Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ghetto Side at Duke University

Photo from

Just when I was prepared to throw away all those race cards, I find reason to keep a few in my back pocket. After years of grappling to get past the notion that I’m only in the room because I’m black, a study conducted by faculty at Duke University argues black students aren’t able to deal with the rigor of those tough academic majors. In other words, they take classes in the ghetto at Duke.

One is left questioning the motivation behind the study. Why would a group of professors go about the task of researching the merits of black folks being in the room? The answer is simple. The paper is part of a brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by opponents of affirmative action. The report, “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Difference in GPA and Major Choice,” found that among students who enrolled with an interest in majoring in economics, engineering and the natural sciences, 54 percent of black men and 51 percent of black women changed their major to the humanities or another social science.

That’s compared to the 33 percent of white women and 8 percent of white men who switched majors. The study assumes the switch is made because they are less rigorous, require less study and have easier grading standards.

Professors Peter Arcidiacono, Kenneth Spenner and graduate student Esteban Aucejo argue that “attempts to increase representation [of minorities] at elite universities through the use of affirmative action may come at a cost of perpetuating underrepresentation of blacks in the natural sciences and engineering.”

In other words, it’s not enough to consider the GPA of black students. According to the study, the success of black students at Duke must be evaluated based on their academic major. The authors of the paper suggest that the switch to easier majors is the reason the GPA of black undergraduates is similar to the GPA of white students. Black folks can’t compete in a world where they have to take the tough classes. Time to pull out one of my cards.

The measuring of the black intellect is an old game. In 1994, Harvard psychologist Richard J. Hermstein and political scientist Charles Murray, published The Bell Curve. The controversy of the book involved sections in the book in which the authors wrote about racial differences in intelligence. They write in chapter 13: "It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences." The book fueled a national debate on the issue of race and intelligence.

By arguing against the merits of black academic performance by using academic major as a variable, the authors of this study have created an academic caste system that the university may have difficulty in unraveling. There are real programs, and there are easy programs. Are the big wigs at Duke willing to accept that the findings of the study ultimately call into question the academic strength of the programs on the other side of the tracks?

The study also implies that black students make changes due to struggles in those tough programs. Their GPA should be cast aside because they failed to compete in those real programs. Is it possible that a few of those students changed their major because they found a true passion in the humanities? How many of those students went on to pursue a PhD?

It’s dangerous whenever a person delves into the matter of race and intelligence. It is even more harmful when the motivation for the research is to invalidate intelligence due to a political agenda. This research is not about the decisions of black students at Duke. It is a ploy to nullify their right to be in the room.

I say no to placing merit on a few academic programs over others. I say no to measures of black student achievement based on an assumption that they can’t handle the heat. I say no to Duke University for failing to stand by programs in the humanities that this study attacks for being less than the rest.

I want to throw these cards away. But if it smells like a bigot and sounds like a bigot, well, you know the rest


  1. Dear Carl,

    None of the authors have anything to do with the supreme court case. The study has been completely mischaracterized by the media and is in no way hostile towards African Americans. I would be happy to talk with you about the study over coffee or lunch if you are interested.



    Peter Arcidiacono
    Duke University

    1. Would love to meet for coffee to get your perspective on this. Call me at (919) 530-0582

    2. This sounds so incredibly sad. When I was in undergrad, I actually had a professor admit that she taught down to me because she assumed that black students couldn't do well in English. She apologized to me for doing so.

      Peter, I'm not in Durham, but I'd love to hear your perspective too!

      Shaun Chavis
      A black woman with a masters degree from Boston University. Daughter of a black man who also earned a masters degree from Boston University. Sister to two black women who each have masters degrees. Niece to two uncles and and an aunt who all have PhDs, including a professor of microbiology.

    3. Professor Arcidiacono,

      I am sure you will find your coffee with Carl Kenney fruitful. In tomorrow's Chronicle, you will find my own response. I read your study carefully and read some of your other work, too. The media is not misinterpreting your study much. I spoke to the AP reporter, Martha Waggoner; you certainly got a careful and respectful hearing from her. The BSA kids read your study themselves, too, incidentally. I know you think their SAT scores are too low but I think they got it.

      Your response seems disingenuous. How are you not participating in this Supreme Court case that uses your unpublished work? Did they steal it? What did you think they were going to do with it other than launch a political attack on affirmative action? Why are you uncomfortable with that, given that much of your career has been an attack on its underpinnings? A full professor at Duke is "very surprised" that the newspapers follow a racially-loaded US Supreme Court case?

      You have written at least one other "scholarly" piece that argues that Duke should admit fewer supposedly less qualified black students. The sub-title of that "scholarly" article ought to be "Don't Worry: Black Kids Can Go to Some Less Important College, and Maybe The Dumber People There Will Even Talk To Them." The ass-umptions beneath your work would be hilarious if they were not poisonous, too. Curious that no matter what the nature of your "study," you come up with this same thesis that Duke should not admit so many black students.

      Academic freedom bears no claim on the respect of your colleagues and students. If you have earned that somehow--apart from mastering arithmetic in service of the enduring privilege of wealthy white folks--tell us why. This note to Carl is the first evidence I've seen that you are not a mean-spirited shoeshine boy for white aristocrats.

      The fact that you can't imagine why this shallow, incurious study--why not talk to black students about their choice of major?--infuriates many of us, black and white, is almost touching. Its very framing is hostile to the African American presence here.

      And Carl pretty much nails the underpinnings of your explanation of the supposed under-performance of black students, whom I find at least as capable as the rest of the student body, and often more intellectually serious, on the whole, probably because they have a different stake in the subjects I teach, which does skew my sample somewhat. And yet reading piles of history books and doing original archival research and turning it into scholarship does not happen by black magic, just because of your ancestry; you have to work. Which they do.

      You and Spenner use black undergrads as fodder for your attack on affirmative action, a political tract disguised as scholarly inquiry. Why should those in whose faces you seek to slam the door not resent this? Why should those of us who seek to be menders of the breach respect your efforts?

      Tim Tyson, Ph.D., Duke University Class of 1994; formerly Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; John Hope Franklin Senior Fellow, National Humanities Center; currently Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and Visiting Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School

  2. Great. I left a voice message.

    Shaun, happy to talk. My email address is