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April 9, 2024

Disparate Impact Is Wrecking Us

In a scathing essay on the effects of racial excuse-making on public policy, Heather Mac Donald pulls no punches.

Does counting by race make a nation stronger or weaker? More talented or less talented? More competitive or less competitive?

Put another way, would the just-concluded NCAA men’s basketball tournament have put out a better product if it enforced a strict limit of 13% of its players being black? That, after all, is the percentage of the American people who are black. What about the NFL? What if strict quotas were enforced to ensure that 71% of its running backs, wide receivers, and cornerbacks were white? What about hip-hop artists? Concert pianists? Mechanical engineers? Brain surgeons? Airplane pilots?

These are the sorts of questions that fearless Heather Mac Donald poses in the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis monthly, titled “Disparate Impact Thinking Is Destroying Our Civilization.” (If the title doesn’t pull you in, we don’t know what will.)

Given its outsized effect across the whole of American society, disparate impact as a public policy principle is remarkably obscure. “If a cancer research lab, for example, does not have 13 percent black oncologists,” Mac Donald begins, “it is by definition a racist lab that discriminates against competitively qualified black oncologists; if an airline company doesn’t have 13 percent black pilots, it is by definition a racist airline company that discriminates against competitively qualified black pilots; and if a prison population contains more than 13 percent black prisoners, our law enforcement system is racist.”

That’s how the disparate impact argument is used to “prove” discrimination. It’s purely a numbers game, but it only works in one direction — in the direction that favors blacks and dismisses their often inferior academic or professional credentials as a product of racial discrimination. As Mac Donald observes, this demonstrably false assertion had been floating around in academic and elite media circles for years, but it began to infect the more essential parts of our culture in the wake of the George Floyd riots. That’s when Big Business and other historically merit-based institutions began to take the plunge.

Were the effects of disparate impact limited to, say, business and entertainment, that’d be one thing. Sadly, that’s not the case. “Consider medicine,” says Mac Donald:

Step One of the medical licensing exam, taken during or after the second year of medical school, tests medical students’ knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and pathology. On average, black students score lower on the grading curve, making it harder for them to land their preferred residencies. Step One, in other words, has a “disparate impact” on black medical students. The solution, implemented last year, was to eliminate the Step One grading disparity by instituting a pass-fail system. Hospitals choosing residents can no longer distinguish between high and low achieving students — and that is precisely the point!

Accordingly, the Medical College Achievement Test followed suit, with some medical schools going so far as to waive the MCAT submission requirement entirely for black applicants.

Barack Obama, that fundamental transformer himself, brought disparate impact into the classroom when he saw that black students were being disciplined more often than Asians or whites. His Department of Education’s infamous “Dear Colleague” letter “advised school superintendents nationwide that racial disparities in suspension rates would be grounds for finding school districts in violation of federal anti-discrimination law, and therefore at risk of losing federal funding.”

Then there’s law and order and public safety, which the great Thomas Sowell unpacked back in 2015 in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” hoax of Michael Brown, a menacing black hoodlum whose death at the hands of a white cop was initially based in lies, but which the evidence ultimately showed was an unequivocal act of self-defense. As Sowell wrote:

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

Mac Donald drives home this same point in her Imprimis piece: “The curious state of our criminal justice system today,” she says, “is a function of the disparate impact principle. If you wonder why police officers are not making certain arrests, or why district attorneys are not prosecuting whole categories of crimes — such as shoplifting, trespassing, or farebeating — it is because apprehending lawbreakers and prosecuting crime have a disparate impact on black criminals. Urban leaders have decided that they would rather not enforce the law at all, no matter how constitutional that enforcement, than put more black criminals in jail.”

Is technology racist because those “speeding” and “red light” cameras capture a disproportionate number of black lawbreakers? “Throw out the cameras,” says an exasperated Mac Donald.

And what of high-crime inner-city black neighborhoods? Thanks to disparate impact, the cops are discouraged from policing those desperate areas and arresting the criminals, lest they themselves be accused of racism and have their careers ended. Yes, “The Ferguson Effectis real.

Ultimately, Mac Donald saves her harshest medicine for the academic skills gap between blacks and non-blacks, which she says is at the heart of black underrepresentation in a wide array of merit-based fields. The numbers are equal parts grim and heartbreaking: “In 2019, 66 percent of all black 12th graders did not possess even partial mastery of basic 12th grade math skills, defined as being able to do arithmetic and to read a graph. Only seven percent of black 12th graders were proficient in 12th grade math, defined as being able to calculate using ratios. The number of black 12th graders who were advanced in math was too small to show up statistically in a national sample. The picture was not much better in reading. Fifty percent of black 12th graders did not possess even partial mastery of basic reading, and only four percent were advanced.”

As Mac Donald puts it: “At present you can have proportional diversity or you can have meritocracy. You cannot have both.”

Take a guess what they’ve opted for in Communist China. There, as Mac Donald points out, our leading geopolitical foe ranks first in international tests of K-12 math, science, and reading skills, while the U.S. ranks 25th.

“Lowering standards,” she concludes, “helps no one, since high expectations are the key to achievement. In defense of excellence we must speak the truth, never apologize, and never back down.”

She’s right, of course. The question is: Is anyone listening?

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