Mixed up with the question of fairness to individuals and groups has been the explosive question of whether individuals and groups have the innate ability to perform at the same levels, if they are all treated alike or even given the same objective opportunities.
Intellectuals have swung from one side of this question at the beginning of the 20th century to the opposite side at the end. Both those who said that achievement differences among races and classes were due to genes, in the early years of the 20th century, and those who said that these differences were due to discrimination, in the later years, ignored the old statisticians' warnings that correlation is not causation.
The idea that some people are innately superior (usually one's own group) goes back for centuries, but various new facts that came out in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave the appearance of "science" to such beliefs during the Progressive era.
Sir Francis Galton's research turned up the fact of remarkable achievements among members of the same family, which he regarded as evidence of genetic superiority. The rise of IQ testing, and especially the massive mental testing of soldiers in the U.S. Army during the First World War, showed great differences in test scores among various racial and ethnic groups.
In the public schools, there were similarly large differences in which ethnic group's children failed to get promoted. In both the Army mental tests and in the schools, Polish Jews did poorly at that time. Carl Brigham-- a leading authority on mental tests and the author of the SAT-- said that the Army tests tended to "disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent."
It should be noted that all of these conclusions were based on hard data, not mere "perceptions" or "stereotypes," as so many inconvenient facts are dismissed today. What was wrong were not the data but the inferences.
Polish Jews were among the many immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe who were relatively recent arrivals in the United States. Many of these immigrants grew up in homes where English was not spoken, as Carl Brigham acknowledged in later years, when he recanted his earlier statements. In later years, Jews scored above average on mental tests.
It is also a hard fact of history that some races had far more advanced technological, economic and other achievements than others at particular times and places. But those who were ahead in some centuries were often behind in other centuries-- the Chinese and the Europeans having changed positions dramatically after Europe eventually caught up with China and then surpassed it within recent centuries. But there was no evidence of any dramatic changes in genetics among either the Chinese or the Europeans.
While striking changes in the relative positions of different races at different periods of history undermine genetic explanations, the fact that there has been no period when their achievements have been the same undermines today's presumption that different economic or other outcomes are due to discrimination.
Whatever the innate capacity of any race, class or other group, what pays off in the real world are developed capabilities, and these have never been the same-- or even close to being the same-- for individuals or groups.
All the leading brands of beer in the United States were created by people of German ancestry and so is the leading beer in China, not to mention breweries created by Germans in Australia, Argentina and elsewhere. Germans were producing beer in the days of the Roman Empire.
This does not mean that beer brewing skill is genetic but it also does not mean that this skill-- or any other skill-- is randomly distributed among peoples, so that a failure to have equal "representation" of groups in a given institutions can be presumed to be due to discrimination by that institution.
Fairness as equal treatment does not produce fairness as equal outcomes. The confusion between the two meanings of the same word has created enormous mischief, much of it at the expense of lagging groups, who have been distracted from the things that would enable them to catch up. And whole societies have been kept in a turmoil pursing a will o' the wisp in the name of "fairness."