Writing for the Martin Center in January about universities’ flawed attempts to practice social engineering, I criticized in passing the American habit of breaking down nearly all official data by race. “So long as official bodies continue to publicize statistics embodying racial categories,” I predicted, “racial preferences and stereotyping will continue to weaken our educational institutions.”
What I didn’t mention, but might have, is that this weakening threatens other social institutions as well, because categorizing people by race carries with it unspoken but inevitable assumptions. Among them is the idea that “race” is the single overwhelmingly significant fact about every human being.
This presumption is illustrated by much contemporary public discourse—for example, “Black Lives Matter” and other social movements—and by the attempt to remove from language anything that might be taken as a racial slur. Hence such usages as “the n-word” or the practice, designed to signal a virtuous lack of racist denigration, of always capitalizing “Black” but not “white.” This preoccupation with race is also exemplified by the following letter, dated February 1, 2023, and received by the Department of Education:
In order to address long-standing racial and ethnic gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment that could be exacerbated by a Supreme Court decision that may bar institutions of higher education (IHEs) from considering race in their admissions processes, the Department of Education (ED) should expand its collection of admissions data and disaggregate that data by race and ethnicity, as it already does for gender. [Emphasis added.]
Among the three dozen signing organizations and individuals, the letter’s organizer may well have been Education Reform Now (ERN), since the letter is posted on their website. Earlier, ERN had said the following about the Supreme Court’s consideration of “affirmative action” in college admissions:
Education Reform Now unequivocally defends the right, indeed the necessity, of colleges considering race and ethnicity in their admissions process in order both to reckon with the impact race plays in access to opportunity and to recognize that all students should be able to bring their full identity to the admissions process, which include their racial and ethnic identity among many other factors. We hope that a majority of the justices will agree. Today’s case should also spark private and public colleges to undertake serious admissions reform to protect diversity, including the elimination of legacy preferences.
How times have changed! Four decades ago, the dean of our graduate school bragged to me that he had assured against racial discrimination in admissions by removing the requirement that applications include a photograph. Beginning not much more than a decade later, applications for college admission at any level began asking applicants to state their racial category explicitly.
The demand that yet more data be disaggregated by race typifies the unwarranted assumptions of wokeness.ERN’s demand that yet more data should be disaggregated by race typifies the unwarranted assumptions, misinterpretation of evidence, and sheer lack of logic that pervade political correctness, wokeness, and the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) ideology. The illogic begins with a lack of clarity about what race is.
Proponents of DEI obviously accept that race is a material reality that makes categorization possible; yet they studiously resist any suggestion that this material reality is associated with abilities or behavior, most particularly with intellectual capacity. But why should not brain and nerve functions, which constitute mental activity, correlate with skin color just as do other physiological functions, for instance blood pressure or sensitivity to medications?
As the anthropologist Ruth Benedict pointed out decades ago, race is a biological fact. By contrast, valuing or devaluing people on account of their race is racism, displayed in social or political practices that are neither dictated nor excused by biological fact.
“Diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are concepts that should apply in the first instance to individuals; indeed, the pursuit of individual freedom and happiness, and the safeguarding of individual rights, are explicitly agreed-upon aims of our society. To define those concepts, or the now-common “social equity and justice,” in terms of groups means either that individual experiences are not regarded as the important thing or that all individuals in the chosen group are identical clones in terms of their experience, ability, and preferences—a possibility that is plainly not the case. Most generally, then, DEI practices, exemplified in the statements cited above, are plainly un-American in calling for individuals to be treated as stereotypical representatives of their groups rather than as the genuinely unique individuals that we all are.
If “diversity” is interpreted correctly, as referring to individuals, then all sorts of disparities will inevitably show up whenever one statistically samples the distribution of particular human characteristics. Disparities are inevitable in a free society, because every individual has a very large number of different characteristics, which are influenced by a host of variables and distributed unequally and in different ways across humankind.
One might choose to compare people who have been grouped in all sorts of ways: by religion, by economic status, by nationality, by age, by health—an unlimited set of choices is available. Every choice reveals inevitably the purpose for making the comparison in the first place.
A good reason might be to expand the knowledge pertinent to race-appropriate medical treatments. But public discourse is not usually concerned with those medical matters, focusing instead on allegations of unfairness and systemic discrimination, as illustrated by ERN’s statements. ERN’s letter to the Department of Education, for example, goes on to claim that “while racial and ethnic gaps in the attainment of a high school diploma have shrunk significantly since 1981, they persist in bachelor’s degree attainment. […] Black adults remain 10 percentage points less likely to have a BA than White adults are.”
This non sequitur is typical of unspoken DEI assumptions. There is no obvious reason a priori why precisely the same results should be seen in high-school graduation rates as in the obtaining of college degrees. Quite the opposite, in fact: College is—or should be—more intellectually demanding than high school. What ERN claims as evidence of systemic discrimination is what might be expected from population-average differences in such measures as IQ or SAT score.
ERN simply presumes, however, that all racial disparities somehow reflect systemic racial discrimination, committing the most elementary mistake in interpreting statistical data. The organization has taken mere correlations to signify cause-and-effect relationships and has gone even further to postulate the cause.
Collecting more race-specific data in order to support claims of unfairness can only be socially harmful. African-American and Hispanic groups are chosen as the prime victims (as though this were already established fact), with occasional perfunctory nods to Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and certain gender groups. Thereby are all other groups defined, implicitly but inevitably, as not treated unjustly. Thus are they included in the collectively-guilty, “white,” systemically racist remainder of society on which the burden rests to improve the circumstances of the “disadvantaged” groups.
But large groups of white Americans also experience considerable disadvantages, economically and health-wise in particular—for instance, in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Such neglected groups naturally resist and rebel against the perceived unfairness of giving support to others when they also need it; thereby are social and political divisions exacerbated, and political backlash follows.
Empathetic social policies should address, directly and in race-neutral fashion, the underlying problems that afflict our society: poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of adequate health-care, crime, et cetera. Such policies would, to the extent that they were successful, automatically ameliorate any unwarranted racial disparities while respecting differences in cultural and personal preferences and disparities in individual talents. Uneven outcomes could then be accepted as natural, just as in present-day major sports disparities in representation and income greatly favor black athletes over Asians and Jews. Few seem to be complaining about that.
Henry Bauer is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry & Science Studies and Dean Emeritus of Arts & Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (Virginia Tech).