July 26, 2013
A time for modesty
A few days ago we authored an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times regarding fallout from the Trayvon Martin case. In the intervening five days since its publication we have received numerous emails, calls, done media interviews and have read nearly two hundred on-line comments. Most were laudatory, some were nasty and some took issue with our arguments in a civil and rational way.
What has become clear is that, much like a Rorschach test, one will see in the events of the past week what one brings to the issue. That is, those who view the present state of race relations in this country as poor, and far short of where we should be, will interpret virtually everything about the case in light of that world view---Trayvon was racially profiled and “stalked”, the prosecution was botched, the white reaction to the verdict is insensitive, etc. Those who are more sanguine about where the country is in terms of inter-group relations have a very different take on the same set of events.
Obviously, we all have our own prisms that filter how we perceive and interpret issues as laden with policy implications and prescriptions as race, violence, crime rates, etc. The significant challenge for all commentators on the social scene is to recognize the complexity and mystery to so much of human interactions---there are no simple answers or analyses.
In reviewing the various critical communications we have received a common thread emerges---- many critics view virtually all racial disparities in our society as the consequence, directly or indirectly, of discrimination or as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
One correspondent accused us of ignoring and downplaying “the very real evidence about racial disparities in jobs, schools, housing, poverty levels, mortgage lending foreclosures, arrests, convictions, etc.” He cited these data as if the disparities themselves were dispositive evidence of discrimination that needs to be remedied and faulted us for not offering prescriptions that suited him.
Things aren’t always as they seem. What may look self-evident turns out to be far more complicated and nuanced than having a simple causal relation to bigotry and discrimination. Complex issues involving human interactions, socialization, education, socio-economic status etc. aren’t given to clear cut, unambiguous explanations.
Coincidental with our op/ed and the flurry of comments and criticisms, there were several articles this week that pointed out the error of facilely ascribing racial disparities to discrimination without supporting research.
For example, The New York Times published a lengthy article examining the disturbing problem of social mobility in the United States---the challenge of people being able to move out of poverty into the middle class. At first blush it might appear that race is a significant factor in impeding upward mobility given the presence of African Americans in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In fact, the researchers (one of whom is described as being the ‘best academic economist under the age of 40’) found “that education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas” are the key factors. The article noted that “Regions with large black populations had lower mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.” What might seem logical and obvious turns out to be complicated.
A second article this week reported on the “racial wage gap”---the difference in earning between blacks and whites with similar levels of experience and education. The gap is one of the data points that is often cited as evidence of the lingering effects of discrimination, Jim Crow laws, etc. In a counter-intuitive finding the scholars suggest that the gap “is not directly the result of prejudice or, at least, prejudice conventionally defined.”
The cited study found that patterns of interaction, partly shaped by race, are the main cause. When employees in an industry get together informally they share ideas and opportunities---outsiders (minorities in a community who can be black or white depending on the surrounding cohort) tend to have fewer opportunities to interact with similar folks in an informal social setting (“we know that one of the predictors of who you feel comfortable with is whether they are of the same ethnicity”). Another seemingly anomalous conclusion is that the gap increases “by 2.5% for every million person increase in urban population”---the article offers the complex reasons behind this conclusion. The problem does have a racial component, but not one that many lay observers would predict or that seems amenable to governmental intervention.
Disparities in society that break along racial lines are not, ipso facto, evidence of discrimination or the legacy of discrimination. Clearly, many disparities exist that are the result of a complex of causes which may or may not include racial bias and bigotry--- it is simply inaccurate to assume otherwise.
We all would do well to exhibit a little modesty and realize that the world and human interactions are complex, variable and not amenable to single minded answers.