Culture & Society

The Starting Line

Real color blindness has never been tried in the United States, but it deserves to be

Track sprinters lined up at starting line
Image Credit: Photo and Co via Getty Images

A meritocracy is a society that distributes goods and awards status on the basis of merit, regardless of a person’s race, sex, or other characteristics. Think of a blind audition. The musician sits behind a curtain so that the judges can evaluate his or her performance based entirely on what they hear. That way the musician’s personal characteristics can’t bias the evaluation. A perfect meritocracy would be a society in which everything important, at least beyond a certain minimum, is distributed by procedures like this.

Many Americans find meritocracy an attractive ideal. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which added these words to the state constitution: “The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” But as of this writing, efforts are underway to have these words stricken. Opponents of Proposition 209 think of themselves as supporting diversity, not state-based racial discrimination.

This is part of a larger trend. To take another example, the venerable practice of the blind audition—originally intended as a bulwark against unfair discrimination—is being challenged for the same reason. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Anthony Tommasini writes that “ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.” Tommasini reasons:

[O]ver the past century of increasingly professionalized training, there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen.

Tommasini implies that the small differences in quality that distinguish the very best don’t matter that much. If he’s right, then this would seem to have implications far beyond music. Tommasini mentions sports. Does he think that, since top sprinters often finish the 100-meter dash within fractions of a second of one another, the Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medals should be handed randomly to the first three finishers? I hope the answer is no. I think we have a duty to respect excellence and to reward those who do the very best regardless of what color they happen to be.

From Institutional Racism to Nondiscrimination

Today it’s easy to forget that within living memory advocacy of strict meritocracy with regard to race—so called color blindness—was considered a progressive position. During the era of Jim Crow, African Americans were routinely denied honors that were clearly due. To take one of many examples, talented Black jazz musicians were treated like royalty abroad, only to discover that they were still second-class citizens in their own country. That was Miles Davis’s experience upon returning from France in the 1950s. On account of this, he became severely depressed and formed a heroin addiction.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leaders of the civil rights movement criticized the status quo on the grounds that it was unmeritocratic. Most famously, Martin Luther King Jr. said during his “I Have a Dream” speech that he envisioned a future in which race per se would be irrelevant: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This statement seems to be an endorsement of “color blindness,” the idea that our institutions and laws, at a minimum, should be race neutral.

For a hot minute it looked like America was moving in that direction. In 1964, the US Senate, overcoming a lengthy filibuster, passed the Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law. This statute desegregated public facilities and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, and nationality in federal programs. It also forbade private discrimination along those categories in hiring and in access to public accommodations.

Hubert Humphrey

South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, argued the bill would lead to enforced racial quotas in hiring. Minnesota senator (and later vice president) Hubert Humphrey, who was instrumental to the bill’s passage, was adamant that it would not. Responding to Thurmond on this point during a debate, Humphrey said, “Senator, this bill prohibits that very thing that you’re talking about. Express language prohibiting any action by the Government for so-called racial balance.”

Humphrey was on solid ground about the letter of the law (see Title VII, especially subsections (j), (i), and (m)). Thurmond nonetheless correctly intuited that government anti-discrimination efforts would eventually involve the imposition of “corrective” racial quotas. And this happened sooner rather than later. In 1965, President Johnson gave a commencement speech at Howard University that provided a justification for what would later become known as “affirmative action”:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. And this is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.

The implication was that complete fairness to African Americans and others requires treating them differently than Whites, at least for a while, in light of historic injustices. Just as firefighters use controlled burns to put out larger wildfires, so should we use controlled, temporary discrimination to combat more pervasive forms of discrimination. Race consciousness can, with a little foresight, promote meritocracy in the long term. Or, at least, that is the conceit.

Discrimination with Good Intentions

Johnson’s analogy is worth dwelling on. What would be complete fairness to the unshackled runner? Perhaps he should be given time to train up. We can’t, however, remove African Americans from societal competition to train them up. What about a head start? That would be roughly analogous to affirmative action. And how big should this head start be? Suppose the runner still loses; would we conclude that he lost fair and square or that the head start was inadequate? Suppose the runner wins with a substantial head start. It’s doubtful that the unshackled athlete feels like a real winner in these circumstances, and it’s hard to imagine those in the stands being impressed by repeat performances of this sort. Thus, Johnson’s own analogy hints at some of some problems with affirmative action as a vehicle of “complete fairness.”

Notwithstanding these problems, remedial racial discrimination had a powerful allure. Johnson’s Republican successor, Richard Nixon, used executive orders to implement affirmative action throughout the federal workforce and private entities receiving federal contracts. Since then, affirmative action has become ingrained in other areas of society, from corporate hiring to university and graduate school admissions. It’s an open secret that universities treat applicants differently according to race, favoring Hispanics and Blacks while disfavoring Whites and Asians.

The Supreme Court has consistently declined to take a strong stance against this institutionalized racial discrimination. One main takeaway from their decisions in a series of cases is that racial discrimination in college admissions is okay as long as universities do it in an opaque manner and intend to promote diversity. Universities may not openly implement race quotas or award a set number of points to members of specific racial groups. But they can award points for things like personality in a way everyone knows is designed to engineer desired racial outcomes. Time will tell whether they may also accept applicants on the basis of diversity statements designed to reveal race and political convictions.

The emphasis on equality of outcome rather than procedural fairness also had implications for employers. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that Duke Power Company’s hiring procedures were discriminatory despite being facially race neutral. The company required that employees whose work did not primarily involve manual labor, which had the lowest pay, have a high school diploma. The day the Civil Rights Act went into effect, the company added a route to advancement: by scoring well on cognitive tests, employees could be promoted or transfer to higher-paying jobs without a diploma. The company also generously offered to pay two-thirds of the price of high school equivalent training for those who lacked a diploma.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the majority opinion. He argued that Duke Power Co. needed to show that possession of a high school diploma or a high score on cognitive tests was an accurate measure of job performance. Burger denied that the company had met this burden of proof. (We might fairly ask what the American taxpayers are paying for if a high school diploma isn’t a reliable signal to employers.) Moreover, Burger reasoned, since Whites had higher rates of high school graduation and tended to do better on the tests as well, the company’s policy “operates to exclude Negros.” This is at odds with what Humphrey said in defense of the Civil Rights Act:

The express requirement of intent is designed to make it wholly clear that inadvertent or accidental discriminations will not violate the title or result in entry of court orders. It means simply that the respondent must have intended to discriminate.

By contrast, Burger said in his Griggs v. Duke Power Co. decision that “good intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as ‘built-in headwinds’ for minority groups and are unrelated to measuring job capability.” Subsequent court decisions and new legislation followed suit, so that what we now call the “disparate impact” standard for determining problematic discrimination is deeply embedded in law.

A peculiarity about “disparate impact” is that it’s only problematic if it goes in certain directions. Any important metric on which Whites outperform Blacks is problematic. But procedures that result in overrepresentation of historically marginalized groups are okay. For example, women outperform men in many important areas of educational attainment, (e.g., overall degrees earned), and few regard this as compelling evidence of systemic sexism against men. If disparities that disfavor dominant groups can be benign, why can’t there be benign disparities that favor them, at least occasionally? The asymmetry seems to be axiomatic.

Critiques of Color Blindness

Many intellectuals now repudiate racial neutrality. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo describes color blindness, meritocracy, and individualism as pernicious ideologies that reinforce a racist status quo. Ibram X. Kendi writes, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Must we have discrimination till kingdom come? It would seem so. He goes on to say, “But there is no such thing as a non-racist idea. There are only racist ideas and anti-racist ideas.” For Kendi, color blindness isn’t just unwise—it’s impossible.

Headshot of Norman C. Wang

Norman C. Wang

Opposition to racial preferences can now have career-threatening repercussions. Consider cardiologist Norman C. Wang, who earlier this year published an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) arguing that affirmative action in medicine is harmful. Wang, who is at the Heart and Vascular Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, concluded, “Ultimately, all who aspire to a profession in medicine and cardiology must be assessed as individuals on the basis of their personal merits, not their racial and ethnic identities.”

This caused a firestorm on Twitter, where the article was linked with the hashtag #MedRacism. The director of diversity and inclusion at the Mayo Clinic (yes, the Mayo Clinic has that position) tweeted, “The fact that this is published in ‘our’ journal should both enrage & activate all of us.” Under this pressure, the JAHA apologized for publishing Wang’s article, retracted it (without Wang’s permission), and promised to publish a response piece. Wang was suddenly ousted as the director of the UPMC’s electrophysiology fellowship program, and a still-visible tweet from a colleague strongly implies that his editorial was the reason for this.

As already noted, a prominent (though not unopposed) current of thought motivating the American civil rights movement emphasized the desirability of judging people according to their merits, rather than classifying them according to race. But some, like President Johnson, thought it best to delay the strict application of race-neutral standards. This was the initial justification for affirmative action, which became entrenched under the theory that diversity was an institutional imperative. More than a half-century later, prominent intellectuals repudiate the idea of color blindness, and some academics perceive advocacy of color blindness as beyond the pale.

Why Not Color Blindness?

Is color blindness defensible? I think it is, and here very briefly are a few reasons why:

First, pace Kendi, some ideas are race neutral (e.g., “What goes up must come down” is neither a racist idea nor an anti-racist idea). There are also procedures that don’t unfairly discriminate against anyone, such as the blind audition process. We could implement more of these procedures throughout society. Moving toward color blindness is a real option.

Second, critics of color blindness point out that “color-blind” procedures often result in racial disparities. But it’s question-begging to assert that all procedures that produce a “disparate impact” are racist or unjust. Some color-blind policies are of course bad policies—for example, ill-considered fiscal or military policies that have nothing to do with race—but not bad because they’re color-blind!

Third, it’s often said that we cannot live in a color-blind society as long as racism exists. But color-blind policies offer us the best chance to overcome racism. In a color-blind society, Whites—not to mention Blacks, Hispanics, and others—would have greater confidence that minorities in positions of influence got there by their own merits. Racial preferences, by contrast, generate animosity, as demonstrated in Thomas Sowell’s excellent book, Affirmative Action around the World: An Empirical Study.

Finally, it’s often argued that color blindness has been a failure on account of enduring race-relation problems. This objection is the easiest to respond to. Despite the promise of the civil rights movement, institutional racial discrimination never went away. It only changed direction. If anything is a failure, it’s discrimination—even when that discrimination favors historically oppressed groups.

Color blindness was never implemented so that we could evaluate its record, and meritocracy has never been given a chance to succeed on its own merits. Dissatisfaction with the status quo—on the left, center, and right—should lead us to reconsider these ideas.

Image Credits: MLK (Rowland Scherman/Wikimedia Commons), Humphrey (Yoichi Okamoto/White House), Wang (University of Pittsburgh)

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