Equity, Equality, Opportunity—And Stupidity

For many decades preferences in school admissions and hiring have, whatever their stated intent might be, co-existed uncomfortably with the ideals of meritocracy in American society, and the question that today is bedeviling so many of the discussions in our nation is whether we are seeking an equality of opportunity or an equality of outcome.

The belief that an actual meritocracy has never truly existed in America due to entrenched institutional discrimination directed at women, people of color, and other groups has, of course, long justified the belief that preferential treatment for some in our nation should continue indefinitely—absent any clear evidence of continuing discriminatory intent.  Advocates for these affirmative action programs claim that any statistical differences in admissions and hiring are themselves proof positive of a historical legacy of bigotry that will require amelioration until the elusive and somewhat ill-defined goal of equity in all facets of American society is reached.

Differences of any kind are, according to this theory, always the result of bigotry.

Moreover, it has been recently argued that the entire idea of meritocracy is itself discriminatory in practice and must be abandoned for the good of our nation, which leads to a broader discussion concerning whether nurturing the most intelligent, most talented, and most motivated individuals benefits society as a whole—and if failing to do so is a form of national self-destruction.  The question of whether our country is best run according to mandated quotas has been debated for decades, and those who are in favor of equality of opportunity—except in those rare circumstances where clear and egregious discrimination can be proved to have occurred—believe that continued favoritism toward certain groups is, in fact, punishing those who work hard to excel.  

This question is the driving force behind a landmark case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court this fall, Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College.  

Briefly, the plaintiffs in this case are arguing the Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies are excluding more highly qualified candidates—many of Asian and South Asian ancestry—in order to admit less qualified Black students to the college.  Harvard’s justification, like that of so many other colleges with similar policies, is that they have a vested interest in admitting as diverse a student body as possible.  Therefore, it is right and proper that other non-academic factors are taken into consideration when Harvard and other colleges are finalizing their admissions decisions.

The same basic logic has long underpinned affirmative action programs regarding hiring for both private and public sector employment.  The arguments surrounding the purported benefits of a diverse workforce are not dissimilar to the goal of a diverse student body in higher education; in each circumstance there exists a presumption that the effects of historic discrimination must be recognized and remedied, and so a strict scrutiny of qualifications and credentials alone can unwittingly perpetuate inequality in American society.  Consequently, race, gender or other personal factors have a legitimate and necessary role to play when making hiring decisions.

At least as far as college admissions policies go, it seems Americans are not fans of giving much weight to either the race or gender of applicants.  A poll published by the Pew Research Center in April found that the vast majority of Americans believe that high school grades and standardized test scores should the primary criteria considered; only 7% of those polled thought race or ethnicity should be major factors, and a scant 4% thought the same for gender.

Recent polls have found greater support for using affirmative action programs in employment, but it has been suggested that the wording of these question—and concerns that openly disagreeing these programs might lead to workplace retaliation—has led some to wonder whether the support of American workers for preferential hiring efforts is much lower than it might seem.  Given the incendiary nature of so many of these discussions, and the facile and frequent characterization of opponents of affirmative action as bigots, it is unsurprising that many wonder if honest opinions can be openly expressed in our nation today.

Using affirmative action programs to guide school admissions and hiring decisions is one question that has faced America for many decades.  Broadening these same considerations to determine who will—and who will not—be fired is likely to be the next flash point in debates over whether using quotas or seeking quality applicants is the best method for managing the inevitable disparities in intelligence, talent, and motivation within our nation.

Cue the new teacher contract for the public schools in Minneapolis—and the lawsuit that shortly followed.

Public schools across America are seeing enrollments shrink as more families move their children to private schools, parochial schools, privately-operated micro-schools and learning pods, or traditional home schooling.  Fewer student obviously translates into a need for fewer teachers, so layoffs are on the horizon.

The language of the new teacher contract in Minneapolis does not explicitly state that White teachers should be the first to be laid off.  However, according to a recent story published by the Associated Press, the contract does shield from layoff “teachers who are members of populations underrepresented among licensed teachers in the District,” as well as alumni of historically Black and Hispanic colleges, and of tribal colleges.  This same contract would also put White teachers at the rear of the rehiring line if they were to be called back to work after a layoff.

Aside from the presumption that preferential retention is justified in order to correct past discrimination in teacher recruitment in the district, the other factor at play here is the belief that minority students achieve greater academic success when their teacher, as the expression goes, “looks like” them.  Theories used to justify this belief run the gamut from suggestions that color matching improves student self-esteem, the teachers share a cultural affinity for their students that improves their instruction, and that caring is more effectively communicated by a teacher who is of the same race or ethnicity as the students in the classroom.

Oddly enough, longitudinal studies of standardized test scores and later college success that seek to determine whether having a minority teacher in front of minority students in the classroom leads inevitably to improved outcomes have yet to determine a definitive causal link.  The idea that if the teacher looks like the students they are instructing that improved academic performance will follow is anecdotal at best—and perhaps wishful Woke thinking at worst.  

Given that many decades of educational research have conclusively determined that teacher competency is the single most important factor in student success, the line of reasoning behind the Minneapolis teacher contract seems willing to trade classroom experience and expertise for physical appearance, which is pretty much discrimination defined.  Moreover, unless we are going to engage in the most outrageous segregation in order to match students with teachers of their own race or ethnicity, the supposed benefits of teacher-student color matching are going to have real life limitations; worse still, the educational apartheid that these practices must surely encourage is certainly far more damaging in the long run for students, communities, and our nation as a whole.

Even if one were to presume that color matching teachers and students offered some academic or social benefits, the implications of this policy are chilling, and the virtue signaling logic behind this effort puts our nation on a very dangerous and divisive path.  Although it is likely true that children are intrinsically more comfortable with classroom teachers who resemble their own parents—children are nature’s greatest conformists, after all—it does not naturally follow that society as a whole benefits by reinforcing the infantile attraction to repetition that leads to endless rounds of Barney songs or hours glued to Dora the Explorer.

Children, adolescents—and many adults as well—need to be pushed out of their innate comfort zones in order to learn and grow.  White students can excel with a competent and caring Black teacher; Black students can thrive with a White teacher who brings their expertise and passion into the classroom.  Most importantly, we all learn and grow through experiences that demonstrate brains, skill, compassion, and goodness can be possessed by anyone—no matter their race or ethnicity.

One can only imagine the outrage—and rightly so—that would follow the efforts of a majority White district to hire and retain White teachers exclusively if the same flawed logic now being exhibited in Minneapolis and other schools and colleges across America were taken to its logical conclusion.  A diverse nation should never celebrate or promote exclusionary practices in any educational setting, for to do so is to corrode the foundations of a just and welcoming society in favor of a philosophy that would have fit in very well in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, when Aryan teachers were extolled as the best fit with an Aryan nation—no Jews, Slavs, or other untermensch need apply.

History is not destiny for either individuals or nations, and we presume the behavior of both is governed by cause and effect relationships at our own peril.  Just as billions of individuals have risen above the unfortunate circumstances of their own births and upbringing, so has modern America done an truly outstanding job reacting against our own history and the thousands of years of despicable beliefs imported from our collective human consciousness that informed the racist and exclusionary ideas of our nation’s founders and first European settlers.  

I challenge anyone to find another country that has so embraced the diversity of its population and provided the opportunity for those fleeing oppression elsewhere to ennoble their own lives and the lives of their children.  There is a reason that millions of people are willing to continue to risk everything to be here in America, and those who insist we be bound by the stupidity and disgraces of the past seem intellectually unable to either recognize or celebrate the unique and unassailable benefits derived from being an American.

We must remember that most Americans are not suspicious of the push to continue affirmative action programs—or expand them still further—because they are racists; the concerns that so many Americans now have spring from knowing in their hearts they are, in both word and deed, not racists at all.

If we, in fact, want to be truly anti-racist instead of misguided virtue signalers, we need to stop supporting—with our money, votes, and attention—those who enjoy professional, political, or personal gain by setting us at one another’s throats.  Selfishness, stupidity, and shortsightedness are, sadly for us all, parts of our human inheritance, so it would be foolish expect all discrimination to disappear from either our nation or planet.

However, to continue to point to the past instead of building our best future—one that benefits from the diversity of America and encourages individual achievement—is to pursue a fatally flawed vision that holds us captive to an ideology that promotes paranoia, anger, and conflict.  This we must not do.