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Opinion: Professor's Statements Don't Show College Equality Issues

Allisa Corfman Allisa Corfman
29th March 2021
Opinion: Professor's Statements Don't Show College Equality Issues
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

In February 2021, Sandra Sellers, a professor at Georgetown University, was recorded speaking to a colleague and saying, “I hate to say this, I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on!’ You know, [you] get some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”  

The University announced her severance in March, citing racist language. To look at what Dr. Sellers said in that one instance and attribute it to racism is to fail to think beneath the surface of the incident. It is easy to label something as racist, fire the person responsible, and be done with it. It is much more difficult to investigate the intentions of her statement and the driving force behind what this professor was seeing in her class. 

If Sellers had concluded that her experience in her classroom proved that black students were not as smart as white students, then the charge of racism would be irrefutable. But this is not what she said. She was evaluating the grades and questioning why she always found that a few black students would rise to the top of her class, while many were pooled at the bottom. This result troubled her. The mere fact that she was troubled by this result implies that she was not racist. She clearly could not understand why this was the case. 

To understand the phenomenon Dr. Sellers was experiencing, one must understand the soft bigotry of low expectations. Universities exercise this bigotry when they require white students to have higher test scores and GPAs to get into their schools. The goal of this form of affirmative action is to give more minorities a chance to get into colleges and better their lives and to create more diversity on their campuses. While this is a noble goal, admitting minority students at higher rates with lower test scores and GPAs while requiring white students to achieve higher test scores and maintain higher GPAs to be admitted into the same program will result in exactly the kind of thing Sandra Sellers was seeing in her class. 

This does not, in any way, mean that white students are smarter than minority students. It simply means that this particular University required higher testing scores and GPAs of white students to admit them to the college. This artificially creates an environment in which the white students in any given class are more likely to be high achievers. Had this University admitted white students of lower academic performance, they would not have seen the disparities that Dr. Sellers witnessed. 

As it is, the school has set higher expectations of their white students than they set for their minority students, creating an environment in which it falsely appears as though white students are higher achievers than minority students. 

Black conservative commentator Candace Owens believes that this is not only happening on campuses, but in society at large. She has often commented on the soft bigotry of low expectations, claiming that any group of people will rise to the standard that is set for them by society, and lamenting that some sections of society have set lower standards for minorities to get into college and land jobs through affirmative action policies. 

She believes that these forms of soft bigotry have the opposite effect on the black community: “I believe that the black community can do it without handouts. I believe that the left has strapped us to our past to prevent us from our future.” She has described what she means by this in further detail on her talk show, explaining that when society gives hand-outs to any group of people, that group will be incentivized to live dependently upon those hand-outs. She speaks out about the racism of setting lower standards for black people in schools and society, claiming that any group of people will rise to the standard set for them. 

Back in 2014, black conservative thinker Thomas Sowell wrote about the devastating effects the war on poverty had on his community. He says, “Dependency on government to raise people above the poverty line had been going down for years before the ‘war on poverty’ began. The hard facts showed that the number of people who lived below the official poverty line had been declining since 1960, and was only half of what it had been in 1950.” 

The war on poverty began in 1964. People wanted to right the wrongs of the past after the Civil Rights Movement, but Sowell believes that all of their efforts to right the wrongs of the past through the war on poverty only resulted in even more government dependency, and even more racial and wealth inequality. He concludes, “Now, 50 years and trillions of dollars later, it is painfully clear that there is more dependency than ever.”

This logic carries over into campus life and society in 2021. To ignore it is to perpetuate racism through the soft bigotry of low expectations. 

As Americans, we are keenly aware of the atrocious acts of violence and discrimination that black people have suffered under the control of our white ancestors, and we deeply want to correct that wrong. However, as Candace Owens and Thomas Sowell have so clearly pointed out, these efforts to correct the wrongs of the past are only exasperating the problem and creating even more racial disparities. 

The phenomenon Sellers experienced in her class reaches farther back into history than it would appear on the surface, and the driving force behind what she saw was much deeper than she probably imagined. 

Of course, Dr. Sellers could have simply adjusted her teaching to require higher performance out of her white students for the same grade, and she would probably still have her job. But wouldn’t that be more racist than what she did, which was to grade all of her students fairly and ponder why there looked to be some racial disparities? 

The easiest thing to do is to label her as a racist and move on. The difficult thing to do, but the right thing to do, would be to look at the University’s policies and determine if its policies are directly causing an environment in which white students would tend to perform better in the classroom. And, if they are creating such an environment, they could question whether the policies are racist, not the professor who noticed the results of the policies. 

If we start with people like Sellers who refuse to be complicit in the soft bigotry of low expectations, we may see some changes on campuses, and in society at large.