The University Record, January 28, 1997

Whites still think Blacks are inferior academically, Morris says

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

 

"Could Michigan or any other major predominantly white institution have produced a Dr. King?" asked Prof. Aldon Morris, chair of Northwestern University's sociology department and former assistant chair of U-M's department, in beginning his lecture "Race and the Academy: A Continuing Dilemma for the New Millennium."

Morris said the answer was no for two reasons. First, because King's predominantly Black alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, provided "an intangible something" to its students that instilled in them "the idea that the sky was their limit when it came to pursuing intellectual excellence." And second, King failed a battery of admissions tests at Morehouse but was accepted because he convinced the college president that the school would be underestimating him if it barred him because of his poor test scores.

"How many Kings were never discovered because standardized tests stood in the schoolhouse door?" Morris asked. "Many whites continue to believe that Blacks are intellectually inferior---whites who are educated and who believe they are enlightened. There still exists a deep-seated white belief in Black inferiority, and this belief stands in the way of building a truly inclusive society."

"Upon a pervasive belief in Black inferiority," Morris told his audience of 100, "has rested white privileges in jobs, education, income, housing and social status," a belief anchored in a system of material interest "and translated into money, power and privilege of whites over Blacks. As a result, Blacks have been portrayed as deserving to be on the bottom."

The 1960s and 1970s brought change, Morris said, when predominantly white schools began to admit significant numbers of Blacks and to hire a few Black professors after 200 years of systematically excluding them. "Did this reflect a collapse of the belief in Black inferiority?" he asked. "No. It reflected the results of Black protests in the courts, the streets and the academy."

With a booming national economy in the 1960s and 1970s and low unemployment rates, "the presence of Blacks in colleges and universities did not frighten whites," Morris said, so university gatekeepers "let Blacks cross the racial divide into the white academy." The belief in Black inferiority "went underground," he argued, but has re-emerged not only in the arguments of opponents of affirmative action programs but even in arguments supporting diversity and multiculturalism programs. "When have you heard the argument that we need Black students on campus because they are every bit as smart as whites?" Morris said. "You don't hear that."

Surveys indicate that many whites still characterize Blacks as being unpatriotic, violence-prone, unintelligent and lazy, Morris said, and academic leaders disclose this attitude when they credit the "knee-jerk" beliefs that a substantial population of Black students on a campus causes a lowering of standards of excellence and that Blacks' low performance on standardized tests means Blacks are less qualified to enroll in college and less likely to succeed there.

As for test scores as a measure of academic potential, Morris cited the conclusion reached by Neal Rudenstein, now the president of Harvard University, in 1966, when Rudenstein "endorsed a study that concluded: `We pay attention to test scores, but what they tell us is quite limited. Our studies at Harvard show that personal strengths' are the key factors in academic success, not test scores, and that `effective intelligence' depends on energy, imagination, curiosity and other qualities that standardized tests don't measure."

Test scores, however, are now used "to accomplish the exclusion of Blacks so as to re-create the 19th century make-up of college campuses," Morris said. "The belief in Black inferiority has led to Black deficit analysis rather than organizational analysis."

Because structural change comes slowly to institutions, Morris advised Black students "to deal with what confronts them now." "All Blacks have sensitive antennae that detect whites who believe in Black inferiority and who can make that belief a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "So in the short term, Blacks must continue to develop an adversarial model of achievement; they must achieve in spite of what their teachers" may think of them "by working harder, longer and more tenaciously than others."

Morris ended his talk by observing that it would help the white gatekeepers to come into frequent contact with "the genius of Black life," and that "not all whites believe in Black inferiority, while some Blacks do believe in it. We carry a tremendous burden, as do women and other minorities. We are made to feel, `If I fail it reflects on my whole race.' Imagine white people feeling, `If I fail it means all white people are stupid.'

"I see Black students feeling I'm unfair to them if I'm hard on them. But I know when you leave, you'll run into people who will push you hard for reasons other than why I push you. My approach to all students, not just Black ones, is to make them work hard."

Morris said that "we should also recognize that things are far better now than they were 20 to 30 years ago. In most recent decades, few graduate departments had even two Blacks in a program, so the five or six we have in some now is a big gain. That model of achieving runs deep in our history."