Unintended Consequences and Equity Actions

It began with the best of intentions. President Jimmy Carter used the term race norming when he asked that federal job tests adjust the scores of black applicants to take into account socio-economic differences and possible cultural bias in the test itself. President Ronald Reagan continued the practice.

Adjustment of test scores based upon race was not a new concept. The widely used Wonderlic test started using ethnic conversion tables in its test scoring. The rationale for the adjusted scores was that unadjusted scores were not found to be a good predictor of job success, and that they were unfair to candidates of color. The Wonderlic test is used to assess the potential of about 3 million job applicants per year. One organization using the race adjusted Wonderlic test is the National Football League.

When studies confirmed that football players suffered from reduced cognition functioning due to head injuries, they filed suit and won a one billion dollar law suit. Black players found it harder to qualify for full benefits from the settlement because they began their careers with “less cognitive functioning” according to the NFL. Thus, race norming became in effect a rationale for racial discrimination. A pair of former players filed a lawsuit in federal court. The courts dismissed the case and ordered mediation. The mediation would not include black players, but only the NFL and the courts.

The basis for race norming is supposedly rooted in medical science. In fact, the medical profession also uses race norming in its treatment protocols. But now researchers are finding that there is no basis in a person’s biology that justifies race norming. In fact, there is growing evidence that race norming is making health disparities even worse for people of color. Race norming scores on medical assessments are denying treatments that would be given to white patients.

Race norming was originally thought of as a way to provide equity to people of color. The intentions were good. But like a number of societal interventions, the consequences of race norming were far worse than the inequity it was designed to correct.

Just imagine how we might evaluate the consequences of equity initiatives? Just imagine how we might right inequities without demeaning those for whom we are trying to support? Just imagine how we can resolve inequities in a way that doesn’t create conflicts between races that make situations worse?

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“Fairness is giving all the people the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone alike.” – John Wooden (Champion basketball coach)

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