The Content of His Character

Human Rights

One thing can be said for conservatives: they are nothing if not unoriginal.

This truism was driven home yet again recently when I found myself embroiled in a debate over affirmative action with a loyal Bush supporter, who insisted that folks like me, by virtue of our support for the concept, had abandoned the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

King, I was assured for the 2,345th time (give or take a few), would have staunchly opposed affirmative action, what my friend called “racial preferences,� because, after all, he believed that people should be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Faced with yet another person claiming to be the ideological soul mate of a man they probably despised when he was actually breathing, I decided to gloss over the fact that King actually endorsed the concept of affirmative action as early as 1961, and again in 1963, 1965 and 1967. And I also opted not to belabor the point that affirmative action doesn’t actually judge anyone on the basis of skin color, but simply seeks to ensure that persons of color who otherwise might be overlooked for educational and job opportunities (despite their qualifications) get a chance to prove themselves.

Instead, I decided to debate the issue on the grounds favored by the right, including its representative before me, who so seemed to covet the “content of their character� line. So I asked him plainly: What do the “merit� standards he endorses, and which people like him would prefer to see in place of so-called racial preferences -- such as standardized test scores for college admissions -- have to do with character?

Since racial score gaps on these tests are taken as proof that blacks are less qualified than whites to attend selective colleges, and since critics of affirmative action insist we should return to the notion of merit admissions, based largely on these test results, was he honestly suggesting that SATs, ACTs, LSATs and MCATs say something about a person’s character or lack thereof? More to the point, was he of the opinion that whites, by virtue of our higher average scores, are of superior character to black students?

It was obvious that no one had ever asked him that before. Worse, I had never thought to ask it before either. It was almost as if we had both accepted the notion that persons who score 1400 on the SAT are of better character than those who score 1100, and that they, in turn, are of greater character than those who score 900, and so on. Even the idea that standardized test scores are good predictors of academic ability is questionable enough; but to think there is a correlation between such scores and character seems absurd on the face of it.

According to Webster‚s Dictionary, the relevant definition of character is “moral strength, self-discipline, fortitude.�

That says nothing about academic performance, or even intelligence itself, however defined. Indeed, how could it? The Nazis were led by men who probably would have scored highly on the SAT; so too those who designed Napalm, or sanctioned the slaughter of America‚s indigenous populations. So too Ted Bundy, or the young white man with the 1350 on his SATs and a slot in the freshman class at Berkeley, who murdered a young black girl in the bathroom of a Nevada casino a few years ago.

So which is it? Should we judge people on the basis of character, or rather on the basis of previous academic achievement -- no minor question, since the two have no necessary correlation to one another?

I for one vote for character, but I doubt those who have misappropriated the concept from King would like where the notion leads, especially in terms of its impact on admissions.

Because you see, when it comes to which students have exhibited the most fortitude, one of the key elements of character, defined as “the strength to bear misfortune and pain patiently and calmly,� there can be little doubt that students of color and poor folks of all colors (who tend to do worse on the so-called merit indicia favored by the right) would come out on top. That strength, truth be told, fairly defines the black experience in America.

Which students, after all, have had to persevere against the odds more often: rich kids who attended the best schools, and whose parents could afford tutors, test prep classes and all forms of enrichment materials? Or poor and working class kids whose schools had substandard resources, less experienced teachers, and whose parents struggled to make ends meet?

Which students have had to bear the most pain? Whites whose membership in the nation‚s dominant racial majority allows them to go through life fairly oblivious to their own race and the role it plays in their everyday experience? Or students of color, whose minority status often reminds them that they are seen by many as outsiders, and who know of the negative stereotypes often held about their group by the general public, usually by the time they are eight or nine years of age?

To ask the questions is to answer them.

For students who have faced obstacles of race and class to even partially overcome those obstacles and score perhaps a 1000 on their SAT says something rather amazing about their character. Despite having the odds stacked against them they refused to give up, they strove for excellence, and though they finished the K-12 race still behind their more privileged competition, they closed the gap nonetheless.

A score of 1000, 1050, or 1100, for many kids is far more impressive than a 1350 or 1400 when the latter was attained by someone who had all the breaks and opportunities going his or her way. This is especially true when one considers that black students who apply to elite schools come from families that, on average, have half the income of their white counterparts, and are far more likely to have attended resource-poor schools.

If one starts a race three laps behind and finishes only two laps behind, is it not obvious that such a runner is indeed objectively better than the one who hit the tape ahead of them? Didn’t they run faster, harder, with more determination? Didn’t they demonstrate character? Or do we simply reward the one who finished ahead, even though their ability to do so was largely the result of a pre-existing advantage, and would have obtained even in the absence of character altogether?

And what of self-discipline, that other aspect of character to which Webster’s refers? Could it be that blacks would here too bump white students from their desired slots in elite colleges and universities, if indeed the criteria for acceptance were the content of one’s character? Quite possibly. After all, blacks show far more restraint and self-control than their white peers when it comes to things like drug and alcohol abuse: the latter of which, in particular, is a serious problem on American college campuses.

As for drugs, although black youth and young adults are more likely than whites to have been approached by a drug dealer in the past month, they are less likely than whites to have used drugs in the past thirty days. Every year, white rates of drug use for youth ages 12-17 and 18-26 is higher than for blacks or Latinos. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control, white high school students have higher rates of drug use for all drug categories than blacks, while blacks have the lowest rates. In fact, black students from the poorest neighborhoods, in schools where most students live in public housing, show lower levels of drug use than whites of the same age and grade.

Examining alcohol, whites drink more often and heavier than blacks, especially when it comes to youth. White youth 12-17 are nearly twice as likely as blacks that age to ever consume alcohol, 2.5 times more likely to have engaged in binge drinking (defined as having five or more drinks at one time) and six times more likely to binge drink on a regular basis. Among young adults 18-25, whites are nearly 80 percent more likely to binge drink than blacks and more than three times as likely to do so on a regular basis.

Since drinking under 21 is illegal, and since one might consider law-breaking indicative of one‚s character, it is also instructive to examine the degree to which whites and blacks illegally consume alcohol. According to federal data, whites are 70 percent more likely than blacks to drink underage, more than twice as likely to binge drink underage, and four times as likely to binge drink regularly.

In fact, while 23 percent of whites between the ages of 12-20 occasionally binge drink, only 19 percent of blacks that age ever consume alcohol, let alone five or more drinks at once. In other words, whites are more likely to binge drink underage than blacks are to drink underage at all.

Whereas 1 in 12 whites between 12 and 20 years of age is a heavy drinker who consumes five or more drinks at a time at least five times per month, only one in 50 black youth fit this description. Among college students in 2001, whites were 2.3 times more likely than blacks to binge drink and as of 1999 they were four times more likely to do so regularly.

Perhaps this is why a recent study from Harvard found that schools with higher percentages of students of color tend to have less binge drinking, and those that are overwhelmingly white tend to have the most serious problems with alcohol abuse. Apparently, despite higher test scores and so-called „merit,‰ whites on these campuses lack that self-discipline so central to the definition of character.

One more reason to support affirmative action then: not only can it promote greater levels of racial equity, but now it appears as though diversity enhancement might also boost the net sum of character on a campus as well. Such a conclusion is made all the more reasonable when one considers the dozens of riots on college campuses in the past decade: almost completely white events, and over such earth-shattering matters as crackdowns on underage drinking or the outcome of a football game.

So by all means, let’s encourage schools to judge students on the content of their character. Doing so would be a great way to promote diversity and racial equity at the same time, along with cutting down on substance abuse and mass violence related to that abuse. Perhaps over time, whites would even learn to assimilate to the black norm of hard work and sobriety, and begin to “act black,� which certainly couldn’t hurt their academic careers or our nation. After all, we would all reap the benefits of character-based standards, and an end to the damage done by smart but pathological members of the dominant majority.

Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. Footnotes for this article are available from him at

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