When the economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. accepted a position as chief equality officer in the New York City Department of Education, he had no idea that he was about to step into a minefield. During a two-year stint in that post, Fryer helped implement some very controversial initiatives—giving teachers extra pay for improved student performance, for example. “There were people picketing me outside my apartment,” he recalls.

But Fryer, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard...

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