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A broad revolution is underway in the United States as traditional standards used to measure achievement and provide opportunity are being rejected by schools, corporations, and governments in favor of quotas based on race and gender.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
With Vice President Kamala Harris looking on, Biden uses his pen to signal an end to the nation’s long held principle of equal treatment for all.

On taking office, President Biden signaled that the nation’s long-held principle of equality for all had come to an end, signing executive orders to advance racial equity "across the Federal Government” -- equity referring to the idea that merely treating everybody the same is not enough, and that an equal outcome for all people has to be the goal.

Over the last few months, many Ivy League and flagship state universities have moved away from a seemingly neutral measure long used to assess applicants – standardized test scores – to give minorities a better shot at admissions.

In May, Hewlett-Packard, the technology company with 50,000 employees worldwide, decreed that by 2030 half of its leadership positions and more than 30% of its technicians and engineers have to be women and that the number of minorities should “meet or exceed” their representation in the tech industry workforce. 

That same month, United Airlines announced that half of the 5,000 pilots it would train at its proprietary flight school between now and 2030 will be women or people of color, with scholarships provided by United and JPMorgan Chase helping with tuition. There was nothing in the United announcement showing that there were enough qualified blacks and women in the pipeline so that a black/female quota of 2,500 new pilots could be filled, and nothing about what the company would do if there weren't enough qualified candidates.

Delta Airlines, Ralph Lauren, and Wells Fargo are among other major American companies to announce hiring quotas recently as a way to redress racial imbalances, according to Bloomberg News

These are just some of the many “woke” initiatives embraced by many of the pillars of American society in the year since social justice protests erupted across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Supporters argue that racial preferences and quotas are necessary to end deeply entrenched disparities. Critics say that they are a new form of discrimination, no more justified than old forms that are widely rejected. And while the stated goal of affirmative action was to simply eliminate unfair discrimination, the equity movement is rooted in a far more expansive and pessimistic view of the United States as irredeemably white supremacist, a view meant to continually challenge American institutions and values.

The rapid transition from equality of treatment to equality of outcomes tests one of the basic post-civil rights principles of American life, namely that the same standards should be applied to all people. Once a measure is applied, not to the unique individual but to that individual's group identity, the idea that there are neutral, common, universally applicable standards gives way to something else, something subjective and political, with different measures applied to different people, depending on their sex, race, or other characteristics.

The issue of standards, moreover, is not just a matter of values or fairness. With the United States falling behind other countries in math and science, most notably China, standards are matters of competitiveness and national security -- even as the military, CIA and other federal agencies embrace equity.

           From the President's Jan. 26 remarks explaining his racial equity orders.

But discontent over the pace of racial progress, fueled in the past year by the Black Lives Matter movement, has led to an explicit rejection of meritocracy and a call for old standards to make way for new ones. Explaining the company’s adoption of quotas, Hewlett-Packard Chief Diversity Officer Lesley Slaton Brown said the COVID-19 epidemic and the George Floyd murder has “really allowed us to do the double-click down on racial equality and the systematic and structural discrimination that exists.”

In the recent past, that effort often involved working with the existing ideological framework of equality of opportunity and merit to identify worthy candidates. Now, the trend is to reject and redefine those standards.

George Mason University
Gregory Washington, George Mason University: It's not a quota system, but “a recognition of the reality that our society's future lies in multicultural inclusion.”

“As a community, we need a more comprehensive framework for what constitutes 'best' in hiring faculty and staff,” Gregory Washington,  the president of George Mason University in Virginia, wrote in an email sent recently to the entire school. Washington, who is GMU's first ever black president, denied that his call for greater diversity amounted to a quota system; instead, he said, “it is a recognition of the reality that our society's future lies in multicultural inclusion.”

Certainly it is true that the American future is multicultural. Still, to say that the concept of “best” needs to be redefined in racial terms is already a significant departure from the idea of neutral standards. To go from there to the notion that meritocracy is a racist stratagem is a sea change, but there is a lot of evidence that that is exactly where society is going, in both small ways and large.

Lesley Slaton Brown, Hewlett-Packard: Upheavals of 2020 “really allowed us to do the double-click down on racial equality and the systematic and structural discrimination that exists.”

In May, the Princeton University classics department announced that in an effort to combat “systemic racism,” it would no longer require classics majors to take Latin or Greek. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, but certainly it says that what was until recently a foundational qualification for the study of “the classics” -- the ability to read texts in their original language -- no longer applies, because some students, especially minority ones, didn't have the opportunity to study Latin or Greek in high school. But is it really OK for future professors of classics not to know Latin? Is that simply a new standard or a decline in standards?

From a very different area of American life, none other than the very august American Medical Association announced in May a new Strategic Plan to Embed Racial Justice and Advance Health Equity in medical education and practice.

The 80-page plan calls for, among other things, an expansion of “medical school and physician education to include equity, anti-racism, structural competency, public health and social sciences, critical race theory, and historical basis of disease.” It doesn't say whether adding those subjects to the medical school curriculum, which sounds a lot like instruction in the indelibly racist nature of America, will take away time from such other subjects as anatomy, microbiology, and genetics that are clearly more germane to the practice of medicine.

“Scientific evidence tells us that racism has caused significant harm to people – and their health – throughout our nation’s history,” Gregory E. Harmon, M.D., the AMA's president elect, who is white, said in an email to RCI, explaining the initiative.

Gerald E. Harmon, American Medical Association: Defends an AMA document calling equality and meritocracy “malignant narratives.”

Perhaps the most striking passages in the AMA document are those that have to do with equality and meritocracy, which it calls “malignant narratives.”

“Seeking to treat everyone the 'same' ignores the historical legacy of disinvestment and deprivation,” the document says of equality, while meritocracy is “a narrative that attributes success and failure to individual abilities and merits. It does not address the centuries of unequal treatment that have historically robbed communities of the vital resources needed to thrive.”

Some critics have noted that the Strategic Plan says nothing about competency; several doctors posting to the blog Legal Insurrection asked if members of the AMA would be comfortable allowing them or their families to be treated, as one of them put it, “by those who have MD attached to their names solely in the name of equity ... not because of meritocracy or qualification.”

The AMA rejects that view.  “Not only must we follow our oath to do no harm,” Harmon said in his email to RCI, “we must also prevent the harm that that inequity inflicts on communities and our nation.”

There is, of course, some truth to the assertion that standards have been misused in the past. There was a time not that long ago when social connections, a genteel manner, even just having an Anglo-Saxon name, not to mention being white, were deemed to be qualifications in themselves, while to be black, female, or gay was disqualifying.

But what the AMA document, like “woke” doctrine in general, ignores is that the national effort to redress past wrongs has been going on for a long time in American life, making the matter of racial advantage and disadvantage more a matter of multivariable calculus than simple arithmetic. To be sure, there are racial imbalances. Only 3.2% of senior corporate executives, for example, are black. It's easy to see the demand for this number to increase, but there are many questions, involving both practicality and principle, about the use of racial quotas to achieve that goal.

National Science Foundation
Blacks are just 5% of those in engineering and sciences. How can that share rise dramatically?

On the practical side are the people hurt by them, both those unprepared for the roles as well as the qualified passed over. There is also the question of whether efforts like those at United and HP may simply run into the inconvenient fact that, for many complicated reasons, there simply aren't enough qualified minority candidates around to meet goals for rapid increases in their representation.

According to the National Science Foundation, black men and women, who are 12% of the general population, make up just 5% of working engineers -- this despite affirmative action programs and numerous other efforts over the years to recruit minorities into engineering programs in colleges and universities. How dramatic increases in a very short period can happen now remains unexplained.

As for American medicine, it's been a very long time since it was a white male preserve, as just about any visit to a large urban hospital, with their many Filipino and Indian physicians both male and female, will show. For several years now, more women have been accepted to medical schools than men, but while the numbers of blacks going to medical school has also increased, only 5% of physicians in the country are black or African American.  

Kenny Xu, critic of bias against Asian Americans: “How would you feel if someone who studied a third as much as you did got an opportunity you've been wanting for years?  That would be absolutely unfair. And yet, that is what woke ideology does.”

This is the case even though black students are now accepted into medical school at almost the same rate as whites, 41% of black applicants compared to 45% of whites. Medical schools, like other professional schools, have, moreover, been eager to increase these numbers for years, so that blacks, whites, and Asians are already being admitted under different criteria. In 2018, Princeton Review reports, blacks accepted at medical schools scored an average 505.7 on the MCAT, the standardized med school admission test – putting them in the 69th percentile of all test takers. By comparison, the average score for admitted whites was 512.2 (the 86th percentile) and 513.8 for Asians. Average undergraduate GPAs: 3.53 for blacks, 3.77 for both whites and Asians.

The Strategic Plan offers no concrete suggestions for further increasing the numbers of blacks in medical school, and it makes no analysis of whether it's even possible to do that. Is there a pool of qualified candidates that, somehow, is not being considered?  Should medical school admission committees admit some of the applicants rejected in the past, even though that would increase the gap in test scores and GPAs between them and other students? Will teaching critical race theory to existing medical students increase minority representation? 

Asked about medical school admissions, Harmon pointed to studies showing that medical students with “midrange” scores on the MCAT “mostly succeed in medical school,” though “there is a tendency to overlook these applicants in favor of those with higher scores.” 

The authors of the studies argue that admitting students with lower MCAT scores would “diversify the physician workforce.” But given that black students are already being admitted at a significantly lower standard, at least as defined by MCAT, than whites and Asians, how much lower can the standard go? The studies give no answer to that question.

The AMA Plan also fails to address the question of principle raised by applying different standards to different groups. Is it fair to effectively prevent some qualified individuals from becoming doctors because their gender or race requires them to score higher than other genders or races? It's the same question that applies to the different standards applied to Asians, compared to both whites and blacks, in school admissions, a matter that is the subject of several lawsuits.

“We are taught to study for the test, to get good grades,” Kenny Xu, author of a forthcoming book “An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy,” said in an email. “Why? Because those good grades and test scores will, and should, lead to rewards in the future.

“How would you feel if someone who studied a third as much as you did got an opportunity you've been wanting for years?  That would be absolutely unfair. And yet, that is what woke ideology does.”

(AP Photo/Matthew Barakat, File)
In Alexandria, Va., an anti-Asian bias suit over who gets into elite Thomas Jefferson High.

Despite views like those, standardized tests have been under assault for years as obstacles to minority advancement, especially tests for elite high schools in such cities as New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and the SAT used for college admissions.

Elite schools including Lowell High School in San Francisco have dropped their admissions test in favor of a lottery system. This may increase racial diversity, but will the school be able to maintain its high academic standards?  The same question applies to other elite schools such as the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, rated by U.S. News as the best high school in the country, which is also jettisoning its former standardized test in favor of “holistic” admissions.

Similarly, last year, in what might prove to be a watershed decision, the regents of the University of California voted to phase out the SAT in admissions for the entire system, whose nine campuses make up the largest public university in the country.

All of this raises the possibility that the elimination of common, neutral standards will bring an end to the existence of elite schools for very gifted, very high-achieving students of the sort who will ensure American competitiveness in the future.

William A. Jacobson, Cornell: “You see people saying that the whole concept of meritocracy is a device to maintain white supremacy. But if you eliminate testing that has commonality to it, how do you judge people?”

“I wouldn't be surprised if in two or three years standardized testing is eliminated altogether,” William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell who runs the Legal Insurrection website, said in a Zoom interview. “You see people saying that the whole concept of meritocracy is a device to maintain white supremacy. But if you eliminate testing that has commonality to it, how do you judge people?”

A similar rejection of the idea of merit lies behind another initiative in California, where the state Board of Education has adopted a “Framework” proposing that all gifted programs in math instruction be eliminated, along with all “acceleration” and “tracking” – that is, grouping students in different classes according to their math aptitude.

“The subject and community of mathematics has a history of exclusion and filtering rather than inclusion and welcoming,” the Framework states. “We reject ideas of natural gifts and talents ... and the cult of genius.” Very early on, women and minorities get “fixed labels of 'giftedness' and are taught differently” in a system “designed for privileged white boys,” the Framework says.

No doubt, there's truth to the idea that some children are discouraged early when it comes to math, and that that holds them back. But the idea, as the Framework puts it, that “all students are capable of becoming powerful mathematics learners and users” seems utopian at the very least. Can all students become great mathematicians, violinists, or professional athletes, or is the very difference in natural abilities due to labels arbitrarily applied to children largely on the basis of their sex or race?     

Moreover, the assertion that the system is “designed for privileged white boys” runs into someinconvenient facts: one is that plenty of “privileged white boys” can't do math to save their lives; another  is that Asians, both boys and girls, many of them immigrants from very modest circumstances, outperform these privileged white boys by considerable margins.  In addition, overall, girls get at least equal or higher grades than boys in math from elementary to high school, despite the stereotyping “labels” that, according to the Math Framework, hold them back.

As for gifted programs favoring whites while keeping minorities out, according to the very statistics included in the Math Framework, 32% of Asian boys and girls in California are in “gifted” programs, compared to 8% of whites and 4% of blacks. So it would seem indisputable that to eliminate these programs would have the effect of placing many Asians, but not many whites, in slower classes.

The solution to math disparities, according to the Framework, is to group all students of all aptitudes in the same class and for teachers to give “differentiated work and more open math questions” to all of them.

The Framework doesn't say exactly why this would be better than grouping more proficient math students in their own classes. Emails asking that and other questions were acknowledged by the Board of Education press office, but it did not respond to the actual questions.

American high school students have steadily been falling behind their Asian and European counterparts in math and science, most recently ranking 37th in the PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, which gives a test to 15-year-olds in countries around the world. China's Shanghai ranks No.1.

The California Math Framework does not acknowledge that in Shanghai, the entirely opposite ideas about testing and standards are followed and implemented, with students tested early and often and placed into classes in accordance with their scores.

“Regarding minorities in particular, public K-12 education all too often produces students unprepared to compete, thus leading to large disparities in admissions at universities, graduate programs and faculty positions,” three math professors recently wrote in the online journal Persuasion.

“This disparity is then condemned as a manifestation of structural racism. Resulting in administrative measures to lower the evaluation criteria. Lowering standards at all levels leads eventually to even worse outcomes and larger disparities, and so on in a downward spiral.”

Correction, 9:28 AM Eastern, Saturday, June 12, 2021

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the date and number of Biden executive orders regarding racial equity and misattributed a quotation regarding the actions. President Biden decreed racial equity on Jan. 20, his first day in office, not Jan. 26. Four related orders were issued Jan. 26, when he spoke about them at a public signing. A quotation from Biden came from those remarks, not from an executive order.

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