The Breakfast Table

A Little Closing Music

Dear Tamar,

Isn’t that just the way. Just as the DJ puts on the hottest tunes, the party is over. Let me depart with some personal history that readers who wish to can find in my memoir Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White. I was recruited to college off of a street corner in a dying factory town where black boys were traditionally channeled into dead-end vocational jobs. I remember being startled when a college professor visiting our town told me after an hour’s conversation, mainly on the street, that I was college material and would do rather well there–something that guidance counselors and teachers at my high school had never said, despite my appetite for Shakespeare. I went to Widener University, south of Philadelphia, where I found myself in the company of a great many prep-school boys who had blond hair, orthodonture–and every other conceivable advantage, including prepping for the SATs that had probably boosted their scores by 100 points or more. I was middling performer in high school and middling performer on the SATs but in fact graduated 26th or so out of 400 or so from Widener–well ahead of all those characters with the orthodonture and prep-school educations. I was quicker (dare I say “more intelligent?”) and a far better writer. Which amazed the faculty to no end, since the school had been relatively Negro-free for the previous century. I gave the honors commencement speech a few years ago and what an interesting evening that was.

In this vein, I would also point you to Claude Steele’s most illuminating essay in the Atlantic just recently about the role of racial stereotyping–by white professors of black students–in suppressing academic performance among even superlative black performers. Mr. Steele is rather a genius, I think, along the lines of early geniuses such as the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, who seemed to see it all. Remember Allport’s game? He’d begin a lecture showing two photographs: one of a white man holding a knife; the other of a black man empty-handed. At the end of the lecture, he’d ask the students “who had the knife?” Inevitably, student memory–which is to say, culturally engrained bigotry–had caused the knife to migrate to the Negro’s hand. As a former college teacher (in statistics), I have always been interested in the nexus between the quantitative and the qualitative–and especially in the role of preconception in human performance.

The moral of this complicated picture is that SATs are not the be-all and end-all. They tell you some things, but not all things. In an adjacent vein, these stories about genetically enhanced smartness in mice are hilariously superficial. We do not yet know what intelligence even is. When we find out, its visual representation will be something like a very complex, perhaps even three-dimensional molecule, with elements all over the place.
On affirmative action. Am I ambivalent? No. It’s the only thing that kept us from collapsing into racial factionalism and civil war. I really think that. But I am most determined to speak loudly on equal access to education.

On politics, I disagree with your assessment of my view. Tactical strategies do not preclude core values. But as you have said yourself, very few politicians have anything that even approaches the latter. I am sure that our paths will cross again, perhaps at luncheon, perhaps in Grand Central, where we can catch a glimpse of the famous Ms. Lilly Bart. But, uh oh, there goes the buzzer. Game over, see ya later.