Racial Equity and Social Justice — Courtesy of Higher Education

William H. Young

On November 20, 2019, National Public Radio (NPR) announced that Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC in which I reside, had just passed a sweeping new Racial Equity and Social Justice Act to address the deep-rooted racial disparities in its residents.1

I had thus witnessed the local arrival of higher education’s ubiquitous “diversity” ideology—the belief that racial oppression and discrimination is the driving force in America, and that resulting racial disparities must be rectified by radical social justice policies imposed through coercive state power.

I will argue herein that the recent national focus on racism and social justice stems largely from:

  • a long-known but false claim by academic social psychologists, based on irreproducible science—that “implicit bias” leads to racial discrimination and racial disparities—which captured the national psyche starting in 2013, and
  • the Black Lives Matter movement, which seized on a false narrative reinforced by a credulous, uncritical media—about the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014—and has been embraced by young, white, college-educated, liberal/progressive activists, who aver that racial discrimination is the principal cause of racial disparities.

The Metamorphosis in Public Views of Racism

In January 2009, as President Obama was being inaugurated, public views of whether racism was a “Big problem” in America were at their lowest recent historic level—26%--according to Pew Research surveys.2 In January 2010, another Pew Research report found that blacks’ assessments of the state of black progress in America had improved more dramatically than at any time in the past quarter century. The public view of whether racism is a “Big problem” in American society remained near its lowest level in January 2009 through November 2011, when the next Pew survey result was 28%.3

The following Pew survey in 2015 began to show a marked increase in the view that racism is a “Big problem” in America—rising to 50% in July 2015 and then to 58% in August 2017.

Why did America suddenly shift from a nation experiencing declining and low racism to substantially increased racism in a few years during the first black presidency and improving economic times?4 I submit that false information and the influence of higher education, advanced by the media, were the almost certain drivers of that change, which has lamentably transmogrified America.

Unconscious Racism from Higher Education

As early as 1998, the social science concept of “implicit bias” entered academic precincts with the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), which purports to provide a scientific grounding for the unconscious roots of prejudice. The IAT was created by social psychologists Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington and Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University. “Implicit bias” was uncritically embraced and widely applied by diversity bureaucrats within higher education and for mandatory behavioral training by some governments and corporations.

In February 2013, Greenwald and Banaji first presented the idea of “implicit bias” or “unconscious racism” to the American public in Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People5and hypothesized that the unconscious predilection to discriminate is a principal cause of racial disparities.6 Blindspot became a national best seller, popularizing the IAT, and unconscious racism and racial discrimination became ingrained in public thinking.

As Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute notes in The Diversity Delusion,7 politicians from President Obama on down, the media, and others throughout society began to use “implicit bias” as a hitherto unacknowledged source of racist attitudes, the assumed cause of racism and racial disparities.8

The IAT received overwhelmingly positive media coverage that echoed the idea that it “measured something that had implications for real-world manifestations of prejudice and discrimination,” according to New York Magazine.9 The IAT was named “the new diversity paradigm” by Vox.10

In August 2015, Pew Research publicized its findings from a racial IAT conducted online on a sample population, which were reported by NBC News:

Researchers at the Pew Center say that “most humans display a bias against out-groups—people who are different from them”….Subconscious racial preferences can alter behavior, according to Pew….”Most of these implicit racial biases are consequence of subtle messages seen in the media, popular culture, that suggest one group is good, and another group is bad—associating one group with crime, another with accomplishment,” Rich Morin, senior editor at Pew told NBC News.11

Pew thus directly endorses “unconscious racism” and indirectly attributes it for the sudden nearly doubling of the public view that racism is a “Big problem” in America—to 50% in the other Pew survey in July 2015.

Mac Donald provides telling insights into the quest for “unconscious racism”:

Implicit bias purports to answer the question: Why do racial disparities persist in household income, job status, and incarceration rates, when explicit racism has, by all measures, greatly diminished over the last half-century? The reason, according to implicit-bias researchers, lies deep in our brains, outside the reach of conscious thought. We may consciously embrace racial equality, but almost all of us harbor unconscious biases favoring whites over blacks, the proponents claim. And those unconscious biases, which the implicit-bias project purports to measure scientifically, drive the discriminatory behavior that, in turn, results in racial inequality.

The need to plumb the unconscious to explain ongoing racial gaps arises for one reason: it is taboo in universities and mainstream society to acknowledge intergroup differences in interests, abilities, cultural values, or family structure that might produce socioeconomic disparities….12

Mac Donald calls the IAT crusade “agenda-driven social science” and underscores the fact that “Greenwald and Banaji now admit that the IAT does not predict biased behavior.”13 Mac Donald notes further that Greenwald and Banaji wrote in 2015, just two years after their sweeping claims in Blindspot:

The psychometric problems associated with the race IAT render it problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination.14

In January 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education published the results of a meta-analysis of 20 years of data about the IAT which confirmed that “changes in implicit bias don’t lead to changes in behavior.” In commenting on the study, Greenwald admitted that:

We do not regard the IAT as diagnosing something that inevitably results in racist or prejudicial behavior.15

Tragically, the drastically increased public concern about racism—almost certainly driven by the belief that racial disparities are the result of discrimination based on unconscious racism—is the result of false, irreproducible academic social science rather than scientific truth—a broader national problem identified by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) in its December 2019 report, The Irreducibility Crisis of Modern Science.16

National Review publicized the Chronicle article in 2017,17 but there has been no sustained effort by higher education or others to correct the false impression that implicit bias and unconscious racism lead to racial discrimination and racial disparity. And the supporters of the IAT still maintain that it can be useful for estimating the level of implicit bias in society (average outcomes across large entities) to plausibly predict unconscious racism and discrimination that contributes to black disadvantage.

The scientifically flimsy notion of unconscious racism is now baked into public consciousness and will continue to drive social justice policies at all levels, from federal and state agencies or in local communities like Montgomery County, Maryland. It also seems likely to bolster the similarly elusive notion of “systemic racism” as the legacy of slavery in America today. For example, support for the new exhibit on the founding and slavery at James Madison’s home Montpelier in 2017 cited “present-day biases” to argue that blacks are still victims of the legacy of slavery—as illustrated by “mass incarceration…the achievement gap…housing discrimination, and vicious cycles of poverty, violence and lack of opportunity throughout America’s inner cities.”18

Higher education is unlikely to correct the false conception of “implicit” white racism and systemic racial discrimination, for as Mac Donald points out in The Diversity Delusion, the set of ideas that now dominate colleges and universities is:

That human beings are defined by their skin color, sex, and sexual preference; that discrimination based on those characteristics has been the driving force in Western civilization; and that America remains a profoundly bigoted place, where heterosexual white males continue to deny opportunity to everyone else.19

The Black Lives Matter Movement

Criminal justice and police relations with blacks (which have been significantly affected by charges of implicit bias and unconscious racism leveled against the police) have undoubtedly also been drivers of Pew survey results about racism since 2015, stemming from the deaths and shootings of young black men, particularly of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014. Brown’s death at the hands of a local police officer led to the nationalization of the Black Lives Matter movement based on the slogan, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” That slogan was a myth (that the media still sustains) concocted by one of Brown’s friends, which the report of the shooting by the U. S. Department of Justice and the policeman’s trial record dispelled.20

Pew Research surveys have found that:

Since 2015, the increase in perceptions of racism as a big problem has been almost entirely among Democrats…[and the] partisan divide is wider than the racial gap in support for Black Lives Matter.21

Pew specifically found that 65% of blacks and 40% of whites had come to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Among whites:

Democrats and those younger than 30 [most of whom are college educated] are particularly supportive of Black Lives Matter…Six-in-ten white adults younger than 30 express at least some support for the…movement.22

The “Great Awokening” of Young White Liberals/Progressives

Mathew Iglesias, writing in Vox in April 2019 about today’s young white liberals, observed that:

In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter. The change amounts to a “Great Awokening”—comparable in some ways to the enormous religious foment in the white North in the years before the American Civil War. It began roughly with the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, when activists took advantage of ubiquitous digital video and routine use of social media to expose a national audience in a visceral way to what otherwise would have been a routine local news story.23

That news story was the shooting of Michael Brown that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement and began:

the relatively recent, relatively sudden change that constitutes the Great Awokening [which] is fundamentally about race and its relationship to national identity.24

Thus, ironically, both Black Lives Matter and the “Great Awokening” were (and remain) founded upon a myth that has never been acknowledged by the American media.

Yglesias goes on to explain in Vox:

Between 2001 and 2018, the share of Democrats who describe themselves as liberal in Gallup polls has risen from 30 percent to 50 percent. The upshot is that white liberals—a group whose views on race are generally to the left of nonwhites—are now about 40 percent of the overall Democratic Party, making them the largest bloc in the party and the critical driver of Democratic politicians’ leftward shift on racial and identity politics….White liberals are now less likely than African Americans to say that black people should be able to get ahead without any special help.25

In an NPR Politics Podcast titled, “How White Liberals Became Woke, Radically Changing Their Outlook on Race,” Asma Khalid interviewed white liberals and two pollsters, who explained the “Great Awokening” further:

The white liberals of 2016 or even 2014 are very distinguishable from the white liberals of the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s…These days, a large majority of white liberals—nearly 3 in 4—say discrimination is the main reason black people can’t get ahead….26

Young Liberals/Progressives and Racial Discrimination

In that regard, a Pew Research survey in January 2009 found that the only national issue on which progress was being achieved was in “discrimination against minorities.”27 Then, like the shift described above for race in general, a Pew survey in October 2017 reported that the percent of Democrats who say that “discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days,” rose from 28% in 2010 to 64% in 2017.

That survey found that college-educated liberals/progressives constituted the bulk of the turn toward the belief in discrimination—with the shift in such beliefs being higher the greater the extent of education. Fully 78% of all liberals/progressives supported the view that racial discrimination is the main reason why black people can’t get ahead. That view was supported by 92% of those with a postgrad degree and 49% of college grads.28

An article in New York Magazine titled “Democrats Are Changing Their Minds About Race, and the Youth Are Leading the Way,” reached a similar conclusion about the views of young white liberals/progressives:

Data from Pew suggests Democratic members of the public have moved dramatically to the left on issues of race…In 2017, 64 percent of Democrats said that discrimination is the reason black people can’t get ahead, up from 28 percent in 2010….Most importantly, we find that this trend is driven by young voters changing their minds….Those most likely to shift toward a liberal racial position over time are Democrat youth….29

This view of college-educated and other young liberals/progressives flies in the face of another November 2007 Pew Research report, which found that African Americans themselves saw a widening gulf between the values of middle-class and poor blacks. Nearly four-in-ten of those surveyed said that because of the different natures of people within their community, blacks could no longer be thought of as a single race.30 Blacks themselves understood that culture and work ethic rather than discrimination are determinants of life prospects.

An interesting finding from the Pew surveys reveals that blacks with college experience are more likely than those without such experience to say that they’ve faced racial discrimination, and to believe that their race has negatively impacted their ability to succeed. This pattern has been consistent across multiple surveys.31 This finding should not be surprising considering the December 2019 NAS report, Separate but Equal, Again,32 which exposes widespread segregation on college campuses.

The Turn to Radical Social Justice

In A Theory of Justice (1971), Harvard philosopher John Rawls presented “principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness” and “a conception of social justice…as providing…a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed.”33

Rawls’s conception of social justice became the intellectual underpinning of the progressive welfare state, which not only redistributes material resources to the disadvantaged to produce equality of result, but also creates equality of opportunity to enable equal prospects for success. Rawls advocated an egalitarianism in which he even designated inequalities of birth as “undeserved,” to be offset in the name of fairness to produce genuine equality of opportunity as social justice.

But the December 2019 NAS report, Social Justice Education in America, explains the kind of social justice that today’s college students have been taught:

What we may call radical social justice theory, which dominates higher education, adds to broader social justice theory the belief that society is divided into social identity groups defined by categories such as class, race, and gender; that any “unfair distribution” of goods among these groups is oppression; and that oppression can only—and must—be removed by a coalition of “marginalized” identity groups working to radically transform politics, society, and culture to eliminate privilege.

Social justice advocates’ emphasis on words such as justice, equity, rights, and impact all register social justice’s goal of acquiring government power. Social justice advocates tend to dedicate any activity in which they engage to the effort to achieve the political ends of social justice.34

In Modern Versus Western Thought: Cultural Determinism,35 I noted the views of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an interview in March 2017 about the role of racism in this ideological turn:

The left…has undergone an ideological transformation. A generation ago, social justice was understood as equality of treatment and opportunity…. Today justice means equal outcomes. “There are two ideas now in the academic left that weren’t there 10 years ago.” One is that everyone is racist because of unconscious bias, and the other is that everything is racist because of systemic racism.” That makes justice impossible to achieve. “When you cross that line into insisting that if there’s not equal outcomes then some people and some institutions and some systems are racist, sexist, then you’re setting yourself up for eternal conflict and injustice.”36

America and local communities like Montgomery County, Maryland need to understand the new standard of social justice and the ultimate mission that higher education has assigned to our young college-educated liberal/progressive activists, which I consider can be stated as:

Racial disparities among racial groups are due not just to discrimination, but oppression, which must be removed by achievement of radical social justice or equity of outcome by group that includes the elimination of privilege.

The New Democratic Socialism and Young Adults

The farthest left cohort of the Democratic Party—that has increasingly come to support democratic socialism—consists of the same young college-educated liberal/progressive activists who have substantially driven the national belief that America is racist. According to Gallup, the most left-liberal/progressive faction of the Democratic Party grew from 32% in 2001 to 46% in 2018 and now consists largely of young college-educated whites.37

Democratic socialism has long been the radical egalitarian aspiration of the academic left, through government power—from the educational philosophy of John Dewey to the distributive justice of John Rawls. Increasingly, our young people, prior to their arrival in college, have already been tutored in their secondary schooling by Howard Zinn’s Marxist People’s History of the United States. In higher education, they are further imbued with cultural Marxism in their social science and humanities courses as well as the radical social justice ideology that the December 2019 NAS report describes.

In November 2019, Gallup found that socialism is now as popular as capitalism among young adults (Millennials and Gen Z), unlike their findings among earlier generations, which continue to strongly favor capitalism. And in August 2018, Gallup observed:

For the first time in Gallup’s measurements over the past decade, Democrats have a more positive image of socialism than they do of capitalism...with 57% having a positive view.

Americans aged 19 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%). This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68% viewed it positively.38

Our young college-educated activists are injecting into the bloodstream of America their beliefs in the need for radical social justice through the government power of socialism that they learned in higher education.


American society is now directly confronting the effects of the long-ascendant turn in higher education to the diversity ideology and the concepts of racial equity and radical social justice—through the transformation of public opinion on racism by irreproducible academic social science and young college-educated liberal/progressive activists—as described above. Traditional American societal norms such as equal individual rights and opportunity, equity from rewards earned through effort and achievement, and personal responsibility and reciprocity are being supplanted by equity and justice based solely on one’s racial census group.

I offer this perspective as a citizen whose community and nation are now affected by this misdirected and harmful development and can offer no correction to its outcome except through our national and local political processes. It will certainly not take place in our colleges and universities.

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

1 Mary Tyler March, “Sweeping Racial Equity Bill Passed Unanimously by Montgomery County,” National Public Radio (NPR), WAMU 88.5, 20 November 2019.

2 Samantha Neal, “Views of racism as a major problem increase sharply, especially among Democrats,” FactTank, Pew Research Survey, 29 August 2017. “Gains Seen On Minority Discrimination—But Little Else,” Pew Research Center, 7 January 2009.

3 Blacks Upbeat about Black Progress, Prospects,” Pew Research Center, 12 January 2010. Neal, “Views of racism as a major problem increase sharply, especially among Democrats,” 29 August 2017.

4 Neal, “Views of racism as a major problem increase sharply, especially among Democrats,” 29 August 2017.

5 Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (New York: Delacorte Press, 2013).

6 Heather Mac Donald, The Diversity Delusion (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 2, 88.

7 Mac Donald, Diversity Delusion, 2.

8 Mac Donald, Diversity Delusion, 89.

9 Jesse Singal, “Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job,” The Cut, New York Magazine, 14 January 2017.

10 Jenee Desmond-Harris, “Implicit bias means we’re all probably at least a little bit racist,” Vox, 15 August 2016.

11 Nick Kim Sexton, “Study Reveals Americans’ Subconscious Racial Biases, “NBC News, 21 August 2015.

12 Mac Donald, Diversity Delusion, 92.

13 Mac Donald, Diversity Delusion, 92.

14 Mac Donald, Diversity Delusion, 87-93.

15 Tom Bartlett, “Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not,” THE CHRONICLE of Higher Education, 5 January 2017.

16 David Randall and Christopher Welzer, The Irreducibility Crisis of Modern Science, National Association of Scholars, 28 December 2019.

17 David French, “Implicit Bias Gets an Explicit Dunking,” National Review, 10 January 2017.

18 Margaret Jordan, “Too many American still don’t see black history as their own,” The Washington Post, 30 June 2017.

20 Neil Munro, White House Correspondent, “Holder Admits ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Claim Was Bogus,” The Daily Caller, 4 March 2015. Jonathan Capehart, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie,” The Washington Post, 16 March 2015.

21 Neal, “Views of racism as a major problem increase sharply, especially among Democrats,” 29 August 2017.

22 Juliana Menasce Horowitz and Gretchen Livingston, “How Americans view the Black Lives Matter movement,” FactTank, Pew Research Survey, July 2016. Renee Stepler, “5 key takeaways about views of race and inequality in America,” FactTank, Pew Research Survey, 27 June 2016. Monica Anderson, Sky Toor, Lee Rainie, and Aaron Smith, “Activism in the Social Media Age,” Internet & Technology, 11 July 2018.

23 Matthew Yglesias, “The Great Awokening,” Vox, The Highlight, 1 April 2019.

24 Yglesias, “Great Awokening,” 1 April 2019.

25 Yglesias, “Great Awokening,” 1 April 2019.

26 Asma Khalid, “How White Liberals Became Woke, Radically Changing Their Outlook on Race,” National Public Radio (NPR), 1 October 2019.

27 Neal, “Views of racism as a major problem increase sharply, especially among Democrats,” 29 August 2017. “Gains Seen On Minority Discrimination—But Little Else,” 7 January 2009.

28 “Trust, Facts and Democracy,” 4. Race, immigration and discrimination, Pew Research Center, 5 October 2017.

29 Sean McElwee and Alexander Agadjanian, “Democrats Are Changing Their Minds About Race, and the Youth Are Leading the Way,” Intelligencer, New York Magazine, 1 February 2018.

30 “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class,” Pew Research Center, 11 November 2007.

31 Monica Anderson, “For black Americans, experiences of racial discrimination vary by education level, gender,” FactTank, Pew Research Center, 2 May 2019.

32 Dion J. Pierre, Separate but Equal, Again, National Association of Scholars, 28 December 2019.

33 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 3-22.

34 David Randall, “Executive Summary,” Social Justice Education in America, National Association of Scholars, 28 December 2019.

35 William H. Young, Modern Versus Western Thought: Cultural Determinism, National Association of Scholars, 30 August 2017.

36 Bari Weiss, “Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage,” The Wall Street Journal, 31 March 2017.

37 Lydia Saad, Jeffrey M. Jones and Megan Brenan, “Understanding Shifts in Democratic Party Ideology,” Gallup, 19 February 2019. Lydia Saad, “Socialism as Popular as Capitalism Among Young Adults in U. S.,” Gallup, 25 November 2019.

38 Frank Newport, “Democrats More Positive About Socialism Than Capitalism,” Gallup, 13 August 2018.

Image: By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA - Students protesting for gun control legislation, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78647826

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