The most common findings are thought to require special explanation

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

An undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia has written a piece about the racism treadmill. How many minds will it change?

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Adar says:

    “when a disparity runs the other way — that is, blacks outperforming whites — discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.”

    Black men get prostate cancer at a rate twice as great as white men. Always said to be a result of a lack of health care in black areas. But white men get bladder cancer at a rate three times as great as black men. Never said to be a result of a lack of health care in white areas.

  2. Graham says:

    Oh come on.

    It takes a lot more than that to overcome magical thinking.

    The magical thinking of the self-defined rationalist, or the critical theorist [these don't have too much overlap except in sensibility] is particularly powerful.

    It is perfectly possible to be aware of the realities of the Jim Crow era and still acknowledge Sowell’s and others figures as valid. But by themselves they could trigger some sort of outrage and ritual accusations of being a Denialist.

    Never fear. Multicampus covens of grad students shall gather by night to chant the mantra of Systemic Racism, and all will be well again.

  3. lucklucky says:

    All this text and never appears the crucial world: Marxism.

    Marxist neo-primitive culture can only explain reality by Opressor-Victim or the Exploiter-Exploited duality.

  4. lucklucky says:

    Further: And most of times it is just employed as a tool to show virtue as a way to get social power then afterwards translated into political economic power.

  5. lucklucky says:

    In a sense the Opressor-Victim and the Exploiter-Exploited are thought mechanisms to build the return of a permanent sin.

    As a metaphysical apple from which to derive power.

  6. James James says:

    Same goes for the various male-female gaps. When someone attributes these gaps to “discrimination”, a good rhetorical technique is to ask them how big they think the gap would be if there was no discrimination.

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