Merit was never a dirty word for Blacks. Competing on merit empowered us to destroy racist stereotypes about our capabilities, shatter color barriers, and pioneer inventions that improved all Americans’ quality of life.

For example, do you know someone whose cataracts were removed by laser eye surgery? Thank Dr. Patricia Bath. This ophthalmologist pioneered laser eye surgery and advocated for preventive blindness, earning her the “ultimate reward” of restoring sight to the blind. 

Bath enjoyed many firsts, including being the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States. In 1986, she discovered a new device and less painful method to remove cataracts. Despite a colleague’s sexist denials of her breakthrough, Bath became the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent for her treatment.

merit-based program set Bath on a career path. In high school, she won a competitive research opportunity from the National Science Foundation at Yeshiva University. Bath called it “life changing” for a White Jewish school teacher to mentor her, a Black teen from Harlem. 

Bath’s story offers more than a Black History Month lesson. It illustrates a solution to boost the participation of Blacks, racial minorities, and disadvantaged kids in underrepresented disciplines such as the sciences. 

Today, 5% of doctors identify as Black, and 6% of ophthalmologists are from minority groups. Perhaps we could inspire more youth to follow in this path by providing more enrichment programs and rigorous courses of study to gifted young people of different backgrounds. We must challenge their intellectual curiosity, not dull it.

Today, as part of a war on merit in K-12 education, honors classes are eliminated, accelerated math is abandoned, admissions to selective high schools are relaxed, and high-school entrance exams are scrapped in the name of equity. Critics claim such programs contribute to racial segregation, although data suggest otherwise. According to Education Trust analysis, Black and Latino students are “shut out” of advanced placement STEM courses despite an interest in those subjects because of systemic racism.

Opponents of honors classes believe they have a moral imperative to achieve equitable outcomes. Yet they ignore the Black and Hispanic students who stand to suffer from the elimination of gifted educational programming. 

Merit-based programs operate as burners lighting a fire under a gifted young person. Kids, especially those from low-income households and struggling minority homes, are pushed to the limits of their abilities in these programs, rather than being held back. Some of them persevere against added obstacles of poverty, unstable homes, cultural assimilation and discrimination.

I know firsthand how transformative such programs are. In the 1990s, I was an immigrant, latch-key kid excelling in my inner-city elementary school, but bored with my education. A program for gifted public school students sponsored by a local private school changed that. 

Every Saturday morning, I walked onto a sprawling, pristinely-maintained campus outside of Boston, a stark contrast from the blighted and violent neighborhood of my public school. I engaged in science experiments, arts, physics and the performing arts through enrichment activities that my school could never afford or make time for. 

Later, I earned a seat at the prestigious Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest public school. There, I took a number of honors and advanced placement courses, earning scholarships and college credits years later.

Both experiences introduced me to other precocious kids of different races and ignited my interest in challenging disciplines. Undoubtedly, high standards and intellectual rigor in my formative years laid the groundwork for my public policy and media career. 

Social justice bureaucrats are fighting for equality of outcomes by lowering standards and eliminating gifted programming from public schools. Parents are right to push back for the sake of their children’s education. Increasingly, they are winning. 

The principal of Patrick Henry High School in San Diego, California, reinstated honors American literature and U.S. history after concerned parents and students objected to her decision to quietly remove them. In Rhode Island, parental outcry led school officials to return English honors and “honors with distinction” in social studies at Barrington High School.

In Culver City, California, parents are fighting for honors English classes to be reinstated. Educators claim that all students can simply be taught the high-level material, but as a ninth-grade first-generation Cuban student at the school explained, “There are some people who slow down the pace because they don’t really do anything and aren’t looking to try harder.” 

Parents can’t save merit alone. Alumni have a duty to speak up. Private organizations and donors must also partner to expand gifted educational programming for top achievers who otherwise would be excluded.

By committing to equality of opportunities – not outcomes – for all students, we will pave the way for more Black inventors, doctors and scientists to pioneer life-changing discoveries or cultivate future leaders to change our world.