Law Professor Ends Her Career By Speaking Uncomfortable Truths About Race
As a second professor ends his own career by listening.
Above: Professor Sandra Sellers ending her career in teaching law.
Let’s handle the latest Big Racial Controversy in a different way. Instead of reading a predictable, cookie-cutter story summarizing the Big Racial Transgression and the aftermath, let’s watch the transgression unfold first, and imagine how we should react if we saw this happen but didn’t know how it had played out. I’ll give you the cookie-cutter summary afterwards. (You already know if you read the headline.) Try to ignore the commentary in the next two tweets and just watch the videos.
Here’s the transcript.
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: They were a bit, jumbled?
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: Yeah.
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: [Laughs] That’s the best way I can put it. It’s like, OK, let me reason through that, what you just said, kind of thing.
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: Right, right.
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: Yeah, unfortunately. And you know what? I hate to say this, I end up having this, you know, angst, every semester that a lot of my lower ones are blacks. Happens almost every semester.
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: Hmm, mmm. [Nods]
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: And it’s like, “Oh, come on.” Get some really good ones, but there’s also usually some that are just plain at the bottom, and it drives me crazy.
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: Yeah, and, and —
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: So I feel bad.
There is more: namely, the other professor’s response.
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: So I feel bad.
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: And what drives me crazy is, you know, the concept of how that plays out and whether that is, you know, my own perceptions playing in here, and with certain p—
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: Yeah.
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: — my own, you know, my own unconscious biases, you know, playing out in the scheme of things, you know.
PROFESSOR SANDRA SELLERS: Yeah. Well that’s why, I mean, I think we do a good job of keeping track of did they open their mouths. [Laughs]
PROFESSOR DAVID BATSON: Exactly, right.
How ought we to feel about this?
I think my first reaction is: I would like to see the entire video.
There is obvious context around this that we are missing. Have we learned nothing from the Covington video? What was first thought to be hostility on the part of a smirking teen was revealed to be something different, and the smirking teen will likely be paying for college off the settlements. My friends Andrew Breitbart and Larry O’Connor were sued by Shirley Sherrod for posting only part of a video, which critics said omitted a “redemption” story that mitigated or entirely eliminated the racism on display in the clip originally posted. I wasn’t so sure about the redemption, myself, but the full video did provide a richer and somewhat more subtle picture, and Sherrod was able to drag my friends through years of litigation before collecting an undisclosed amount.
Professor Sellers does have a sort of sing-song lilt to her voice as she says “I hate to say this” — and while it’s hard to discern exactly what is going on, not having the full video and not knowing the people in question, that tone sounds consistent with someone believing that they aren’t allowed to say such things. Which, as we will see, is true — and is the whole point.
Professor Sellers describes “angst” and feeling bad about giving certain black students poor grades. Professor Batson is explicitly questioning whether he is guilty of unconscious bias. And these are the most damning portions of the clips — the ones that the social justice crowd has clipped out and caused to go viral. What is on the rest of the video?
We don’t know. And nobody seems to care.
So my first reaction is: Get the whole video before reaching a conclusion.
I tried contacting, via Twitter direct message, the student who posted the videos above, to politely ask if he had a link to the full context of the videos he has been posting. I was not particularly surprised not to receive a response. As we will see, he has been getting the results he hoped for. Why on earth would he imperil that with more context?
My second reaction is: Are the things Professor Sellers is saying true?
It is not racism — although it is often thought to be — to point out the existence of racial disparities in various measurable areas, such as education, violent crime statistics, and the like. It would be racism to assume that the reason for these disparities is a genetic inferiority characteristic of a particular race. But simply noting the disparity is a fact. A fact can’t be racist, although the way you express the fact can be. (I’m not saying that truth is always a defense to racism, as there are subtleties of tone and emphasis that can signal racism emanating from someone even when they are largely speaking truth.)
The question always leaps to mind, when any such evidence of disparities unfavorable to minorities is found: are these disparities the result of racism, or something else? Indeed, a non-racist (which I distinguish from the oppressive “anti-racism” fad that is sweeping the nation), who is open to confronting the truth, sees racial disparities and naturally asks whether racism might be at the heart of the given disparity. That’s always a fair question to ask.
Note that Professor Batson is asking that question in the second clip above. It’s hard to tell from the limited video information we have, but I can well imagine that he agrees with Professor Sellers about the fact that blacks disproportionately appear at the bottom of the grading curves in their classes, and so he immediately gravitates towards questioning himself and whether that fact is a result of his own unconscious bias.
We should want professors to question themselves in this way, and I think it’s fair for him to raise that question, but there is another obvious explanation staring us in the face.
Namely, institutions of higher learning, especially prestigious ones like Georgetown, admit some black applicants with academic credentials that would be insufficient for admission if the candidate were not a racial minority. This is not really a debatable point. Given that we know that happens, it is really so surprising that these professors find some level of disparity in which races have the toughest time with their courses? You can’t have racial preferences in the admissions process — and the Georgetown admissions process, like that of most institutions of higher learning, does indeed employ racial preferences — and not have that race-conscious decisionmaking affect students’ academic achievement.
As Thomas Sowell has convincingly explained, preferential policies create academic failure. If you have 14 minutes to spare, watch the video below.
The video was made in 1990, before California passed Proposition 209 (in 1996), which prevented public institutions in the state from discriminating on the basis of race. (Miraculously, given the general wokeness of the electorate, California voters rejected an effort to repeal Proposition 209 in the last election.) But as Sowell explains, in 1990, the average black student at Berkeley had test scores well above the national average. They just happened to be lower than the average test scores of other Berkeley students. In this way, some very promising students were artificially turned into failures. This was not true of all black Berkeley students, of course; we are talking about averages, and plenty of black Berkeley students would have been admitted even if they had been white. (If they had been Asian that might be a different matter . . .) Those students were always going to be just fine. But the black Berkeley students who received poor grades or didn’t graduate, who would do just fine at a less challenging institution, were being disserved. They were used to bolster Berkeley’s statistics and then discarded. There was a real human cost here.
As Sowell explains, the options aren’t simply to succeed, get bad grades, or drop out. A fourth option is to be steered into a less challenging field, like education or ethnic studies. Now: aspiring students of all races are weeded out of competitive professions like medicine or engineering every year, all across the country. Some of these people simply have no business being doctors or engineers. But some of these students are perfectly competent, and would have done just fine at a less competitive school, but are outmatched academically at their current institution. The reason they are outmatched is generally because they were admitted with inferior academic credentials for some reason — perhaps because of their race, or perhaps because of a legacy bonus, or an athletic scholarship, or some other factor. Whatever the reason, it is a shame any time a good student is made to fail, simply because they are the wrong institution for their level of academic potential.
Guess what? Eugene Volokh says that it is a fact that, as Professor Sellers said was true in her class, blacks at most law schools have lower GPAs. Volokh quotes a Stanford Law Review article which stated:
With the exception of traditionally black law schools (where blacks still make up 43.8% of the student body), the median black law school grade point average is at the 6.7th percentile of white law students. This means that only 6.7% of whites have lower grades than 50% of blacks. One finds a similar result at the other end of the distribution—as only 7.5% of blacks have grades that are higher than the white median.
This is data from the 1990s, but I have heard no evidence that the results are vastly different today; my colleague Rick Sander tells me that newer data has not been generally made available by administrators.
Sander’s theory is the same as mine and Sowell’s. Volokh says that “Sander's theory is that this gap is a predictable consequence of race-based affirmative action . . .”
Ted Frank tried raising similar points on Twitter and was predictably torched by the woke crowd, who claimed that studies on “mismatch” theory like those done by Sanders have been debunked. As it happens, John McWhorter has written about this controversy and the “mismatch” theory and begs to differ with those who claim Sander’s theory has been refuted:
Now, Sander’s thesis naturally elicited a great deal of the same kind of criticism as Sellers’ comment, complete with the idea that to even mention the discrepancies in question constituted “racism,” an interesting charge in Sander’s case as he was a former black community activist who had written for housing desegregation, married a black woman and started out in favor of racial preferences until he saw their effects over years of teaching. I will never forget watching Sander, during a panel discussion, accused by a black law professor of being an heir of William Shockley and his dismissal of black intelligence, in utter disregard of anything Sander had written, or even just said during this discussion.
You may be told, in the wake of people like that, that Sander was “refuted.” An issue of the Stanford Law Review was touted as disproving Sander’s claims, but quite simply did not. I invite anyone interested to read all of the rebuttals and then Sander’s riposte. He left the critiques in a smoking ruin. Critiques of Sander continue to this day over 15 years later – and in no sense deep-six his basic claims. It’s more that a lot of people consider his observations a kind of heresy (yes, à la my argument that The Elect are a religion) and thus cannot bear their airing. This is something different from reasoning.
The two Georgetown law professors above were touching on the consequences of all these problems in their discussion, which they believed to be private but recorded by accident.
But there I go, referring to these two individuals as “professors.” When you already know that they’re gone, gone, gone.
Georgetown Law professor Sandra Sellers, who was captured on video discussing the performance of Black students, is no longer affiliated with the university, the law school dean said Thursday.
Georgetown University Law students and alumni had called for the professor's firing after a video of two Georgetown Law professors discussing the performance of Black students in their class went viral. A petition by the university's Black Law Student Association demanding the school take action and terminate the professor had collected more than 1,000 signatures.
Batson, who was initially put on administrative leave, has resigned.
If I were a black student at Georgetown law, I can see being nervous about having one of these professors — especially Professor Sellers — grading my work. However, like so many other situations, the question becomes: who is to blame for this situation? Is it really the professors? Or is it, as I suggested above, a result of racial preferences in admissions, such that the administration ought to be pointing the finger at itself? One question that might help answer this would be to look at the racial breakdown of grades in classes taught by black professors. Is something like the same pattern evident? If so, does that mean the professors are racist? If not, should we leap to the conclusion that the black professors are favoring their own?
In terms of whom to blame, take the analogous situation of a young black man having a hard time getting a cab in New York City on a Saturday night. If I were that young black man, and I were a law-abiding citizen, I’d be angry. But again: who is to blame? It is purely the racism of the cab drivers? What about the fact that black cab drivers also avoid young black men? The Washington Post ran a story about this issue way back in 1981, but the principles discussed in that old article still apply:
From city council member John Wilson to anonymous package-laden Southeast shoppers, black taxi customers are still troubled by poor service and ill treatment from an industry owned and operated largely by blacks.
. . . .
"I've been hacking 25 years," said Zack Williams, driver of his own black-and-white cab with his name emblazoned on the door, "and if you show me 10 drivers who've been robbed, I'll show you five who've been robbed by black people. During the day, I'll take a young black man to Benning Road, but if it's at night, I'll say, 'No, sir, I'm sorry,' or maybe I'll take him somewhere else. If he says he'll report me, I say go ahead, let him."
(Go ahead and click on the link to read the whole story if you like, but be forewarned: it contains the N-word and they spell it out — an offense that gets reporters fired these days.) If it’s true that young black men are committing a lot of robberies in taxicabs, and that drivers of all races (including black drivers) avoid them as a result, is the racism of the cabbies to blame . . . or could the lion’s share of the blame lie with the robbers?
Ultimately, we continue to paint ourselves into a corner where we are not allowed to discuss these issues honestly. Even to bring them up in private (or thinking you are in private) runs the risk of derailing your whole career, in an instant.
Is this how we want to run society?