The Links Between Past Racism and Current Inequality

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Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America

Racial inequality is a well-documented phenomenon in the United States. Based on polling data taken in 2019, most Americans agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage compared to whites. Those polls also show that whites and conservatives (as groups) are least likely to agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage. In a previous article, I outlined two competing narratives used to explain racial inequality between whites and Blacks. One narrative favored by the majority of liberals and Black people in the US is that historical and current discrimination is the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. The other narrative favored primarily by conservatives and by a significant portion of the white population is that individual differences in things like cultural orientation, values, motivations, and behaviors are the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. I outlined evidence that shows that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive. In this article, I would like to cover this topic more by exploring the relevant history that precedes racial inequality. We will continue with these two competing narratives in mind. 

We have already looked at the most powerful method for investigating cause and effect: scientific experimentation. I described the experimental and empirical evidence that supports the claim that racial inequality in the US is due both to discrimination and individual differences. But there are other ways to evaluate cause and effect besides conducting experiments. One can evaluate evidence for “temporal precedence”, i.e., that the cause precedes the effect in time. For A to cause B, A must occur before B. In the case of racial inequality, there are two timelines that come from the liberal and conservative narratives. By claiming that discrimination is the cause of racial inequality, liberals are implying that discrimination precedes inequality. Alternatively, conservatives that claim individual factors like culture, values, and behavior cause racial inequality, are implying that individual factors precede racial inequality. Let’s consider the liberal perspective and then the conservative perspective. 

From a historical standpoint, current inequality is entirely consistent with previous inequality. Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America (a cumulative total of 87% of the relevant history starting in 1619). It is only in the last 54 years of US history where Black Americans have had access to rights as citizens. Yet despite these legal advances, many racial gaps have not closed in that time. It is a historical fact that the worst form of discrimination (brutal dehumanization and enslavement) preceded the inequality that Black people face today in the New World. In fact, researchers have predicted the level of implicit bias in a US geographic region today based on the per capita enslaved population in that region in 1886. Basically, the degree to which a county or state depended on slavery before the civil war predicts how much pro-white bias exists in that same region today. Not only that, but slavery was also linked to forms of contemporary structural inequality such as black poverty rates, racial segregation, and Black social mobility. This is striking empirical evidence that the legacy of slavery persists into the current era in both the structure of society and attitudes of many. Of course, since the ending of slavery there were other intervening instances of codified racism such as redlining, the practice by which Blacks were systematically discriminated against when buying a home (until it became illegal in the 70s), which still has negative effects today. In other words, we have good historical and scientific reasons to think that the timing (discrimination precedes inequality) fits the narrative that discrimination causes inequality. 

life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race!

What about the conservative viewpoint that choices and cultural values precede racial inequality? Did racial inequality emerge out of the choices of Black people in the United States? Well, let’s consider the timeline. Over 90% of Black Americans are the descendants of people who were captured, enslaved and brought to the New World. When they arrived, they were intentionally stripped of their culture and separated from their families. Over the course of many generations, millions of African Americans were forced to live in a state of deadly inequality for around 200 years (depending on when they arrived). It isn’t until 1965 that Black Americans could even have the possibility of making free choices that could result in parity with whites. So as we can see, the idea that choice, values, and culture could cause inequality is not supported by the timeline: inequality preceded legitimate self-determination of African Americans to make their own choices, establish values, and build a sense of culture.

Of course, people who endorse this narrative may balk at this line of reasoning and clarify that the persistent inequality in the modern era is the result of choices, values, and culture because now people of all demographic backgrounds are free. To evaluate this perspective, let’s consider an analogy where we think of life in America as a foot race. We start this race from the moment we are born and how far we get is a measure of our health, wealth, and status. Those who run the least distance over time are least successful and those who cover the most ground are the most successful. But, this isn’t the only measure of success, another important measure of success is just how far you have gotten, which is not just about your ability to cover ground, but also a question of where you started in the race. This is because life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race! Meaning, people “pass the baton” to their familial successors in the race, so that those who are related to people who succeeded in earlier eras of the foot race (say from 1619 – 1964) are more likely to succeed in the current era. In life, this is analogous to the intergenerational passage of tangible resources like money, homes, vehicles, and economic opportunities, and also intangible resources like familial support, role-modeling, motivational orientation, and values. 

the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it.

Intergenerational passage of tangible and intangible resources is a well studied topic in the social sciences. Contrary to popular belief, social mobility (i.e. one’s ability to move to a higher level of economic success than one’s parents) is generally quite low in the United States compared to other similar countries. This means that intergenerational economic advantage is particularly decisive in the US. Consider the racial wealth gap: Black families on average have around 10% the median net worth of white families. In terms of actual dollars this means that as of 2016, the median net wealth of whites was $171,000 compared to about $17,600 for black households (and this has likely gotten worse due to COVID-19). This Black-white wealth gap is largely a result of intergenerational wealth transfer. This is also true of homeownership

But, intergenerational transfer goes beyond tangible assets like wealth and homes. Something as intangible as propensity to be incarcerated is intergenerational. A 2017 meta-analysis that synthesized results from 3 million children found that risk of criminal behavior is 2.4 to 1.8 times higher for kids with criminal parents (a trend that has actually gotten worse since 1981). This is partly because parents (even those who have not been incarcerated) often have little choice but to pass their low income, high crime, and overpoliced community to their children. In highly policed areas, children’s contact with law enforcement is linked to psychological distress that predicts criminal behavior (even after controlling for prior delinquent behavior). Black kids that do not have life altering experiences with crime or police find similar intergenerational effects apply to educational advantage. If they do get to college, Black Americans are far more likely to be first-generation college students who do not have the benefit of parents who successfully navigated college. The intergenerational passing of educational advantage is a well-documented mechanism in the white/black achievement gap. People also inherit a positive attitude towards working hard from their parents according to another meta-analysis of nearly 10,000 people. Even the propensity to participate in political struggles that can address some of the systemic issues at play here is itself intergenerational. In the year before Trump won the election with 3 million less votes than Clinton, a study found that political participation intention is partly intergenerational. 

In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

Other lines of evidence demonstrate how disparities influence choice and behavior. For example, lead poisoning is 2 to 6 times higher in Black communities (due in large part to discriminatory housing policies) in comparison to white communities. Poisoning of this sort is a causal factor in higher criminal behavior, intellectual decline, and downward social mobility. But unwelcoming environments aren’t just due to toxins. Experiences with discrimination can also leave very long lasting negative societal effects. In one Africa based study the slave trade was linked to societal levels of trust today by having a detrimental effect on the “norms, beliefs, and values” of modern Africans. In summary, discrimination and mistreatment of Black Americans preceded racial disparities, whether we are talking about tangible inequality, like money and homes, or inequality of an intangible nature, like behavioral patterns, cultural orientation, or motivation. These studies demonstrate that the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it. In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

So yes, conservatives are correct in some sense, individual differences matter, but individual differences are largely passed intergenerationally and thus are in large part the result of past discrimination and racial inequality. Like everything else, behaviors and choices don’t emerge out of nowhere, they emerge from a specific historical and social context. As we have seen the relevant historical context is quite unequal. This is a rehashing of the point I made in my last article that bears repeating: The conservative position does not really grapple with the full problem. Sure, there are differences in choices and values within certain communities, but why? 

Here, I should note that for some, this question leads to a fundamental notion in the history of psychology: nature vs nurture. In previous eras racial disparities were thought to be either due to the environmental differences in the lives of Blacks and whites, or they were due to genetic differences (an idea with an ugly past and present). Scientists now know that this is a false dichotomy, it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both in a complex and often hard to predict interaction. Separating them can be impossible, particularly when certain environmental conditions, like experiences of discrimination are inseparably linked to one’s genetically determined race. For these reasons, the history of focusing on genetics as a cause of racial inequality is both racist and seen as pseudoscientific. But even from a strictly pragmatic perspective, we can only influence environmental factors since we don’t have the tools to ethically influence genetics. Besides, given that around a quarter of the population today were alive when overt discrimination and racism was legal and normalized, and we have compelling evidence that previous inequality intergenerationally became current inequality (as previously discussed), we have every reason to focus on addressing environmental causes for racial inequality. 

Whether we rely on empirical experimental evidence or evaluate temporal precedence, it’s clear that the origin of racial inequality is historical and current discrimination. In view of all the facts, there is not a solid basis to argue that somehow the black community is ultimately to blame for their lower position on the social and economic hierarchy. Racial discrimination was codified into law for 87% of the relevant history for US citizens. In the remaining 13% of history, progress towards racial inequality has been slow. The intergenerational transmission of both tangible and intangible resources has ensured that those who benefited from subjugation and discrimination continue to win the relay race of life in the US. Likewise, the descendants of those who suffered through this history remain behind with little recourse but to continue to struggle for equality hopefully with the allyship of people from other racial groups who understand the need for racial equality. 

Why is there racial inequality in the US?

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Conservatives and liberals offer differing views on the causes of racial inequality.
What does the experimental evidence say?

The Black Lives Matter protests and associated high profile cases of police violence against unarmed Black men has catalyzed a conversation about race in the US. However, the problem of racial inequality extends far beyond policing. Racial inequality has a deep history in the US and despite the struggles in the Civil Rights Era that resulted in (mostlylegal equality, there is still vast inequality between Black and white citizens in practice.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. While there is probably a handful of people who would deny this reality, most people across the political spectrum agree that there is racial inequality. Where people disagree is on the question of why there is racial inequality. There are essentially two competing narratives: 1) “Racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination,” or 2) “Racial inequality is due to differences in choices, culture, and/or values.” The former narrative emphasizes that the Black community has been (and continues to be) held back by racism on an individual and systemic basis. The latter narrative emphasizes the legal equality that Blacks and whites share and thus attributes disparities to differences across individuals in each group. 

Which of these narratives one endorses is highly correlated with their demographic group.  Conservatives (compared to liberals), are more likely to adopt the latter narrative. In other words, they are much less likely to agree that discrimination is the main reason Black people can’t get ahead. Similarly, whites (compared to Black Americans), are much less likely to cite discrimination, lower quality schools, and lack of jobs as the causes of inequality. The polls cited above also show there are similar racial and ideological splits on perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond this polling data, you can find plenty of examples of these narratives emerging out of their respective demographic camps. 

In the conservative magazine National Reviewattorney Peter Kirsanow argues that “individual behavior, family structure, perverse governmental policies, and culture” are largely ignored when discussing racial inequality. He also claims that “systemic, structural, or institutional racism” are over-emphasized by liberals in a politically convenient ploy. Popular conservative commentator Ben Shapiro echoed this perspective here saying racial inequality, “has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with culture.” 

The alternative narrative, that racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination, is actually quite widespread in the news media even within outlets that are somewhat “down the middle”. For example, this USA Today article connects disparities in police violence and coronavirus deaths to systemic racism. The author argues that aspects of racial inequality are “intimately connected” and points to a legacy of discrimination as the cause of current housing disparities between white people and Black people. For a more liberal example, this Mashable article succinctly claims that systemic racism “is everywhere” and also links it to racial disparities related COVID-19 and high profile policing deaths. 

Experimental research

The statistics about racial inequality are basically correlations. Being Black is correlated with a variety of disadvantages; being white is correlated with a variety of advantages. So how can we understand what causes these advantages and disadvantages? Well, how do scientists typically establish causation? The best tool scientists have to determine cause and effect is the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT). In an RCT, researchers randomly assign participants to a treatment condition, where they undergo some sort of intervention, or to a control condition. Since the assignment to condition is random, we can assume that any differences between the treatment and control conditions are the result of the intervention, since without it the groups would be the same. This methodology is the gold standard for investigating the cause of something. However, in many cases, there are practical and ethical reasons for why we cannot do the experiment we would need to do in order to fully establish causality.

As an example, take the assertion that racism is responsible for an academic achievement gap between Black people and white people. This claim could be experimentally tested by exposing white and Black children to racism against their groups, and then testing their  academic achievements. We would want to control for other factors, so the children would need to be moved to three isolated communities that are treated identically except for how they are treated in terms of their race. In one community, the white children would be taught about the long history of their subjugation and then be subject to systemic and individual discrimination. In another community the Black kids would get this treatment. In the control, there would be no racial inequality or discrimination. We would test them every year for ten years to see what the effect of racism is on the achievement gap. Clearly, the above example would be an ethical nightmare. There is no way to (ethically) randomly assign the things that are said to cause racial disparities we see in society. We cannot randomly assign people to be white or black, or to be subjected to racism and discrimination, or to have specific values and culture. However, scientists have found ways to conduct ethical experiments to test the effects of discrimination. 

For example, consider disparities such that compared to white people, Black people were less likely to be employedmore likely to be in poverty, have about 10% of the net worth of whites, and have half the median income of white people. Is there any experimental evidence that this situation is the result of discrimination? The quick answer is yes. Hiring discrimination occurs when equally qualified Black people are less likely to receive a job offer than their white counterparts. Researchers study this phenomenon through what are called “hiring audit studies”. In these hiring audit studies, researchers respond to job advertisements with 2 job applications that are identical in every way except the race of the applicant (usually using a Black-coded name like “Jamal” vs a white-coded name like “Steve”). In 2017, a meta-analysis representing data from 28 previous hiring audit studies found evidence of racial bias in hiring such that whites receive 36% more callbacks than identically qualified Black people. They also did not find evidence that this level of discrimination had changed over the last 25 years. Worse, these researchers also found that discrimination doesn’t stop at callbacks, even after getting callbacks, black applicants face further discrimination. These experiments demonstrate that discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

Over this same period of time, dozens of similar audit studies have been completed to detect housing discrimination, where Black prospective home-buyers or renters are denied housing while identically qualified white buyers or renters are welcomed to the neighborhood. In these studies, there are white and Black auditors who submit housing applications with identical information, except the person submitting the application is either Black or white. Often, the auditors are even trained to give the same responses during interactions with realtors. Again, scientists here try to control for every other conceivable factor besides race. In a meta-analysis representing 72 housing audit studies in the US, Canada, and Europe, researchers evaluated the level of housing discrimination since the 70s. During the 70s through the 90s, Black people were about 50% less likely to receive a positive response from a housing application compared to whites. Other studies showed that discrimination decreased after the 90s so that Blacks are only 25% less likely to receive a positive response on a housing application. The most recent estimate shows that Black people today are still about 15% less likely to get those positive responses compared to whites. While it has decreased, this current level of discrimination still represents a significant difference in how equally qualified Black people and white people are treated. Worse still, this decrease has coincided with other forms of housing discrimination such as on Airbnb where applications from accounts with Black names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical white accounts. Homeownership is an effective way of building wealth, particularly for low-income and minority households, so housing discrimination has likely had important downstream effects that have contributed to economic inequality across the generations.

Economic discrimination between equally qualified Black and white people is found in a variety of domains, such as car purchasinggetting home insurancegetting a mortgage, and even hailing a taxi! The discrimination Black Americans face is sickening–literally. A 2015 meta-analysis documented that experiences with discrimination and racism in day-to-day life predicts poorer health for Black people. Data taken from 293 studies showed that reported racism predicted both poorer mental and physical health. Even within the doctor’s office, patients cannot escape the effects of racial discrimination. An audit-style study was done with physicians making recommendations about Black and white patients portrayed by actors with identical histories. Black patients were less likely to be referred for potentially life-saving treatment compared to whites with the same clinical presentation. Similar audit work has found racial discrimination towards middle class Black patients in the mental health context. Doctors have been found to harbor a racial bias that Black people are less sensitive to pain (which is likely the opposite of what is true) and thus under-prescribe pain medication to Black patients. But the effects of bias extend beyond just pain treatment. A 2015 systematic review found that racial bias of medical professionals predicts racial disparities in treatment decisions, treatment adherence, patient-provider interactions, and ultimately patient health.

discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

The evidence is clear*: discrimination does indeed cause racial disparities. It’s important to recognize that these studies demonstrate discrimination between otherwise identical people. In the audit studies I reviewed above Black people weren’t discriminated against for being poor, or uneducated, or having a criminal background. All of that is controlled for in these studies. These studies demonstrate in no uncertain terms that Black Americans in the modern era are being discriminated against simply because of their race. As discussed above, racial discrimination accounts for some significant portion of disparities in employment, income, wealth, housing, transportation, and medical treatment. Black people are even discriminated against in the primary domain they have to meaningfully influence the policies that could change this situation: voting

But, what about the conservative position that individual factors cause racial disparities? We run into a bit of a problem at this point; while researchers have cleverly devised a way to experimentally measure the effects of discrimination through audit studies, there is no way of auditing the effects of culture, choices, motivation and/or values. To credit the conservative position, psychologists study individual differences in choices, cultural orientation, values, or behavior, and we know that these things play a role in success. But again, this is correlational. How do we know if these individual factors play a causal role in racial inequality? 

Well, in some sense this topic is at the center of a lot of academic research. Researchers in psychology often cannot experimentally change the systematic factors related to racial disparities (like policy-makers could), so they come up with interventions to influence characteristics of individuals to help alleviate gaps. For example, Black students who enter college often do not feel a sense of belonging and this lack of perceived belonging is linked to worse academic outcomes for Black students compared with white students. Researchers designed an intervention where participants read stories from other students that encouraged participants to think about belonging as something that develops over time and strengthens as you make connections with students and faculty. This simple one-time intervention was replicated across a wide variety of schools and resulted in a 31-40% decrease in the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. 

At the heart of this approach is seeing individual differences as a component of a recursive cycle, where disadvantage facilitates the development of tendencies (such as a lack of belonging and the resulting vulnerability to failure or academic disengagement) that maintain or exacerbate disadvantage (which reinforce negative tendencies, etc). This cycle means that something like feeling you don’t belong is both a result and cause of racial inequality. This theory has led to wonderful scientific findings! For example, there was a 2009 intervention where students participated in a series of writing tasks to reflect on their values. In the task, students wrote about the personal importance of a self-defining value. This simple task in early seventh grade resulted in Black students having a stronger belief in themselves to fit in and succeed in school. These changes in the psychological orientation of students accounted for a significant decrease in the white/Black achievement gap by 8th grade graduation. There are plenty more examples of these types of interventions throughout psychology. 

Thus, the conservative viewpoint is partly correct: choices, values, and behavior can lead to differences in terms of who gets into college, who succeeds academically, and who becomes successful. I suspect most liberals and academics would agree with this view but do not agree that this view should be used to dismiss discrimination and systemic problems. Racial differences in choices, values, and behavior may help maintain and exacerbate racial inequality but we need to ask, “where do racial differences in choices, values, and behavior come from?” The academic answer is that they emerge from contexts that are deeply related to discrimination in the past and in the present. Furthermore, by understanding the origins of racial differences in behavior we can more effectively develop interventions that mitigate these differences. But it’s important to note that interventions like the belonging intervention are attempts to address the symptoms of racial inequality; they do not deal with inequality at its source by ameliorating historical injustice or correcting current discrimination (as found in the hiring and housing studies discussed above).

In summary

Taking in all of the research discussed above, the role of discrimination in racial inequality has such a strong foundation in historical and empirical facts that denying the role of discrimination is to depart from a scientifically informed view. On the other hand, the notion that racial inequality is at least in part due to values, behavior, and choices is true to some extent as well. Indeed, this is at the heart of much of the research about how to close achievement gaps between Black and white students. However, the perspective found in academic journals is communicated in quite different terms compared to some conservative arguments. Scientists and historians know that racial disparities in values, behaviors, choices, and even culture have emerged in a continually discriminatory environment with intergenerational disadvantages that maintained racial inequality (the subject of another article of mine). My investigation suggests that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive

If someone uses the argument that individual differences in values, culture, or behavior accounts for racial disparities as a way to deny discrimination as a cause, they are no longer aligned with the scientific evidence; we know discrimination is real, is currently happening, and is part of the story of inequality. If they cite individual differences as a way of blaming disadvantaged groups for their own disadvantage, they are also not aligned with the scientific evidence; we know that many of these individual differences emerge from a historical and current context of inequality that Black communities have had minimal control over. On the other hand, if someone is denying any role for individual differences, they have also departed from the relevant science. 

In this era of extreme partisanship and misinformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that our ideological perspectives are tempered and informed by the scientific evidence. The causal story behind racial inequality is extremely complex; I have barely scratched the surface in this article. We should leave no tool out of our tool box in order to solve the problem of racial inequality. We need people to investigate and study discrimination, the individual differences that account for inequality, the contexts that give rise to the individual differences, and the systematic forces at work. We also need science-based interventions and advocacy to address both the causes and symptoms of racial inequality. The resulting research should guide our thinking about these topics and help us find solutions. That means admitting the interplay between contexts and choices, between decisions and discrimination, and between history and the here-and-now. 

*Update 1/5/2021: For the sake of time, I left off the interesting academic debate about audit studies. These critiques have not borne out as particularly effective (also see here).

Originally posted on the Pipette Pen
Peer edited by Melody Kessler and Rachel Ernstoff
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Cursed Scientific Prophecies: Accurately Predicting the Future and Being Ignored

Scientists warned policy makers about a global pandemic for years, and we were still unprepared. What other predictions are scientists making that we should be reacting to?

In the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon, Cassandra, the princess of Troy, is given the ability to see into the future but is cursed to never be believed. In the tragedy, Cassandra knows of the impending doom of all she holds dear, her own life, the lives of her family, and indeed Troy itself. But she was powerless to stop it. No matter how much she implored those around her towards action… she was ignored.

The story of Cassandra can be seen as an allegory for actionable knowledge that, for one reason or another, is ignored to tragic ends. This dynamic of ignoring accurate predictions of the future is more prevalent now than ever before. In the 21st century, people don’t pay much attention to dodgy prophecies from temperamental gods or elaborate spooky rituals. Instead, the world has millions of the best and brightest scientists making predictions based on empirical evidence, complex technology, and scientific consensus. Our predictive ability has gotten humans to the moon, has prevented hundreds of deadly diseases, and has made it possible for me to easily share this thought with you now. Yet, the curse of Cassandra lives on and we, as a result, all live in our own modern tragedy. 

In the early days of 2020, our lives changed irrevocably when a highly contagious novel coronavirus started spreading around the globe. A year later there have been 574,00 excess deaths in the US as the result of this pandemic, and globally over 3.1 million deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. This happened in the final year of the Trump administration. Two years prior to the pandemic, the Trump administration disbanded the pandemic response team (though some team members were reassigned to other roles). The pandemic response team was put together by the Obama administration explicitly in anticipation of a global pandemic.

Of course, President Obama didn’t have the gift of prophecy, he was reacting to other infectious diseases that impacted the US and the world during his presidency, H1N1, Ebola, SARS, and ZIKA. While none of these 4 diseases became as big of a problem as the novel Coronavirus–in terms of number of deaths or infectivity–they signaled the possibility of a global pandemic. But decades before the slow reactions of politicians, scientists had been sounding the alarm.

For example, in the mid-1980s a leading influenza vaccine researcher named Edwin Kilbourne participated in a virology conference, and proposed a highly contagious virus with scary properties–actually far worse than those of the coronavirus–that would wreak havoc on the globe. 30 years later, prophecies of a global pandemic reached a fever pitch in the 2010s. But, a consensus had been building for years in the public health and virology community that a virus with the right characteristics to lead to a global pandemic will inevitably emerge. Experts implored us to get prepared right away. 

“Agamemnon is coming! Troy will fall and we will all die unless we do something now!” said the prophets.

South Korea showing what happens when science-based policy is implemented

And some did listen! There are plenty of success stories from countries who successfully navigated the global pandemic by heeding scientific expertise. Some countries, like New Zealand and South Korea, are all but back to normal (minus the usual influx of tourists) while comparably wealthy countries like the US and the UK continue to have massive spikes of infections. In other words, some saw past the curse and escaped Troy, while some are still not listening to reason as Troy burns down around them.

But the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is just a very obvious example of the much larger problem. There is a curse on science, where scientific consensus emerges that identifies a problem and solutions to that problem and then these prophecies go unheeded. I will quickly explore two general types of cursed scientific prophecies. The first category– the “easy problems”–of cursed scientific prophecies are of an almost banal nonpartisan nature. The second category–the “hard problems”–are those prophecies that found willful partisan political opposition. 

The “Easy” Problems

Food waste is worse in rich countries

Food waste

An estimated 40% of food that is grown in the US for consumption is wasted. This is the equivalent of about 1,250 calories per day per American, or 400 pounds of food per person annually. This is a tragic injustice given that an estimated 37 million (1 out of every 9) Americans experience food insecurity. It is an environmental tragedy as well, accounting for more than one quarter of total freshwater consumption, and roughly 300 million barrels of oil per year. There is a scientific consensus that A) this is a massive problem and B) the solutions are known. Nevertheless, progress to solve the problem of food waste remains slow.

Antibiotic resistance is on the rise

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance occurs when disease-causing microorganisms (i.e. bacteria and fungi) evolve the ability to survive treatment from antibiotic drugs designed to kill them. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development”. This danger has been discussed as early as 1945 when Alexander Fleming raised the alarm, and the problem has only worsened. To some extent, resistance is naturally occurring, but it is exacerbated by sparse regulations in many countries, inappropriate prescribing, and overuse in agriculture. These issues continue, despite WHO guidance on how to prevent and control the spread of antibiotic resistance.  


To be clear, I don’t think these are “easy” problems in that solving them would be simple and quick. Rather, I mean that they are problems that a) have been documented for decades, b) have readily available solutions that are under-utilized, and c) do not have an obvious political or ideological opposition (debatably at least). These problems may not create the attention-grabbing headlines they deserve, but they don’t exist in some political or scientific grey area; these problems are widely acknowledged. Nor do solutions require a vast renegotiation of the political system. And yet, over the decades, scientists raising the alarm (and providing solutions) simply hasn’t led to the resolution one would expect of a constructive society that reacts to actionable scientific knowledge. Sadly, it only gets worse from here. If these “easy” problems seem difficult to address, imagine the difficulty that emerges when those in power disagree on whether the problems even exist or deserve to be addressed. In other words, think of how much more intractable these problems become when they are politicized.

The “Hard” (Politicized) Problems

Environmental degradation is happening on many levels

Environmental degradation

This is a massive subject that I will quickly overview by noting several “sub-crises” under this umbrella.

Greenhouse Emissions

The vast majority (estimating the exact percentage is a bit complicated) of scientists agree that climate change is human-caused as a result of the explosion of greenhouse gas emissions (and other human activities). While the impacts of climate change on sea-levelsocean acidityhuman healthweather, and food production (to name a few) are open areas of research, there is a consensus (as articulated by the Global Commission on Adaptation) that the response from the world’s governments are “gravely insufficient”.

Plastic pollution

There is a consensus that the estimated 4.8 – 12.7 million metric tons of plastic added to the oceans annually is having a devastating effect already and will cause irreparable harm to the world’s ecosystems. This is a global problem that no one country can solve on it’s own, which has led scientists to call on policy makers to form international alliances to address this problem, a step that has not been taken by the US or the UK.

Biodiversity loss

We are living through the 6th mass extinction event in the earth’s history, but this time it is largely due to human activity. The extinction rate of species is hundreds or thousands of times faster than the estimated “background” rate seen over the last tens of millions of years. A recent UN report describes the “overwhelming evidence” of this “ominous picture” and provides a road map of the “transformative change” needed to address this issue.

Poverty

Again, this is a massive topic with a mountain of research on a global level, within specific countries and within specific communities around the world. I will provide only a brief summary of poverty in the US. We know that child poverty costs around $1 trillion per year, unstable housing will cost an estimated $111 billion over the next ten years, the cost of food insecurity alone was $178 billion in 2014, and in the year 2000 172,000 deaths could be attributed to individual- and area-level poverty.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12% of the US population (40 million people) in the US live in poverty. But this is a low estimation. The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), estimates that 18% of Americans (~59 million people) live in poverty (meaning they have less than half the American median income). By looking at other countries like Denmark and Finland where only 5-6% of the population is in poverty, we can see that our level of poverty is not an intrinsic aspect of human society. Indeed, of the 37 countries in the OECD, 35 of them have less relative poverty compared to the US. It is for these reasons that the US government has been called on by the UN and Human Rights Watch to address poverty. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association has made several recommendations for how to address poverty in the US, for example by raising the minimum wage (which likely will not occur in 2021).

The price we pay for high inequality

Inequality

Economic inequality, meaning the size of the gap in incomes and wealth between different economic class groups, is a distinct problem to poverty that also predicts social problems. Inequality is easily seen by statistics like: 80% of the wealth in the US is held by 20% of it’s wealthiest citizens. I’ve discussed the link between inequality and health and social problems in a previous article, but the gist is that economic inequality predicts lower life expectancy, math and literacy skills, trust, and social mobility as well as higher infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, and mental illness. In other words, the harms of economic inequality are very clear and solutions are available. 

Curses aren’t real, so why is this happening?

As with the “easy” problems, the “hard” problems are well-understood and the solutions are readily available. However, politicization of these issues adds a deep layer of intractability to these problems. In part, politicization is to be expected because there are extremely influential vested interests in environmental and economic issues. There is a long history of corporations opposing environmental regulations intended to protect human health and the environment. Similarly, campaign contributions and lobbying can facilitate the development of pro-corporate economic policies at odds with egalitarian policies. 

Another reason for the intractability of politicized problems is ideology. In general, political conservatism in the US is related to ideals of individual freedom, private property rights, limited government, and promotion of free markets. Political liberalism in the US is related to collective rights, market regulation to protect citizens and public goods, extending rights to underprivileged groups, and expanding the social safety net. This ideological framework can explain why, research has found that conservatives tend to attribute poverty to self-indulgence and laziness, while liberals tend to view poverty as a result of a poorly functioning society. Similarly, other research has found that conservatives are more likely to tolerate and justify inequality and deny or minimize problems associated with high inequality. Liberals and conservatives tend to differ on climate change as well, such that liberals are more likely to recognize the problem and support policies that address climate change.

Every specific instance of the phenomenon we are exploring has it’s own nuanced explanation, but there are general tendencies that contribute to societies lack of response to scientific prophecies. One tendency is that humans are just not good at long-term decision-making, particularly when the risks we need to avoid are in the distant future (or in a far away place). A second tendency is that we often assume someone else will take care of a known problem (the so-called “bystander effect”). Another tendency is the sunk cost fallacy, or sticking with something that doesn’t work because we have already invested so much into it. 

To some extent scientists are responsible for science getting ignored. Setting aside the racistsexist, and homophobic roots of scientific institutions (that have sown seeds of distrust in specific communities), there have been many high profile instances of “science getting it wrong”. Granted, this is most often science journalists getting the science wrong, but scientists get things wrong as well, like during the pandemic when the public was initially told not to wear masks and then the advice shifted. There is a fuzzy dividing line between actionable solid science, and science that isn’t actionable and solid. Unlike the fictional predictions of Cassandra, the predictions of science and the proclamations of scientists are not divine Truths (with a capital T). Yet, for all their fallibility, scientific predictions–particularly those with the weight of expert consensus behind them–represent the peak of human knowledge on the subject. While these predictions may shift slowly with new scientific investigation, those of us outside of these areas of expertise are best served by humbly accepting this gift of knowledge.  

It is important to state unequivocally: science is no replacement for politics or policy-making. As recently argued by Dr. Carlo Rovelli in Nature Materials, politics requires the navigation between competing values and interests and science is not suited to replace this process. That being said, in a world without divinely granted gifts of prophecy, science is the best tool we have for predicting the future, for identifying problems in society, and for developing evidence-based solutions. Thus the default position of politicians should be to often consult with scientists and give heavy consideration to scientific evidence for or against a policy. Furthermore, policy-makers should be held to account by the public and journalists when they take policy steps that are counter to the scientific consensus. Science is the best method we have to make accurate predictions of the future and members of the public and policy-makers ignore the warnings and prophecies of science at our collective peril. We live in an age of truly awe-inspiring scientific prophesizing beyond what was anticipated by the mind that dreamed up the Princess of Troy; let us act like it.

Original posted to the Pipette Pen where it was peer edited by Aditi Kokothari

Racial inequality is real. Here is the scientific evidence.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. There are many studies documenting the disparities that exist between Blacks and whites in the United States. The following is a list of evidence for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. This list is a “living document” that will be regularly updated to incorporate new scientific data as it comes in (or as I become aware of it). Please use this resource to make evidence-based contributions to discussions about racial inequality in the United States. 

Also, use the button on the right side of the screen to subscribe to my blog to get notified of my upcoming articles on the causes of racial inequality in the United States. There are compelling scientific reasons to see that racial inequality today is linked to past inequality. There is also compelling evidence from experimental research that current discrimination plays a role in current racial inequality.

Science of Social Problems Youtube Channel

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Black and white disparities

Income, wealth, and jobs

  • 18.7% (see table 2 here in 2019) of Black Americans live in poverty, compared to 7.3% of white Americans. 
  • 32% of Black American children live in poverty, compared to 11% of white American children. 
  • 19.1% of Black households have an inability to obtain adequate nutritious food, compared to 7.9% of white households (as of 2019). 
  • Black households have about 10% of the median net worth compared to their white counterparts (as of 2016).
  • Black household median annual income is nearly half that of white households (as of 2018).
  • 15.4% of Black Americans are unemployed, compared to 10.1% white Americans (as of 2020). 
  • 1% of fortune 500 company CEOs are Black, despite Black people making up 13% of the American population (as of 2020).
  • 36% of blacks have money in the stock market, compared to 60% of whites (as of 2017).
  • Typical Black households have 46% of the retirement wealth of typical white households (as of 2016).

Housing

  • 47% of Black families own a home, compared to 76% of white families (as of 2nd quarter 2020). 
  • 20% of black households are extremely low-income renters, compared to 6% of whites (as of 2019).
  • 40% of the homeless population is Black, despite only representing 13 percent of the general population (as of 2019).
  • 790 in 10,000 loans for black households were foreclosed upon, while only 452 in 10,000 loans for non-Hispanic white households were foreclosed upon (between 2005-2008).

Education

  • 80% of K-12 educators are white, while only 6.3% are Black.
  • In a 2016 study, Black and white teachers were asked to identify problematic behaviors in a group of children (there were in fact no problematic behaviors in the video). Eye-tracking methods showed that they excessively monitored the black boy in the video.
  • 64% of Black American children attend low income (i.e. Title 1) schools, compared to 33% of white American children.
  • 37% of Black Americans age 18 – 24 enrolled in college in 2018, compared to 42% of whites
  • 22.8% of Black Americans age 25 – 29 graduate from college, compared to 42.1% of white Americans (as of 2017).
  • 42% of Black college students are first generation (i.e. parents didn’t attend or graduate from college), compared to only 28% of white students (as of 2012).
  • 30% of Black and Hispanic students with 3.5 or higher high school GPAs attend community colleges, compared to 22% of white students (as of 2009).
  • 72% of Black students go into debt to pay for their education, compared to 56% of white students (as of 2016).
  • 5% of professors, associated professors, assistance professors, instructors, lecturers, or other faculty are black compared to 70% that are white (as of 2017).

Policing

Something to note about police statistics, is there is often not national data that can be used to understand racial disparities. Instead, specific police departments share data with a specific group of researchers. Thus many of the data points below are not taken from the US as a whole.

  • Unarmed Black people are killed by police disproportionately.
  • The likelihood of incarceration was higher for Black people at every level of wealth compared to the white likelihood.
  • Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates, but Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses (as of 2015).
  • A 2017 study of 20,000,000 traffic stops in North Carolina revealed that Black drivers are 95% more likely to be stopped (after controlling for amount of driving), and when stopped are 115% more likely to be searched.
  • A 2017 study of 4.5 million police stops in North Carolina revealed that blacks are more likely to be searched in comparison to whites even when controlling for the rates of carrying contraband.
  • Minneapolis police use force against black people at 7 times the rate of whites between 2015 and 2020.
  • Black Americans (from nationally representative data) are 1.7 times more likely to be arrested over a misdemeanor than whites, a trend that is remarkably consistent from 1980 until 2015.
  • Black Americans (from a national study) were the targets of 39% of SWAT deployments in comparison to whites only making 20% (numbers disproportional to their population).
  • Wrongful conviction data based on the National Registry of Exonerations as of 2017.
    • Based on exonerations, innocent black people are 7 times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.
    • African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.
    • African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims.
    • The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.
    • On average black murder exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and those sentenced to death spent four years longer.
  • Prosecution and sentencing in NYC from 2010-2011
    • Blacks were 10% more likely to be detained before their trial compared to whites, while controlling for other factors, including charge seriousness and prior record.
    • Blacks were 20% more likely to be detained before a misdemeanor trial compared to whites.
    • Blacks were 9% more likely to have their cases dismissed compared to whites.
    • For Blacks sentenced for misdemeanors, they are 47% more likely to received custodial offers (i.e. serving reduced time or time-served in pre-trial) as opposed to non-custodial sentences (i.e. community service, probation, and fines) compared to whites.
    • Blacks were 5% more likely (compared to whites) to be sentenced to prison, after controlling for a range of factors. This can be broken down further into the following:
      • 15% more likely for misdemeanor person offenses.
      • 15% more likely for misdemeanor drug offenses.
      • 14% more likely for felony drug offenses.
  • In a 2011 study of 5 counties in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois, Black Americans were held at a higher bail compared to whites, even after controlling for failure to appear in court.
  • In a 2014 study of 4 counties in Texas, Iowa, New York, and Oregon, Black probationers had higher odds (18 – 39%) of having their probation revoked, even after controlling for available factors (such as crime severity, criminal history, drug/alcohol problems, risk assessment scores, etc.).
  • A 2016 report shows that 45% of prisoners in solitary confinement (i.e. restricted housing) are black despite making 40% of the prison population.
  • Using data from 1973 until 2019, defendants were 17 times more likely to receive the death penalty when they are convicted of killing a white victim than when convicted of killing a black victim.
  • Black people are 5% more likely to receive the death sentence after controlling for culpability (as of 1998).
  • 1,730 per 100,000 (about 1.7%) Black Americans are incarcerated, compared to 270 per 100,000 (about .3%) white Americans. For reference, Blacks make up about 13.4% of the population, compared to 76.3% of the population

Healthcare

  • In 2013, 18.8% of (nonelderly) Black Americans were uninsured while 12.3% of white Americans were. In the years since the ACA was implemented, this gap has closed a bit such that in 2019, 11.5% of Black and 7.5% of white Americans were uninsured.
  • 11.4 per 1,000 Black American infants die in childbirth, compared to 4.9 per 1,000 white American infants (as of 2015).
  • The likelihood of a Black mother dying during childbirth is 4-5 times higher than for white women (as of 2016).
  • Racial/ethnic minorities are 1.5 – 2 times more likely than whites to have most of the major chronic diseases.
  • Age-adjusted death rate for non-Hispanic Black Americans is 876.1 per 100,000 compared to 753.2 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white Americans as of 2015.
  • Black mortality rate in 2015 is 16% higher than white mortality rate (a drop from 33% in 1999).
  • Black mortality rate for people under 65 is 40% higher than the white mortality rate.
  • Black American life expectancy is 75.5 years compared to 78.9 years for white Americans as of 2015.
  • Racial health disparities accounted for over $1 trillion (in 2008 dollars) in direct and indirect costs for the years 2003-2006.
  • Black people breathe 66% more air pollution from vehicles than white residents (as of 2019). 
  • Black children have lead poisoning levels 2-6 times higher than white children (as of 2010).
  • Black women of reproductive age have nearly 3 times the level of cadmium poisoning compared to their white counterparts (after controlling for other variables; as of 2006).

Democratic influence

Originally posted 9/17/2020 and last updated 1/21/2021

Rejecting the Roots of Racist Research

Science has long been complicit in the perpetuation of racism. Recently, psychologists confronted the fact that racist science is still being published.

June 19th, 2020 commemorated the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, a celebration of the day black emancipation was solidified in Texas. More recently, this August will mark the 7th year of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that swell up around extrajudicial killings of black people by the police. However, concerns about racial disparities and bias are not found only in the streets with protesters, they also occupy the minds of many researchers and fill thousands of pages of research literature every year. Yet, this focus on understanding and alleviating racial injustice is relatively new in the social sciences. Much of the history of social and biological science is mired in racial pseudoscience that was used to justify hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. This past week, psychologists were confronted with the realization that these racist ideas that took root centuries back still bear fruit. 

For nearly 400 years, scientists played a pivotal role in the justification and perpetuation of racism. During the Enlightenment, various European scientists proposed that a gulf existed between “the races”. Then, the general scientific consensus that whites were superior to blacks aided and abetted the colonization and devastation of Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Pseudoscience was proffered by most American intellectuals to defend slavery through the majority of the nation’s history. Eugenics, or the idea that we should strengthen humanity by ensuring those with so called “unfavorable genes” do not reproduce, was a popular scientific idea that served as a defense of black mistreatment from the American Revolution through the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era. Eugenics didn’t fall out of favor until people learned of it’s terrible consequences that culminated in the Holocaust.

In the post-WW2 era, these ideas have been reimagined and repackaged with sanitized monikers, such as “race realism” and “racialism”. Eugenics and its more modern intellectual descendants took root largely in research centered around IQ, of the Intelligence Quotient, a measure of intelligence with a somewhat controversial history. This research attempted to “explain” the state of inequality between whites and Blacks. According to publications like Mankind Quarterly, foundations like Pioneer fund, and researchers like Richard Lynn and J. Phillippe Rushton, racial disparities in criminality, educational attainment, and economic success could largely be explained via genetic differences in IQ. This set of ideas is then often used to discourage the implementation of social programs because, as racialist scientists point out, IQ is hard (if not impossible) to change. In the year 2020 much of this is widely denounced (see Nisbett’s book refuting hereditarianism around IQ), but many psychologists are surprised to learn that the legacy of this racist science lives on. 

Examples of this legacy of racism have surfaced as recently as January 2020, when an article titled “Declines in Religiosity Predict Increases in Violent Crime—but Not Among Countries With Relatively High Average IQ” was published in Psychological Science. As its title indicates, one of the paper’s conclusions was that violence is curbed by religious belief, but only if the population has low IQs. The paper went through peer review and the paper joined the annals of research in one of the most prestigious journals for about 5 months. Then on June 11th, University of Kentucky faculty member, Dr. Will Gervais posted a critique of this paper to his Twitter

Dr. Gervais noted that the data used in the article predicts that 43% of Africans have an IQ below 70, which represents substantial cognitive disability. In fact the data indicates that the majority of people in countries like Cameroon, Chad, and Guinea have severe cognitive disabilities. Further, he notes that many of the countries do not have any IQ data. Instead, the IQ estimates of those countries were imputed (or statistically generated) using the IQ samples of neighboring countries. Unfortunately, these were not the only problems with the paper. 

In a separate Twitter thread, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine demographer Dr. Rebecca Sear elaborated on just how bad the data source for the Psych Science paper was. She describes that even for countries with IQ data, the data is composed of IQ scores from children and unrepresentative samples. For example, Sierra Leone has a population of 7.8 million and the IQ estimate for the whole country is based on 2 samples from only 1 ethnic group with a total sample size of 119 participants. This violates statistical norms around estimating traits about populations from very small numbers of people who may not represent everyone. And remember, this data was then used to impute the IQs of neighboring countries!

These threads point out what many academics would agree are egregious methodologies and statistical analyses . Furthermore, these errors serve to reinforce a racist narrative that Black people are intellectually inferior. However, the authors of the Psych Science paper did not gather this data. The data was originally published by Lynn and Vanhanen in 2002. Coauthor Richard Lynn is the aforementioned assistant editor of racialist science publication Mankind Quarterly who (according to his Wikipedia page) “associated with a network of academics and organizations that promote scientific racism.” Is it surprising, then, that the database Lynn produced would have methodological problems that severely underestimate the IQ of African people? 

The conversations around this Psych Science paper demonstrated that the racism in science still bears fruit. It is a hopeful sign that facing significant critiques to their research, the authors of the Psych Science paper released a statement that they will be retracting their paper because they “no longer have confidence in [their] findings” due to “highly questionable data sources.” Scholars on Twitter praise this move for two primary reasons: the conclusions of the studies are not trustworthy given the methodological problems, but also the authors did not fully grapple with the ethical implications of their research. Given the historical role social scientists played in promoting and reinforcing racism, many see it as the ethical responsibility of today’s social scientists to exercise extreme caution to ensure they do not continue to contribute to that history. 

The controversy surrounding the Psych Science paper could just be the beginning. A second paper has been retracted that proposes aggression is a function of the melanocortin system and pigmentation (i.e. black people are more aggressive because they are black). Unsurprisingly, this paper also relies on the Lynn dataset. A substantive criticism of the skin-color aggression paper has already been leveled due to it’s cherry-picked evidence, misrepresentations of theory, and nondisclosure of conflicts of interest (i.e. receiving funding from the aforementioned Pioneer Fund). In the wake of these retractions, a question remains: How many more papers reinforcing racist narratives using shoddy methods are out there?

Originally posted on The Pipette Pen.
Written by Manuel Galvan, @MGalvanPsych
Peer Edited by Brandon Le

Inequality (un)Awareness

It is a truism that “the first step to solving a problem is knowing it is there”. In my previous article, I described how rising inequality is associated with greater social and health issues. However, with a problem so mired in policy debates like inequality, it’s not enough for researchers to write papers on the subject. What do voters think? There is a growing consensus that the current gap between the rich and poor is problematic; according to Pew 61% of adults agree that there is “too much” inequality. So the public thinks there is too much, but do they understand just how much inequality there is?

A January 2020 CBS report illustrated two important points about the way people handle information about inequality. As mall shoppers skirted around the journalist’s question, “Want to talk about wealth inequality?”, it was clear that most people would rather not think about the topic. Once lured in with the promise of pie and asked to divide America’s wealth among the different classes, it was also made clear that people don’t understand just how unequally sliced the American economy is. 

Although the CBS reporter doesn’t mention it, his demonstration was a replication of a classic finding that people severely underestimate just how much inequality there is. In the original 2011 study, Harvard business professor Michael Norton and Duke psychologist Dan Ariely asked participants to estimate the actual wealth distribution in the U.S. and to propose an ideal wealth distribution. They found that people’s estimated and ideal wealth distributions were in stark contrast to the reality. 

Figure taken from "Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time" paper
Figure taken from “Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time” paper

The richest 20% of the population has 84% of the 98 trillion dollars of wealth in the US, the next richest 20% own about 10% of the wealth, the middle 20% owns about 5%, and the bottom 40% of the population has less than 1% of the wealth. Taken from the 2011 paper, the figure above shows people’s estimation of the wealth distribution was far more equitable than the much bleaker reality and people’s ideal wealth distribution was relatively even more equitable (many people thought the bottom 20% of people should get 10% of the nation’s wealth, for example). Even more interesting is that people were generally in agreement across most demographics. Liberals, conservatives, rich, poor, men, and women all believed wealth was more equitable than in reality, and everybody thought the distribution of wealth should be even more equitable than it is currently. It seems that in this polarizing era, two things unite us: our preference for more equality and our ignorance of the scale of inequality. 

Do people “know the problem is there?” People generally seem to be aware that there is too much inequality, probably in no small part due to discussion on the 2020 campaign trail. Despite this, we still underestimate how extreme inequality has become. Maybe this is because the statistical story about magnitude is just too difficult to communicate given that people are bad with large numbers. One question (of many) that remains: What will happen when our collective desire for equality is confronted with a collective realization of just how unequal things are? 

Originally posted on The Pipette Pen.

Peer Edited by Melody Kessler

The Price We Pay for Economic Inequality

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders brought attention to the issue of economic inequality. In the current election season, Senator Sanders denounces rising inequality by making the case that it is unfair that the wealthy use their power and influence to exert control on the economic and political system. Of course, there are those who don’t think this unequal advantage is unfair and argue that it is in fact a beneficial force that spurs innovation.

But outside of this political debate, what does the social science say on the subject of economic inequality? One prominent pair of researchers in this area are the epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, who together wrote the seminal book The Spirit Level that is still commonly cited 11 years after publication. In the book, they present a peer-reviewed epidemiological case for concern about income inequality.

First, they note that among the richest countries, higher national income is only weakly associated with better health and social prosperity. They investigated how social problems in several countries correlate to a measure of economic inequality (called the GINI coefficient) that is simply a numeric value measuring how much richer the top 20% is compared to the bottom 20% of income earners in a given society. To make this comparison, they specifically selected only comparable countries, that is, successful market democracies, such as the US, Canada, Spain, Japan, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries. They argued that a comparison of countries from different developmental stages (such as, comparing the US to Namibia) wouldn’t be interesting since we already know that wealthier and more successful countries are generally better places to live. 

By The Spirit Level, Wilkinson & Pickett, Penguin 2009., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25120839
Health and Social Problems are Worse in More Unequal States

Using existing datasets that measure relevant outcomes across all 21 countries of interest, they created an index of social and health problems that includes a wide variety of outcomes such as level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility. Pickett and Wilkinson found a strong correlation between this index of social problems and economic inequality across the 21 countries. They also replicated these findings using the UNICEF index of child wellbeing in these same countries. This is an important replication because the UNICEF index has over 40 other indicators of well-being that Pickett and Wilkinson didn’t have a hand in choosing, yet the findings hold. They did another replication using data taken from the 50 states in the US. In each case, economic inequality is a strong predictor of worse social and health problems. It’s important to keep in mind the human cost of these differences. To get an idea of the magnitude of the effects here, compared to the country with the lowest inequality, the country with the most inequality has 8 times the amount of incarcerated people2.5 times the prevalence of mental illness3 times the amount of obesity, and twice the infant mortality rate.

By The Spirit Level, Wilkinson & Pickett, Penguin 2009., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25120841
Health and Social Problems are Worse in More Unequal States

A spirited political debate continues about how to deal with economic inequality. However, these data make it clear that economic inequality is coinciding with unhealthiness and significant social problems. There is still much work to be done to understand why this strong correlation between economic inequality and social problems exists; the field of social psychology is now studying what might give rise to these trends. Here at UNC-Chapel Hill, psychology professors Keith Payne and Keely Muscatell are investigating how economic inequality influences decision making and health. Ultimately, research has identified the magnitude of the human cost of growing economic inequality; now more must be done to connect this work to the public discourse and policy-making.

Peer Edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

Originally posted on The Pipette Pen.

Pulling Back from the Brink of Misrepresenting the Science

On June 11th, 2020 Sam Harris posted his 207th podcast that asked, “Can we pull back from the brink?” I agreed with plenty of things Sam said, and I disagreed with plenty of things he said. However, I will not get into all of our agreement and disagreement over politics and framing of the issues. Instead, this blog post is simply an evidence-based response to some of Sam’s points that I feel needed a bit more exploration. I will offer a few critiques as well as supporting evidence for those critiques. 

I’ll leave this quote from Sam in episode 207 as a representation of my intentions: “We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. I mean, the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments, a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.”

  1. The characterization of public health statements about protests as “hypocritical” is subjective and two-dimensional at best and is uncharitable and needlessly inflammatory at worst.

Here is a relevant quote from Sam: “Now, as I said, trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious lockdown for more than three months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary for doctors, and public health officials have castigated people on the political right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public health officials and news anchors by the thousands signing open letters. Making public statements saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging. It’s hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so given that the pandemic has been hitting the African-American community hardest of all.

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It’s important not to reduce a serious issue within the public health sphere into one uncharitable label. Arguably this is the exact thing that Sam feels people do to him by calling him a racist, but in this case he is labeling thousands of health professionals who signed an open letter to support the protests “hypocrites”. The reality is that public health experts know how much racism and racial inequality contributes to health problems. Racial disparities are associated with over $200 billion in annual  costs (bear in mind the human cost behind these numbers). Furthermore, there is reason to see these disparities as partly due to racial bias. They also know how much preexisting distrust the black community has toward the healthcare system and how this distrust leads to worse medical outcomes (even now during the pandemic). So when health professionals see a grassroots movement fighting for racial equality in the middle of a pandemic, they have to decide whether to tell everyone to stay home or to support this fight for equality. Epidemiologists have thoughtfully discussed the tension here. In fact, these issues are discussed in some detail in the actual open-letter Sam mentions. To summarize it as “hypocritical” is inflammatory and one-sided and seems counter to Sam’s professed intention to have an open conversation in view of all the evidence.

  1. Sam’s summary of the evidence for racial disparities in lethal policing is misleading and is not strong evidence of the contention that people are “misinformed.”

Relevant quotes from Sam: “The problem with the protests is that they are animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And of course, this will be controversial.”

“I see no reason to doubt that African-Americans get more attention from the cops. Though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, it seems, which is bad. Right. But again, it’s simply unclear that racism is the cause of that.”

“But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations where an officer was not first attacked, but nevertheless fired his weapon at a suspect. The police seem more likely to do this when the suspect is white. Again, these data are incomplete. This doesn’t cover every city in the country and a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But as far as I know, the best data we have suggests that for whatever reason. Whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted.

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On the subject of racial disparities in police violence, Sam references primarily 1 study and on its basis (paired with rhetorical arguments) concludes that the protests “are animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation.” Let’s review the research he cited.

First Sam mentions the Fryer study, which, taken at face value, supports the claims that blacks are disproportionately targeted by nonlethal violence but not necessarily lethal violence. Let’s evaluate the quality of this study, then discuss the strength of it as evidence of Sam’s claims.

Harvard faculty member and social epidemiologist Justin Feldman wrote a blog post rebutting Fryer’s paper. In it he describes how Fryer’s research suffers from “major theoretical and methodological errors” and how the research team “communicated the results to news media in a way that is misleading.” 

One of Feldman’s primary critiques is that the distinction between “racial bias” and “statistical discrimination” is not made clear when communicating the findings to the public, but also that the distinction narrows the definition of injustice in policing in a way that most people would not agree with. To quote Feldman, “Once explained, it is possible to find the idea of ‘statistical discrimination’ just as abhorrent as ‘racial bias’. One could point out that the drug laws police enforce were passed with racially discriminatory intent, that collectively punishing black people based on “average behavior” is wrong, or that – as a self-fulfilling prophecy – bias can turn into statistical discrimination (if black people’s cars are searched more thoroughly, for instance, it will appear that their rates of drug possession are higher).” 

Furthermore, the results rely on police reports themselves. This is dubious in light of a recent New York Times article that revealed that the number of people killed by police was more than twice what was reported.

The Feldman blog cites 2 more papers that extensively critique the statistical methodologies used by the Fryer paper. 

  • One paper is quite long and offers a more substantial discussion on the issues of accounting for bias in the data used in these types of analyses. In it, they reanalyze the data from the Fryer study and make the following comments, “Using the coding rules and estimation procedures in Fryer (2019), we were able to closely replicate the published results. However, in doing so, we discovered this procedure involved an unconventional and inadvisable step in which all observations with non-zero force below the threshold of interest were dropped—a severe case of selection on the dependent variable.” Their analysis indicates that the effects found in Fryer are likely underestimating the effect of race. 
  • The second paper the authors state the issue with Fryer’s data most directly in this quote, “the findings of Fryer (2016) suggesting null or anti-white disparities in the encounter-conditional rates of the use of lethal force by police are actually consistent with a situation in which all police have elevated encounter-conditional rates of the use of lethal force against black individuals, but a small subset of police encounter and assault black individuals sub-lethally at elevated rates. In other words, apparent anti-white racial disparities in encounter-conditional rates of the use of lethal force by police may arise not from bias against white individuals, but rather from elevated rates of unjustifiable encounters with black individuals.” (While this is in response to a different Fryer study, they are criticizing the same analysis approach taken in 2019.)

I’ll finally note that I am not the first to write an article questioning the validity of the Fryer study. The popular press has also had its share of criticisms.

  • Vox: Points out that the Fryer study, “found that there weren’t big racial disparities in how often black and white suspects who’d already been stopped by police were killed. But they deliberately avoided the question of whether black citizens are more likely to be stopped to begin with (they are) and whether they’re more likely to be stopped without cause (yup).
  • Washington Post: Documenting the issues with relying on police reporting when investigating police shootings.
  • Snopes: which discusses the aforementioned Washington Post and Vox articles.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education: They point out that the Fryer study only looks at individual level factors and largely ignores sociopolitical differences across municipalities and doesn’t take into account the differential rates of police stops.
  • Another science-based blog post by Sociologist Dan Herschman: Similar to other writers, the author here makes the point that, “to rigorously test the hypothesis of whether Black Americans are more likely to be killed by police, we need to consider both unequal rates of police encounters and the outcomes of those interactions.”

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the Fryer study should be dismissed or is otherwise worthless. Based on Sam’s arguments we are answering the question: is this good enough evidence to claim that protests “are animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation?”

One question we might ask is: Is this Fryer study the only one of its kind?

The answer is no. A study by Ross in 2015 completed an analysis with a different dataset and a different statistical approach that does take into account the differential rates of police stops. Ross found that there is a “significant bias in the killing of unarmed Black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {Black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average.”

Let’s consider one more line of research before we conclude this discussion.

There is actually a highly relevant second area of research that should have been tapped, namely racial bias shooting studies. Racial bias shooting studies simulate the kinds of situations police find themselves in (see a video example). In these studies, participants (police or otherwise) witness a scene and need to make quick decisions about how to respond. The scenes vary on a variety of relevant factors such as skin color of the victims/perpetrators of depicted crimes, whether the perpetrator has a gun, phone, or nothing in their hand, and whether a crime is being committed at all. Dozens of these studies have been done over the years. A recent meta analysis reported the following: “Our results indicated that relative to White targets, participants were quicker to shoot armed Black targets, slower to not shoot unarmed Black targets, and more likely to have a liberal shooting threshold for Black targets.” 

In other words, there is a whole other area of research Sam didn’t mention which provides evidence to the contention that blacks are targeted by shootings disproportionately. Is this perfect evidence about policing? Certainly not. In many of these studies the participants are not police officers. Police officers were also slightly better than non-police participants in their threshold bias. But they were still found to be biased. 

To conclude: The issues about racial bias and discrimination in policing are incredibly complicated. However, it is clear that even with Fryer’s “conservative” (not political, methodological) analysis, police do dole out more non-lethal violence in a way that goes beyond mere “statistical discrimination” and is partly explained by “racial bias”. Taking in the wider area of literature, it seems like that there is weaker evidence for bias in lethal violence, particularly if one keeps in view the sociological precursors to individual policing actions. 

Thus, it seems uncharitable to characterize those who protest racial bias in policing to be “animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation.”

  1. There is reason to keep a look out for racism in science.

Relevant quote from Sam: “But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now? Unchecked racism, sexism and homophobia. Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.”

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In her recent book “Superior: The Return of Race Science” Angela Saini lays out a case for concern for racism in science in the modern era. Two papers (here and here) were recently retracted in highly regarded journals for using shoddy methods to come to conclusions that support a racist ideology. I think we ignore this conversation at our peril.

In the end, I have left out much that I agree and disagree with Sam about from his podcast. What I offer here instead is a substantive evidence-based critique to the facts he employs to service his rhetoric.

I hope we grapple with the nuances here in the spirit of a better conversation. Thank you.

Thanks to Hatchum for the transcript of the episode 207.

Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap – A Rebuttal

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Written by: Manuel Galvan

The following is a rebuttal to a recently published article by Coleman Hughes. While reading, I found substantial flaws in the essay and thought, given the importance of this issue and the amount of attention the article received on Twitter, it would be instructive for myself and others to begin a conversation about where Hughes went wrong. So, while I don’t intend this blog to be used exclusively for responding to the writing of others, I will be quoting his article and responding as needed. Others have already begun responding in a way that addresses Coleman’s historical inaccuracies in depth. In contrast, this article will address the errors in reasoning in Coleman’s essay, and introduce relevant critiques given the available psychology and sociology literature I am familiar with.

A recent wave of scholarship—including Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations”—has converged on the interpretation that the wealth gap is caused by two factors: slavery and racist New Deal policies.

This amounts to a misrepresentation of the position most people have on the issue of racial inequality. There are plenty of other explanations that are widely acknowledged, such as current discrimination that is ongoing in hiring practices, housing, medicine, politics, education, and policing (most of these citations just scratching the surface of the extant literature). Furthermore, there were Jim Crow policies, current growing economic inequality disproportionately affecting black families, and the list goes on. These inequalities continue to exacerbate the wealth gap, and they are addressed at length by many authors. He’s starting off the article in essence saying, “I have truly nuanced views on race, while those on the political left do not, they blame racial inequality on just two things.”

Furthermore, introducing a common theme in this rebuttal, even if we grant that there are cultural difference that account for racial disparities, we don’t know what accounts for those cultural differences. We don’t know that if, given a different history, those difference would exist.

But slavery is hardly the root cause of America’s prosperity. If it were, then we would expect American states that practiced slavery to be richer than those that did not. Yet we see precisely the opposite.

This is a non sequitur, or a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the premise. Economics, history, and indeed the world is more complicated than, “look, the south had slavery and they aren’t richer than the North, therefore slavery isn’t the root of America’s prosperity.” Clearly wealth has moved around since the time of slavery. There is no reason to think it would have stayed in the south, particularly given the intervening events, such as northern manufacturing and industrialization, and the non-trivial act of losing the civil war and undergoing reconstruction.

Coates’s mistaken view about the origin of American prosperity is part of a larger fallacy about national wealth in general: the assumption that if a nation is wealthy, it must have stolen that wealth from somebody else.

Here, Coleman is presuming that Coates is stating this is a general rule. However, again, this is a misrepresentation. Coates does not (to my knowledge) apply his analysis to any other country than the US in the context of slavery. The rest of the paragraph written by Coleman is essentially a red-herring.

The second factor offered as an explanation for the wealth gap is the exclusion of blacks from a set of New Deal policies designed to promote homeownership, income growth, and wealth accrual.

But this story, though based in truth, has been massaged to give the false impression that benevolence from the state is a prerequisite for wealth accrual.

So of course, the issue here is that, again, Coates is not trying to propose a general rule that all wealth accrual is contingent on benevolence from the state. At least, that doesn’t seem clear based on what he has written. But let’s investigate Coleman’s following points:

Rothstein, for instance, falsely claims that “African American incomes didn’t take off until the 1960s,”7 and that “black workers did not share in the income gains that [white] blue collar workers realized” in the mid-twentieth century.8 Although it is true that the median income of white men more than tripled between 1939 and 1960 (rising from 1,112 dollars to 5,137 dollars), the median income of black men more than quintupled (rising from 460 dollars to 3,075 dollars).9 Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women over the same timespan.10 Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.”11 But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.12

So, because Black median incomes increased faster than whites from 1939-1960, we are to be disabused of the notion that African American didn’t share in the income gains that white workers did? Yet again, this isn’t compelling. Black incomes rose by a higher percentage of their starting value, because their incomes were so low to begin with. Is it really far-fetched to say that black workers didn’t share in the income gains when in 1960 they earned just a bit more than half of the wages earned by white workers? Coleman proposes it’s not just far-fetch, it shows that Rothstein makes “false claims” and Baradaran “makes the same mistakes”. Sure, they gained at a higher rate, but they were still very far behind and were likely not celebrating their work being valued at half that of whites.

Baradaran, for instance, criticizes the “pervasive myth that immigrant success was based purely on individual work ethic.” To the contrary, she claims, “most immigrants’ bootstraps had been provided to them by the government.”

If wealth differences were largely explained by America’s history of favoring certain groups over others, then it would be hard to explain why Asian-Americans, who were never favored, are on track to become wealthier than whites.

You may be noticing a pattern here. Again, this is an inappropriate comparison. Why? Well, primarily because African American’s are largely not a group that immigrated to the US, while Asian American’s have an opposite history. African American’s as a group are largely comprised of the descendants of enslaved people who endured generations of oppression. The Asian American and Asian immigrant story is consistent with what we know about immigrants generally, that they tend to be wealthier and more well educated than multi-generational Americans (see table 3).

Coleman continues down this same path by comparing blacks of American ancestry to those with Caribbean ancestry. Again, he’s making the same mistake. Immigrant groups tend to perform better on most metrics because of the stringent criteria required to immigrate. Regulations favor educated professionals as immigrants, creating a selection bias in the sample when comparing the sample to the general population.

 Similar disparities emerge when people are grouped by religion.

I would highly advise reading Clash! to understand these dynamics more. Needless to say we should be skeptical of this comparison, given the differing roles religion and race play in people’s lives.

It’s not looking good for the progressive narrative about the racial wealth gap. Still, there is a kernel of truth to it. Researchers at Brandeis followed a nationally representative set of 1,700 families from 1984 to 2009 and measured their wealth gains over that period. They concluded that inherited wealth and length of homeownership accounted for 5 percent and 27 percent, respectively, of the racial disparity in wealth gains. But even if that combined 32 percent could be automatically ascribed to historical racism (which it cannot), that would still leave 68 percent of the gap to be explained by other factors. In short, many commentators have zoomed in on the fraction of the story that can be told without discomfort but have ignored the rest.

This is a truly discouraging section in Coleman’s essay, given the time the researchers spent making nearly the opposite case. They reference many governmental policies and systemic problems and point out that a cultural institution like marriage doesn’t have a statistically significant impact for displacing the racial wage gap.

Conspicuous by its absence in the progressive account of the racial wealth gap is any active role for blacks themselves.

This is the beginning of a line of reasoning that reduces to, “Liberals blame systemic reasons for racial inequality, therefore they don’t think black people have anything to do to help themselves.” This is somewhat giving Coleman the benefit of the doubt, given we were originally introduced to the liberal position as a strawman with only 2 reasons (slavery and exclusion from new deal policies) for the racial wage gap. But the vast majority of people understand that decision-making on the part of black people plays a role in their success. Where some might disagree with Coleman, is that they don’t think that decision-making is made in a vacuum, free from all psychological and sociological cycles that emerge from previous and ongoing oppression.

No element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns.

Importantly, this isn’t an aspect of “black culture”, it’s an aspect of struggling with poverty. Psychologists have studied conspicuous consumption for years and have described how it acts as a “positional treadmill” and “always comes at the account of the consumption of basic needs.” It’s prevalence in black communities is largely understood as being due to prevalence of poverty in the black community not the other way around.  People don’t often drive themselves into poverty through conspicuous consumption, they use conspicuous consumption to “keep up with the Jones” or compensate (however unsuccessfully) for their declining social status. This is an example of what is known as a poverty trap and it is a widely researched and discussed problem.

I bring all this up to make a larger point: these things are not taboo in the social sciences. Since psychology researchers can’t change social policies, they often focus on changing perceptions relevant to decision-making to close racial equality gaps.

Many find it hard to confront such data.

I think it may be how the data is present and contextualized that will help people determine if you are blaming an oppressed group, or if you are engaged in an honest attempt at learning about their experiences and struggles.

Children from one culture may routinely hear phrases like “asset diversification,” “mutual fund,” and “inflation rate” on the lips of their parents, whereas children from another culture may not hear such phrases until adulthood, if they ever hear them at all.

This clearly has more to do with what income bracket you happened to be born into.

…those who believe they are helping black Americans—or any demographic group—succeed by encouraging them to blame society are mistaken. Talking honestly about harmful behavioral patterns is the only way to reliably correct them.

This is a strawman within a false-dichotomy. The strawman is claiming an honest conversation about the historical and present antecedents to racial wealth inequality is the equivalent of “blaming society”. The false-dichotomy is that we must choose between that conversation and talking about harmful behavioral patterns. Again, most people just want to understand the etiology of such behaviors and how they emerge from a larger history, they have no problem investigating the behaviors themselves.

Likewise, Coates maintains that, “as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same. But the entity responsible for a harm cannot always redress it. This truth is illustrated by ‘The Parable of the Pedestrian,’ from legal scholar Amy Wax…

Please refer to Coleman’s essay to understand the Parable conceived by recently reprimanded Penn professor Amy Wax.

Needless to say the “parable” is wholly inadequate a metaphor to teach us anything about racial inequality. A better metaphor would be: many victims were run over countless times for generation by a multitude of drivers seeking to run them down with impunity. Though in the last generation these incidents have become less intentional, they still happen “accidentally” in large numbers. Would you really blame people if their first point of order here would be to stop the continued disproportionate number of accidents causing injury? Would you deride those who pointed out that the generations of injured and out of work parents couldn’t be reasonably expected to be able to provide the background in wealth creation and management to the children? Furthermore, would you then tell those who struggle to afford the medical bills that it’s all on them?

Coleman argues there is no sense in understanding the source of injury:

But what do such “acknowledgements” achieve, other than to imbue those doing the acknowledging with a sense of virtue? Acknowledging historical racism is no more of an “essential first step” to closing the wealth gap than acknowledging the driver’s culpability is an essential first step to healing the injured pedestrian.

Coleman continues to misrepresent his opponents here. The task isn’t to merely acknowledge historical racism, but to understand it’s effects and how it’s effects inform us about what is going on now and how to fix it. We all know the adage “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and I’m sure Wax and Coleman haven’t forgotten it either.

If the problem were simply a lack of cash, then the government would be the ideal candidate.

Again, this is a misrepresentation to say that most people on the political left are arguing for reparations. Even those arguing for reparations are–the vast majority of the time–not arguing for just giving cash to black people. I am deeply skeptical that you would find any scholar on this topic who would agree that “the problem is simply a lack of cash”.

Consider another one of Coleman’s comparisons.

Whether measured by rates of alcoholism, high school graduation, or income, Irish-Americans used to lag far behind other American ethnic groups.23 As one point of reference, the incarceration rate for Irish-Americans was five times higher than for German-Americans in 1904. The response? While some Irish leaders blamed society, others, notably those in the Catholic Church, launched an inward-looking campaign to change behavioral patterns within the Irish community.

Obviously the criticism about comparisons to immigrant groups apply here (e.g immigration is different than enslavement). But besides that, Irish people did not endure the years of Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, and discrimination from 1904 onward. I suppose I’m saying, sure, the Catholic church helped the Irish community, but let’s not pretend that being white wasn’t a factor in the differential success of Irish immigrants and black Americans.

By contrast, I do not know of a single instance in which an underachieving ethnic minority rose to economic prominence by asking the government for cash transfers, preferential policies in education and employment, or apologies for past injustices.

This amounts to an argument from incredulity or argument from ignorance akin to, “I can’t conceive of this and I don’t know if this has ever happened so it can’t be possible.”

Given how skewed the historical scorecard is, it’s strange that the burden of argument is so often placed on advocates of self-help to prove that our strategy is the realistic one. Common sense would place the burden of argument on the advocates of programs which have never worked anywhere to prove that, for whatever reason, this time is different.

Except the scorecard isn’t skewed with failures. In fact there have been at least two major instances where reparations to an ethnic group were followed by their rise in prominence. Specifically the Jewish people were paid reparations after WW2 and the Japanese communities in the US and Canada were paid reparations after the use of interment camps during the same war.

In summary

In the end, Coleman’s Quillette piece is one that largely argues against strawman positions that are held by a vanishingly small amount of people (certainly not any of the authors he cited). It also does so ineffectually with consistent non sequiturs, inappropriate comparisons, and faulty metaphors. Yet, I take his more general point (with a grain of salt given the clear bias), we need to be able to have an open conversation about the ways that decision-making can perpetuate poverty and inequality. Indeed, this comprises a large area of research in the fields of psychology, economics, and sociology. These things do need to enter in the public consciousness more and that can be helped along with targeted interventions and adding education about psychology and decision-making to the curriculum in the US.

What’s most jarring about Coleman’s article is either the shallowness of the reasoning of the lack of transparency about what he thinks the problem is. I see that he believes decision-making is the prime factor in racial inequality, he also thinks that black culture is responsible for those problematic decisions. But where does he think this culture comes from? Does he think black culture is somehow an intrinsic properties of the black population? Does he conceive of it as somehow unaffected by generations of oppression? I don’t know.

But he makes it clear that that doesn’t matter, because understanding why decisions are made is irrelevant when you just want to tell people to stop making those decisions. And I get it, if you as a teacher want to know how to help an individual student of color, there is little benefit from telling them about the sordid history that leads to differences in decision-making at the population level. It’s best just to guide that person towards better choices for him or herself. But part of being a clearheaded person is working through the cognitive dissonance and holding two competing thoughts in your head at once. Yes, we should recognize the role of individual decisions in wealth disparities, while investigating the origins of these tendencies. Yes, we should consider, evaluate, and implement policies that deal with systematic problems that give rise to these decisions and many other conditions that perpetuate inequality.

Finally, I appreciate Coleman’s engagement with the public on these subjects and accept his claim that he is doing so for the benefit of the black community. I just don’t think he wrote an article that dealt legitimately with the work of other scholars working on the same problems. But he has a long career ahead, so I wish him the best of luck.