saying, “Don’t compare us to George Bush….”

(L)John McWhorter (Photo: Flickr)/Randall Kennedy (Photo: Harvard University, https://hls.harvard.edu/faculty/randall-l-kennedy/)