Harvard, Herschel Walker and ‘Tokenism’

We are at a moment in which tokenism is on trial. This is true both in terms of the Supreme Court’s consideration of affirmative action in higher education and in terms of the candidacy of the former running back and political airhead Herschel Walker, who will become a U.S. senator from Georgia if he wins his runoff against Senator Raphael Warnock next Tuesday.

Remember how common the term “token Black” once was? Back in the day — the phrase really took off in the 1960s — tokenism was considered a prime example of racism. The hipper television shows would offer story lines in which Black people were put into jobs for which they were transparently unqualified just so the company could show a little color.

I learned the term “token” in 1975 at the age of 9. An episode of the Black sitcom “Good Times” had the teenager Thelma recruited by an elite private school sorority solely because she was Black. A white sorority sister visited the household to chat Thelma up. But after Thelma’s father saw through the ruse, the white woman dismissively referred to Black people as “B’s.” My mother told me that Thelma was being used as a “token Black.” She liked me to know about such things.

It was normal that a Black mom would teach her kid such things back then. But you don’t hear the terms “token Black” and “tokenism” as much as you used to. (Yes, “South Park” had a character named Token — now spelled Tolkien — as late as the 1990s. But part of the joke was how antique the term had already become.) The term has a whiff of the ’70s about it, and it went out of fashion because, frankly, today’s left cherishes a form of tokenism.

Our theoretically enlightened idea these days is that using skin color as a major, and often decisive, factor in job hiring and school admissions is to be on the side of the angels. We euphemize this as being about the value of diverseness and people’s life experiences. This happened when we — by which I mean specifically but not exclusively Black people — shifted from demanding that we be allowed to show our best to demanding that the standards be changed for us.

I witnessed signs of that transition when racial preferences in admissions were banned at the University of California in the late 1990s. I was a new professor at U.C. Berkeley at the time, and at first, I opposed the ban as well, out of a sense that to be a proper Black person is to embrace affirmative action with no real questions. I’m not as reflexively contrarian as many suppose.

There was a massive attempt at pushback against the ban among faculty members and administrators, and I attended many meetings of this kind. I’ll never forget venturing during one of them that if the idea was that even middle-class Black students should be admitted despite lower grades and test scores, then we needed to explain clearly why, rather than simply making speeches about inclusiveness and openness and diversity as if the issues of grades and test scores were irrelevant.

I was naïve back then. I thought that people fighting the ban actually had such explanations. I didn’t realize that I had done the equivalent of blowing on a sousaphone in the middle of a bar mitzvah. There was an awkward silence. Then a guy of a certain age with a history of political activism said that in the 1960s and ’70s he was, make no mistake, staunchly against tokenism. And then he added … nothing. He went straight back to rhetoric about resegregation, laced with the fiction that racial preferences at Berkeley were going mostly to poor kids from inner-city neighborhoods. It was one of many demonstrations I was to see of a tacit notion that for Black kids, it’s wrong to measure excellence with just grades and scores because, well … they contribute to diversity?

When the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action in higher education admissions, as it almost certainly will, it will eliminate a decades-long program of tokenism. I’ve written that I support socioeconomic preferences and that I understand why racial ones were necessary for a generation or so. But for those who have a hard time getting past the idea that it’s eternally unfair to subject nonwhite students to equal competition unless they are from Asia, I suggest a mental exercise: Whenever you think or talk about racial preferences, substitute “racial tokenism.”

At the same time, Republicans, despite generally deriding affirmative action and tokenism as leftist sins, are reveling in tokenism in supporting Walker’s run for Senate and are actually pretending to take him seriously. But to revile lowering standards on the basis of race requires reviling Walker’s very candidacy; to have an instinctive revulsion against tokenism requires the same.

There’s no point in my listing Walker’s copious ethical lapses. Terrible people can occasionally be good leaders. With him, the principal issue is his utter lack of qualification for the office. Walker in the Senate would be like Buddy Hackett in the United Nations. It is true that Republicans have also offered some less than admirably qualified white people for high office. But George W. Bush was one thing, with his “working hard to put food on your family.” Walker’s smilingly sheepish third-grade nonsense in response to even basic questions about the issues of the day is another.

And it matters that Walker would have been much, much less likely to be encouraged to run for senator in, say, Colorado. In Georgia, it was the clear intent that he would peel Black votes from his Black rival, Warnock. Walker’s color was central to his elevation. A swivel-tongued galoot who was white would not likely have been chosen as the Republicans’ answer to Warnock.

But if Bush, like Walker and others, implies a questioning of standards — here, the idea that a high-placed politician be decently informed — is that so very different from those on the left questioning why we concern ourselves overly with grades and test scores in determining college admissions?

Yes, there are times when one needs to question the rules regarding traditional qualifications. But the Georgia runoff isn’t one of them. The last thing Black people — who are often assumed to be less smart — need is for anyone to insist that Walker is a legitimate candidate because, say, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t the most curious or coherent sort, either.

White Republicans have elevated a Black man to a position for which he is cartoonishly unfit. They have done so in spite of, rather than because of, the content not only of his character but also of his mind. Walker is essentially being treated the way Thelma was in that “Good Times” episode almost 50 years ago.

The past was better in some ways. The prevalence of the term “token Black” from the 1960s to the ’80s was one of them. And I promise — although I shouldn’t have to — that this does not mean I think Black America was better off in 1960.

But when Black students submitting dossiers of a certain level are all but guaranteed admission to elite schools despite the fact that the same dossiers from white or Asian students would barely get them a sniff, they are being treated, in a way, like Walker. The left sings of life experience and diversity, while the right crows about authenticity and connection. I hear all of them, intentionally or not, thinking about “the B’s.”

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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