Racial Disparities and the High Cost of Low Debates

By Ben Wilterdink — May 7, 2018

This article originally appeared in Quillette. Photo by Frank Steele, www.flickr.com/photos/frank_steele/14952790776/.

 

Ideological intolerance in academia and the media has dramatically narrowed the range of ‘acceptable’ ideas, beliefs, and even topics of discussion. This can have a particularly deleterious effect on discussions relating to public policy. An example of this phenomenon was recently provided by the release of a landmark new study on race and economic mobility entitled “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective.”

The study was published by the Equality of Opportunity Project and produced by Stanford economist Raj Chetty, Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren, and U.S. Census Bureau researchers Maggie R. Jones and Sonja R. Porter. Using a uniquely wide-ranging dataset, the researchers examined the individual income rank of almost all Americans now in their late 30s and compared them to their parents’ household income rank at the same age. Their findings revealed significant disparities in income between racial groups, some of which substantially persisted across generations. More about the study and its key findings can be read here, but by far the most significant finding was the stark gap in relative economic mobility between black and white Americans. Furthermore, the research revealed this gap to be entirely driven by differences in income between black and white men, and the gap remained even when the researchers controlled for many other factors, such as household income and individual family structure.

By the time the study was published, the academic consensus and range of acceptable policy solutions had already been established. The Upshot blog at the New York Times created graphics that detailed the report’s main findings beneath a headline that read, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.” Some commentators, such as Ben Shapiro, have suggested that since the mobility gap between white and black women is non-existent and other racial groups are exceeding the upward mobility rate of whites, there could be explanations for these disparities besides pervasive societal racism. Nevertheless, the Times doubled down on the contention that racism is the primary driver of the observed disparities. A week after the original Upshot article about the study was posted, the Times published a detailed Q&A series in which readers sent in questions for the study’s authors, the Upshot article’s reporters, and other experts to answer. Succinctly summarizing the article’s tone and conclusions, the headline read, “‘When I See Racial Disparities, I See Racism.’ Discussing Race, Gender and Mobility.”

When one reader asked directly whether the claim of racism in the original article’s title was justified by the data, the responses were revealing. Claire Cain Miller, one of the authors of the original Upshotarticle, explained:

Our headline, and the story’s conclusion that racism plays a big role, was absolutely supported by the data. The researchers tested many other theories about the causes of inequality, and found that the gaps between black and white boys could not be fully explained by family income, family structure, education or accumulated wealth. However, they did find that discrimination—as measured by surveys and tests of racial bias—was correlated in low-poverty areas with how well black boys fared.

Despite Miller’s confidence, there is at least some reason to doubt the validity of the discrimination measurements used by the study’s authors. In measuring discrimination, the researchers relied on two tools. The first of these was the Racial Animus Index, which measures the frequency of racial epithet web searches in a particular area; the second was the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT has come under harsh criticism in recent years from a variety of sources and is considered completely discreditedby some psychologists. But on these shaky foundations, an ironclad consensus about racism was built and continues to be vehemently defended. Answering the same reader question, Ibram X. Kendi, professor of History and International Relations at American University and Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, put it more bluntly:

As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism. But I know for many racist Americans, when they see racial disparities they see black inferiority. So I was not surprised in the least by the number of comments claiming racism is not a major factor in the lives of black males. So many of our neighbors are unfortunately still living in their post-racial fantasy world. Let’s hope this study thrusts some of them into the racist real world.

Immediately, a racist and anti-racist dichotomy was established, and it became clear that all future discussion would be placed in either one category or the other. When another reader asked why racism was the only explanation for this phenomenon and accused the study’s authors of taking the easy way out by blaming “amorphous racism,” Kendi responded:

Actually, the easy way out is to say there must be something wrong with these black boys. It is the easy way out that Americans have historically taken in trying to explain racial disparities in our society since the founding of the United States. Either there is something wrong with our policies, or there is something wrong with black boys (or black people). Either the United States is riddled with racist policies or inferior black boys. We have all sorts of evidence of racist policies.

Thus, the tribal lines were drawn. Policy solutions that address systemic racism are not only desirable, they are essential. Policies geared toward improving opportunities for black men to succeed are not just ineffective, they are racist. Suggestions that other factors (such as cultural phenomena of the variety described by economists for years) might play a role in these disparities will not be tolerated. The assessment of the problem as one entirely of racism (and contemporary, systemic, societal racism in particular) tilts the discussion toward sweeping public policy interventions aimed at mitigating a perceived societal unfairness in the name of justice, rather than ones emphasizing individual development.

Noelle Hurd, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, responds to a reader who asks how a single citizen can improve the lives of disadvantaged black boys with a comment that all but rules out the efficacy of any individual action:

Ultimately, the problem is a societal one and not an individual one, so solutions will have to be at the systemic level—like changing public policies and practices and policies within schools and law enforcement agencies. It is a mistake to think that there is any one thing a person can do at the individual level to sidestep the consequences of living in a racist society. But individuals can do some things. For example, they can pressure their employers to make sure hiring committees receive training in identifying and managing their own explicit and implicit biases.

In addition to limiting the range of ‘acceptable’ debate about the causes of the observed data, this intellectual rigidity greatly limits the range of potentially acceptable public policy solutions as well. There is little evidence that training programs to reduce prejudice are effective, and some suggesting that certain kinds of training can actually exacerbateproblems. Nevertheless, Ibram X. Kendi offers his advice for black parents and for how policy interventions should be evaluated:

… support researchers and organizations that are uncovering racial disparities in your community, that are discovering the discriminatory policies behind those disparities and that are working to eliminate those policies and replace them with anti-racist policies of equal opportunity. A racist policy yields racial disparities. An anti-racist policy reduces or eliminates racial disparities. Anti-racist policies can protect your black boys.

While various interpretations of data are nothing new in American politics, the unwillingness to consider other points of view and the eagerness with which the motives of those who break with the accepted narrative are called into question is a relatively recent phenomenon—and one that comes at an enormous price. Maligning the motives of those with whom you disagree has become the kind of argument welcomed in one of the most influential and important newspapers of record. Later, in response to another reader question, Kendi writes:

From my reading, the critics of the study have a problem with the conclusions derived from the data on racial disparities. That is where one’s racial ideology, or what you call ‘political affiliation,’ most comes into play. It is not about liberal or conservative. The political divide is anti-racist and racist. Anti-racists express racial equality. So when they see studies like this that showcase racial disparities between black boys and white boys, they look for racism, and what is wrong with our policies. Racists express racial hierarchy. So when they see studies finding racial disparities, they articulate racist ideas, and claim without evidence there must be something wrong or inferior about black boys or their black parents or their black culture and on and on.

At this point, any pretense of intellectual charity and fair-mindedness has been discarded in favor of a reaffirmation of the crude racist versus anti-racist dichotomy. Kendi’s conclusion flirts with the outright assertion that you are either on board with policy preferences or you are a racist. Continuing another trend that has become popular among the American Left in recent years, Hurd analyzes the motives of the “deniers”:

It seems there are also political motivations for the racism deniers. Some people are invested in denying racism and insinuating that these findings must be due to personal shortcomings of black men because this possibility means that we, as a society, are not responsible for doing anything to address our racist past or present. Denying racism gives everyone a pass to engage in business as usual and blame the horrible inequalities we see on individual shortcomings as opposed to racist policies and practices.

Contrary to the opinions of the experts printed in the New York Times, there are at least some plausible alternative explanations for the disparities between white and black men that deserve to be given a hearing and vigorously debated in the public policy arena. The moral certitude of those who malign anyone that disagrees with them stifles the public conversation and harms those who would benefit most from a free and open discussion—black boys. Without a free and open atmosphere in which to generously share ideas and honestly debate, the resulting policies may not address the root causes of these disparities and could have significant unforeseen negative externalities.

Convinced that racism is the primary driver of the disparities, some public policy scholars have begun to advocate for an even more dramatic shift in approach to address the racial gaps in economic mobility. In a blog posted on the Brookings Institution website, David M. Rubenstein Fellow Andre M. Perry asks, “How can we hold those who benefit accountable for racism?”—not, readers will note, necessarily those actually engaging in racist behavior, though presumably these categories overlap. Perry writes:

Instead of focusing on the negative impact of racism on black boys, the headline of that Times story could have read, “Racism enables whites to maintain wealth.” The charts presented in the reporting also highlighted white men’s elevated position in society. Yet the reporting on the study inexplicably placed the scrutiny on black men.

[…]

Likewise, the focus on differences ends up perpetuating a line of research that ultimately leads to victim blaming—and we have enough of that. Think about the rhetoric around single mothers causing poverty. Believe it or not, there are still people who continue to blame poor women for having too many children and not getting married—rather than fixing the systemic problems of unequal pay, tax policy that favors the rich, and discrimination in housing and employment. You know, the factors that determine how much money people make.

Perry was certainly not the only commenter questioning why the apparent advantage of white men was not the focus of discussion. A reader question featured in the Times’s follow-up article asked why the study appeared to unnecessarily put the focus on black men. The researchers from the Equality of Opportunity Project explain:

The reason we focus on black men in particular is that they look distinct on many dimensions when we look beyond simple measures of income. Black men have much lower employment rates, lower high school completion rates and higher incarceration rates than black women and white men or women. This is not to minimize gender equity issues, of course — there is a large body of research studying factors that may lead to pay inequity and differences in career choices, work hours, etc., that we do not speak to in this study. But, in thinking about racial disparities, it does seem like there are a unique set of challenges for black men.

Though the focus of researchers may seem like minutia in the greater policy debates, the ideological biases that frame the discussion can have a big impact on which potential factors are studied thoroughly and which are overlooked or even deemed taboo. Additionally, despite examples of its rampant misuse, the mere accusation of racism remains capable of destroying even the most sterling reputations. As John McWhorter of Columbia University argued last October, “To hurl the N-word at someone is an attempt to shut down discussion. Today, the word ‘racist’ serves the same function.” The fear of social repercussions for publicly espousing certain viewpoints can significantly affect what will be discussed and which conversations are closed off, reducing options for potential improvements.

For example, researchers have long discussed the role of family structure in accounting for future economic outcomes of children. Summarizing the findings from a previous 2014 study from the team at the Equality of Opportunity Project led by Raj Chetty, W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, describes the authors’ conclusions about the importance of family structure:

By their reckoning, when it comes to mobility, “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.” They find that children raised in communities with high percentages of single mothers are significantly less likely to experience absolute and relative mobility. Moreover, “[c]hildren of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.” …

What makes this finding particularly significant is that this is the first major study showing that rates of single parenthood at the community level are linked to children’s economic opportunities over the course of their lives. A lot of research—including new research from the Brookings Institution—has shown us that kids are more likely to climb the income ladder when they are raised by two, married parents. But this is the first study to show that lower-income kids from both single- and married-parent families are more likely to succeed if they hail from a community with lots of two-parent families.

Similarly, one of the most important takeaways from the most recent study on race and economic mobility was the importance (in black men achieving economic success) of black fathers within a community. According to the researchers, areas with low rates of poverty and a high concentration of black fathers yielded the best future outcomes for the economic mobility of black men (and were among the areas where the black-white mobility gap was narrowest). Unfortunately, just 4.2 percent of black children grew up in such areas. Meanwhile, more than half, 62.5 percent, of white children grew up in areas with low poverty rates and high concentrations of white fathers.

This observation, among several others, was included in an article from W. Bradford Wilcox that offered several significant critiques of the popular conclusion that the new study had finally shown that family structure doesn’t explain the racial mobility gap. But such arguments are increasingly unwelcome in mainstream discussions. The insistence that any criticism of a personal choice is an example of victim-blaming, and therefore intolerable, is particularly tragic for those struggling to climb the income ladder. In the same post for the Brookings Instruction, Perry continues:

Since 1965, when Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” better known as the Moynihan Report, researchers and journalists have continued framing poverty mainly as an individual choice—i.e., mothers form families that put children in harm’s way. Moynihan also offered a robust structural analysis of the economic and social conditions that help shape black family structures. However, he set a dangerous example by identifying the main problem as black people not living up to white middle-class ideals. It’s a mold that researchers of black men willfully maintain to this day.

“When there’s only one parent with a meager income, the burdens mount and feed on themselves,” wrote Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson in an op-ed just this month. “That’s one reason the growth of single-parent households is rightly regarded as a cause of poverty.”

When you fault single parenthood, you inevitably to go down a path of chastising women, culture, and individual behavior. The focus on negative outcomes among black men has led to programs to instill “grit,” charter schools that “sweat the small stuff” (i.e. suspend and expel children), and other initiatives that condemn the effects of housing and employment discrimination, lack of access to capital, and the prison-industrial complex on black families while privileging white men.

Quite simply, the entire policy conversation breaks down when empirically relevant factors are considered off limits. If calls for more married, two-parent families are deemed nothing shy of thinly veiled racist exhortations that black people live up to white middle-class ideals, the racial mobility gap will almost certainly grow. Researchers on both the political Left and Right have comprehensively documented how upper-middle-class families consistently get and stay married far more frequently than their less affluent peers. There is an enormous cost to society incurred when those who are economically successful refuse to discuss a major part of why that is the case.

Summarizing the view of Charles Murray in a 2012 interview about his then-recently released book Coming ApartNicholas Confessore writes, “[members of the new upper class] have lost the confidence to preach what they practice, adopting instead a creed of ‘ecumenical niceness.’ They work, marry and raise children, but they refuse to insist that the rest of the country do so too.” Although Coming Apart focused exclusively on white Americans, the pattern he identified is certainly recognizable. In fairness, it becomes more difficult to preach what you practice when doing so risks social exile.

Again, the insistence that some factors cannot be discussed or considered often leads to the premature dismissal of public policy solutions that might be truly beneficial. The proliferation of charter schools, for example, has allowed parents the option of rescuing their children from failing schools. When it comes to future economic outcomes, these kinds of efforts to expand parental choice are especially promising. Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that charter schools emphasizing ‘grit’ and other forms of character education significantly improve future student outcomes. A 2016 study examining the Milwaukee urban school voucher system (implemented in 1990 as the first such system in America) found that students attending schools through the voucher system for at least four or five years were between five to 12 percentage points less likely (than their Milwaukee public school counterparts) to be accused of committing a crime. One article about the study noted the following:

Patrick Wolf, a professor in the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions and one of the authors of the study, has a hypothesis: The reduction in criminal behavior could be attributed to private schools’ emphasis on character formation and moral values.

Private schools, and especially religious institutions, “try to infuse their educational community with a set of moral values and it could be that that has a clearer and more positive effect on disadvantaged students than the education that they’re provided with,” said Wolf, who also leads the School Choice Demonstration Project at the university’s Department of Education Reform.

“It could be that this emphasis in private schools on character formation and moral values is paying off in terms of the ability of these low-income, inner-city, mostly minority kids to avoid criminal behavior shortly after they leave the education system,” he said.

It is a mistake to dismiss such ideas as inherently nefarious. If there is any chance of discovering solutions to our most challenging social problems, there must be an environment of honest debate and open discussion. When the highest levels of discourse raise the social cost of openly discussing factors relevant to public policy conversations, fewer people engage, and the probability of meaningful progress shrinks. Early childhood development, family structure, education policy, character education: each of these are promising areas for future research and could hold important clues to boosting upward economic mobility for black men but are quickly becoming too taboo to investigate.

While factors other than racism should not be dismissed in the discussion of observed racial disparities in rates of economic mobility, neither should racism be dismissed from consideration as an influential factor. The commitment to a generous and open discourse must go both ways. Racism is still very much with us, and the atrocities of the past certainly created a variety of disadvantages that very likely continue to contribute to disparate economic outcomes today. Racial gaps in accumulated wealth, professional networks, and other factors are important pieces of the puzzle and also deserve to be vigorously discussed and debated.

Despite the extremely advanced tools now used in social science and economic analyses, the mode of our current public discourse jeopardizes many opportunities for real improvement. The speed and viciousness with which people that offer explanations or solutions outside of the accepted narrative are viewed as buying into the idea that certain groups are ‘inferior’ to others is a major obstacle to an important conversation. If our major societal problems stand any chance of improvement, the public policy discourse needs to change dramatically.

Impugning the motives of those who disagree with your views or attempting to stigmatize their ideas without engaging with them in good faith means that the ideas that eventually do prevail will not face the scrutiny they should and are much less likely to be effective. When scarce resources are wasted on ineffective programs, and well-intentioned policies backfire because of the dysfunctional public discourse, those who are most vulnerable bear the cost.