This post contains:
- A discussion of some of the ways the media and society discuss complex socioeconomic phenomena such as differences in racial outcomes. I argue that culture is highly underplayed in explaining unequal outcomes across socio-economic indicators. I believe that a failure to acknowledge underlying cultural-behavioral differences between groups invalidates many conclusions which declare differences in outcome to be the results of bias, prejudice, sexism or racism.
- Two short appendixes:
- Some further reading sources with key sections excerpted. These key excerpts might be the most valuable part of this post!
- A brief description of Canadian Black immigration patterns and demographics vs the US just bring in my own personal experience growing up in Toronto.
Intro: Why is this topic interesting to me?
I have thought a lot about why this particular topic interests me, especially as talking about it can get you into some trouble these days. A couple of reasons come to mind:
- Non-rigorous thinking needs to be challenged, even if it touches on ‘uncomfortable’ societal issues.
- This issue seems rife with very poor journalism and statistical reasoning, which coupled with the policy responses that result from this reasoning, may have detrimental effects on society.
- The same errors of statistical thinking which one finds in this topic area are found in thinking about other important social and cultural issues.
- The race and BLM issues of 2020 form a subset of a new societal/corporate/media consensus about what can and cannot be said and thought. This is a dangerous development for society. The extreme media bias in reporting about black societal outcomes, race & police violence, and the BLM protests showed a degree of groupthink in mainstream media that was beyond what many people could have predicted.
- I also discussed this is some depth with Arnold Kling in a podcast interview (transcripts and blog discussion here). Here’s the video which opens directly to the couple minutes we spent discussing the topic.
Here’s a boiled down summary of what I find wrong with how the media and larger society discusses and thinks about disparate outcomes between racial groups, racism, crime, and Black Lives Matter.
- All sub-par Black outcomes are blamed on entirely on racism, with no weight put on culture or personal human agency. This includes things like sub-optimal outcomes in income, employment, educational attainment, lower representation in high-prestige jobs, in the tech sector, on company boards or in elite colleges. This also includes vastly disproportionate crimes levels (both in terms of crimes committed and being the victim of crime) and worse health outcomes including lower life expectancy.
- Note: I am not denying that there IS racism in (in particular against blacks) in our society. Of course there is. Anyone who denies that should be basically be outright dismissed. Racism is evident in both official police practice such as carding and stop and frisk policies, as well as in unofficial police practice such as racist cops and biases or expectations about criminal behavior based on race, as well as racial bias throughout the justice system and in larger societal attitudes towards Black people.
- Any deviation from or questioning the dominant narrative is labelled racist and is essentially “off the table” in most workplaces or social settings. I am actually quite weary to publish this short blog post this on my relatively unread blog for fear it may lead to blowback in my current and future employment prospects.
The problem with the structural racism explanation is that it starts from the unquestioned premise the the social groups being compared possess have identical characteristics. In other words, it refuses to consider that cultural atttitudes and beliefs of given groups actually have an affect on actions and outcomes. This is a violation of pretty basic statistical reasoning, which invalidates a lot of the analysis which concludes differences in outcome are the result of some outside process (in this case racism), rather than differences in the groups themselves.
We all know how important culture is in contributing to socio-economic outcomes. Take for example secular Jews, Chinese immigrants, or even the very high achieving Nigerian immigrant groups to Canada or the US. To what should we attribute their high performance vs other US ethnic groups? Surely there is something about their cultural norms, values & aspirations, their family structures, emphasis on education and careers?
Back to the situation facing Black in the US – just to take one example to show that clearly racism alone is not the cause of sub-optimal outcomes like higher arrest and incarceration rates of African Americans. Who in their right mind believes that 8000+ Black murders per year in the US – 13% of the population committing and being the victims of more than 50% of the country’s murders – is solely caused by the police unfairly profiling and harassing these communities, or that ‘societal racism’ causes drive by shootings? If you drill down to the largely young Black men committing the vast majority of murders, it’s obviously an even much smaller number young males socialized in a “Ghetto” sub-culture that are actually responsible for this incredibly high amount of crime. This example seems to me to be one of the most clear-cut examples of culture in action that we can observe in society, period.
Here’s Harvard University professor, Jamaican cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson describing Black US “inner-city” culture, and the prevalence of small groups of young males who almost solely contribute to extreme crime rates in certain US cities:
We need a more realistic understanding of America’s inner cities. They are socially and culturally heterogeneous, and a great majority of residents are law-abiding, God-fearing and often socially conservative.
According to recent surveys, between 20 and 25 percent of their permanent residents are middle class; roughly 60 percent are solidly working class or working poor who labor incredibly hard, advocate fundamental American values and aspire to the American dream for their children. Their youth share their parents’ values, expend considerable social energy avoiding the violence around them and consume far fewer drugs than their white working- and middle-class counterparts, despite their disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates.”
In all inner-city neighborhoods, however, there is a problem minority that varies between about 12.1 percent (in San Diego, for example) and 28 percent (in Phoenix) that comes largely from the disconnected youth between ages 16 and 24. Most are not in school and are chronically out of work, though their numbers are supplemented by working- and middle-class dropouts. With few skills and a contempt for low-wage jobs, they subsist through the underground economy of illicit trading and crime. Many belong to gangs.
Their street or thug culture is real, with a configuration of norms, values and habits that are, disturbingly, rooted in a ghetto brand of core American mainstream values: hypermasculinity, the aggressive assertion and defense of respect, extreme individualism, materialism and a reverence for the gun, all inflected with a threatening vision of blackness openly embraced as the thug life.
Why am I trying to drive home the cultural cause of crime rates in poor Black areas? Because it drives at the heart of so many of the issues that interact in a complex, dynamic way to continuously propagate many of the challenges faced by a portion of US Blacks, from police reactions when encountering people in high crime areas, to incarceration rates, the state of the Black families, the state of schools in many Black areas, and societal prejudices against Blacks which are reinforced to some degree by the very factors I am mentioning.
Finally, crime is not just the cause of these other challenges, it is also the result of them. That is the nature of dynamic systems: cause and effect interact in an ongoing way, with no clear beginning. By acknowledging this self-reinforcing dynamic and as the strong role of culture in contributing to these outcomes, a much more nuanced discussion can take place than the typical racism monocausal explanations that get pushed down our throats today.
Thanks for reading. And now on to the sources. Enjoy.
Appendix 1: Further Reading
For some deeper reading on culture, racism and African American societal outcomes, I have linked to 4 articles below and pulled out some chunks of text. I highly recommend you at least read the excerpts and think about their implications for the claim that racism is the sole cause of everything bad. Arnold Kling also recently linked to 2 great articles by John McWhorter and Glenn Loury worth checking out.
Walter Williams. Is racism responsible for today’s problems? July 30, 2020
“The pretense is that police conduct stands as the root of black problems. According to the NAACP, from 1882-1968, there were 3,446 black people lynched at the hands of whites. Today, being murdered by whites or policemen should be the least of black worries. In recent times, there is an average of 9,252 black-on-black murders every year. Over the past 35 years, that translates into nearly 324,000 blacks murdered at the hands of other blacks. Only a tiny percentage of blacks are killed by police. For example, in Chicago this year, there were 414 homicides, with a total of 2,078 people shot. So far in 2020, three people have been killed by police and four were shot. Crime is a major problem for many black communities, but how much of it can be attributed to causes such as institutional racism, systemic racism and white privilege?”
Glenn Loury. Racism Is An Empty Thesis. June 11, 2020
“Blacks make up an average of around 40 percent of inmates in prisons and jails, but they make up no more than 15 percent of the population. If you look at the statistics, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that this overrepresentation can be explained by racist prejudices of the police or the courts. Rather, the numbers show that this is due to an overrepresentation of blacks who violate the law.
It’s legitimate to ask why black men commit more crimes than whites. But it is a fact that they commit massively more homicides; almost 50 percent of homicides, while representing maybe 6 percent or 7 percent of the U.S. population. Or consider robbery: many more whites are victimized by blacks than vice versa, speaking in absolute numbers, not per capita.
Part of the reason why the police have had so many difficult encounters with black people is because the crime rate in black areas is much higher. For example: If the police want to arrest a driver in a black neighborhood, they must be prepared for the possibility that the driver might have a gun on him. Statistically speaking, this is generally not the case—but experience has shown the likelihood that such a dangerous situation will arise is higher in black areas.”
Glenn Loury. Race and Equality. July 16, 2020
“People cry, “structural racism.” Is that why the homicide rate is an order of magnitude higher among young black men? They say structural racism. Is that why the SAT test-score gap is as big as it is? They say structural racism. Is that why two in three black American kids are born to women without a husband? Is it all about structural racism? Is everything structural racism? It has become a tautology explaining everything. All racial disparities are due to structural racism, evidently. Covid-19 comes along and there’s a disparity in the health incidence. It’s due to structural racism. They’re naming partners at a New York City law firm and there are few black faces. Structural racism. They’re admitting people to specialized exam schools in New York City and the Asians do better. This has to be structural racism, with a twist—the twist being that this time, the structural racism somehow comes out favoring the Asians.
Structural racism, by contrast, is a bluff. It’s not an engagement with history. It’s a bullying tactic. In effect, it’s telling you to shut up.
Take structural racism’s narrative of incarceration. It’s supposed to be self-evident that if there’s a racial disparity in the incidence of punishment from law-breaking, then the law is illegitimate. Well, an alternative hypothesis is that, for reasons that we could perhaps spend lots of time pursuing, behaviors are different. Behaviors that bear on lawbreaking are different between races, on average. Violence is one behavior, but it’s not the only one I’m talking about.
If structural racism explains everything, then it doesn’t explain anything. There’s lead in the water because the municipality hasn’t been properly maintained; because the tax base is too scant to be able to support the kind of infrastructure investment needed to get decent water delivered to people, and the teachers’ union blocked the effort to try to reform the schools to charter schools, and the local school district is strapped because of the low values of the properties surrounding it, and the state is unwilling to help.
Those are all problems. I agree with you that those are problems, but they are American problems. To construe them as the consequence of something called structural racism, in my opinion, is not only to get causality wrong but, more importantly, to impede the kind of politics that would end up effectively addressing that problem, which would be a working-class politics on behalf of a decent provisioning to Americans, period. I don’t dispute the fact that there’s unequal opportunity in society.”
Orlando Patterson. The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities. May 9, 2015.
“Although the black homicide rate has declined substantially, it still remains catastrophic, with blacks being murdered at eight times the national rate — and, among teens, it has been rising again since 2002.
In tackling the present crisis, it is thus a clear mistake to focus only on police brutality, and it is fatuous to attribute it all to white racism. Black policemen were involved in both the South Carolina and Baltimore killings. Coming from the inner-city majority terrorized by the thug culture minority, they are, sadly, as likely to be brutal in their policing as white officers.”
Appendix 2: Black Canadian history & demographics in comparison with the US
Here are 3 axes of comparison between Canada and the US Black populations that are worth considering. I include them out of personal experience having grown up in Toronto. Key dimensions in the comparison include the history and makeup of the Black groups themselves, cultural attitudes towards minorities/immigrants more generally, and some basic population metrics.
- US society generally and attitudes towards Blacks in the US, versus Canada’s overall acceptance and integration of minorities, at least in very cosmopolitan Canadian cities. As Canadian Blacks live almost exclusively in large cities, that is the relevant place to look in Canada. If you are interested, I have a long blog post about Canadian vs European immigrant assimilation and multi-culturalism here.
- Canadian Blacks are not in any direct way historically related to African Americans. Canadian Blacks consist largely 1st, 2nd and 3rd Caribbean immigrants who started arriving in the 1960s, and more recently, African immigrants. Thus the 200 000+ Blacks in Toronto, for example, are a completely different socio-cultural group than the African Americans just a few hour’s drive away in cities like Detroit, Rochester, New York or Chicago. Whereas African Americans arrived in northern US cities via the Great Migration between 1910-1960 as ‘internal immigrants’ out of the US South, Canada’s Blacks flew over their head’s years later from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. Again, this is somewhat of a simplification, with sizable Caribbean populations also in the US, along with African populations in both. However, the basic truth remains that US Black culture is almost exclusively a product of US slave descendants, whereas Canada’s Black culture is largely the product of Caribbean immigrants assimilating into a North American context.
- The differing histories depicted above result in a number of salient differences between Canadian and US Blacks. Here are a couple interesting facts to drive this home:
- Canadian Blacks are not descendants of Canadian slavery. Canada does not have a ‘significant’ legacy of slavery or groups of descendants of slavery in Canada.
- Canadian Blacks are recent immigrants: 56 per cent of Black Canadians are 1st generation immigrants, 35 per cent are second generation and 9 per cent are third generation or more. These numbers are not far off from Toronto’s overall immigrant numbers (over 50% of Toronto is foreign born).
- Canadian Blacks form a much smaller percent of Canada’s population: ~3% of the population vs 13% of the total US population. While in Toronto they make up about 10% of the population, that is far below the percentages African Americans make up in many US cities and rural areas (e.g. more than 85% of Detroit is Black, 30% of Chicago is Black).