Fools Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

There is an old Chinese proverb that counsels the following:

“He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool...shun him.

He who knows not and knows that he knows not is willing...teach him.

He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep...awaken him.

He who knows and knows that he knows is wise...follow him.”

Two recent events give me reason to reaffirm the wisdom of this advice.

The first incident involves Richard Atkinson, former president of the University of California (UC). Speaking to a group of UC San Diego students, donors and community members, my good friend Atkinson said, “It will be very difficult, if at all possible, to have diversity at elite universities, like the University of California, without the mechanism of ‘affirmative action.’”

Following his talk, Atkinson proposed three methods to increase “minority” enrollment at UC: accept more students based only on their high school grades, use its current admissions policy “more flexibly,” and focus its high school preparation programs more on blacks.

I am persuaded beyond any doubt that Atkinson and other university administrators are so convinced of the moral superiority of their objective to “increase diversity” that they are oblivious to the racially demeaning character of their method of achieving it. Moreover, they seem to know not that they are consigning generations of black children to a status of academic underachievers.

Atkinson knows that there is an academic gap between black and Latino students and Asian and white students; he knows fully well about grade inflation; and he knows that UC administrators have the “flexibility” to substitute nonacademic factors for academic accomplishment. Thus, when Atkinson offers his view that “diversity” cannot be attained in the absence of “affirmative action” (race preferences), and then proposes three methods to increase diversity, two of which amount to the diminution of academic accomplishment, he is confirming his belief that black students are incapable of competing academically alongside Asians and whites; they have to be given a preference in the form of lower standards. It is reasonable to characterize this as a racially fatalistic, if not outright racist, mentality.

The other incident came from Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) as he announced his candidacy, again, for president of the United States. Commenting about the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack Obama, Biden told the New York Observer, “I mean, you got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean that’s a storybook, man.”

Biden’s comment was clearly racist, even more so than when Senator Trent Lott’s (R-Mississippi) praises of a 100-year-old colleague were seen to be an endorsement of racial segregation. Biden underscored the fact that “he did not know and did not know that he did not know” when he said on the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” that “I got into trouble when I said ‘clean.’” He did not understand the totality of his comment and the fact that he got into trouble with the word “first.” Everything after that suggested that Obama was an anomaly. Blacks aren’t “mainstream,” “articulate,” “bright,” “clean” or “nice-looking,” in Biden’s universe. Obama, Biden implied, was the first one to come along having those attributes.

Then, there’s Obama himself and Jesse Jackson. Certainly, they realize the seriousness of the matter. But, instead of calling attention to Biden’s stereotypical characterization of black people, Jackson merely described the quote as an “insensitive racial remark” and urged Biden to “interpret what he meant.”

Obviously, partisan politics are largely responsible for the “he who knows and knows not that he knows” attitude of individuals such as Obama and Jackson. Biden acted as if he was merely flattering Obama, but in the course of doing so he insulted all other blacks – past and present.

Dick Atkinson and Joe Biden are not “racists” in the commonly understood sense of that word – and I don’t want them to utter another one of those meaningless public “apologies” that the public demands when someone says something foolish. For me, it is sufficient for these two incidents to simply be placed in their proper context by the media, which gave the Biden incident a shelf life of about one day, and by the rest of us.

Despite the enormous strides that have been made in the past few decades to eradicate racism, there remains a disturbing attitude that guides far too many influential public officials who establish and implement public policies relating to race in our nation. With Biden as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Atkinson the president of the University of California few individuals are more influential. That is why their comments reflecting the view that it is unusual for blacks to be “bright” and “articulate” and that blacks can’t compete academically “without the mechanism of affirmative action” are so disturbing and must be confronted.

Yes, there are a lot of fools who know not and know not that they know not.