Discrimination Myths that Everyone Believes

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The ideology that informs the thinking of present-day "civil rights" agitation is cluttered with misconceptions. It is not true, for example, that discrimination must lead to poverty. As Thomas Sowell observes, the Chinese have never enjoyed an equal playing field in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam, yet the Chinese minority in these countries — a mere five percent of the population — owns most of these nations’ total investments in a variety of key industries. In Malaysia, the Chinese minority suffers official discrimination at the hands of the Malaysian constitution, and yet their incomes are still twice the national average. Italians in Argentina were subject to discrimination but ultimately outperformed native Argentines. Similar stories could be told about Jews, Armenians, and East Indians. In the United States, the Japanese were so badly discriminated against that 120,000 of them were confined in detention camps for much of World War II. Yet by 1959 Japanese households had equaled those of whites in income, and by 1969 they were earning one-third more.

Another misconception is that statistical disparities between groups necessarily prove the existence of discrimination. Here again Sowell’s work is essential. There are a great many morally neutral explanations that can account for these differences. Ethnic groups in America often differ considerably in average age, sometimes by as much as a quarter century. That factor alone would be enough to account for a considerable portion of income differences between groups, since an older group will tend to have more education, more job experience, and more accumulated wealth. The various ethnic groups are also distributed very differently across the country, some concentrated in largely low-paying areas and others in high-paying areas. Thus the difference in incomes between Asian Americans and whites (with Asian Americans earning more), and between whites and American Indians or Hispanics, essentially disappears when we control for geographical distribution, education level, and proficiency in the English language. For a quarter century, in fact, college-educated black couples have earned slightly more on average than college-educated white couples, yet "civil rights" leaders prefer to obscure the real situation by looking at the two races in the aggregate. Only that way can they claim that "racism" is the explanation for white-black income differences.

Then there are behavioral differences that have an economic impact. For example, fully half of Mexican-American women marry in their teens, while only 10 percent of Japanese-American women marry that young. This cultural factor alone would account for considerable differences in incomes between the two groups, since a young married woman will tend to have less mobility and fewer educational opportunities than a young single woman.

One of many factors that can affect whether a statistic will be enlightening or misleading is the level of aggregation at which the data is studied. For example, we may possess a statistic on salaries earned by blacks holding doctoral degrees versus the salaries earned by Asians with doctoral degrees. The Asians may well be found to have higher incomes. But is this evidence of discrimination? Disaggregate the data and it turns out that that Asians and blacks tend to have doctoral degrees in different fields, with vastly differing levels of remuneration. Asians, for instance, are many times more likely than blacks to hold doctorates in chemistry, engineering, and mathematics, whereas blacks are much more likely to hold doctorates in education, and indeed fully half of all black doctorates are in that relatively low-paying field.

The issue of members of minority groups holding terminal degrees recalls one of the most potent sources of campus activism in the 1980s and 1990s: student campaigns for more "diversity" among college faculty. Everyone knew perfectly well that these calls for "diversity" referred only to those groups that had a place in the left’s victimological pantheon. Few campaigns were to be found on behalf of more Scandinavian professors or more traditional Catholics among the faculty, even though the latter were, if anything, even less represented in higher education than were members of racial minorities.

College administrations were routinely accused of bad faith or even "racism" for failing to hire enough minority faculty. If the mathematics department had 45 professors, only one of whom was black, was this not clear evidence of discrimination? Of course it wasn’t, for reasons we shall see below. Yet student activists continued to level the same predictable charges throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the early ’90s, an organization called Students at Harvard Against Racism and Ethnocentrism (SHARE) challenged students to consider the following statement: "The scarcity of minority faculty indicates a racism that pervades the university." More aggressive recruitment of minority candidates, such groups implied, could rectify such manifestly unjust imbalances.

Completely overlooked amid the hysteria for "faculty diversity" was the exceedingly small number of black doctorates graduating every year, and therefore the tiny applicant pool from which the thousands of American colleges were expected to draw all the minority candidates the activists wanted. In my own reply to SHARE years ago, I pointed out that a National Academy of Sciences report had found in 1988 that of the 608 Ph.D. degrees awarded that year in mathematics and computer sciences, two were earned by black students. Nearly 500 students earned doctorates that year in earth, atmospheric, and marine sciences. Again, two were black. Five blacks earned doctorates in American history, even counting Afro-American history. Eleven earned doctorates in economics, five in anthropology, seven in political science, and fourteen in sociology. Not a single doctorate was awarded to a black student in astronomy, astrophysics, botany, classics, comparative literature, demography, ecology, European history, geography, immunology, and Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian, and Russian languages and literature.

Whatever the explanation for poor educational performance among blacks, household income is not it. I myself once heard a colleague claim at an academic symposium that lower standardized test scores among blacks were attributable to their disadvantaged backgrounds and in particular to their inability to pay for the kind of test preparation programs that were available to wealthier students. In response, a student in the audience innocently observed that it cost nothing to go to the local library and check out a book on SAT preparation. (No one knew what to say to that.)

In any event, the fact is that on standardized tests Asians in the lowest tax bracket regularly outperform blacks in the highest tax bracket. The poverty explanation fails.

Likewise for the alleged dearth of opportunities for blacks. San Jose State University’s Shelby Steele writes:

At the university where I currently teach, the dropout rate for blacks is 72 percent, despite the presence of several academic support programs, a counseling center with black counselors, an Afro-American studies department, black faculty, administrators, and staff, a general education curriculum that emphasizes "cultural pluralism," an Educational Opportunities Program, a mentor program, a black faculty and staff association, and an administration and faculty that often announce the need to do more for black students.

Meanwhile, the black establishment has no desire to hear from blacks like Professor John McWhorter, who argues that the problem has a cultural dimension, and that academic achievement is simply not emphasized in the black community to the extent that it is among whites and Asians. "Black America," he wrote, "is caught in certain ideological holding patterns that are today much more serious barriers to black well-being than white racism, and constitute nothing less than a continuous, self-sustaining act of self-sabotage…. It has become a keystone of cultural blackness to treat victimhood not as a problem to be solved but as an identity to be nurtured…. [B]lack Americans too often teach one another to conceive of racism not as a scourge on the wane but as an eternal pathology changing only in form and visibility, and always on the verge of getting not better but worse."

Leaving aside the immorality of depriving a white student who never harmed anyone of the university admission that his grades and test scores justify, the effect of affirmative action in higher education has been to place countless blacks into educational environments for which they are not academically prepared. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, the SAT math scores of the black students enrolled place them in the bottom 10 percent of the MIT student body. A private memo circulated at Dartmouth College revealed that candidates admitted under affirmative action had twice the dropout rate of other students. These are students who might have flourished at a second-tier school, but who have now wasted time and money, and suffered terrible blows to their self-esteem, thanks to misguided efforts to help them.

In the early 1990s, Timothy Maguire, a student at Georgetown Law School who worked part time in the admissions office, got into trouble when, without naming any names, he publicized the fact that Georgetown was admitting blacks with dramatically lower test scores than whites. The usual hatred and vindictiveness followed: the Black Law Students Association called for his degree to be withheld, and the law school initiated legal action against him.

But the fact is, Maguire was simply stating what everyone knew who bothered to look. It was public knowledge that the average student at Georgetown at the time had a grade point average of 3.55 and a Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) score of 42 (out of 48). Information readily available from the Law School Admissions Service itself reveals that the number of blacks in the entire country who had at least this average score that year was 17. Given that Georgetown was admitting 70 blacks per year, it is logically inescapable that the vast majority of them must have been admitted with scores lower than the white average. But this is the elephant at the tea party that everyone must pretend not to notice.

Another fashionable cause, particularly during the 1990s and thereafter, involved accusations of discrimination in lending. Since blacks were less likely to receive loans than whites, "civil rights" activists cried discrimination — to them, the only possible explanation for any differences in anything. But disparities in lending are clearly not caused by "racism." For one thing, although whites are more likely than blacks to get a loan, Asians are more likely than whites to get a loan. Are we to conclude that systematic pro-Asian, anti-white bias is at work throughout American society? When net worth and other qualifying factors are figured into the equation, the lending disparity all but disappears. Moreover, if blacks were really being discriminated against and held to a higher standard than whites, they should have a lower default rate — that is, they should default on their loans less frequently than whites. But their default rate is exactly that of whites, which indicates that blacks are indeed being awarded loans on the basis of merit and are not victims of discrimination.

None of this evidence has prevented the "civil rights" establishment from engaging in massive shakedowns of banks that they believe have not granted enough black loans. Threatening to ruin such banks through endless litigation, such activists have managed to extort tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in coerced loans from bank after bank. In Speaking of Liberty, Lew Rockwell tells the story of Bruce Marks, a self-described "urban terrorist" in Boston who headed something called the Union Neighborhood Assistance Corporation, provoked a media circus for two years when Fleet Financial Group planned to purchase the failed Bank of New England. Marks accused Fleet of not making cheap enough credit available to borrowers in some of the worst areas of Boston. Fleet ended up having to fork over $140 million to Marks’ Union, set aside another $7.2 billion in loans for "low-income" borrowers, and earmark another $800 million in various programs for "inner-city borrowers." Shortly thereafter, Fleet was forced to lay off 3,000 workers and reduce its operating expenditures by $300 million.

This is what all businesses have come to endure since the passage of the 1964 Act. As Rockwell explains,

Small companies routinely do anything within the law to avoid advertising for new positions. Why? Government at all levels now sends out testers to entrap businesses in the crime of hiring the most qualified person for a job. Pity the poor real estate agent and the owner of rental units, who walk the civil rights minefield every day. If any of these people demonstrate more loyalty to the customer than to the government, they risk bringing their businesses to financial ruin.

One of the best-known recent cases, because of the enormous payout it provoked (an amazing $54 million), involved Denny’s restaurant. Two class-action suits alleging "discrimination" were filed in the 1990s against Flagship, Denny’s parent company. People were encouraged to sign up as plaintiffs in hopes of getting a share of the loot; thousands did. The media focused on what were thought to be the two worst cases of Denny’s misbehavior. In one case, a federal judge said he had to wait for a table and that other restaurant guests chanted racial slurs in his direction. In another case, six Secret Service agents, who were in Annapolis to provide security for a speech by President Bill Clinton, claimed that they received their food late, and that the waitress rolled her eyes at one of them after he yelled at her.

Terrified of the kangaroo proceeding that is all too typical in discrimination cases, Denny’s settled. "As part of the settlement," writes Rockwell, "Denny’s had to hire a full-time civil rights monitor, introduce a system of private spies to ferret out any internal u2018discrimination,’ run re-education programs for all nonminority employees, turn over a set number of franchises to minorities for free, and put a hostile person on its board of directors. As part of the same suit, the NAACP pressured Denny’s to spend at least $1 billion to find and hire minority managers and turn over restaurants to them."

Oh, and the Oakland law firm that handled the larger of the two suits made a cool $8.7 million. But repeat after me: lawyers support antidiscrimination law out of a pure and pristine passion for justice.

Here, then, is the beginning of a refutation of the standard narrative about discrimination. The civil rights chapter of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History tells the rest of the story.

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is the author of The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia) and the forthcoming The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (Lexington). The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is his most recent book.

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