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The soft bigotry of lowering exam standards

The educational elite has found another way to keep black students down

August 4, 2020

2:38 PM

4 August 2020

2:38 PM

The California Supreme Court has lowered the passing score for the bar exam. Many state law professors are lauding the move, saying it will finally equalize the ‘culturally biased’ exam. Similarly in Florida some years ago, the education department changed the grading standards for black and minority students in order to help them match the achievement levels of their peers.

We talk a lot about institutional racism these days. The prevailing sentiments seem to be either that it doesn’t exist, or that there is some carefully orchestrated right-wing plot to keep minorities out of public life.

The truth is that there is such a thing as institutional racism — but it doesn’t look like a big, bad Republican in a shirt and tie turning minorities away at the door. Most of the time it looks like this, it comes dressed as ‘help’.

The move to lower education standards to accommodate minority students feels like justice to people who believe it is their job to be saviors. To the rest of us, it feels like a slap in the face. What could be more insulting than someone you consider your moral and societal equal — someone you may even look up to — telling you that, in effect, that your hard work will never of equal worth to their hard work?

George W. Bush (more to the point, his speech writer) coined the phrase ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ and the California case couldn’t be more of an example of precisely that bigotry.


The idea that black people cannot achieve unless white people lower the standards they themselves were able to successfully navigate is so offensive you might think it falls under the ever-expanding category of ‘white supremacy’.

It is condescending to the point of absurdity and smacks of colonialism.

‘Oh, you black and brown people aren’t like us. You don’t have the same capacity for thought and learning that we do.’

To the institutional racist that attitude seems supportive; in reality it is wholly destructive and deeply disgusting. It is also woefully ignorant. It does nothing to solve the root of the problem. It is a ridiculous premise if you don’t understand why so few black and minority candidates make it to the doorstep of a profession in the first place. You can’t stop the flow of inequality if you can’t first turn off the spigot at the other end.

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These are issues that cannot be solved with good intentions or lower standards or infantilizing entire races. They require deeper thought, an intelligent analysis of why minorities are undereducated in the first place, and the challenges they face in a system that devalues black boys from an early age (particularly in education) and gives the poverty-stricken enough to survive but not nearly enough to thrive.

These are complicated issues that would require long-term, purposeful investment from the powers that be. Elites in education have no interest in walking a mile in anyone’s shoes. That takes effort. However, it takes absolutely no effort to lower the bar and wave people across. All the accolades, none of the inconvenience of actually helping black students thrive.

They may feel as though they are helping us up to their level, but by lowering standards for black Americans and other minorities, all they are doing is rescuing us from the ocean and then stranding us on shore with no clothes or supplies. We are left exposed, without the tools to build, the very purpose of our education has been denuded. When we fail, people will snicker that we were never smart enough to be there in the first place. This is no kind of help.


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