Ibram Kendi attacks John McWhorter’s latest column on standardized tests for licensing

Source: Hot Air

John McWhorter’s latest column for the NY Times is about a Change.org petition demanding an end to “discriminatory” licensing exams. Here’s a bit of what the petition says: [emphasis in original]

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has been and continues to use an unvalidated exam with dramatic biases that prevent Black, Latine/Hispanic, and Indigenous social workers from becoming licensed—and it must stop

First time pass rates of the ASWB clinical licensure exam are as follows: Black (45%), Indigenous (63%), Latine/Hispanic (65%), and White (84%)—a difference of nearly 20-40% for white test-takers.

These numbers are grossly disproportionate and demonstrate a failure in the exam’s design. However, rather than acknowledging the exam as biased and responsible for this outcome, the ASWB maintains that the exam “continues to reflect the highest standards of validity and reliability” and suggests the enormous disparity is a result of “stereotype threat”—or a test-takers own fear that their performance will reinforce negative stereotypes of the group they are a member of (10).

At no point in their analysis does ASWB take accountability, and instead deflects blame back onto test-takers. The assertion that the problem lies with test-takers only reinforces the racism inherent to the test.

So, according to the petition, the test’s design is biased and denying it’s biased is racist. In his opinion piece, McWhorter notices that the petition doesn’t point to any proof of these claims.

…the petition doesn’t sufficiently explain why that makes the test racist. We’re just supposed to accept that it is…

If there were clear evidence of this, presumably the petitioners would have outlined it in order to make their case. But the petition doesn’t prove the exam’s design is fatally flawed and doesn’t show which test components are out of bounds.

McWhorter then highlights a study from 1983 titled “Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms.” An anthropologist named Shirley Brice Heath spent time with different families observing how their children learned to talk. She noticed a difference in how parents in middle class white families interacted with children as opposed to parents in working class black or white families:

In the middle-class subculture Heath describes, children unconsciously incorporate into their mental tool kit a comfort with retaining and discussing facts for their own sake, as opposed to processing facts mainly as they relate to the practicalities of daily existence. The same kind of skill development that’s fostered by reading for pleasure or personal interest — as opposed to reading for school lessons — a ritual which preserves and displays information beyond the everyday.

Heath found that while the printed page is hardly alien to the working-class Black community (which she gives the pseudonym “Trackton”; her pseudonymous white working-class community is “Roadville” and her pseudonymous white middle-class community is “Maintown”), and questions themselves are certainly part of how language is used within it, particular kinds of questions about matters unconnected to daily living were relatively rare. A paper published in 1995 by the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia cited Heath and notes that “the Trackton world is warm, buzzing with emotion and adult communication, an environment to which the child gradually adapts by a process of imitation and repetition.” However, it adds, “the language socialization of the Trackton child is,” in contrast to Maintown, “almost book-free.” One Trackton grandmother described part of the dynamic to Heath in this way: “We don’t talk to our chil’rn like you folks do. We don’t ask ’em ’bout colors, names ’n things.”…

Let’s recognize, then, that calling something like a credentialing exam racist is crude — it flies past issues more nuanced and complex. Heath’s study doesn’t have all the answers, and there are many working-class homes in which children are prepared with the conversational and analytical skills required to excel on standardized tests. But we might absorb the reality that circumstances will leave some people better poised to take tests than others, and that will mean pass rates on such tests will differ according to race at least for a while.

He concludes that it’s still possible there is a problem with the exams but that before we get rid of them we should at least ask to see the evidence the exams are racist.

Ibram Kendi’s name is never mentioned in McWhorter’s column but the idea that something is racist simply because the outcome doesn’t benefit all races equally is clearly his baby. And Kendi has argued in the past for ending standardized testing. So yesterday he posted a tweet thread in response to McWhorter’s column:

Note that the person McWhorter quoted was a grandmother (see excerpt above) so when Kendi writes, “He quotes a Black respondent who shares his racist belief” he’s clearly talking about McWhorter’s belief. Only two tweets in and he’s already labeled his opponent a racist.

Here Kendi is cheating a bit. McWhorter does say those things but he also goes on to explain what he means by them. He’s arguing that there’s nothing permanently wrong with working class culture. Instead, he suggests this culture developed in a time when “hard-working people in segregated America” had reduced prospects of attaining higher education. In other words, he’s saying the culture is lagging a bit not that it’s flawed and incapable of improving. I assume Kendi understood his point as well but he’s sidestepping it.

Kendi has some supporters but also quite a few detractors who noticed that he’s relying on name-calling rather than addressing any of the substance of the article.

Speaking of a merry-go-round:

There are many more responses like this but I won’t include them here. Just click on Kendi’s last tweet if you want to see the tone of the responses. John McWhorter also responded.

Finally, Kendi did engage with at least one of his critics.

The whole point of McWhorter’s column was that there isn’t necessarily anything “wrong” with black culture other than it lagging a bit behind current reality. That’s a flaw but it’s not one that’s fixed or inherent to one group. It’s a temporary setback. By contrast, Kendi is really going all in on this idea that no criticism of black culture is ever justified. Can that possibly be true? Is there any race-linked culture anywhere in the world which has no flaws or room for improvement? It really does seem like a silly idea that his own culture is the one where any criticism is automatically and always racist, even when coming from another black academic.