The Systemic Racism Trap

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Is America a deeply racist society, whose very institutions perpetuate the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? Unfortunately, to answer “No” -- even a qualified “No” -- is becoming harder by the day. Since the horrific killing of George Floyd, millions have taken to the streets to protest not just police violence but to insist that systemic racism infects everything, everywhere in the lives of African Americans and others of color.

If blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately more likely than whites to be shot by police, live in poverty, have higher unemployment rates, or die from COVID-19, racism must play a primary role -- or so the narrative widely repeated on the streets and in the media goes. To suggest that these statistical snapshots of complicated problems do not lend themselves to easy conclusions is heresy. Already, some academics have been ostracized and others persuaded to withdraw legitimate research that provided a more nuanced analysis of police violence. To even question whether systemic racism and white privilege are pervasive today risks being mistaken for a racist or deemed hopelessly ignorant. But the story of race in America is both more difficult and complex and attempts to eradicate all disparities are likely to lead to bad fixes that end up doing real harm.

I have spent a professional lifetime studying the effects of race-based preferences in college admissions programs. Most colleges -- large and small, public and private, undergraduate and post-graduate — admit black and Hispanic students with, on average, lower standardized test scores and high school grades than white and Asian students who are admitted. My Center for Equal Opportunity found that among Virginia’s public universities, for example, the most competitive schools in the state, namely University of Virginia and William and Mary, admitted black students with SAT scores that were, on average, 180 and 190 points lower, respectively, than whites, and 240 points lower than Asians admitted.

These results are not anomalous; in 25 years conducting analyses of school admissions by race and ethnicity, CEO has found similar or larger differences in virtually all selective schools. If race is a significant factor in admissions decisions at these schools, it is in an ostensible effort to help black students, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, gain admission to the nation’s best schools. But these efforts have real costs -- and not just for white students who may be passed over at these schools.

Harvard University offers a case study in how another minority group is also harmed. Data uncovered during discovery for a lawsuit now before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, shows that substantial numbers of Asian-American students were denied admission to Harvard with higher grades and test scores than blacks, Hispanics and whites who were admitted, but the reasons for the discrimination are revealing. According to a CEO review of an internal Harvard analysis, Harvard tested how various non-academic factors might affect the racial composition of incoming freshman classes with an eye toward depressing Asian admission and boosting black, Hispanic but also white admission. If only academic qualifications were considered, Asians would have constituted 43% of those admitted to Harvard and whites 38%, with blacks only 1% and Hispanics 3%. Adding factors such as extracurricular activities, athletics, and personal ratings based on interviews boosted whites to 51% and depressed Asians to 26%, while having limited success in boosting blacks or Hispanics. Only explicitly giving applicants a plus factor for being black or Hispanic would increase their chances for admission to 11% and 10%, respectively, but also dramatically depressed Asian admissions to 18%. As it happens, those numbers nearly perfectly reflect the ultimate racial composition of Harvard’s admissions.

Clearly Asians have faced, and continue to face, racial discrimination in this society, having been the only group explicitly barred on racial grounds from immigrating to the U.S. in 1882 and denied the right to become naturalized citizens until 1952. Indeed, Harvard did discriminate against blacks, Jews, and others in the course of its nearly 400-year history, but whatever systemic discrimination that goes on now appears to target Asians, not blacks. But blacks do not necessarily benefit, either, from the widespread adoption of racial preferences in admissions on their behalf. As Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., pointed out in their comprehensive study of the effect of racial preferences in college admissions on black student performance, “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It,” schools using racial preferences end up admitting students who often place in the lower rankings of their class and struggle to finish college or pass professional exams.

In turn, these students struggle more even after they graduate, failing to advance in their chosen careers if their college grades are subpar, which becomes proof for some not that preferences fail to achieve their goal, but that systemic racism follows blacks into the professional world, requiring yet more racial preferences in hiring and promotion. None of this is to say that racism does not exist or that it can find its way into even liberal bastions, though I would argue that the problem of racism in universities is expecting too little from black and Hispanic students, a paternalism based on racial stereotypes that is debilitating and counterproductive.   

But colleges are not the only institutions to adopt the wrong fixes to inequities. So, too, the death of George Floyd and other unarmed black victims at the hands of the police has provoked calls to defund the police and spend more in black and brown communities, hire more black police officers, insist on diversity and implicit-bias training, among others. But like preferential admissions at universities, these measures may not only be ineffective, they may exacerbate other serious problems.

Simply cutting back on police presence, especially in neighborhoods with higher crime, won’t make the residents of those communities safer. In the aftermath of violence in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore after police killings of black suspects there, crime rates spiked when police turned a blind eye to criminal activity in protest, and they have remained higher. Since blacks are more likely to be victims of crime than whites, they suffer more when crime rates increase. Diverting funds from policing, especially if it means fewer police in communities with high crime rates, will likely result in worse outcomes for those who actually live there.

Nor does simply hiring more black police officers solve the problem. Even cities like Los Angeles, where black officers are 11.6% of the force but 8.8% of the population, have troubled histories with police brutality. To assume that black police officers will be immune from unwarranted violent behavior toward members of their own racial group as well as toward Latinos or Asians is naïve. High profile cases involving police violence, including against George Floyd, have included black, Hispanic and Asian officers. Diversity training has, at best, a mixed history. Corporate America has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in diversity training programs to boost employment for blacks and others, which even advocates admit have fallen short on changing behavior. A Harvard Business Review analysis, for example, noted, “Decades of social science research point to a simple truth: You won’t get managers on board by blaming and shaming them with rules and reeducation.” 

De-escalation training in police departments would be more effective than racial sensitivity sessions, as would the de-militarization of police forces that sometimes look like invading armies with their armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, semi-automatic rifles and tear-gas launchers. America’s police forces kill civilians -- black, white, Hispanic, and others -- at an alarming rate. No one knows for sure, but it’s at least 1,000 people, and according to one estimate, police kill some 1,700 civilians a year, accounting for 1 in every 12 violent deaths in the U.S.

Blacks are disproportionately represented in those numbers, and there are doubtless police officers who are too quick to pull the trigger when confronting a black suspect, but one of the most careful studies of racial bias in police killings, by economist Roland G. Fryer of Harvard University, provides little evidence that police are more likely to kill blacks with whom they come in contact than whites. As Fryer wrote recently in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “No matter how we analyzed the data, we found no racial differences in shootings overall, in any city in particular, or in any subset of the data.”

Fryer is careful to note that these analyses show “what happens on average,” and that there may be differences in extreme forms of violence -- say in the Floyd killing or the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea at whom police fired 41 bullets in New York City in 1999. Fryer notes, however, that “as economists, we don’t get to label unexplained racial disparities ‘racism.’” He’s right. They may be evidence that racism plays some role, but how great a role and how best to address it is far more complicated. 

It is clear from the outpouring of concern among broad swathes of the public -- from small towns to metropolises, from NASCAR to corporate board rooms, from the U.S. military to elite universities -- that most Americans want to put an end to racial discrimination, prejudice and social inequities. But there are no shortcuts to improving race relations. Symbolic actions, like taking down the statues of Confederate generals and renaming military bases that honored traitors, may be long overdue. But it is wrong to treat Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as the moral equivalents of John C. Calhoun or Jefferson Davis. Progressive mobs may have different targets than alt-right ones, but mob action rarely ends well. I remain hopeful that we will get beyond the anger and frustration demonstrated over the last two months. To get there, we will need leaders to remind us of our ideals as a nation as well as our imperfections. Most of all, we will need all Americans to believe once again that we are one nation and one people, no matter our color, and we will either achieve greatness together or fall into permanent divisions that doom our future.

Linda Chavez founded and currently chairs the Center for Equal Opportunity. She was the director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan administration and the U.S. expert to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities from 1992-1996.

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