Revisiting Race and Remedies: Should the Government Play A Role in Eliminating Racial Disparities in Education and Employment?
Here are some remarks I delivered at a panel discussion organized by the Black Law Students' Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, April 5, 2010. The official title of the event was as above.
These remarks occasioned much comment, most of it negative. I don't know why this should have been so. My statements on biology and paleoanthropology are of a very basic and uncontroversial kind. The empirical data I quoted is surely known to everyone. The LSAC statistics are likewise available for inspection by any inquirer. My appeal to individualism was, I thought, well within a venerable American tradition. If I made some error in fact or logic, I wish someone would point it out to me. To date (May 16, 2010) nobody has.
The context of my remarks was as follows.
Amy Wax, a professor at the law school, had published a book titled Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century. The argument of the book, very briefly, is that what can be done in law, politics, and social engineering to make amends for slavery and Jim Crow has been done, and the rest is up to African Americans themselves.
This message was displeasing to some black law professors and/or students. There was some sort of criticism session with Prof. Wax. The meeting apparently did not satisfy the black participants, so a full-scale panel discussion was organized under the auspices of the BLSA.
Prof. Wax had read and enjoyed my book We Are Doomed and sent me an appreciative email. We had exchanged a couple more friendly emails. (I had no previous acquaintance with her.) She suggested to the BLSA that I might be a good panelist for the upcoming discussion. The BLSA emailed me with an invitation. I emailed back to thank them, but suggested that perhaps, given my views — which I sketched for them clearly — I might not be a good "fit" for the panel. A couple more rounds of emails were exchanged, with the upshot that the BLSA invited me anyway, and I accepted.
I duly attended the panel discussion. Each of us was asked to speak for ten minutes. My ten-minute address is reproduced here.
Aside from myself and Prof. Wax, there were two others on the panel, both academics. One was F. Michael Higginbotham, Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore Law School, the other William A. Darity, Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. Moderator for the event was Camille Z. Charles, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. There were about 140 in the audience, mostly students. So far as I could see there was no official sound or video recording of the event going on, though I suppose it's possible that someone in the audience was capturing it on an iPhone.
I posted a brief account of the event to NRO a day or two later: see here, with a follow-up erratum here.
Thank you, Madam Moderator. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
I am here this evening in the capacity of a wet blanket. I am here not to take one side or the other on the topic under debate, but to say that the topic, as written, is based on a false premise, and therefore has no satisfactory answer. I don't believe the disparities under discussion can be eliminated. Debate about whether government should play a greater or lesser role in eliminating them is therefore, in my opinion, otiose.
When the organizers first emailed me to suggest I appear on the panel, I told them that this is my view of the matter. I said that I was flattered to be invited to speak at such a prestigious institution, and that, having two teenage children, I am always glad to get out of the house for a few hours; but that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races. Those differences are facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets. They can't be legislated out of existence; nor can they be "eliminated" by social or political action.
That there are natural, intractable differences between the human races seems apparent to me on both rational and empirical grounds.
First, the rational grounds. If a species is divided into separate populations, and those populations are left in reproductive isolation from each other for many generations, they will diverge. If you return after several hundred generations have passed, you will observe that the various traits that characterize individuals of the species are now distributed at different frequencies in the various populations. After a few ten thousands of generations, the divergence of the populations will be so great they can no longer cross-breed; and that is the origin of species. This is Biology 101.
Our species separated into two parts 50, 60, or 70 thousand years ago, depending on which paleoanthropologist you ask.++ One part remained in Africa, the ancestral homeland. The other crossed into Southwest Asia, then split, and re-split, and re-split, until there were human populations living in near-total reproductive isolation from each other in all parts of the world. This went on for hundreds of generations, causing the divergences we see today. Different physical types, as well as differences in behavior, intelligence, and personality, are exactly what one would expect to observe when scrutinizing these divergent populations.
Now, the empirical grounds. We all notice the different physical specialties of the different races in the Olympic Games. There was a run of, I think, seven Olympics in which every one of the finalists in the men's 100 meters sprint was of West African ancestry — 56 out of 56 finalists. You get less pronounced but similar patterns in other sports — East African distance runners, Northeast Asian divers, and so on. These differences even show up within sports, where a team sport calls for highly differentiated abilities in team members — football being the obvious example.
We see the same differences in traits that we don't think of as directly physical, what evolutionary psychologists sometimes refer to as the "BIP" traits — behavior, intelligence, and personality. Two of the hardest-to-ignore manifestations here are the extraordinary differentials in criminality between white Americans and African Americans, and the persistent gaps in scores when tests of cognitive ability are given to large population samples.
There is a huge academic literature on the gaps in cognitive test results, practically all of it converging on the fact that African American mean scores on cognitive tests fall below the white means by a tad more than one white standard deviation. There is in fact so much data on this now that we have meta-studies — studies of the studies: the one best-known to me is the meta-study by Roth et al. in 2001, which covered 39 studies involving nearly six million test-takers. That one standard deviation on cognitive testing has been so persistent across so many decades, a friend of mine, an academic sociologist, calls it "the fundamental constant of American sociology" — it's like the speed of light in physics.
To see whether that universal constant appears in the study of law, I looked up the LSAC database before coming here tonight. LSAC — the Law School Admission Council — publishes splendid statistical tables on the results of the LSAT exam, broken out by sex, region, race, and so on. The last figures I could find were for 2007-08. In that year, 117,530 students took the LSAT at least once. Of these persons, 69,792 identified themselves as "Caucasian." Their mean score was 152.56, standard deviation 8.96. In that same year, 12,152 test-takers identified themselves as "African American"; their mean score was 142.15, standard deviation 8.40. That's a difference between the means of 10.41 points, which is 1.16 times the white standard deviation. So perhaps my sociologist friend is on to something.
Should you want to say at this point that these so-called tests of so-called cognitive ability measure nothing important, you had better go and argue with the authorities here at the University of Pennsylvania law school. They have carefully recorded, and posted on the internet, that half their student intake, second and third quartiles, falls between LSAT scores 166 and 171.**
Thus there are both rational and empirical grounds for believing in intractable group differences between the big old inbred paleolithic populations of Homo sapiens. In the context of this discussion, there are two things that need saying about these differences.
First, the differences are statistical. Any population contains variation. Variation within a population is the essence of biology. Those of you familiar with Charles Darwin's great classic On the Origin of Species will recall that three of the first five chapters have the word "variation" in the chapter title. Any population will contain individuals who are fat, thin, fast, slow, tall, short, and so on.
And in the grand biological scheme of things, human population divergences are slight, the populations overlapping massively on most kinds of traits. To go back to that "universal constant of sociology," for instance: Given a one standard deviation gap between black and white means, one thing we can deduce from pure mathematics is that around six million African Americans score higher on cognitive tests than the average white test-taker. In LSAT terms, over 1,300 African American test-takers in 2007-2008 scored above the white mean.
Second, the differences are abstract. Group differences are statistical truths. They exist in an abstract realm quite far removed from our everyday personal experience. They tell you nothing about the person you just met.
Group differences are, for example, one degree more abstract than individual differences. We all acknowledge individual differences all the time: she's fat, he's thin, she's shy, he's outgoing, she's smart, he's dumb.
We are all, to various degrees, aware of our own individual strengths and limitations. Certainly I am aware of mine. For example: My wife is a keen ballroom dancer. Because I love my wife, I did my best to become a ballroom dancer myself. For two years — two blessed years, ladies and gentlemen — I went along twice a week with her to the local Arthur Murray studio to take instruction. At the end of it, I still had two left feet. The instruction I received was like water poured on to a sheet of glass.
Even at the things we are good at, most of us are not very good. I make my living by writing; yet I can name, in my own small personal acquaintance, a dozen people who are better writers than I am. That's not even to mention the Shakespeares and Tolstoys. Most of us are hopeless at most things, and mediocre at the rest.
And yet — look! We don't lose sleep over this. We don't sink into rage and frustration at our own individual differences, or agitate for politicians to put balm on our psychic wounds. We accept our individual shortcomings with remarkable equanimity, playing the cards we've been dealt as best we can. That is the attitude of a healthy human being. To do otherwise would, most of us I'm sure would agree, be un-healthy. How much more unhealthy, then, to fret and rage and agitate about mere statistical abstractions?
Thank you, Madam Moderator.
++ Study of early Homo sap. dispersals outside Africa is an active field with many unresolved issues — see this paper, for example. So far as I am aware, though, my brief and very general remarks here are scientifically un-controversial.
[ Added early 2011 : There seems to be a growing opinion in favor of earlier dates than the "50, 60, or 70 thousand years ago" I gave: see here, for example, and here. If anything, an earlier date strengthens my argument, giving evolution more time to work its magic on out-of-Africa Homo sap.
It's also becoming clear that as Homo sap. fanned out east and north across Eurasia, they interbred to some degree with the more archaic Homo stocks — e.g. Neanderthals and Denisovans — that they encountered, who had left Africa long (>500,000 years) before. Since these archaic stocks were very different from each other — they are commonly spoken of as separate species — the implication is for even more and faster differentiation of different geographical populations, and in particular of the African and out-of-African super-populations, again strengthening the argument.]
** Within this range, by the way, from the 2007-2008 figures already noted out of the LSAC database, and assuming a Gaussian-normal distribution, one would expect to find about 3,281 Caucasian test-takers and about 24 African American ones, a white-black ratio of 137 to 1.
Assuming further that
then the current 565-student black-plus-white component of the total enrollment at U. Penn law school would split as 561 white, 4 black on a strictly LSAT basis.
- the same ratio shows up in neighboring years (reasonable enough), and
- one can stretch this same ratio to the first and fourth quartiles too (also not an outrageous assumption: there will be a slightly lower ratio in the first quartile, a slightly higher one in the fourth, canceling each other out), and
- students of all races distribute themselves evenly among the top dozen or so law schools (probably false: the top six have a powerful gravitational attraction, and are especially keen to take in as many of the best minority students as they can, so that the number available to 8th-ranked U. Penn. Law School will be correspondingly smaller)
The actual split is 508 white, 57 black.