Posted on November 20, 2020

Does Racism Explain Black Disadvantage?

G. E. Zuriff, Quillette, November 15, 2020

A foundational tenet of the Black Lives Matter and similar racial justice movements is that gaps between blacks and whites on many socio-economic measures are produced primarily by racism. {snip}

The possibility that inequalities might be a result of black culture, historical circumstance, or heritability is dismissed a priori or even ruled out of bounds. For example, research into the genetic basis of racial IQ differences will not be awarded grants from government or foundations, which makes it very difficult to pursue. The only exception to the prohibition on research into the genetic basis for racial disparities is in the medical area, where genetic explanations for racial differences for diseases such as sickle cell anemia are permitted.


The problem with these societal tests is that measurement is extremely difficult or impractical. However, recently psychologists have conducted research programs at the micro-level of individuals, in which African American subjects are individually assessed about their experiences of racism or racial discrimination. {snip}

These studies appear to constitute strong evidence for the popular view that the cause of racial inequality is white racism. In each case, the more racism blacks have experienced, the worse their outcomes compared to those of whites. For example, this year a team of researchers found that racial discrimination experienced by African Americans by age 10 or 11 increases the likelihood of them engaging in illegal behavior and being arrested later in life.

Although many of these studies are well designed, they suffer from common flaws which call their conclusions into question. The most significant of these is the method used to measure racism or discrimination. Generally, this is accomplished by having the participants answer a survey consisting of items which ask about the frequency with which they experience racism. Two surveys typically used in such studies are the Schedule of Racist Events and the Experiences of Discrimination. For example, one item from the former is “How often has someone said something insulting to you just because you are African American?”

Notice that discrimination or racism is not directly or objectively measured by the experimenters. Instead, the subjects are asked for their subjective judgment. Accordingly, the experimenters call their independent variable “perceived discrimination” because it is what their participants perceive or remember rather than what is objectively measured. The problem is we know that often discrimination is in the eye of the beholder. This is especially true in the area of “microaggressions,” where there may be sharp disagreements about whether an aggression has occurred at all. An “insult” is likewise often in the eye of a beholder. {snip}

More seriously, the subject is being asked to infer motivation—was the insult “just because you are an African American?” This calls for a rather sophisticated judgment about the motives of the other party. In addition, when judging if an act is discriminatory, the respondent has to judge if the perpetrator acts differently towards white people. Perhaps the perpetrator insults everyone irrespective of raceIf the respondent has not observed the perpetrator interacting with whites under similar circumstances, it can be difficult to judge if an act is discriminatory against blacks.

Some of the authors of these studies acknowledge this problem but dismiss it. They simply accept whatever their subjects say. {snip} These sentiments are similar to the #MeToo slogan “Believe Women.” The notion that the “oppressed” are more trustworthy than the “oppressors” may make for good politics but it is not good science.


Another important problem with these studies is that they are correlational—that is, they identify correlations between reported perceptions of discrimination and some aspect of black underperformance. They cannot tell us anything definitive about causation. They do not prove that racism causes underperformance because both variables may be caused by some third unidentified variable. Nor do they tell us anything definitive about the direction of causation. Perhaps conventional wisdom has the causal explanation backwards. If African Americans are doing poorly in some aspect of life—be it crime, education, or income—they are faced with a choice about how to understand it. On the one hand, they can accept responsibility and resolve to improve. Alternatively, they can blame the racism of white society. Which of these options sounds more appealing?


To the extent that he comes to accept this narrative, he learns to see racism everywhere to bolster his defenses. The campus buildings are named after slave owners; the college vocabulary is suffused with racist terms like “house master” and “brown bag lunch discussion”; the curriculum is almost entirely based on Western history and culture while African studies are neglected. The more poorly he is doing academically, the more he externalizes and learns to reinterpret both his history as well as his current social interactions to comply with a purported racist narrative. He and thousands of students like him will contribute to studies that find a positive correlation between reported perception of discrimination and poor African American outcomes, but in truth the direction of causation will be from the latter to the former. This possibility helps explain the curious finding that the more black individuals identify with their own oppressed minority group, the more likely they are to perceive discrimination experiences and to be sensitive to racial insults.

{snip} A vicious spiral is established—African American underperformance plus ideology increase the perception of racism which in turns contributes to further under-performance.