These highlights were saved with the Kindle version of Discrimination and Disparities by Thomas Sowell.
On IQ & Disparities
Professor Lewis M. Terman of Stanford University launched a research project that followed 1,470 people with IQs of 140 and above for more than half a century. Data on the careers of men in this group—from a time when full-time careers for women were less common—showed serious disparities even within this rare group, all of whom had IQs within the top one percent. Some of these men had highly successful careers, others had more modest achievements, and about 20 percent were clearly disappointments. Of 150 men in this less successful category, only 8 received a graduate degree, and dozens of them received only a high school diploma. A similar number of the most successful men in Terman’s group received 98 graduate degrees—more than a tenfold disparity among men who were all in the top one percent in IQ.
Meanwhile, two men who were tested in childhood, and who failed to make the 140 IQ cutoff level, later earned Nobel Prizes—as none of the men with IQs of 140 and above did. Clearly, then, all the men in Terman’s group had at least one prerequisite for that extraordinary achievement—namely, a high enough IQ. And, equally clearly, there must have been other prerequisites that hundreds of these men with IQs in the top one percent did not have.
Perhaps the most revolutionary change in the evolution of human societies was the development of agriculture—within the last 10 percent of the existence of the human species.
The flawed perception of probabilities—and the failure of the real world to match expectations derived from that flawed perception—can drive ideological movements, political crusades and judicial decisions, up to and including decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States, where “disparate impact” statistics, showing different outcomes for different groups, have been enough to create a presumption of discrimination.
Birth Order Discrepancies
A study of more than 20,000 young people in late twentieth-century France showed that 18 percent of those males who were an only child completed four years of college, compared to 16 percent of male first-born children—and just 7 percent of males who were fifth-born or later born. Among females the disparity was slightly larger. Twenty-three percent who were an only child completed four years of college, compared to 19 percent who were first-born, and just 5 percent of those who were fifth-born or later.
A study of about 4,000 Americans concluded that “The decline in average earnings is even more pronounced” than the decline in education between those born earlier and those born later. Other studies have shown the first-born to be over-represented among lawyers in the greater Boston area23 and among Members of Congress. Of the 29 original astronauts in the Apollo program that put a man on the moon, 22 were either first-born or an only child. The first-born and the only child were also over-represented among leading composers of classical music.
Consider how many things are the same for children born to the same parents and raised under the same roof—race, the family gene pool, economic level, cultural values, educational opportunities, parents’ educational and intellectual levels, as well as the family’s relatives, neighbors and friends—and yet the difference in birth order alone has made a demonstrable difference in outcomes.
The only obvious advantage that applies only to the first-born, or to an only child, is the undivided attention of the parents during early childhood development.
The fact that twins tend to average several points lower IQs than people born singly reinforces this inference.
Jews were not admitted to most universities in Europe prior to the nineteenth century. Late in the eighteenth century, the United States became a pioneer in granting Jews the same legal rights as everyone else, as a result of the Constitution’s general ban against federal laws that discriminate on the basis of religion. France followed suit after the revolution of 1789, and other nations began easing or eliminating various bans on Jews in various times and places during the nineteenth century.
In the second half of the twentieth century, with Jews being less than one percent of the world’s population, they received 22 percent of the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, 32 percent in medicine and 32 percent in physics.
China & Isolationism
China was for centuries the most technologically advanced nation in the world, especially during what were called the Middle Ages in Europe. The Chinese had cast iron a thousand years before the Europeans. A Chinese admiral led a voyage of discovery that was longer than Columbus’ voyage, generations before Columbus’ voyage, and in ships far larger and technologically more advanced than Columbus’ ships.
Convinced by the exploratory voyages of its ships that there was nothing to be learned from other peoples in other places, the government of China decided in 1433 to not only discontinue such voyages, but to forbid such voyages, or the building of ships capable of making such voyages, and to greatly reduce the influence of the outside world on Chinese society.
The strait jacket of isolation, inflicted on many parts of the world by geographic barriers that left whole peoples and nations both poor and backward, was inflicted on China by its own rulers.
The contrast between the fate of China and the fate of the “overseas Chinese” was demonstrated when, as late as 1994, the 57 million “overseas Chinese” produced as much wealth as the billion people living in China.
In nature, as in human endeavors, there can be multiple prerequisites for various natural phenomena, and these multiple prerequisites can likewise lead to very skewed distributions of outcomes.
Natural World Discrepancies
Multiple factors have to come together in order to create tornadoes, and more than 90 percent of all the tornadoes in the entire world occur in just one country—the United States. Yet there is nothing startlingly unique about either the climate or the terrain of the United States that cannot be found, as individual features, in various other places around the world. But all the prerequisites for tornadoes do not come together as often in the rest of the world as in the United States.
Similar gross disparities have also been found between the number of species of fish in the Amazon region of South America, compared to the number in Europe: “Eight times as many species of fish have been caught in an Amazonian pond the size of a tennis court as exist in all the rivers of Europe.”
Neither in nature nor among human beings are either equal or randomly distributed outcomes automatic. On the contrary, grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved.
As economic historian David S. Landes put it, “The world has never been a level playing field.” The idea that it would be a level playing field, if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts. Nothing is easier to find than sins among human beings, but to automatically make those sins the sole, or even primary, cause of different outcomes among different peoples is to ignore many other reasons for those disparities.
Two of the monumental catastrophes of the twentieth century—Nazism and Communism—led to the slaughter of millions of human beings, in the name of either ridding the world of the burden of “inferior” races or ridding the world of “exploiters” responsible for the poverty of the exploited. While each of these beliefs might have been testable hypotheses, their greatest political triumphs came as dogmas placed beyond the reach of evidence or logic.
Getting rid of capitalist “exploiters” in Communist countries did not raise the living standards of workers, even to levels common in many capitalist countries, where workers were presumably still being exploited, as Marxists conceived the term.
Are group disparities in outcomes a result of internal differences in behavior and capabilities, accurately assessed by outsiders, or are those disparities due to external impositions based on the biased misjudgments or antagonisms of outsiders?
Discrimination & Definitions
At a minimum, we need to know what we ourselves mean when we use a word like “discrimination,” especially since it has conflicting meanings. The broader meaning—an ability to discern differences in the qualities of people and things, and choosing accordingly—can be called Discrimination I, making fact-based distinctions. The narrower, but more commonly used, meaning—treating people negatively, based on arbitrary assumptions or aversions concerning individuals of a particular race or sex, for example—can be called Discrimination II, the kind of discrimination that has led to anti-discrimination laws and policies.
If you are walking at night down a lonely street, and see up ahead a shadowy figure in an alley, do you judge that person as an individual or do you cross the street and pass on the other side? The shadowy figure in the alley could turn out to be a kindly neighbor, out walking his dog. But, when making such decisions, a mistake on your part could be costly, up to and including costing you your life.
People who would never walk through a particular neighborhood at night, or perhaps not even in broad daylight, may nevertheless be indignant at banks that engage in “redlining”—that is, putting a whole neighborhood off-limits as a place to invest their depositors’ money. The observers’ own “redlining” in their choices of where to walk may never be seen by them as a different example of the same principle.
For the sake of illustration, if 40 percent of the people in Group X are alcoholics and 1 percent of the people in Group Y are alcoholics, an employer may well prefer to hire only people from Group Y for work where an alcoholic would be not only ineffective but dangerous. This would mean that a majority of the people in Group X—60 percent in this case—would be denied employment, even though they are not alcoholics. What matters, crucially, to the employer is the cost of determining which individual is or is not an alcoholic, when job applicants all show up sober on the day when they are seeking employment.
The point here is neither to justify nor condemn the employer but to classify different decision-making processes, so that their implications and consequences can be analyzed separately. If judging each person as an individual is Discrimination Ia, we can classify as Discrimination Ib basing decisions about groups on information that is correct for that group, though not necessarily correct for every individual in that group, nor necessarily even correct for a majority of the individuals in that group.
A real-life example of the effect of the cost of knowledge in this context is a study which showed that, despite the reluctance of many employers to hire young black males, because a significant proportion of them have criminal records (Discrimination Ib), those particular employers who automatically did criminal background checks on all their employees (Discrimination Ia) tended to hire more young black males than did other employers. In other words, where the nature of the work made criminal background checks worth the cost for all employees, it was no longer necessary to use group information to assess whether individual young black job applicants had a criminal background. This made young black job applicants without a criminal background more employable than before. More is involved here than simply a question of nomenclature. It has implications for practical policies in the real world. Many observers, hoping to help young black males have more employment opportunities, have advocated prohibiting employers from asking job applicants questions about a criminal record. Moreover, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued employers who do criminal background checks on job applicants, on grounds that this was racial discrimination, even when it was applied to all job applicants, regardless of race. Empirically, however, criminal background checks provided more employment opportunities for young black males.
The employer may be indifferent as to whether the work to be done is done by men or by women, and yet be well aware that men and women are not indifferent to each other, or else the human race would have become extinct long ago.
When a particular occupation is overwhelmingly chosen by women, such as nursing, the employer may be reluctant to hire a male nurse, regardless of that male nurse’s individual qualifications. Conversely, where lumberjacks are overwhelmingly male, the employer may be reluctant to hire a female lumberjack, even if she is demonstrably as fully qualified as the men.
Observers who point out that particular individuals are equally qualified, regardless of sex, miss the point. An equally qualified individual may do the work just as well as others, but if some of the others are distracted from their work, the net effect can be a less efficient workforce.
One major demographic fact that is often overlooked by those who automatically equate statistical disparities in outcomes with Discrimination II is that different ethnic groups have very different median ages. Japanese Americans, for example, have a median age more than two decades older than the median age of Mexican Americans.
A group with a median age in their twenties will obviously not have nearly as large a proportion of their population with 20 years of work experience as a group whose median age is in their forties. One group may therefore have a disproportionate number of people in high level occupations requiring long years of experience, while the other group may be similarly over-represented in entry-level jobs, in sports or in violent crimes, which are all activities disproportionately engaged in by the young.
Such disparities in outcomes are not automatically evidence of either outsiders’ biases or internal deficiencies in the groups. Either or both may be present or absent, but that requires specific empirical evidence going beyond gross statistical differences in outcomes.
Children raised in families where the parents have professional occupations hear nearly twice as many words per hour as children raised in working-class families, and more than three times as many words per hour as children raised in families on welfare.
Can we believe that such differences—and others—compounded over many years while growing up, make no difference in individual abilities and social outcomes when those children become adults seeking employment?
Individuals themselves affect their outcomes. When more than three-quarters of all college degreesWhen more than three-quarters of all college degrees in education go to women and more than three-quarters of all college degrees in engineering go to men,13 the statistical predominance of women in teaching and men in engineering cannot automatically be attributed to employers’ biases.
The cause of a given outcome is an empirical question, whose answer requires untangling many complex factors, rather than simply pointing dramatically and indignantly to statistical disparities in outcomes, as so often happens in politics and in the media.
A wage rate set above where it would be set by supply and demand in a freely competitive market tends to have at least two consequences: (1) an increase in the number of job applicants, due to the higher wage rate, and (2) a decrease in the number of workers actually hired, due to labor’s having been made more expensive. In this situation, the resulting chronic surplus of job applicants beyond the number of jobs available reduces the cost of refusing to hire qualified job applicants from particular groups, so long as the number of qualified job applicants refused employment is not greater than the number of surplus qualified applicants.
The prevailing national minimum wage law in the United States is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. However, high rates of inflation that began in the 1940s put virtually all money wages above the level specified in that Act, so that for all practical purposes, there was no minimum wage in effect a decade after the law was passed.
There was no significant difference between the unemployment rates of black and white teenagers in 1948. The unemployment rate for black 16-year-old and 17-year-old males was 9.4 percent. For their white counterparts, the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent. For 18-year-old males and 19-year-old males, the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent for whites and 10.5 percent for blacks. In short, there was no significant racial difference in unemployment rates for teenage males in 1948,38 when there was no effective minimum wage.
When minimum wage laws reduce the employment prospects of inexperienced and unskilled black teenagers, that reduces their labor force participation, and therefore reduces their rate of acquisition of work experience and job skills.
Slavery & Servitude
In early colonial America, more than half the white population in colonies south of New England arrived as indentured servants.
Major restrictions, both legal and social, against “free persons of color” existed in both the North and the South, during the era of slavery. But, while those restrictions tightened over time in the South during the nineteenth century, they eroded in the North during that same century.
In the South, where plantation slavery was the norm, “free persons of color” were seen as dangers to that whole system, both because their very presence demonstrated to slaves that slavery was not an inevitable fate for black people, and because the fraternization of “free persons of color” with slaves not only spread the idea of freedom, but also provided a source of help for slaves who escaped.
One indicator of this acculturation to the norms of the larger society was that the black-white difference in homicide rates in various Northern communities during the first half of the nineteenth century was much smaller than it would become a century later.
In nineteenth-century Detroit, blacks had been denied the right to vote in 1850, but they were voting in the 1880s, and in the 1890s blacks were being elected to statewide offices in Michigan by a predominantly white electorate.
“Separate but Equal”
Perhaps the most famous, and most consequential, Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century was that in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, declaring that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. This ended more than half a century of hypocrisy, following the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that government-imposed racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment requirement of “equal protection of the laws” for all, so long as the racially segregated facilities provided for blacks were “separate but equal.”
As of 1954, when Chief Justice Warren declared that separate schools were inherently unequal, all-black Dunbar High School sent a higher percentage of its graduates on to college than any white public high school in Washington.
Among the graduates of this high school—known by various names over the years since its founding in 1870, including Dunbar High School since 1916—were “the first black who” had a range of career achievements. These included the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. at an American university, the first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member, the first black tenured professor at a major national university, and Dr. Charles Drew, who won international recognition as a pioneer in the use of blood plasma.
The crusade to racially integrate public schools, during the decades following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, generated much social turmoil, racial polarization and bitter backlashes, but no general educational improvement from seating black school children next to white school children.
One of the painful ironies of the racial integration crusade was that Dunbar High School’s 85 years of academic achievement came to an abrupt end, in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. To comply with that decision, Washington schools were all made neighborhood schools, so that Dunbar could no longer admit black students from anywhere in the city, as it had before, but only students from the particular ghetto neighborhood where it was located.
By 1993, a smaller percentage of Dunbar students went on to college than had done so 60 years earlier—even though 1933 was in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1993 was in the midst of the prosperous decade of the 1990s.
Black students were not simply assigned to go to Dunbar High School. They had to apply, and those with neither the interest nor the inclination to subject themselves to rigorous educational norms had no reason to apply.
The educational track record of such self-sorting has been far more successful than third-party sorting, whether the third parties sorted by race or by residential location, or by a belief that racial diversity would lead to higher educational achievements.
Whatever the plausibility of assumptions and theories, the crucial question of the empirical validity of these assumptions depends on hard evidence.
Black residents in working-class or middle-class communities have been particularly uninhibited in their denunciations of people from housing projects and people on welfare that the government inserts into their communities, perhaps because black middle-class residents are not afraid of being called “racists.”
When a federal agency can so easily make charges of discrimination on behalf of workers from racial or ethnic minorities—charges that can be costly and time-consuming to defend against in the courts, or charges that can force costly settlements out of court—that reduces the value of hiring black or other minority workers, even when their job qualifications are equal to the job qualifications of other workers who present no such legal risk.
Employers therefore have incentives to locate their businesses away from concentrations of minority populations, so that they will not be as legally vulnerable to costly charges of discrimination if their work force does not end up with the same demographic makeup as that of the surrounding population.
Japanese firms seeking to find locations for their first businesses in the United States have specified that they do not want to locate near concentrations of blacks in the local population. American firms that do the same thing, being more familiar with both the legal and the social atmosphere in the United States, may be less likely to leave a paper trail. Nevertheless, this raises the question whether anti-discrimination laws, as applied in the courts, provide incentives to discriminate against racial minorities as well as incentives not to discriminate, with their net effect being uncertain.
Even when the numbers are correct, the words that describe what the numbers are measuring may be incorrect or misleading. These include such basic numbers as income, unemployment rates and rates of arrest for violations of laws.
Neither logic nor empirical evidence provides a compelling reason for expecting either equal or random outcomes among individuals, groups, institutions or nations.
Discrimination in Mortgage Loans
During a long and heated campaign in politics and in the media during the early twenty-first century, claiming that there was rampant discrimination against black home mortgage loan applicants, data from various sources were cited repeatedly, showing that black applicants for the most desirable kinds of mortgages were turned down substantially more often than white applicants for those same mortgages.
In the year 2000, for example, data from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed that 44.6 percent of black applicants were turned down for those mortgages, while only 22.3 percent of white applicants were turned down. These and similar statistics from other sources set off widespread denunciations of mortgage lenders, and demands that the government “do something” to stop rampant racial discrimination in mortgage lending institutions.
One of the very few media outlets to even consider alternative explanations for the statistical differences was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which showed that 52 percent of blacks had credit scores so low that they would qualify only for the less desirable subprime mortgages, as did 16 percent of whites. Accordingly, 49 percent of blacks in the data cited by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ended up with subprime mortgages, as did 13 percent of whites and 10 percent of Asians.
The omitted statistics would have undermined the prevailing preconception that white lenders were discriminating against black applicants. However, that preconception at least seemed plausible, even if it failed to stand up under closer scrutiny. But the idea that white lenders would also be discriminating against white applicants, and in favor of Asian applicants, lacked even plausibility. What was equally implausible was that black-owned banks were discriminating against black applicants. But in fact black-owned banks turned down black applicants for home mortgage loans at a higher rate than did white-owned banks.
It is, unfortunately, not uncommon to omit statistics that are discordant with prevailing preconceptions. This has become a common practice in politics, in the media and even in much of academia.
“Household Income” Disparities
Household income data, for example, are often used to indicate the magnitude of economic disparities in a society.
Household income data, for example, are often used to indicate the magnitude of economic disparities in a society. But to say that the top 20 percent of households have X times as much income as the bottom 20 percent of households exaggerates the disparity between flesh-and-blood human beings, which can be quite different from disparities between income brackets. That is because, despite equal numbers of households in each 20 percent, there are far more people in the top 20 percent of households.
When income per person is rising over the same span of years when the average number of persons per household is declining, that can lead to statistics indicating that the average household income is falling, even if all individual incomes are rising.
Household income statistics can be very useful for someone promoting political or ideological crusades, based on statistics that exaggerate income disparities among people.
Law Enforcement & Arrests
Statistics cited in support of claims that the police target blacks for arrests usually go no further than showing that the proportion of black people arrested greatly exceeds the roughly 13 percent of the American population who are black.
If anyone were to use similar reasoning to claim that National Basketball Association (NBA) referees were racially biased, because the proportion of fouls that referees call against black players in the NBA greatly exceeds 13 percent, anyone familiar with the NBA would immediately see the fallacy—because the proportion of black players in the NBA greatly exceeds the proportion of blacks in the American population.
Younger people are more prone to speeding, and groups with a younger median age have a higher proportion of their population in age brackets where speeding is more common. When different groups differ in median age by a decade, or in some cases by two decades or more, there was never any reason to expect different groups to have the same proportion.
Among the other consequences is that many law enforcement officials also see this as a politically unwinnable battle, and simply back off from vigorous law enforcement, the results of which could ruin their careers and their lives. The net result of the police backing off is often a rise in crime,19 of which law-abiding residents in black communities are the principal victims.
Internal Revenue Service data show that half the people who earned over a million dollars a year, at some time during the years from 1999 and 2007, did so just once in those nine years.
Among Americans with the 400 highest incomes in the country, fewer than 13 percent were in that very high bracket more than twice during the years from 1992 to 2000. The highest incomes are usually very transient incomes, reinforcing the conclusion that these are transient capital gains rather than enduring salaries.
There is no necessary correlation between what people say and what they do. A survey of low-income people by Columbia University researchers showed that 59 percent regarded buying goods on credit as a bad idea. Nevertheless “most of the families do use credit when buying major durables.”
When black students in affluent Shaker Heights spent less time on their school work than their white classmates did, and spent more time watching television, that was their revealed preference. Nor are black and white Americans the only groups with different revealed preferences. In Australia, for example, Chinese students have spent more than twice as much time on their homework as white students did.
Incidentally, the high correlation between the amount of work that different groups put into their education and the quality of their outcomes does not bode well for theories of genetic determinism. When we find some race whose lazy students get educational results superior to the results of hard-working students in other races, this would be evidence supporting that hypothesis, but such evidence does not seem to be available.
Employment & Taxes
Most of what are called “the poor” are not permanent residents in low-income brackets, any more than other people are permanent residents in other income brackets. Most of the people being paid the minimum wage rate are young workers, and of course they do not remain young over the years.
What is most striking about statistics on American teenage unemployment rates in the late 1940s is that (1) these unemployment rates were only a fraction of the levels of unemployment to which we have become accustomed to seeing in later decades, and (2) there was little or no difference between the unemployment rates of black and white teenagers then.
In 2013, Singapore’s unemployment rate was 2.1 percent. In 1991, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, it too had no minimum wage law, and its unemployment rate was under 2 percent. In the United States, the last administration with no federal minimum wage law at any time was the Coolidge administration in the 1920s. During President Coolidge’s last four years in office, the annual unemployment rate ranged from a high of 4.2 percent to a low of 1.8 percent.
There have been some times when higher tax rates have produced lower tax revenues, and some other times when lower tax rates have produced higher tax revenues.
In the 1920s, for example, the tax rate on the highest incomes was reduced from 73 percent to 24 percent—and the income tax revenue rose substantially—especially tax revenues received from people in the highest income brackets. Under the older and higher tax rate, vast sums of money from wealthy investors were sheltered in tax-exempt securities, such as municipal bonds—an amount estimated to be three times the size of the annual federal budget and more than half as large as the national debt.
Tax-exempt securities tend not to receive as high a rate of return on investments as other securities, whose earnings are taxed. What this meant was that sufficiently lower tax rates made it profitable for wealthy investors to take their money out of tax shelters and invest it in the market economy, where there was a higher rate of earnings, leaving them better off on net balance, even after paying income taxes that they had avoided before.
In terms of words on paper, the official tax rate was cut from 73 percent to 24 percent in the 1920s. But, in terms of events in the real world, the tax rate actually paid—on staggering sums of money previously hidden in tax shelters—rose from zero percent to 24 percent. This produced huge increases in tax revenues received from high-income people, both absolutely and as a percentage of all income taxes collected. That is because 24 percent of something is larger than 73 percent of nothing.
The human species can be divided and subdivided in many ways—by race, sex, age, birth order or by the different geographic settings in which peoples have lived (coastal peoples compared to inland peoples; mountain peoples compared to peoples living in river valleys), and so on. Among all these subdivisions, and others, large disparities in outcomes have been the rule, not the exception.
Disparities do not imply discrimination. Nor is discrimination automatically excluded. It is one of many possibilities, each of which has to establish its claims with evidence, rather than being an automatic presumption.
Even aside from any questions about differences in capabilities or potentialities, there are inescapable differences in what people want to do. Does anyone seriously believe that Asian American youngsters have as much interest in playing basketball as black youngsters have? Or does anyone doubt that the Asian youngsters’ lesser interest in basketball may have something to do with the dearth of Asian Americans among professional basketball players?
The most spectacularly successful political doctrine that swept into power in countries around the world in the twentieth century was Marxism, based on the implicit presumption that differences in wealth were due to capitalists growing rich by keeping the workers poor, through “exploitation.”
But, if the wealth of rich capitalists comes from exploitation of poor workers, then we might expect to find that where there are larger concentrations of rich capitalists, we would find correspondingly larger concentrations of poverty.
But the hard facts point in the opposite direction. The United States has more than five times as many billionaires as Africa and the Middle East put together, yet most Americans—including those living below the official poverty line—have a far higher standard of living than that of the populations of Africa and the Middle East. It would be difficult to find even a single country, ruled by Marxists, where the standard of living of working-class people has been as high as that of working-class people in a number of capitalist countries.
Parenthood & Prison
As of 1960, two-thirds of all black American children were living with both parents. That declined over the years, until only one-third were living with both parents in 1995. Fifty-two percent were living with their mother, 4 percent with their father and 11 percent with neither. Among black families in poverty, 85 percent of the children had no father present.
Perhaps the most often cited positive achievements of the 1960s in the United States were the civil rights laws and policies that put an end to racially discriminatory laws and policies in the South, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although this has often been credited to the social vision of the political left, in reality a higher percentage of Congressional Republicans than of Congressional Democrats voted for these landmark laws.
The black poverty rate declined from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, prior to the great expansion of the welfare state that began in the 1960s under the Johnson administration. There was a far more modest decline in the poverty rate among blacks after the Johnson administration’s massive “war on poverty” programs began.
A study of American prison inmates found that most were raised either by a single parent (43 percent) or raised with neither parent present (14 percent).
Something as simple as whether or not one speaks standard English can open or close doors of opportunity—again, especially in higher levels of achievement in many fields. Yet there are educators who see an emphasis on standard English as needless cultural narrowness, if not racism.
Linguistic scholar John McWhorter, for example, sprang to the defense of those in ghetto schools who want to use “black English” in teaching black youngsters. Professor McWhorter contrasted “the general American take on the matter” as one seeing blacks as using “a lot of slang and bad grammar”44 with the way linguistic scholars judge languages.
As for why many Americans look at “black English” in the negative way they do, McWhorter says: “Certainly, racism is part of the answer,” even if “the racist element in all this vitriol” is not the whole story.
This picture of youngsters in the ghetto as simply being bilingual differs painfully from the reality of their abysmal scores on tests of English. Far from being a lingua franca facilitating intergroup communication, as John McWhorter depicts it, “black English” is a barrier to communication with hundreds of millions of Americans, as well as a barrier to communication with half a billion people around the world who speak English.
Where are the books on mathematics, science, engineering, medicine and innumerable other subjects that are written in “black English”?
Practical issues about social and economic realities, seldom have anything to do with the kinds of things that preoccupy academic linguists. Group spokesmen, activists or “leaders” may be preoccupied with languages as badges of cultural identity, but cultures exist to serve human beings. Human beings do not exist to preserve cultures, or to preserve a socially isolated constituency for the benefit of “leaders.”
“Solutions” can be a society’s biggest problem—and especially governmental “solutions”—because government is essentially a categorical institution in an incremental world.
Billionaires are legally eligible for government subsidies in agriculture, even if there is not enough money to provide adequate medical care in government hospitals for military veterans.
“Poverty” means whatever government statisticians say it means, so that a scholar who had spent years studying economic conditions in Latin America could say, “the poverty line in the United States is the upper-middle class in Mexico.” But another scholar, taking words more literally, could lament that America’s poor were “having difficulty keeping food on the table.” How people with difficulty keeping food on the table can be overweight, even more often than other Americans, is a mystery he did not explain. Words trumped realities.
As a categorical institution, government can deal with things that we categorically do not want, such as murder, or which we categorically do want, such as protection from military attacks by foreign countries. But decisions and actions requiring more finely detailed knowledge for making nuanced incremental adjustments, are often better handled by decision-making processes with more intimate knowledge and involvement—and especially more compelling feedback from the actual consequences of the decisions made.
Once government housing programs have been created to help “low-income” families, then any family that meets a government agency’s arbitrary definition of “low-income” can receive benefits paid for with the taxpayers’ money. In 2017, for example, families of four people each, with a family income of $100,000, were classified as “low-income” families in San Francisco, where housing costs are unusually high. Why a family’s decision to live in expensive San Francisco should be subsidized by the taxpayers—including taxpayers with family incomes under $100,000—is a question that does not even arise in this context, where words with arbitrary meanings and categorical consequences guide government decisions.
Killing the goose that lays the golden egg is a viable strategy from a purely political standpoint, provided the goose does not die before the next election. A two-decades-long career for one man as mayor of Detroit, from 1974 to 1994, was made possible by policies which drove the most economically productive people out of Detroit, ensuring the mayor’s consecutive reelections by the departure of those people most likely to vote against him. It also ensured the decline of Detroit.
If longevity and universality are criteria, then slavery must be among the leading candidates for the most appalling of all human institutions, for it existed on every inhabited continent for thousands of years, as far back as the history of the human species goes. Yet its full scope is often grossly underestimated today, when slavery is so often discussed as if it were confined to one race enslaving another race, when in fact slavery existed virtually wherever it was feasible for some human beings to enslave other human beings—including in many, if not most, cases people of their own race.
Europeans enslaved other Europeans for centuries before Europeans brought the first African slaves—purchased from other Africans who had enslaved them—to the Western Hemisphere. Nor was it unknown for Europeans to be enslaved by non-Europeans. Just one example were the European slaves brought to the coast of North Africa by pirates. These European slaves were more numerous than the African slaves brought to the United States and to the American colonies from which it was formed. But the politicization of history has shrunk the public perception of slavery to whatever is most expedient for promoting politically correct agendas today.
The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future—both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or punish or avenge. Galling as these restrictive facts may be, that does not stop them from being facts beyond our control. Pretending to have powers that we do not, in fact, have risks creating needless evils in the present while claiming to deal with the evils of the past.
To admit that we can do nothing about what happened among the dead is not to give up the struggle for a better world, but to concentrate our efforts where they have at least some hope of making things better for the living.