Why Standardized Tests Have Standardized Postracial Ideology

Putting "race-neutral" admissions standards on trial.
By Ibram X. Kendi

Barack Obama’s presidency will forever be connected to postracial ideology. The postracial idea that racism has been marginalized or eradicated came of age during the early years of his tenure in office. It was mortally wounded during the final years of his presidency by a rash of police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests.

Although the term postracial may have been new in 2008, the ideology behind it was old. Postracial ideology has long dominated the debate over affirmative action in higher education. Opponents of affirmative action have imagined a postracial admissions process, claiming that affirmative action policies are unnecessary and discriminatory against white people. Using this rationale, they have regularly succeeded in putting affirmative action on trial over the last four decades. The results have tragically closed off opportunities for black students.

But the real tragedy of college admissions has been shrouded by postracial ideology. The so-called race-neutral admissions standards have rarely been put on trial for discriminating against black students.

In all the major affirmative action cases, supporters and opponents usually agreed that standardized tests were “race-neutral.” Such tests thus effectively standardized postracial ideology in the admissions process, preventing Americans from seeing just how these tests exclude black students. This common idea of a postracial admissions process was inscribed in 1978 through the all-important Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case. The repealing of quotas was only the beginning of the damage this case did to the antiracist cause in college admissions. Antiracist educators should be as passionately dedicated to repealing Regents v. Bakke as sexist evangelicals are to repealing Roe v. Wade.

Bakke’s Path to the Court

As the civil rights and black power movements faded from the headlines, the US Supreme Court learned the story of a white male aerospace engineer who wanted to be a doctor. Allan Bakke was thirty-three when the medical school at the University of California, Davis, denied him admission a second time in 1973, citing his “present age” and lukewarm interview scores as the main factors in the rejection. By then, more than a dozen other medical schools had also turned him away, usually because of his age. Bakke became convinced it was not age discrimination or his subpar interviewing skills that were keeping him out of medical school. The problem, he concluded, was reverse racial discrimination.

In June 1974, Bakke filed suit against the University of California regents. He alleged that his medical school application had been rejected “on account of his race” because UC Davis set aside sixteen admissions slots out of one hundred for “disadvantaged” nonwhites. Agreeing, the California Supreme Court struck down the quota and ordered his admission.

The US Supreme Court decided to take Regents v. Bakke. Bakke’s lawyers argued that the quota system had reduced his chances for admission by forcing him to compete for eighty-four slots instead of the full one hundred. The regents’ lawyers argued the state had a “compelling . . . interest” in increasing California’s minuscule percentage of nonwhite doctors. Since they generally received inferior K–12 educations, the regents’ lawyers stated, nonwhites tended to have lower college GPAs and test scores than whites—thus the need to set aside sixteen places. And despite their lower scores, these nonwhite students were indeed qualified, the regents’ lawyers maintained. Ninety percent of these “quota” students graduated and passed their licensing exams, only slightly lower than the white percentage.

The biggest irony and tragedy of the Regents v. Bakke case—and the affirmative action cases that followed—was that no one was challenging the admissions factors being used: the standardized tests and GPA scores that had created and reinforced the racial disparities in admissions in the first place. The fact that UC Davis’s nonwhite medical students had much lower MCAT scores and college GPAs than their fellow white medical students but still nearly equaled their graduation and licensing exam passage rates exposed the futility of the school’s admissions criteria. Since segregationists had first developed them in the early twentieth century, standardized tests—from the MCAT to the SAT and IQ exams—had failed time and again to predict success in college and professional careers or even to truly measure intelligence.

From Standardized Tests to Bakke

In 1926, Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham oversaw the creation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. A noted eugenicist, Brigham believed his aptitude test would prove once and for all white intellectual superiority (aptitude means innate ability). Standardized tests have succeeded in their original mission of figuring out an “objective” way to rule nonwhites (and women and poor people) intellectually inferior and to justify discriminating against them in the admissions process. The tests have come to be seen as so powerfully “objective” that few of those rejected on the basis of test scores question admissions decisions.

Standardized exams have, if anything, predicted the socioeconomic class of the student and perhaps the student’s first-year success in college or in a professional program—which suggests that the tests could be helpful for students after they are admitted, to assess who needs extra assistance in the first year. And so, on October 12, 1977, a white male sat before the Supreme Court requesting slight changes in UC Davis’s admissions policies to open sixteen seats for people like him—and not a poor black woman requesting that standardized tests be dropped as an admissions criterion to open eighty-four seats for people like her. It was yet another case of racists versus racists that antiracists had no chance of winning.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the AAUP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the National Council of Churches of Christ lined up behind the regents. Lining up behind Allan Bakke were the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Federation of Teachers, Young Americans for Freedom, the Sons of Italy, and the American Jewish Committee. The regents could not expect the support of Jimmy Carter, who regularly drew a clear “distinction between flexible affirmative action programs using goals and inflexible racial quotas.” Carter remained tightlipped on the case, especially when he learned that his compromising and moderate methods—coupling antiracist statements and racist policies—did not work on this newly hot-button issue. The first draft of the Justice Department’s amicus brief drew black and liberal ire when it declared “racial classification favorable to minority groups are presumptively unconstitutional.” All sides objected to the Carter administration’s final brief, which supported affirmative action, avoided taking a position on quotas, and requested that the Supreme Court send the case back to California.

With four justices solidly for the regents and four for Bakke, the former corporate lawyer appointed by Richard Nixon whose firm had defended Virginia segregationists in Brown v. Board of Education decided Regents v. Bakke. On June 28, 1978, Justice Lewis F. Powell sided with four justices in viewing UC Davis’s setasides as “discrimination against members of the white ‘majority,’” allowing Bakke to be admitted. Powell also sided with the four other justices in allowing universities to “take race into account” in choosing students, so long as it was not a “decisive” factor. Crucially, Powell framed affirmative action, but not the use of standardized tests, as a “race-conscious” policy, despite common knowledge about the racial disparities in test scores.

Associate Justice William Brennan drafted a separate opinion on behalf of the four justices supporting UC Davis’s quota system. Americans, he wrote, cannot “let color blindness become myopia which masks the reality that many ‘created equal’ have been treated within our lifetimes as inferior both by the law and by their fellow citizens.” These justices realized quite clearly the new racist utility of “color-blindness.” The leading segregationist opponents of color-blindness before the 1960s refashioned themselves as the leading champions of color-blindness after the 1960s with the aim of maintaining the status quo of racial disparities. Their understanding of “color-blindness” underlies postracial ideology today.

Thurgood Marshall issued a separate dissenting opinion in Regents v. Bakke. “Measured by any benchmark of comfort or achievement,” Marshall concluded, “meaningful equality remains a distant dream for the Negro.” The dissenting opinion of Harry Blackmun, the deciding vote in Roe v. Wade, came last. If Blackmun had been in the majority, his opinion could have drastically decelerated harmful discrimination in higher education in the way his Roe v. Wade opinion drastically decelerated harmful abortions. He gave America a timeless lesson: “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot—we dare not—let the Fourteenth Amendment perpetuate racial supremacy.”

But that was exactly what racists intended to do. Supporters of affirmative action were “hard-core racists of reverse discrimination,” argued Yale law professor and former solicitor general Robert Bork. In the Wall Street Journal, Bork ridiculed the Supreme Court’s decision to keep a limited form of affirmative action. Bork and others like him used the Fourteenth Amendment to attack antiracist initiatives over the next few decades, leaving behind only the wreckage of widening racial disparities. Four years after Regents v. Bakke, white students were two and a half times more likely than black students to enroll in highly selective colleges and universities. By 2004, that racial disparity had doubled.

Affirmative action, despite the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, may be on its last legs. The antiracist fight of the future should not be merely a defensive fight to save it. The antiracist fight of the future should be an offensive one, against postracial ideology, and against postracial admissions factors, starting with standardized tests.

These tests have failed time and again to achieve their intended purposes: measuring intelligence and predicting future academic and professional success. The tests, not the black test-takers, have been underachieving.

Ibram X. Kendi is assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning, was one of the ten books on the long list for the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. [Note: On November 17, following the publication of this article, the author won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for Stamped from the Beginning.}

This article is based on an excerpt from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Copyright © 2016. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.   

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