The Links Between Past Racism and Current 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

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?

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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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.

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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

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.