Heather Mac Donald’s new book, When Race Trumps Merit: How the Pursuit of Equity Sacrifices Excellence, Destroys Beauty, and Threatens Lives, is about a phenomena she believes began in earnest around 2020 after the death of George Floyd. This is when many of our major institutions—the press, corporations, sports, and higher education—began to subscribe to the hoary notion that America is a nation rife with “systemic racism.”
At the core of this accusation is the relatively new concept of “disparate impact.” As Mac Donald writes:
Under this ideology, any standard or behavioral norm which negatively and disproportionately affects blacks is presumed to be a tool of white supremacy. If academic admissions standards for colleges and high schools result in a student body in which the percentage of black students is less than that of the national population (13 percent), then these standards must be lowered for the sake of social equity. If the enforcement of criminal law results in a prison population that is more than 13 percent black, then that enforcement must be unwound. If hiring and promotion criteria mean that a workplace is not proportionally diverse, then those criteria must be abandoned.
Disparate impact analysis is now being applied in all areas of American life. Mac Donald groups its presence in three categories: Science and Medicine, Culture and the Arts, and Law and Order. The picture she paints with facts, case studies, insider testimony, and anecdotes is a dire one.
Chapter One, “Medicine’s Racial Reckoning,” is a major wake up call. Complicit here are all the major organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Association of Medical Colleges, and the major medical journals, JAMA, and the New England Journal of Medicine. They all have became involved in the project of confronting “white supremacy.” To combat “deliberate exclusion,” medical school entrance tests should be done away with as minorities score more poorly than whites, and grades ought to be Pass-Fail to make sure that more minorities pass. As Mac Donald says, “the guardians of science have turned on science itself.” As a result, the best people are being driven out of the business because of reverse discrimination. This bodes badly for scientific progress, let alone our medical care.
Chapter Two “How ‘Diversity’ Subverts Science” is no less damning. Equity jargon and requirements now are part of all NIH grants, and there are even grants solely to create more equitable laboratory environments. From the National Institute of Health (NIH) to journals representing major areas of the sciences, Mac Donald shows how the demand for equity degrades the scientific search for truth.
In terms of Culture and the Arts, institutions in all areas of performance and education flagellate themselves for their past “systematic racism” and declare that the future would be different. A primary function of these organizations will now be to put all their efforts into fighting systemic racism. They will do this in part by hiring a minimum of at least one diversity officer. Every European art form is now being deemed inherently racist because in the past there were few black practitioners of quality. All docents at the Chicago Art Institute were fired because they were wealthy white ladies, even if they had trained for years and worked for free, only to be replaced by minorities who are paid. Sculptures and canvases that were only recently considered representative of an anti-slavery position are now “recontexualized” and reinterpreted to demonstrate pro-slavery, misogynistic, and colonial power relations.
What is left out in all of this is aesthetic quality. There are some simple truisms in the arts: either a musician plays in tune or he doesn’t; either a painter can draw well or she can’t. And some do both a lot better than others, regardless of race or sexual orientation. To raise up someone who is at best mediocre just because of unartistic qualities will be to destroy the traditional arts, which may just be the point. One need only look at the recent vandalization of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for evidence of this.
Disparate impact truly comes to the fore in the final section of the book, Law and Order, because the operating premise in the criminal justice system is that racism accounts for all disparities in arrest rates and incarceration rates. One cannot acknowledge that the rate of criminal behavior is vastly higher in black communities. To do so is taboo. Mac Donald repeatedly shows that suggesting there is something called systematic racism ignores repugnant behavior by members of the black community. She believes this patronizing attitude is today’s real racism, and it guarantees that the bourgeois behavioral gap—the cause of lingering social economic disparities—will continue.
Mac Donald is nothing if not an in-your-face cultural warrior. She knows that it is hard for those employed by institutions or in fields in the forefront of disparate impact to enjoin in the battle, as they risk their livelihoods and their families’ well-being. It must therefore be those others like her, public intellectuals and other interested parties, who must take up the fight. The repercussions for not doing so are deadly:
Racial etiquette ……demands that every individual be treated fairly, with courtesy and respect. But the reality remains that a dysfunctional inner-city culture is hindering black progress. We pretend that the reason for the lack of proportional representation in institution after institution is racist measures of achievement rather than vast academic and behavioral gaps. As a remedy for this alleged racism we create double standards of accomplishment and behavior. But double standards help no one. They are condescending and they are lethal.
No two people can possibly be the same. Not all groups can be the same. And certainly no two different groups find their way in society in a like manner, as Thomas Sowell’s research has so convincingly demonstrated: It is simply true that racial (and sexual) disparities in outcomes are “overwhelmingly the result of measurable differences in achievement and behavior, not the result of racism.” But to suggest otherwise has become heretical.
Mac Donald knows that disparate impact is an assault on our country and civilization, and that both hang in the balance. We are indeed engaged in a battle for our collective soul. Her final words are heartfelt, if not anguished, in their call to arms: “Western civilization contains too much beauty and grandeur, too much achievement, and too much innovation—from advances in the sciences to the blessings of republican self-government—to be lost without a fight.” This book is a major document in this battle.