The Atlantic is a magazine with a splendid history. Yet it recently published an article—“‘Race Neutral’ Is the New ‘Separate but Equal,’” by Uma Mazyck Jayakumar and Ibram X. Kendi—that is both self-contradictory and morally questionable.
“Separate but equal,” the policy outlawed by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, was explicitly racist because students were allocated to separate schools by their race. Yet the authors equate this policy to the explicitly race–neutral SCOTUS ruling against affirmative action. The court ruling forbids allocating admissions offers by race; “separate but equal” did the opposite. So how are they equivalent, exactly?
They are equivalent, according to Jayakumar and Kendi, because they are both associated with racial inequities. Evidently the Atlantic’s editors bought the authors’ claim that any policy that has disparate impact (although the authors don’t use that term) is … questionable, even racist (although they avoid that word):
[T]he Court endorsed SFFA’s [the plaintiff in the Harvard/UNC case] call for “race neutral” admissions in higher education … effectively permitting the major admissions metrics that have long led to racial inequities in college admissions … a normality of racial inequity.
In other words, “major admissions metrics” (SAT scores, grades, etc.) that make no mention of race might “normalize” racial inequities. By “inequities,” the authors seem to mean not some kind of objective unfairness but simply numerical disparities. If blacks as a group score less well than whites or Asians on academic measures, then, so long as the tests are fair, so what? But we have all become so hypersensitive to racial differences that any disparity is supposedly racist, no matter the cause. So, no need to actually use the word. Just jump right away to anti-racism:
Affirmative-action policies are anti-racist because they have been proved to reduce racial inequities [disparities], while many of the regular admissions metrics are racist because they maintain racial inequities.
Here, the authors finally state their basic thesis directly: Racism is to be defined not by laws, policies, or individual prejudice, but by results. Racism is proved if blacks as a group have less of anything (college admissions, money, health, etc.) than whites.
The anti-racism thesis was popularized by Dr. Kendi some years ago and, despite its questionable logic, has many supporters. But the error began much earlier, when poll taxes and literacy tests that didn’t mention race were condemned as “racist” because blacks, poorer and less literate than whites, struggled to pay the tax or pass the test.
Kendi’s thesis—disparate impact equals racism—makes sense from two points of view: 1) as a simple “black power” play, a way to get more resources for blacks, but also 2) as a way to identify racism, given that whites and blacks are equal in all their faculties. If the two groups are behaviorally identical, then, obviously, any social, academic, wealth, etc. differences must be due to differential treatment, i.e., racism.
Unfortunately, as numerous studies have shown, self-identified whites and blacks differ by many metrics, including their interests and cognitive abilities. Consequently, individual and group differences cannot be excluded, and disparate impact—differential results of a racially neutral test—cannot necessarily be attributed to racism.
What’s left is the power-play argument: blacks, because of their tragic history, just deserve more. That argument is unanswerable by logic, but let’s look a little closer at the unfairness issue.
There are usually more white than black applicants to most selective colleges. So, even if whites, on average, score higher than blacks, there will still be more white than black rejects. Yet the “disparate impact” on that group can hardly be called racist. What’s the difference, given that the “metrics” are race-neutral? What could justify the authors’ attempt to elevate rejected black students at the expense of rejected white students?
The answer seems to be race-related emotion. It may help to distinguish three properties of any rule or requirement:
• What does it actually say? (Does it mention race, for example?)
• What effect does it have?
• What were the intentions of the drafter(s) of the rule/requirement?
These three are routinely confused. Literacy tests are sometimes called “oppressive technologies,” for example, though they aren’t racial, because certain races may perform differently than others. Literacy tests for voting are now considered racist, partly because many suspect the intention of those who imposed them. If the testers’ intentions are good, there is no reason to call such tests racist or “oppressive.” Tests like the ACT or the SAT, which also do not mention race, are obviously not intended to discriminate racially. Yet, like literacy tests, they, too, have disparate impact.
Unfortunately, the muddled precedent of literacy tests allows Jayakumar and Kendi to label as racist any test on which blacks do badly. The result is the absurdly self-contradictory concept of anti-racism, which urges racist remedies for non-racist actions.
The Atlantic should be embarrassed to lend its prestige to this logically false and morally challenged project.