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,
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,
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.


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.


On the subject of racial disparities in police violence, Sam references primarily one 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.”


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

woman wears beige suit hand shaking man wear suit
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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.