When Meeting Racial Quotas Is Impossible

Several years ago, I was a visiting professor at a large public university beyond the Mississippi. Early on, I introduced myself to a few of the colleagues in the department, some of whom proved to be vigorous liberals unhappy with the social state of things on campus. One of them said to me as I nodded hello and sat down in her office (I’d made an appointment earlier), “Just look around—what do you see on this campus?”

I didn’t know what she meant. The architecture? The flora? The stadium? All I could do was mutter a feeble, “What?”

She didn’t hesitate. “How many black people are there?

I paused, an “Uhh,” escaping my lips. It was one of those questions that imply much, much more than the actual words say. Conservatives have learned to wait before they answer, knowing that a simple response to the simple question might sound as if he endorses all the unspoken implications of the question as well.

There was no mystery here, of course. The thrust of her observation was clear. She had in mind the standard institutional-racism point: a bare statistical disproportion in demographics signifies discrimination at work. In this reasoning, the complexity of that result doesn’t factor into the blunt fact of the disparate outcome. Something in the institution was keeping black numbers down.

[‘Social Justice’ Ideology Is Damaging American Values]

I had spent the day walking around campus and hadn’t counted the racial makeup of the people I passed. But when she posed her question, it did occur to me that I hadn’t seen any African Americans, or, if I had, there were too few of them for me to have noticed them.

I didn’t say that, but if I had, it would have proved her point. The university at which she worked had few African Americans in residence, and that, in itself, was a big, big problem. She had chosen that issue as primary in our meeting; it preoccupied her. She had that accusatory tone in her voice that one hears so often in academic discussions of race, a tone that bespoke a crime in process. She proceeded to say something about affirmative action, which was a national topic around that time.

That was when I made my mistake.

“Well,” I suggested, “it must be difficult for the university to get those numbers up. What’s the black population in the state as a whole?

She stared at me for a moment; her countenance went blank. I assume she realized that the person sitting across the desk didn’t share her distress. She was on one wavelength; I was on another. She didn’t want to discuss statistics, though the conversation originated in a statistical remark. Numbers for her served only to introduce the real issue, racism—racism on campus, racism in the state, racism in America. To focus on specific details as I had was to ignore the broad and deep condition of bigotry. I had shown myself obtuse.

Yes, the black share of the population in the state was in the middle single digits, and given the racial achievement gap in high school, one had to assume it would be impossible for the school to reach even that low rate no matter how hard it tried to recruit top African American students. (I looked up state data afterward.) But she didn’t want to talk about that, and if I did, it was time to move to other subjects. She proceeded to describe a law and literature course she had designed.

[The Campus Tendency to Extremism]

I thought about that episode last week when a report on a controversy at the University of Montana surfaced. Here is how insidehighered.com summarized the affair.

The University of Montana was in the early stages of addressing complaints about the lack of racial diversity on campus when it decided to hold an essay contest marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The contest was seen as an opportunity to engage students of various backgrounds and spur dialogue across the campus about the life and work of the late civil rights leader. But the plans backfired when the university announced, and proudly promoted, the four winning essays—all penned by white students.

Need we go into any further details? We know the outlines of every such case. Lots of indignation, pledges of soul-searching, promises of correction. It got ugly. The administration took down photos of the four winners, all women, after they received threats. That the contest had only six entrants, likewise all white, and that the prize selection committee was mostly non-white (four whites, five people of color, the heads of the Black Student Union and the Latinx Student Union among them) didn’t matter. Those facts didn’t sway the 1,100 commenters on social media who found the results shameful.

Here was my first thought: how many African Americans live in Montana? My family lived in Missoula in the mid-Sixties when I was in first grade, and I can’t recall any black neighbors or buddies. The year before we lived in Southwest Washington DC, a heavily black area, where my parents took us to reside in order to live out their commitment to racial integration. Montana was a whole other world.

The insidehighered story notes that African Americans make up less than one percent of the undergraduate population. What it doesn’t note is that blacks make up only .4 percent of the state’s population, a mere 4,348 person in total.

How in the world, then, do the protesters think that the University of Montana can raise the number of black undergraduates into a critical mass? They must know that the admissions office is desperate to draw African American kids who can handle the college workload. Indeed, the administration has begun plans to hire a “diversity, equity and inclusion” expert, along with resources to help that troubleshooter advance the mission. But given the pool from which the University of Montana pulls undergraduates, what can this person do to make the school sufficiently diverse?

[When 29 Courses on Black Writing Isn’t Enough at Williams]

Raising the black share of the student body to 1.2 percent would be a significant advance, but we know that it wouldn’t impress the diversiphiles one bit. As the director of communications at Montana told insidehighered, “We recognize that we have much more to do.” Yes, and as the university adds a few more black students to the entering classes, that admission will only grow more urgent. To a progressive, there is always so much more to do.

The University of Montana and every other public university in a low black population state are in an impossible situation. The top African American high school kids in Rocky Mountain states are coveted by Tier 1 schools everywhere. Just imagine how at a rich northeastern school, the admissions officer’s eyes light up when he sees that a black kid in Helena with SAT scores in the 88th percentile has sent an inquiry letter. The University of Montana doesn’t have a chance in that competition.

The truth cannot be told, however. The dean of admissions cannot say, “Listen, we are trying every day to improve diversity here in Missoula, we support all kinds of initiatives to make the campus attractive to students of color. But reality is reality. We can only play the cards in the deck. We can’t change the population of Montana. We’re sorry.” A dean who said as much might be out of a job by the end of the year.

Adequate diversity will never happen (the black-white gap in high school achievement hasn’t closed at all in the last 20 years). But the righteous anger of the activists and the apologies and promises of the administrators will proceed. Episodes will burst forth, protests will follow, officials will confess, and resources will be steered toward the agitators.

Hence, the game will continue.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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16 thoughts on “When Meeting Racial Quotas Is Impossible

  1. Just catching up with this column. It’s sad that academia has descended into this morass of racial and sex entitlement. It can’t lead to anything good. Many years ago, most college professors could recognize reality. Nowadays, not so much.

    Prof. Bäuerlein, you wrote, “”…But reality is reality. We can only play the cards in the deck. We can’t change the population of Montana. We’re sorry.’ A dean who said as much might be out of a job by the end of the year.” I would change only one thing in that last sentence: “A dean who said as much might be out of a job by the end of the day.”

    1. Well, that’s a bit strange. I have no ideal where that umlaut came from when I typed the professor’s name. Whatever I did, it was inadvertent. Sorry about that.

  2. Any instance of chasing numbers is doomed to failure, of one sort or another.

    A recent Associated Press story in which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lamented the league’s lack of minority hires for head-coaching vacancies is merely the latest attempt to address – what, exactly?

    Referring to the Rooney Rule, the article states that “. . . only two African-Americans have been hired for 19 open head coaching spots over the past three years. The league has only two minority general managers among the 32 teams.”

    Said Goodell:

    “We have a lot of work that has gone into not only the Rooney Rule but our policy overall. It’s clear we need change and (to) do something different . . . to figure out what steps we could take next that would lead to better outcomes.”

    And there, in a single word, is the crux of the conundrum. “Outcomes.” What, pray tell, is the optimum outcome? And, at least as importantly, who will determine exactly how many blacks – and Hispanics, and Asians, and women, and LGBTs — represent that elusive sweet spot?

    If it’s true, as the article declares, that “Critics have said those interviews are often simply token responses to the rule and that the minority candidates are not seriously considered for those positions,” then please name the critics and – especially – name those who are guilty of flouting the Rooney Rule.

    Major League Baseball has been extremely vocal in its concern about the drop in the number of black MLB players, let alone the lack of black managers. This fetishization of “diversity” becomes laughable when one follows the logic to its inevitable reductio ad absurdum conclusion.

    From the 1960s through the 1990s, and into the early 2000s, blacks in MLB were more representative than in the U.S. population at large – nearly twice as much for peak years in the 1970s and ‘80s. Was that a problem? Can a minority be over-represented? Because, if they can be, then some group by definition is under-represented.

    What to do, for example about the surfeit of Hispanic players and managers in MLB? Despite being only 16 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics comprise nearly a third of all MLB rosters. And there are – gasp! – five Hispanic managers. Should Rob Manfred institute a freeze on Hispanic players, thereby opening up slots for the currently underrepresented black population? For that matter, why is the precipitous drop in white players – especially in MLB but in all professional sports – not seen as a problem? The number of white MLB players has dropped more drastically than that of blacks.

    What to do? Those damn Hispanics are taking up all the roster spots! And the percentage of Asians in MLB reached more than 2 percent in recent years, with that number set to increase in the near future. Well, it’s about time! Asians are 5 percent of the U.S. population, for goodness sake. Not only is Harvard erecting barricades to Asian enrollment; now MLB obviously is barring the door, too. There also should be 1.5 Asian coaches in the NFL. What a travesty!

    The primary question that needs to be asked and answered is this: Are opportunities being denied to anyone, or to any group? That’s the $64,000 question, and It’s the only thing that can be controlled – not outcomes.

    Of course, Jamele Hill has the answer – or, at least she’s identified the culprit. It’s – drum roll, please – racism! The ESPN race baiter, in an article penned for The Atlantic, “feels (the Rooney Rule) rule is practically meaningless.”

    “While well intentioned,” she wrote, “this policy can’t possibly fix the deep-seated culture of exclusion that plagues the league.”

    Hill goes on to read the minds of the entrenched the NFL’s stupid, racist owners.
    “. . . most NFL owners have been white men, and they have seldom been willing to let African Americans or Latinos call plays—either on the field or from the sidelines. This is no different from when franchises presumed that black players weren’t smart enough to play quarterback and lacked leadership skills to command men. The league’s paltry record of hiring minority head coaches comes from the same mind-set. And its primary effort to address the problem has been a failure, because a policy can’t compensate for ignorance.”

    But Hill’s not done. It’s not just incompetence and mental deficiency that the owners must overcome – it’s that darned institutional racism and, well, cowardice.

    “NFL owners must recognize that their lazy stereotypes of black male leadership have created this embarrassing problem. In time, we’ll see whether they have the courage to fix it.”

    How, pray tell, are “they” going to fix it, Jamele? Only ESPN and their acolytes pay much heed to the likes of Hill and her ilk, who see not only overt racism but “institutional” and “systemic” and other hidden evils detectable only by those woke few sensitive and clear-minded enough to divine what lies in the hearts of others.

    Hill also referred to the 2018 NFL season, “when five of the eight minority head coaches in the league were all fired. All five of those fired were black.”

    My question is, how in the world were five black men even coaching in the NFL? If the “hiring cycle has been particularly cruel to black coaches,” as Hill asserts, and if “NFL owners have been white men, and they have seldom been willing to let African Americans or Latinos call plays,” how did it come about that 30 percent of NFL head coaches in 2018 were black or Hispanic?

    Heck, in 2019, nine of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks were black. Why, that’s nearly 30 percent! Is that too many? When does too few become too many?

    Hill’s assertion is that, since blacks constitute about 70 percent of NFL players, then somehow any figure south of 70 percent is insufficient when it comes to the number of black coaches. Well, two points here. First, it’s presumptuous to assume that playing football both qualifies one for coaching success or that players want to coach. Second, if one is going to base coaching numbers on players numbers – the theory being that so black many players should translate into a similar fraction of black coaches – then why are there not more white players at the NFL level? Or at the NCAA Division I level? If the powers that be, both in the NFL and in college football, are (angry?) white men, and if (as Hill posits) those white men are dismissive of blacks despite their obvious talents, then why are those same racists not exercising their discrimination among the much more numerous player population?

    Let’s ignore, for a moment, the inevitable clamoring that the likes of the NFL will encounter from countless minority and “aggrieved” groups if this path is followed (if the NFL truly is going to pursue “diversity,” they certainly cannot kowtow to blacks without addressing the startling dearth of gay, trans, female, handicapped, elderly and native American faces among their ranks).

    Playing Hill’s divisive numbers game, there should be only 23 white head coaches (based on U.S. population figures) – but there also should twice as many white players (and Asians and Hispanics). What gives? Which white coaches would you replace today with minority coaches – and who would those replacement coaches be? Will the league dictate, for example, that teams that have NEVER had a black head coach MUST hire one next time there’s a vacancy?

    Of course, by Hill’s reckoning, there actually should be only six or seven white NFL head coaches (using her percentage-of-players formula). So, again, I must ask about the appalling under-representation of white players in the NFL – and the NBA and MLB. Such an argument is dismissed as garbage, some white-privilege whining by an angry white guy. But, the fact is, I don’t want to see affirmative action for under-represented whites. I believe that, if white players are good enough, they’ll play and get paid.

    But by Hill’s warped logic, outcome is proof of a rigged system, or outright racism. I’m always amazed at the obsession with outcomes when there is utterly no evidence that opportunity has been denied. And if opportunity is being denied to black potential NFL coaches, I want to know who is doing the denying. I want someone to explain to me how and why White Coach x was hired over Black Coach y, despite Black Coach y being more qualified. And I want the offender to be not only fired, but prosecuted.

    I also want to know how an increase in black NFL general managers will miraculously result in an increase in black NFL head coaches. Aside from the ugly assumption that white GMs simply won’t hire black coaches, there’s also the unctuous proposition that black GMs will recognize talent in black coaches that escapes their white counterparts – that there’s a cultural divide that can only be overcome by an elusive, same-skin-color kinship. That sounds eerily similar to a white, good-ol’-boy network, does it not?

    This view is of a piece with the assertion that “role models” must be of a particular skin color, or sex, or sexual orientation. So blacks are too thick to notice successful qualities in whites? And whites are too racist to take anything away from encounters with successful blacks? I’d swear – if I hadn’t been bludgeoned incessantly by SJWs to not think so – that this kind of thinking is prickly.

    This is more than a slippery slope being endorsed. It’s impossible to implement, especially since the criteria for remedial measures haven’t even been identified. Not even a baseline has been established. Are the number of minority head coaches to be consistent with the percentage of players? If so, why? The same goes for front-office positions. Should 70 percent of NFL GMs be black, or should that number perhaps reflect closer to the 13 percent that blacks comprise of the U.S. population?

    Perhaps there’s no easy answer. Maybe white kids simply don’t play basketball as much as black kids, or maybe they don’t place as much emphasis on sports as a path to a career. Or maybe they just think that they’re not as good an athlete as their black counterpart. And maybe black kids would rather play basketball than baseball, and MLB numbers will never again approach 20 percent of the player total. And the NHL probably won’t ever see a majority black player population, but so what? No one seems torn up about that, probably because most of us assume – rightly – that black guys just don’t dig hockey.

    As long as opportunity isn’t impeded, we should be prepared for, and welcoming of, the results. If roadblocks are created, if racism truly is at the crux of the black-coach hiring phenomenon, then heads should role. People should be identified, vilified and punished.
    But to continually assert that unseen, nebulous forces are afoot – be they institutional racism, or micro-aggressions, or unconscious bias, or systemic white privilege – and to not offer proof or solutions is to wallow in, and celebrate, victimhood. Disparate outcomes are not evidence of evil manipulation, and chasing outcomes versus guaranteeing opportunity will always be opposed by serious people.

    Show me, and I’ll be your ally. Indict me, with no evidence, and I’ll fight you – or worse, I’ll ignore you.


    very, very few black coaches are permitted to coach the more “cerebral” positions.

    Most of all, black coaches want to be treated like white coaches — not as representatives of their race, but as individuals who are hired and fired on their own merits.
    (so why all the countless articles, incessantly, about black coaches!)

    Jemele Hill: ‘NFL Owners Have a Problem with Coaches of Color’

    Baseball Demographics, 1947-2016

    Goodell: Diversity hiring not up to par

    2010 Census Shows America’s Diversity

  3. An issue here in Massachusetts — we have regional vocational high schools that are somewhat selective. They are being accused of being racist because they use 7th & 8th grade attendance and discipline records as criteria for selection.

    Apparently it’s racist to expect Black & Brown children to (a) show up, (b) sit down, (c) shut up, and (d) keep their hands to themselves.

    Oh Brave New World….

  4. I was a visiting professor at a prestigious, small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania 30 years ago. The college wanted to hire an African-American for a faculty position in economics. There was a professor from Africa who had gone to work for ATT who was interested in coming back to the college but, to his credit, “refused to come in through the back door.” Because there were so few truly qualified applicants, the college did hire someone who was Jamaican. Why accept a Jamaican? “Because a Jamaican is closer to being an African-American than an applicant from Africa.” I do remember the hired professor defending his hire with “given the extra expectations, there is no producer surplus for me.”

  5. It’s even harder to explain why there are few visitors of color in Glacier Park or any of the other national parks, forests and BLM lands in an around Montana, including Yellowstone. Until that distant day they do decide to visit, racial justice demands that they be relieved of any duty to support such public lands with their tax dollars. The same holds for public universities: until citizens of color aspire to attend in proportion to their representation in the citizenry, they should be relieved of any obligation to pay taxes to support the institutions. The flip-side is, I suppose, that they should be taxed more to support our prisons.

  6. Even when a school succeeds in raising their minority admissions, I have to wonder at what cost those gains are made. Some 24 years ago, I had an experience that still stays with me. I was finishing my undergraduate degree at the state’s flagship university, and had applied to the college of education at that same institution. In spite of some impressive marks, I was passed over, but I do not argue that decision. Things got interesting soon after that.

    Before leaving town, I had a chance to attend a couple of undergraduate education courses at the big U. In those courses, the minority representation was noticeably high. Most of them were either going to continue in graduate school there or were already in. The punchline came when I relocated to a graduate school at a smaller state university out in the sticks. There were maybe 20 college of education students in my class. Every one of us was white, every one. Our conspicuous lack of diversity was actually caused by the diversity outreach at Enormous State U. My impression was that that they were not making gains for minorities. They were only redistributing them.

  7. “They must know that the admissions office is desperate to draw African American kids who can handle the college workload.”

    I seriously doubt that they’re seeking black kids who can handle the college workload. Once you start hiring “diversity, equity and inclusion” experts, merit and ability go out the window, and you are left with the very great likelihood of students being recruited and given scholarships based solely on the color of their skin. Doesn’t matter how many of them flunk out, it’s that golden diversity prize they’re now after.

  8. Given that the black population of the entire country is about 12%, every school trying to exceed that just isn’t going to work. Even if you spread the black college student population across every school proportional to its total enrollment, none would come anywhere near 12%. First, you have historically black schools taking up part of them. Then there’s the number of blacks incarcerated, whatever the reason. Throw in the differences in educational attainment due to bad urban schools, and that education just isn’t as valued among blacks overall as it is among say, Asians or Jews, and any black enrollment above about 5-6% should be considered pretty good.

  9. “Social justice” has become a fanatical cult, ready to destroy non-cult individuals and values. Cultists are not interested in reality; they do not want to understand the world, but to change it to conform to their vision, whether or not that is possible. The tragedy is that it has taken over our most valuable institutions: colleges and universities, and public schools are not far behind. What we are experiencing is like the sack of Rome, but the barbarians are not from the outside, but from the educational sector.

  10. The woman in the university office was busying herself by looking at the top of the food chain, only. The apex of Academia. She thinks a “systemic” something is at the bottom of the matter, and she’s half right. It is systemic. But it is not racism. If that were the case, then many, many other people of color who do not happen to be African American and descended from slaves, would also be suffering the same disparate numbers. And they are not. Go ask an Asian or a Middle Easterner.

    What is systemic apparently, in these times – is the attitude that the rigors, disciplines, applications and hard work required to attain academic excellence…all belong to a conspiracy of whiteness, in order to keep (a pretty significant percentage of um…..white folks out of higher educational institutions, as well). Acting ‘white’ is the lousiest excuse there is to go get a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

    Personally, it drives me nuts that black kids grow up unable to read, or reading at a level far below their grade. It drives me nuts because the act and the effort of reading and reading well, is a cornerstone of intellectual growth in anyone of any age. Just go ask a few hundred dozen girls of various ages over there in Afghanistan. They still hug a culture that equates education and freedom. The two are symbiotic, married at the hip, and freely exchanged with one another to mean one and the same exact thing.
    In other words….they know the value of what they’re missing, of what they have been denied for multiple generations, largely because they happen to occupy the wrong sexual identity.

    And the fact that they are willing to risk their lives for such a treasured privilege, after having been reduced to something of less value than a unit of common livestock, by a robust percentage of the menfolk of their culture – just what is it that justifies this constant clamoring in North America about something so rotten, so systemically and brutally abusive, that rises up right now out of the very pavements to claim one group and one group only with such an insurmountable barrage of bigotry that will deny absolutely, any form of academic success to any person of color who happens to identify with a very particular and specific epoch in American history?

    I keep thinking about kids who can’t read. Kids who grow up unable to read. Kids who never are able to just naturally tumble into the occupation of reading the way that kids often naturally do. Our country is chock full of tens of millions of adult people who have done just that. And I keep asking why that is, that these kids are not connected to that evolution in their lives. And that many of them happen to be black.
    I keep thinking of the processes out of the starting gate in the educational life of a kid. I keep thinking that there are basic ways and means that facilitate all this coming together in a kid’s life. I remind myself that in grade two I had a horrific negative reaction to the “Dick and Jane” readers and subsequently was saved in the summer between grade two and grade three by the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. I learned to read.

    I keep wondering how much of this is a cultural thing? I keep asking myself where does all that natural curiosity and hunger to know and understand go, in a small child who washes up in any school in the nation.
    I keep thinking about that black kid who desperately needs a helping hand, who needs someone to teach, instruct, guide, inspire them, in order that they do indeed, learn how to read. And read well. Read magnificently.
    I’m a librarian. I love books. I love books as much and as equally as I love people. These two things are entirely related.

    And finally, I keep thinking about that kid, that same kid who numbers in the several millions, who gets lost in the big political shuffle. The shell game. The magical mystery tour. The numbers blunders. The battle of the ages.
    That kid is getting hit by all the flying debris, and that kid is just as much a statistic of collateral damage as any kind who occupies a war zone.
    For it is a war zone. One that will continue to produce destruction, and despair. It will not help that kid. It appears that nobody really notices that kid.

    And but for this, that same kid would show up on the doorstep of a campus somewhere, smiling and confident, five to ten years from now…..fully credentialed, authorized, qualified and capable of quieting the unrest and irritation of any ‘equity, diversity and inclusivity’ bureaucrat.

    Go ahead and keep trying to fudge the outcomes.
    I say go back to the basics. Give a kid a real chance, an honest chance.

    1. I read in the book “Factfulness” the author demonstrated the best way to improve healthcare in impoverished regions was to teach reading. Basic reading is the foundation. Without it, all the other stuff will crumble.

  11. Rejecting contest winners on the basis of race is an explicit Title VI violation, and while the economic loss may not be much, maybe just a citation on a cv, it’s something that someone really ought to pursue because it is so explicit.

    Throwing out a contest (a contract) because people of the wrong race won it? I’d love to see the university having to defend that one in court….

    Didn’t Dr. King once give a speech entitled “I have a dream”? — and isn’t this a rather gristly violation of his dream?

    Oh, and as to the professor complaining about demographics, she could always resign her position so she could be replaced by a woman of color — but I doubt she’d ever consider that. Funny how that always seems to be the case….

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