Education's Bias Fallacy

It’s the achievement gap, not systemic racism, that explains demographic disparities in education and employment.

The United States is being torn apart by an idea: that racism defines America. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in late May 2020 catapulted this claim into national prominence; riots and the desecration of national symbols followed. Now, activists and their media allies are marshaling a more sweeping set of facts to prove the dominance of white supremacy: the absence of a proportional representation of blacks in a range of organizations. That insufficient diversity results from racial bias, claim the activists, and every few days, the press serves up another exposé of this industry or that company’s too-white workforce to drive home the point.

In one short stretch during the summer of 2020, the Wall Street Journal ran stories headlined “Wall Street Knows It’s Too White” and “A Decade-Long Stall for Black Enrollment in M.B.A. Programs.” The Los Angeles Times asked: “Why are Black and Latino people still kept out of the tech industry?” In another article, the Times documented its own “painful reckoning over race.” The New York Times pumped out news features and op-eds alleging racism in food journalism, Hollywood, publishing, and sports management, among other professions. The Chronicle of Higher Education painstakingly reported on protests against alleged racial bias in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, citing, for example, charges that black scientists are constantly “attacked by institutional and systemic racism.” All the articles invoked employment ratios as proof of racism.

This journalistic theme has deep roots. For decades, reporters could all but guarantee themselves front-page placement by tallying shortfalls in the “diversity” of a firm or profession. Depending on the moment, sex counts might dominate the discrimination genre, as during the height of the #MeToo movement. Currently, however, we are back to pure race tallies; indeed, female leadership buys an institution no credit from the media, if that leadership is white.

These current diversity exposés are distinguished from their predecessors not just by their frequency. Virtually all mainstream institutions now agree that a nonracially proportionate workforce proves racism, including their own. Organizations preemptively accuse themselves of discrimination without waiting for the inevitable indictment. The publisher of the Science family of journals denounced his own publications for “the discrimination, subjugation, and silencing of minority colleagues and voices.” The American Mathematical Society pledged to “address systemic inequities that exist in our mathematics community.” The dean of the Harvard Business School apologized that “we have not fought racism as effectively as we could have and have not served our Black community members better.”

The remedy proposed for this alleged systemic bias is an even greater emphasis on race as a job qualification. Increasing the role of skin color in employment decisions, however, will compromise the caliber of American institutions, if bias does not, in fact, explain workforce disparities. Moreover, the insistence on [ … ]

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