“If I walk down the street and see a sketchy white guy coming toward me, I’ll cross the street. But if I see a sketchy black guy approaching, I won’t cross, I’ll stay and happily risk being mugged just to avoid looking like a racist.”1 This humorous anecdote by comedian Mark Normand highlights an ominous fact about our culture: The desire not to be viewed as racist is prompting people to fixate on race—even though doing so harms all involved.
In the current climate, the mere appearance of being racist can cost a person dearly. People who are presumed to be racist can be and often are fired from their jobs, banned from social media, even subjected to death threats. The upshot: Instead of being rationally color-blind, people and institutions are putting undue focus on race. That is, instead of judging people not by “the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they are doing just the opposite. They are judging people by the color of their skin—and acting accordingly—in order to not appear racist.
Of course, judging people differently because of the color of their skin is the very essence of racism. And such patent racism is sweeping through our institutions. Politicians regularly pander to constituents on the basis of race.2 Health professionals and governmental officials condemn rights-respecting anti-lockdown protesters but refuse to condemn rights-violating Black Lives Matter “protesters.”3 Colleges and universities offer black-only graduation ceremonies and living facilities—practices that would be unthinkable today for white students.4
Further, despite supposedly good intentions, this strand of racism is causing untold damage. Consider an increasingly popular policy regarding minority criminal suspects: More and more, police departments are omitting race when describing suspects, especially black suspects, even when divulging it clearly would help to ensure public safety. The Black Faculty and Staff Association of the University of Minnesota, among others, claims that mentioning a suspect’s race “reinforces harmful stereotypes.”5 The Brown Daily Herald reports that it no longer includes race in its description of suspects when it notifies students. Notifications now “typically include: the suspect’s gender, age, build and general appearance.”6 The paper’s justification for omitting race when notifying students is that a “vague description can reinforce stereotypes” and “foster hostility toward some members of the community.”7 Of course, including a person’s race in his description increases clarity, decreases vagueness, and—by helping to apprehend actual assailants—helps to protect all members of the community.
Misguided efforts to avoid the appearance of racial prejudice crop up in college admissions as well. Past academic performance generally is the best predictor of future academic performance, but this fact increasingly is disregarded when evaluating black students and other minorities during the university admission process of elite schools. In an ongoing effort to “racially diversify” higher education, colleges and universities have instituted de facto racial quotas that result in acceptance of black candidates with academic credentials weaker than those of many nonblack candidates who are denied admission. This has artificially and unjustly increased the black student population in elite schools across the country. And the injustice is toward blacks as well as nonblacks.
When a student is admitted into a program for which he is ill-prepared, he is in for trouble. As Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. explain in Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, placing students in academic programs where they are likely to perform far worse than their peers damages self-confidence and impedes success. Sander and Taylor call this the “mismatch effect.” According to one study they cite (and not surprising), STEM students who are mismatched to their programs are more likely to drop their majors and switch to a less demanding one, whereas those placed in academic settings with other students of similar ability are more likely to earn a STEM degree.8
Sander and Taylor note that
students at the “bottom” of the class in School A have roughly the same math SAT credentials as the students at the “top” of School C, but dramatically different rates of obtaining STEM degrees. What seems chiefly to determine students’ chances for a science degree is not their absolute but relative credentials.9
When an above-average student is in an environment with similar students, he performs well. But if an above-average student competes with a significantly higher-performing student, he struggles to keep up. A black graduate of Dartmouth described her struggle while majoring in biochemistry, which she eventually dropped for a less-demanding major in the humanities:
I was with classmates from nationally ranked private and public schools . . . it is not until you meet the best that you realize that you are in a whole other playing field. . . . At first I thought I could handle it, but then as freshman year rolled along, I got hammered academically. People in my class had had science since grammar school, but I wasn’t even introduced to science until my sophomore year of high school. . . . I had never developed any of the skills that I needed to achieve.10
I can only imagine what this student felt when she realized that she was “in a whole other playing field”—likely fear, hopelessness, and frustration. The real-world consequences of affirmative action and similar racist policies are devastating to real-life individuals.
What Mark Normand recognized and leveraged humorously in his comedy routine is something that we all must recognize and take very seriously if we care about people’s lives: Judging people by their race rather than by the qualities that actually matter in life harms people. Making an individual’s race the determining factor in how we treat him is destructive and immoral—even if we think we’re helping him by doing so.
We can’t pursue good by adopting evil. We can’t fight racism by engaging in racism.
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1. Mark Normand, Hayworth Theatre, Los Angeles, January 28, 2020.
2. Mike Gonzalez, “It Is Time to Debate—and End—Identity Politics,” Heritage Foundation, October 9, 2018.
3. Black Lives Matter was even encouraged to protest during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mallory Simon, “Over 1,000 Health Professionals Sign a Letter Saying, Don't Shut down Protests Using Coronavirus Concerns as an Excuse,” CNN, June 5, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/05/health/health-care-open-letter-protests-coronavirus-trnd/index.html.
4Dion J. Pierre, “American Colleges Offering Segregated Dorms and Graduations,” National Review, May 8, 2019, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/05/american-colleges-segregated-housing-graduation-ceremonies/.
5. “‘U’ Students Want Crime Alerts to Avoid Using Racial Descriptions,” CBS Minnesota, January 29, 2014, https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2014/01/29/u-students-want-crime-alerts-to-avoid-using-racial-descriptions/.
6. Kyle Borowski, “Race, Ethnicity No Longer Used in Dps Crime Alerts,” The Brown Daily Herald, September 7, 2016, https://www.browndailyherald.com/2016/09/07/race-ethnicity-no-longer-used-in-dps-crime-alerts/.
7. Borowski, “Race, Ethnicity No Longer Used in Dps Crime Alerts.”
8. Rogers A. Elliott, Christopher Strenta, Russell Adair, Michael Matier, and Jannah Scott, “The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions,” Research in Higher Education 37, no. 6 (December 1996): 681–709.
9. Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr., Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 36.
10. Sander and Taylor, Mismatch, 41.