May 16, 2018


The Racism Treadmill (Coleman Hughes, 5/14/18, Quillette)

[W]hile psychological biases may sufficiently explain progressophobia on most other topics, our denialism about racial progress calls for a deeper explanation--an explanation in terms of widely-held beliefs about race and inequality.

One such belief is the notion that disparities between blacks and whites--in income, housing, employment, etc.--are caused by systemic racism. The award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, summed up the state of racial progress like so: "I could see that some fifty years after the civil rights movement black people could still be found at the bottom of virtually every socioeconomic metric of note."2 Ibram X. Kendi, another celebrated race writer, put it bluntly: "As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism."

But the premise built into the thinking of Coates and Kendi is false. I call it the disparity fallacy. The disparity fallacy holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic. What's puzzling about believers in the disparity fallacy is not that they apply the belief too broadly, but that they apply it too narrowly. Any instance of whites outperforming blacks is adduced as evidence of discrimination. But when a disparity runs the other way--that is, blacks outperforming whites--discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.

Here's a clear example of the disparity fallacy: a recent study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau found that, "[a]mong those who grow up in families with comparable incomes, black men grow up to earn substantially less than the white men." A New York Times article attributed this disparity to "the punishing reach of racism for black boys." But the study also found that black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, and higher incomes than white women, conditional on parental income. The fact that black women outperformed their white counterparts on these measures, however, was not attributed to the punishing reach of racism against whites.

Economic disparities that favor blacks have been reported for decades, yet they have rarely if ever been attributed to anti-white systemic bias. A 1994 New York Times article reported that, among college graduates, black women earned slightly more money than white women did. In addition, the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out that, as early as 1980, U.S. census data show black college-educated couples out-earning their white counterparts.3

The black/white unemployment gap provides an even older illustration of the disparity fallacy. Many commentators have reflexively attributed the modern unemployment gap to systemic racism. But in historical eras with far more racism, the gap was reversed. According to Sowell, "[b]lack unemployment rates were lower than that of whites in 1890 and, for the last time, in 1930."4 Facts like these, however, are never explained in terms of discrimination in favor of blacks. Indeed, why progressives only commit the disparity fallacy in one direction is never explained. What the writer Shelby Steele has said about progressives and racist events is equally true of statistical disparities that disadvantage blacks: When they learn of one, "they rent a jet plane and fly to it!"

It's a sign of the poverty of our discourse on racial progress and inequality that the rarest findings are thought to be normal, and the most common findings are thought to require special explanation.

Indeed, it is rare to find any two ethnic groups achieving identical outcomes, even when they belong to the same race. A cursory glance at the mean incomes of census-tracked ethnic groups shows Americans of Russian descent out-earning those of Swiss descent, who out-earn those of British descent, who out-earn those of Polish descent, who out-earn those of French descent in turn. If the disparity fallacy were true, then we ought to posit an elaborate system that is biased towards ethnic Russians, then the Swiss, followed by the Brits, the Poles and the French. Yet one never hears progressives make such claims. Moreover, one never hears progressives say, "French-Americans make 79 cents for every Russian-American dollar," although the facts could easily be framed that way. Similar disparities between blacks and whites are regularly presented in such invidious terms. Rather than defaulting to systemic bias to explain disparities, we should understand that, even in the absence of discrimination, groups still differ in innumerable ways that affect their respective outcomes.

One crucial way in which groups differ is culture. Culture matters enormously. The importance of culture is, ironically, a value often expressed by progressives. When presented with arguments that point to genetic influences on human behavior, many on the Left respond by emphasizing the importance of culture over genetics, that is, nurture over nature (see Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate for more.) Moreover, cultures differ from one another. This is true by definition. It's unclear what the "multi" in "multi-culturalism" could possibly mean if cultures were all the same. Put these two premises together, and you arrive at what should be an equally banal conclusion: if culture matters enormously, and cultures differ from one another, then differences between cultures matter enormously.

But, together with the disparity fallacy, the denial of cultural explanations for disparity has become the received view among progressives. 

It's easy enough to break the culture--just use mortgage and public education vouchers to shift the population from cities to the suburbs.

Posted by at May 16, 2018 4:25 AM