The United States is “being torn apart” by the idea of systemic racism, Heather Mac Donald argues in a compelling new piece in City Journal.

Mac Donald gives an impressive catalogue of professions in which black Americans are underrepresented, and of the bitterness engendered by discrepancies when blamed on racism.

But it is not bias that causes this, argues Mac Donald, but an education gap between black Americans and others. If we’re operating on the assumption that discrimination is at the root of the problem, we’re failing to address what actually is behind the gap.

Mac Donald writes:

But the expectation of proportional representation in every profession is groundless, thanks to the academic skills gap. The unequal distribution of skills, not bias, explains the lack of racial proportionality in employment.

The median black eighth-grader does not possess even basic math skills. “Basic” skills, as defined by the National Assessment of Education Progress exam, means partial mastery of grade-related knowledge. Fifty-three percent of black eighth-graders scored “below basic” on math in 2017. Only 11 percent of black eighth-graders were proficient in math, and 2 percent were advanced. By contrast, 20 percent of white eighth-graders were below basic in 2017, 31 percent were proficient, and 13 percent were advanced. Only 12 percent of Asian eighth-graders were below basic, 32 percent were proficient, and 32 percent were advanced.

The picture was not much better in reading. Forty percent of black eighth-graders were below basic in reading in 2017, 17 percent were proficient readers, and 1 percent were advanced readers. Sixteen percent of white eighth-graders were below basic in reading, 39 percent of white eighth-graders were proficient readers, and 6 percent were advanced readers. Thirteen percent of Asian eighth-graders were below basic, 45 percent were proficient, and 12 percent were advanced readers.

Black students never catch up to their white and Asian peers. There aren’t many white-collar professions where possessing partial mastery of basic reading and math will qualify one for employment. The SAT measures a more selective group of students than the NAEP, but even within that smaller pool of college-intending high school students, the gaps remain wide. On the math SAT, the average score of blacks in 2015 was 428 (on an 800-point scale); for whites, it was 534, and for Asians it was 598—a difference of nearly a standard deviation between blacks and whites, and well over a standard deviation between blacks and Asians. The tails of the distribution were even more imbalanced, according to the Brookings Institution. Blacks made up 2 percent of all test takers with a math SAT between 750 and 800. Sixty percent of those high scorers were Asian, and 33 percent were white. Blacks were 35 percent of all test takers with scores between 300 and 350. Whites were 21 percent of such low scorers, and Asians 6 percent.

In 2005, the Journal of Blacks in Education estimated that there were only 244 black students in the U.S. with a math SAT above 750. Brookings used an estimation procedure that maximized the number of high-scoring black students and came up with, at most, 1,000 blacks nationwide with scores of 750 and above. Whether the number is 250 or 1,000, it means that the STEM fields, medical research, and the ever-more mathematical world of finance cannot all have a 13 percent black participation rate, at least if meritocratic standards remain in place.

The SAT gap is replicated in graduate-level standardized tests. 

Unfortunately, the response to this problem is not to improve education for black citizens, but to eliminate standards instead. These would be standards as reflected in standardized test scores, and in reliance on grades to determine proficiency. There is even a school of thought that decries medical school grading as racist.

I would just note that the shutting down of schools across the country, largely because of the power of the teacher unions, certainly added to the education gap. Ignoring the real causes of the achievement gap is detrimental to our society.

As Mac Donald observes:

The hatred unleashed by the myth of bias is tearing down urban life.

This is a very important article.