This is a (very) short piece on the practice of “race norming” that was published as part of my Observer column, 6 June 2021. It is an important issue, and I will hopefully write a longer article on this issue soon.

The NFL, American football’s professional league, is to abandon the practice of “race norming” in assessing compensation for former players with brain injuries. It’s the assumption that black players have lower cognitive functioning than white ones, an assumption that made it harder for them to prove they had suffered a deficit through brain trauma and so qualify for a payout. Two former players, Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport, had sued the NFL, having been denied compensation that they would have received had they been white.

The treatment of black people as cognitively less able is straightforward bigotry and draws on a long racist history. The irony, though, is that race norming was introduced as an anti-racist measure and as part of affirmative action programmes.

In 1980, the US Department of Labor pressured employers to adjust aptitude test scores to improve the performance of black people, who often did worse than white people. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission threatened to sue companies not adopting such race norming. Racial adjustments also became widely used in medical diagnoses.

Race norming was imposed with the best of intentions – to help combat discrimination. The fact that conservative pressure led to George Bush outlawing the practice in 1991 only strengthened its attraction for liberals.

But the idea of assessing individuals differently by virtue of the racial group to which they are deemed to belong is necessarily rooted in racist views of group differences. “When they use a different scale for African Americans versus any other race… that’s literally the definition of systematic racism,” Davenport said. And that’s true in a factory or office as much as on the football field. It’s a practice that only strengthens the idea that races, and racial differences, are fixed entities. The NFL scandal is a reminder that racism cannot be challenged by adopting racist ideas.

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