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When Race Trumps Merit by Heather Mac Donald

It is common to see thought leaders, especially on the right side of the political spectrum, bemoan the degradation of the meritocracy under which the United States once purported to operate. With the advent of identity politics and grievance culture taking over the highest positions of power in society, it’s hard to disagree that the new social currency is victimhood, and racial victimhood carries particular weight. In When Race Trumps Merit, author Heather Mac Donald exhaustively enumerates modern instances of this phenomenon, and explains its impact on several fields. While the book is engaging and well-researched, it’s hard to come away from it without a sense of righteous indignation and anger at the outrage peddlers and race hucksters responsible for what it outlines. Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing.

When Race Trumps Merit is a thorough accounting of what Mac Donald refers to in her overview as “the bias fallacy,” the notion that black Americans have been oppressed and crushed by some ill-defined systemic force, and the gross overcorrections that have been made at an institutional level — some in good faith, most not — to attempt to solve the problem. The book contains a shocking amount of examples in which non-black Americans, largely Asian and white, have been ignored or suppressed by new regime changes meant to disproportionately uplift black Americans in almost every field, be it academia, politics, the arts, or medicine. This is just what has been going on for the last three years — nearly all of Mac Donald’s examples are events that transpired since the May 2020 death of George Floyd.

Mac Donald summarizes the theses of her book with its lengthy subtitle: “How the pursuit of equity sacrifices excellence, destroys beauty, and threatens lives.” At first blush the claims made here seem hyperbolic, but within the first few pages there’s already enough evidence to support them. The book is divided into three parts, each covering one element of its subtitle. Part one, dedicated to science and medicine, comes out of the gate with some of the most damning citations in the entire work. In its two chapters, Mac Donald describes a pair of a priori truths, dogmatic axioms that have been issued from on high to the medical and scientific industries and therefore must be accepted: “… racial disparities in the demographics of the medical profession and racial disparities in health outcomes are the products of systemic racism. Questioning those hypotheses is professionally suicidal.” Examples of medical institutions twisting themselves into knots in recent years to abide by these new tenets — and what happened to the unfortunate souls who chose not to — abound.

Many of the examples in the book seem too preposterous to be true. Mac Donald cites one of many cases of drug trials having their integrity undermined by racial politicking: “In May 2022, a physician-scientist lost her NIH funding for a drug trial because the trial population did not contain enough blacks. The drug under review was for a type of cancer that blacks rarely get. So there were almost no black patients with that disease to enroll in the trial in the first place.” More damning still is this case:

A common blood test for kidney health understates healthy kidney function in black patients. Nephrologists therefore adjusted the test results for black patients to estimate their kidney function with greater accuracy. Then the activists showed up, arguing that this correction must by abolished. The American Society of Nephrology and the National Kidney Foundation announced that they no longer supported the separate reporting of the kidney function measure for black patients.

The consequences of the racial politicking here are harrowing, and Mac Donald expertly summarizes numerous examples of how medical research grants and scholarships have shifted from being awarded to the most capable physicians to the ones with the most “diverse” research teams. The damage this has already done, and will continue to do, to public health is incalculable — and unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.

The massive second part of When Race Trumps Merit focuses on culture and the arts, and the standards of excellence in those fields have fared as poorly as those of the scientific. In its ten chapters, Mac Donald enumerates dozens of cases in the world of opera, classical music, and museums, in which the great and beautiful works of centuries past have been pushed to the wayside in favor of lesser works from inferior artists in the name of racial equity. Moreover, just as in the field of medicine, brilliant and talented artists have been snubbed in recent years, denied seats in prominent symphony orchestras or places on the stages of opera halls, so that the institutions in charge can fill their quotas.

More egregiously, there are also many cases in which previously existing works have been edited, changed to reflect more ‘modern’ political sentiments. One example from April of 2022 had the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra rewrite Schiller’s Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, replacing its arresting verse about the wonders of creation with lyrics from a local rapper:

Live and love with open mind let our cultures intertwine.

Dig deep down, show what you’re made of, set the tone it’s time to shine.

We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.

While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.

Mac Donald kindly refers to the new lyrics as “clumsy” and “banal”. The author also points out that, in 1989, legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein led a performance of the same symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall a month before. “To mark the liberation, Bernstein changed one word of Schiller’s text: ‘Freude’ (joy) became ‘Freiheit’ (freedom). This substitution was regarded as so momentous as to put Bernstein momentarily on the defensive … [and] was still being talked about long after the 1989 concert.” Now, such changes don’t even need to be addressed so long as they are made in the name of the ‘just’ cause du jour. One is reminded of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Further in the section, Mac Donald relates a number of cases of museums apologizing for displaying artwork from people who may have held opinions or been associated with circumstances now deemed unacceptable (such as George Frideric Handel briefly holding stock in a slave trading company that he received as payment for a commission), and replacing the art with mediocre pieces from “African” artists, many of whose identities cannot be verified. These pieces, Mac Donald explains, came with plaques describing their immense influence and impact on future artists; most of this information was dubious at best and an outright fabrication at worst.

Perhaps most baffling is a story about the Art Institute of Chicago and its docent program, unpaid volunteers who guide visitors through the exhibits and offer insight into the pieces.

In 2012, the Art Institute of Chicago posted a tribute to its volunteer museum educators … at that time [it] was still seeking to expand its docent corps. … Less than a decade later, in September 2021, the Art Institute shut down its docent program entirely and told its participants that they would no longer be allowed to serve the Institute in a volunteer capacity. … Had the docents been delivering subpar performances? Had the Institute discovered an incurable flaw in their training? No, it had discovered that they were overwhelmingly white. And that, in 2021, constituted a sin almost beyond redemption.

As medicine and scientific research declined under the oppressive weight of the new regime, so too did the arts. While these examples might seem distant or esoteric, Mac Donald’s third part delves into the more tangible horrors wrought by racial politics with its grim discussion of the effect of disparate impact analysis on law and order.

Mac Donald goes into detail about a number of famous cases in recent years — names like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Breonna Taylor — and how coverage by politicians and commentators have created an imagined genocide out of whole cloth. This, in turn, leads to less stringency in police investigation, which decreases public safety dramatically. Mac Donald points out a case of traffic accidents in Oakland: “nearly 60 percent of fatalities and serious injuries occur on only 6 percent of the city’s streets, overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods … yet Oakland police were ordered to decrease their traffic involvement sharply following a Stanford study accusing them of racial profiling. The result has been growing disorder.” This is, of course, one example of many, and tamer than most.

The author goes on to state that “many Americans are so accustomed to being called racist for being white that they don’t even notice the insult.” President Joe Biden’s first speech as president-elect called out “systemic racism,” and his inaugural address claimed white supremacy was a key issue challenging Americans today. Mac Donald rightly points out that so many white Americans have become numb to the daily accusations of racism that few noticed just how absurd Biden’s declarations were. The double standards don’t end there.

The sixteenth chapter of When Race Trumps Merit is troubling, to say the least. An account of dozens upon dozens of barely reported-on, if acknowledged at all, murders of black children in 2020. While Mac Donald largely lets the impact of these data speak for itself, the implication is clear and convicting. None of us know the names of any of these children, but we have monuments, moments of silence, and political grandstanding in honor of George Floyd, a man who threatened a pregnant woman at gunpoint and then went on to attempt to defraud a convenience store after taking enough drugs to kill a horse. Why?

If even a handful of black children had been killed by whites, the uproar over white supremacy would dwarf anything seen to date. Instead, since the black children’s assailants are overwhelmingly black themselves, the country changes the subject, lest it be accused of a taboo attention to black crime.

While it’s true that the double standards and imagined grievances largely have a negative impact on the careers and education of many white and Asian Americans, the true victims of race politics are catalogued here.

With When Race Trumps Merit, Heather Mac Donald delivers a profound and incriminating case against race politics and claimants of systemic oppression against black Americans. The book is meticulously researched and could serve well as an almanac of recent injustices. That said, the book’s conclusion does little to assuage its reader’s concerns, and ultimately does not make for a comfortable read. However, Mac Donald doesn’t want us to be particularly comfortable with this. The subject covered here is grotesque, and one should feel displeased and unhappy with what has arisen in this country. Mac Donald has given us the proof that our anger is well-founded. Now the question becomes what we are to do with it.


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