Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Misdirected Hysteria

Heather MacDonald (C-SPAN)
The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, by Heather Mac Donald (St. Martin’s Press, 288 pp., $28.99)

Heather Mac Donald is quite familiar with the in­sanity of the modern university. Last year, having been invited to speak about Black Lives Matter and her book The War on Cops at Claremont McKenna College, she showed up to face intense opposition — opposition directed not just at her views, but at her very right to speak.

Students called for the talk to be “shut down” and repeatedly smeared Mac Donald as a “fascist.” Fearing violence, the administration changed the venue to one with fewer glass windows and more escape routes and shuttled her to what she describes as a de facto “safe house” with the blinds drawn. She eventually gave her speech indirectly, via video stream; the Q&A session was cut short after two questions.

Mac Donald tells this story in her new book, The Diversity Delusion, before proceeding to offer a wide-ranging challenge to campus orthodoxies on race and gender. She covers everything from college administrators’ anti-racism policies to trivial on-campus racial incidents that inevitably blow up into major scandals to allegations of a “rape epidemic” to the push to bring more women into science. The book is mostly an amalgamation of previously published writing — some of it from National Review — but the material is rearranged and updated in a way that makes it feel fresh even to those who have followed her work religiously. (Full disclosure: She advised me during a journalism fellowship I held about a decade ago.)

When it comes to race on campus, The Diversity Delusion touches on many of the major themes Mac Donald’s writing has explored in the past. She tells the story of California universities’ steadfast resistance to the state’s affirmative-action ban, for example, and discusses research suggesting that in some cases affirmative action can harm the very people it’s intended to help, by bringing them into schools where their academic skills are not competitive. She also notes administrators’ performative self-flagellation in the face of protests, a ritual in which they claim their own institutions are racist to the bone — something they of course would not do if they thought anyone (especially donors) took it seriously. In a recurring and amusing gag, she asks college administrators and corporate managers to justify their extensive anti-bias efforts with evidence that their institutions discriminate against minorities.

Speaking of bias training, Mac Donald spends a chapter detailing the woes of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This is a computer program in which subjects are asked to push one button if a black face appears on the screen and another button if a white face appears — the trick being that each button is also assigned to either positive or negative words (such as “pleasant” and “death”), which sometimes appear in place of the faces. In general, whites perform faster and more efficiently when white faces and positive words are assigned to the same button, while black performance tends not to differ much either way.

The test — and the aggressive claims made about its power to uncover hidden prejudice — has come under withering scrutiny in recent years, especially in a long New York magazine piece by the science journalist Jesse Singal. As Mac Donald recounts, it’s unclear what the test is even measuring: It doesn’t do a good job of predicting discriminatory behavior (often measured through somewhat silly experiments, such as asking the subject to choose between helping poor Colombian children or poor South African children); it might measure simple familiarity with one racial group over another, or it might measure the extent to which race is associated with positive or negative concepts in the social environment rather than the test-taker’s own bias. It also provides inconsistent results when taken multiple times by the same person. All this makes it a rather poor decision-making tool, which of course hasn’t stopped its use in employment screening and even discrimination lawsuits.

On gender, The Diversity Delusion features a new version of Mac Donald’s classic 2008 City Journal essay “The Campus Rape Myth,” in which she explores the claim that one in five (or one in four) college women are raped and traces it to poorly conducted surveys that classify incidents as rape even when they clearly don’t meet the legal definition of the term. What genuinely is a widespread epidemic on campus, Mac Donald argues, is drunken sex that leads to regret and shame.

Mac Donald also deflates the hysteria over the dearth of women in science, noting the flap over former Google engineer James Damore, whose memo to his then-employer detailed various reasons aside from discrimination that women may be underrepresented in the tech industry. In much the same vein, Mac Donald notes that females tend to have lower interest in scientific fields, that “differences in math precocity between boys and girls show up as early as kindergarten,” and that women with high math ability are more likely than their male peers to have high verbal skills as well, giving them more career options.

For anyone steeped in liberal dogma, The Diversity Delusion will provide the other side of the story. It will also be invaluable for conservative college students who want to know what their professors aren’t telling them. But what struck me most, more than ten years out from my own graduation, was how simply misdirected the aca­demic Left’s energies are — forcing conservatives to spend their time batting down ridiculous but ubiquitous assertions rather than addressing the underlying issues.

Claims about campus sexual assault are hugely overblown, for example, but sexual assault is a serious problem, it’s almost certainly underreported, and it appears (per an extensive Justice De­part­ment report) to be a more common experience among women who do not go to college. So why have we all been talking about an easily debunked campus rape crisis since the 1980s?

On race, Mac Donald is of course correct that university administrations (and major corporations) go out of their way to welcome underrepresented-minority applicants, to the point of severely biasing the admissions and hiring processes against whites and Asians. But the same is not true of other actors in society. Various experimental studies, including ones that send “matched pairs” of black and white testers to apply for jobs, show that blacks still face marked discrimination in the job market, particularly the low-wage job market. In one matched-pair study conducted in New York City that varied applicants’ criminal records in addition to their races, “black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison.” Would that college activists spent more time talking about this and less time mau-mauing the flak catchers on their own liberal campuses.

And while the IAT is not the magic racism detector it’s long been billed as, we should hardly be proud of the fact that white Americans find it psychologically difficult to pair black faces with positive concepts — a result that is incredibly well established even if it’s been overinterpreted. I took the test myself as a college freshman and was shocked to discover that, despite the fact that I saw myself as color-blind (literally, but more to the point figuratively), my brain clearly did not process racial information in a color-blind manner. This is a valuable experience for whites to have, and certainly the IAT’s results say something about the current state of race relations, even if it isn’t remotely fit for use as a hiring tool. By treating it as one, the Left directed everyone’s attention at the test’s weaknesses rather than its considerable strength.

Academic leftists should focus on fighting these real problems rather than on what Mac Donald calls the “phantom racism” they believe is ever-present on campus. And as NR’s Reihan Salam forcefully argued in a recent blog post, the Right should join them in recognizing the ongoing struggles of African Americans and the need to relieve poverty and build opportunities for economic mobility — the kinds of things that really matter to people outside the college bubble.

This brings me to a small criticism of The Diversity Delusion: In her chapter on implicit bias, Mac Donald notes the startlingly high rate of violence among blacks and writes that “until those realities of crime change, any allegedly ‘stereotypical’ associations between blacks and crime in the public mind will remain justified and psychologically unavoidable.” She also presents a thought experiment:

 If American blacks acted en masse like Asian Americans for ten years in all things relevant to economic success — if they had similar rates of school attendance, paying attention in class, doing homework and studying for exams, staying away from crime, persisting in a job, and avoiding out-of-wedlock childbearing — and we still saw racial differences in income, professional status, and incarceration rates, then it would be well justified to seek an explanation in unconscious prejudice. But as long as the behavioral disparities remain so great, the minute distinctions of the IAT are a sideshow. 

Mac Donald is correct that when groups behave in different ways, they are bound to be seen differently and to achieve different levels of success. This is an enormous blind spot for many on the left; indeed, many liberals find group differences in behavior unthinkable to begin with. But such an observation is incomplete without its counterpart, too often a blind spot for the Right: If we expect black Americans to overcome what Mac Donald describes as the United States’ “appalling history of racism and brutal subjugation,” certainly we must also insist that whites overcome their negative racial attitudes and treat blacks and whites equally even when statistical gaps may make it rational to do otherwise, so that blacks experience fair treatment during this process and are rewarded for their efforts in the job market. While cultural and behavioral issues may well play a bigger role in ongoing racial disparities than do modern-day discrimination and prejudice, the latter are non-negligible problems that warrant our attention, too.

That said, The Diversity Delusion does an admirable job of dismantling liberal academic narratives. And if anyone has earned the right to do that without looking back, it’s Heather Mac Donald.

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