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Historical bias for underrepresented groups can hinder equality

By Alexander Pherson

May 10, 2010 9:12 pm

The buzzword in politics these days is “equality.” However, each year two events ““ the publication of the newest data on college admissions and Tax Day ““ serve as reminders of the vast amount of unequal treatment that pervades our system.

Current thinking about equality has little to do with either equal treatment or equal rights. Social critics who are largely confined to the left end of the political spectrum argue that these standards are flawed because they produce disparities in performance that seem to favor certain groups over others. To ensure that no group is made to suffer the humiliation of feeling like it is “not as good,” they propose an alternative definition of equality, one that is based on equal results.

This ideology touches many areas of society; however, it is particularly pervasive in two key policy areas: education and taxation.

The perceived injustice of gaps in student achievement has been used for decades to justify changes to standards of education at schools of all levels. The most widely cited gaps ““ those between ethnic groups ““ have existed for a long time and are widely known. While it is an established fact, however, saying that black students generally perform worse on tests than white students often subjects one to verbal harangues or charges of racism. At the same time, the equally true statement that Asian Americans’ performance as a whole exceeds that of white students is not responded to with nearly the same animosity.

There is much to be gained by certain groups responding this way. Alleging that it is racist to note that whites and blacks differ in their performance on tests, for instance, is a reliable way to recruit people to civil rights causes. Words like “racist,” even if they are misapplied, have a magical effect on people who hear them. Because they are so emotionally charged, people with no outside knowledge of a situation can be immediately stirred to action. When these people converge, they can generally generate enough confusion and fear to advance ideas that are without merit.

Civil rights leaders have used this propitious circumstance very effectively in the past to secure privileges for selected groups they say are victims of discrimination. Privileges like these, which have been subsumed under the blanket term “affirmative action,” have become fixed attributes of the education system in the form of effective quotas for minorities and disparate standards for low-achievers.

One way people have tried to make student performance more even is by turning “effort” into an acceptable criterion for evaluation. Instead of using a standard grading scale and applying it equally to everyone ““ a system that inevitably produces winners and losers ““ many teachers confess to raising the results of some students by awarding extra points for effort.

While such a practice has a noble end ““ making the students who do less well feel better about themselves ““ it suffers from some basic flaws. It assumes, first of all, that certain individuals are fit to judge the effort of other individuals ““ an arrogant assumption, to be sure. While some people might think that being human gives them all they need to assess the amount of input other humans put into their work, it does not. In the end, trying to ascertain what someone is capable of goes far beyond our limited powers of understanding.

The same problem accompanies racial quotas in higher education. While the original rationale for that system ““ the residual effects of slavery and persecution on the black population ““ could be easily justified, it is far less clear why other minorities ““ who have all had different experiences with discrimination ““ deserve the same treatment. Once again, this system asks us to do something we are grossly unfit to do: quantify each race’s level of historical suffering to decide which ones should benefit from special treatment. We are desperately unequipped perform such a calculation.

We run into the same problems in attempting to produce a tax policy that is “fair” for everyone. Like the uneven distribution of student test scores, wealth inequality is often taken as evidence for discrimination.

The fact that more blacks than whites earn less than the “living” wage and similar statistics are continually marshaled in support of this conclusion. However, having some groups of people who earn more than others does not mean that the system is discriminatory or that people are distributing money inequitably ““ just as having people who get better grades does not prove discrimination. All this proves that some people are more productive than others.

Saying that blacks are victims of racial prejudice in the marketplace because they earn less than whites is of a piece with saying that the higher percentage of blacks in the NBA shows bias. Of course, there are a number of factors that prove this is not the case. Everything from height to the amount of time a player practices goes into superior skill at basketball.

Similarly, there are many logical ways to account for income imbalances. These include education, family size (as well as the individuals present in the nuclear family), age and a slew of other factors in which the races differ considerably.

Despite these facts, we continue to hear from many corners that the inequalities we see between certain groups are rooted in discrimination or basic flaws in society. In the same breath, we are called on to close these gaps by punishing those at the top to benefit those on the bottom.

Nothing seems more iniquitous to the idea of fairness.

E-mail Pherson at [email protected]

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Alexander Pherson
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