Discrimination, Disparities, and Dr. Sowell

Why do SJWs believe the most corrosive nonsense?

Dr. Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, Basic Books 2019, New York City, 272 pp., $30.00

Dr. Sowell is one of modern America's very best writers at demonstrating the truth of H. L. Mencken’s insight, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  In this book, he targets a growing societal cancer: the “social justice” movement that drives young, hip, and ignorant modern leftists like the new celebrity representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The “social justice” movement rests on three bedrock assumptions:

  1. The “seemingly invincible fallacy” that various groups would be equally successful in the absence of biased treatment by others.
  2. The statistical fallacy that the cause of different degrees of success can be determined based on where the statistics showing unequal outcomes were collected.
  3. The childlike faith that, if “fortunate” people are not completely responsible for their success, the government – politicians, bureaucrats and judges – will produce more efficient and morally better outcomes by intervening.

Let's start with the obvious: Some groups of people enjoy better economic success than others do.  Our “Social Justice Warriors (SJWs)” claim that any measurable difference in the success or failure of any identifiable group is due to prejudice against that group by the largely white male power structure in general and by the “patriarchy” of white men in particular.

In other words, wealthy people - particularly wealthy white males - are rich because the system is rigged in their favor.  Other groups can't succeed because the system is designed to route all the wealth to those in power, so it is up to the government to fix these imbalances by taking from “the rich” and giving to “the poor.”

The Invincible, Unshakable Fallacy

Dr. Sowell shows over and over that this idea of “disparate impact” withstands all evidence to the contrary.  Over the course of the last century, scholars first believed that different degrees of success were due to inherent genetic differences between the races and sexes; then opinion changed.  The current fashion is to assume the exact opposite: that all groups are precisely equal in the genetic components of success, so SJWs blame differences in outcomes on how different groups are treated by society.

This ignores the obvious fact that family customs matter.  By age 3, children of professional parents have heard an average of roughly 500,000 encouraging words and 80,000 discouraging words.  Welfare children have heard 75,000 encouraging words and 200,000 discouraging words.

The 3-year-old children of professionals know twice as many words as welfare children, most of them rather more useful in polite company, and this difference is reflected in their measured IQs regardless of their genetic heritage.  This is supportive evidence for claims that IQ scores and SAT scores don’t measure inherent genetics-based capabilities, but measure what children have already learned instead.

Given that, it is not at all surprising that IQ scores and SAT scores predict success in college quite well.  SAT scores are not evenly distributed in our population – Asians have higher scores than whites, for example.  SJWs argue that these tests are biased because different groups exhibit different average scores, even though Asian families are famous for emphasizing study and doing better in school than whites.

If we assume that these tests really measure what students have learned and not so much their raw brainpower, it’s no surprise that Asians score higher than whites – they study more.  It would be shocking if they hadn't learned more!

So it's not merely rational, but almost painfully obvious that these readily observable different outcomes are due, at least in part, to different family dynamics.  The tests themselves have nothing to do with prejudice for or against Asians or any other group.

Indeed, recent court battles have shown that Asians do so much better than whites that Harvard University invented many subjective criteria such as friendliness to provide a faux justification not admitting nearly as many Asians as their academic qualifications would justify.  This is the very definition of racism, but anti-Asian prejudice doesn't seem to exercise the SJWs.

Dr. Sowell argues that it’s flatly impossible to compare different groups easily, certainly not via a multiple-choice test.  To name simply one reason why, Japanese-Americans average 20 years older than Latino-Americans.  Because their demographic happens to skew older, American workers of Japanese ethnicity have 20 years more work experience than their Latino colleagues.  All over the world, pay tends to rise with experience; it would be astounding if older Japanese didn’t earn more than younger Latinos regardless of IQ, whatever that means.

The Statistical Fallacy

In seeking targets for accusations of racism, SJWs exhibit the unshakable belief that statistical data can be interpreted based on where the data are collected.  This is the assumption behind the theory of “disparate impact.”

SJWs argue that because all groups should enjoy equal outcomes - an unchallenged assumption without any supporting evidence - any difference in outcomes across different groups must be caused by discrimination against that group.  When outcomes differ, it is not necessary to show intent to discriminate, it is only necessary to show that some groups are more successful than other groups.  Any location, occupation, organization, or outcome where different outcomes can be demonstrate must be the source and location of active racism, even in the absence of any evidence of the presence or actions of any actual racists.

For example, a majority of people in American prisons were either raised by one parent or no parent.  People in groups where many children grow up in in single-parent homes have a much greater probability of being jailed than people who grow up where single parents are rare.  It so happens that a far larger proportion of black children grow up in single-parent homes than do white children; the statistics of criminality map closely to this demographic fact, and indeed black people are convicted and imprisoned far out of proportion to their raw numbers in society.

One logical conclusion would be that single- or no-parent families are bad for kids and should be avoided, but the SJWs completely ignore this correlation.  Instead, those who believe in the statistical fallacy or believe that disparate impact is always wrong believe that the problem must lie where the statistics were collected - that is, in the criminal justice system itself.

That is the reasoning behind claims that the American criminal justice system is thoroughly racist; the logic never proceeds beyond that, because it can't.  Given that each and every imprisoned individual has been personally found guilty of committing a crime, the only way for the system to be racist would be if the vast majority of convicted blacks were, in fact, legitimately innocent or that millions of guilty white criminals are allowed to freely walk the streets and continue to commit crimes.  Both these ideas are ridiculous and easily disproven.  Unfortunately, nobody asks the right question and the SJWs aren't interested in the answer should anyone ask.

Proportionally more white children grow up in single parent homes than Asian children, and as one would expect, there are proportionally more whites in prison than Asians.  Is the justice system biased against whites and in favor of Asians?

The idea that all groups should share equally in success is denied throughout history.  The British watchmaking industry was created by Huguenots who fled France during a period of religious persecution and the American piano industry was created by German immigrants.  People who were not members of these groups did not have access to the many skills needed to succeed in these complex disciplines.  The fact that the Germans made better pianos and the Huguenots made better watches had nothing to do with discrimination, natural capabilities, or disparate impact - it simply had to do with growing up in a center of excellence created by happenstance and history.

Dr. Sowell calls this the “invincible fallacy” because SJWs and even the US Supreme Court continue to accept it no matter how many times it is shown to be false.

You Didn’t Build That

Many people expect discussions of social and economic disparities to end with “solutions” – usually something that the government can create, institutionalize, staff and pay for with taxpayers’ money.  Critics of disparities often either explicitly or implicitly call for some kind or approximation of equality.

Nobody wants to admit that when we speak of equality among human beings, we must decide what we mean.  We certainly cannot all sing like Pavarotti or think like Einstein.  Clearly we cannot all be equally capable of doing concrete, measurable things.  If we cannot have quality of capabilities, then we must define equality in some other way.

Many discussions center on “merit,” that is, on whether people get what they “deserve.”  Measuring moral merit is subjective and subject to politics such as Harvard penalizing Asians for not being “friendly enough.”

Our economic system tends to reward people based on their productivity, that is, on how much other people will pay for the goods or services they provide.  Even though productivity is much easier to measure than moral value, productivity and value generated are often missing from discussions of social justice.

For example, a New York Times article began “A Walmart employee earning the company’s median salary of $19,177 would have to work more than a thousand years to earn the $22.2 million that Doug McMillon, the company’s chief executive, was awarded in 2017.”  The idea that Mr. McMillon’s efforts helped Walmart deliver billions of dollars of savings to customers everywhere was not mentioned; the Times even attempted to emotionally manipulate the reader by describing the line employee as "earning" his pay vs the CEO being "awarded" his.

The idea that lower-level employees had a moral claim on more money because the chief executive is paid so much is not new.  As the famed playwright and Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw put it in the early 1900s:

A division in which one woman gets a shilling and another three thousand shillings for an hour of work has no moral sense in it: it is just something that happens, and that ought not to happen.  A child with an interesting face and pretty ways, and some talent for acting, may, by working for the films, earn a hundred times as much as its mother can earn by drudging at an ordinary trade. 

Mr. Shaw explicitly denied that productivity was an acceptable basis for determining income.  The child movie star is paid by a producer who expects to profit when people pay to watch the movie.  The organization, planning, and sustained effort to make the movie happen, or to deliver goods to Walmart customers, is not “just something that happens.”

How can any third party say that Walmart or the movie “ought not to happen?”  Yet our SJWs claim the absolute right to preempt other persons’ decisions in favor of their views of “justice.”

When President Obama told businessmen that “You didn’t build that,” he was expressing his belief that the wealth created by Walmart, Microsoft, Apple, and by all businesses great and small “ought not to happen” as Mr. Shaw had declared so long before.  That was Mr. Obama’s rationale for taxing “the rich” to favor “the poor.”  After all, “the rich” did nothing to earn their wealth, so it was proper for the government to take it.

The pious non-sequitur “You didn’t build that” requires no proof and programs based on it continue regardless of outcome.  Dr. Sowell’s many books and articles have shown that when government interference rises to the level that investors refuse to create new businesses with the accompanying new jobs and products, economic growth becomes economic decline.

This does result in the equality SJWs seek: everyone ends up economically equal in inescapable poverty.  His ample examples and many well-constructed arguments have been ignored in liberal circles.

The Defining Issue

The question of how to distribute goods and services is a major defining issue of our time.  How much should the government take from people who work for a living to give to people who either work less effectively or not at all?  The case for individual freedom to choose was made back in the nineteenth century when John Stuart Mill wrote, “Even if a government were superior in intelligence and knowledge to any single individual in the nation, it must be inferior to all the individuals in the nation taken together.”

Our battles over immigration are an extension of this question.  The “open borders” faction argues that America, as a rich nation, has a moral obligation to provide for any number of illiterate, unqualified people that manage to struggle across our border.

Rather than reasoning from causes such as single-parent homes or poorly-performing schools to results in terms of income in adult life, SJWs reason backward from outcomes to causes.  For example, some people have been said to have been denied “opportunity” or “access” to some benefit because their outcomes have been less favorable, while people who have had more positive outcomes have been called “privileged.”  This argument rests on the invincible fallacy that all groups would enjoy the same levels of achievement if it were not for discrimination against them.

As more and more evidence accumulates which favors Dr. Sowell’s point of view, liberals have had to invent terms such as “unconscious racism,” “hidden bias,” and “microaggression” to explain differences in outcome and justify their desire to control how society’s wealth is distributed.

It’s Class, Not Race

One of liberals’ main claims is that American whites are incurably prejudiced against blacks simply because of their race.  Dr. Sowell marshals ample evidence to show that the problem is behavior, not race.

Although blacks were not allowed to vote in Detroit until the 1880s, by the 1890s they were being elected to statewide office by a predominately white Michigan electorate.  The 1880 census showed many blacks and whites living next door to each other.  Upper class blacks and whites had regular social interactions and their children attended the same schools.

In 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois noted “a growing liberal spirit toward the Negro in Philadelphia” as the community began to “brush away petty hindrances and to soften the harshness of race prejudices.”  During the quarter century after the Civil War, most northern states enacted laws forbidding segregation in public schools.  Dr. Sowell explained it thus:

These were not just coincidental mood swings among white across the North.  The behavior of blacks themselves had changed[emphasis in the original]

In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote, “There is no more clean and orderly community in New York than the new settlement of colored people that is growing up on the East Side from Yorkville to Harlem.”  By the late 19th century, most blacks in New York had been born in New York and had grown up with values and behavior patterns which were similar to the vastly larger white population around them.

Mixing ended with the migration of hundreds of thousands of southern blacks to northern cities, the so-called "Great Migration" in the interwar era.  By 1940, school segregation was more extensive than it had been at any time since reconstruction.  In most cases, this was accomplished by redrawing school district boundaries and by de facto residential segregation.

Surveys in Detroit and Chicago showed that most academic and discipline problems were due to children who had migrated from the south where standards were lower.  The Progressives of that era believed in genetic determinism, so these studies strengthened the views of mostly white officials who were willing to write off the potential of black and other minority children because of their “inherent inferiority.”

When the genetic explanation became discredited after WW II, progressives decided that residential and economic outcomes were caused by segregated neighborhoods and were wrong no matter how strongly people preferred to live among others like themselves.  It became axiomatic in the second half of the twentieth century that unsorting Americans had a high priority, especially in schools, but also in residential neighborhoods.

In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v Ferguson that separate education facilities were permitted as long as black schools were “separate but equal.”  It was widely known that the black schools were grossly unequal.  In 1954, the Court decided in Brown vs Board of Education that separate schools were inherently unequal.

“Inherently unequal” seemed logical, but was incorrect in the particulars.  Before the Court's ruling, the all-black Dunbar High School sent a higher percentage of graduates to college than any white high school in Washington DC.  Its period of academic excellence ended when the District turned it into a neighborhood school to comply with Brown.

With this change, Dunbar could no longer draw highly-motivated black students from all over the district, it could draw only from its ghetto neighborhood.  It quickly became a typical failing ghetto school with serious behavioral problems.

… the crusade to racially integrate public schools, during the decades following the Brown vs Board of Education decision, generated much social turmoil, racial polarization, and bitter backlashes, but no general educational improvement from seating black school children next to white school children.  [emphasis in the original]

Most big-city schools fail to educate low-income students, but like Dunbar High of old, charter schools achieve higher test scores than conventional schools.  Charter schools select randomly from applicants from the same pool of students as the public schools, but the difference is that their parents care enough to enter into the application process.  Self-selection leads to academic success; government-forced mixing has no educational benefit.

Public Housing

The Brown decision also led to efforts to undo self-selected residential segregation.  The rationale was that if black kids would benefit from sitting next to whites in schools, ghetto residents would benefit from being moved to neighborhoods whose residents had sorted themselves away from them.  Contrary to those who attribute ghetto pathologies to external causes in general and white racism in particular, the strongest opposition to resettling welfare people in middle-class neighborhoods comes from black residents.

The Chicago Tribune reported that opposition by working-class blacks “in some cases has been fierce.”  Black homeowners “protested loudly” at public meetings that they “didn’t want ‘those people’ moving into their rejuvenated neighborhoods.”

Relocation programs continue even though studies have shown no discernible economic benefit to ghetto residents who moved into better neighborhoods and that their presence increases crime and lowers property values wherever they are transplanted.  These negative outcomes have not diminished SJW rhetoric in favor of government-forced mixing of groups of people whose cultural traditions are incompatible.

Consider “Mowing Your Lawn & Acting Respectable Is Racist,” which says:

According to this university educator, "white supremacy is the accumulation of these aggressive messages that say 'stay off the grass,' 'mow your lawn,' 'act respectable,' 'pull your pants up'..."

The professor argues that expecting black homeowners or tenants to maintain their lawns is “white supremacy.”  Dr. Sowell argues that the urge to regulate public behavior has nothing to do with race; it’s a matter of preventing behaviors that threaten property values.

He’s right.  Some years back, a white homeowner fell out with his neighbors and stopped mowing his lawn.  His neighbors went to the zoning board after failing to persuade him.  He retaliated by planting wildflowers and claimed that mowing would damage endangered species.  When courts denied that, he restarted the process by photographing threatened creatures and claiming that his lawn was a protected habitat.  It took seven years for his neighbors to get a final court order requiring that he mow, which he did in a few hours.

This neighborhood battle had nothing whatsoever to do with race; it was a matter of homeowners fighting behavior that lowered property values.

Dr. Sowell argues that no multicultural society has ever demonstrated equal outcomes across all groups and that trying to force equality leads to jealously and conflict.  He shows that most animosity toward blacks is because nonblacks can’t tell the difference between middle-class and lower-class blacks.  As a black Chicago moderate put it, “That’s why White America doesn’t want me living next to them because they look at me and figure I’m from a place like public housing.”

Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, said “To seek ‘causes’ of poverty . . . is an intellectual dead end, because poverty has no causes.  Only prosperity has causes.”

As Dr. Sowell has shown, the cause of prosperity is freeing people to fulfill their potential and teaching them as much technical knowledge as possible.  Government must be careful to set rules so that nobody can become wealthy without adding value to society, then sit back and let smart people create as much value as they can.

This benefits everyone.  That’s how we got smartphones and other modern miracles which all groups enjoy.  Government controls advocated by SJWs lead to stagnation.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments

A house on our middle class street was taken over by HUD, and a lower class black family was installed there, with the government picking up the cost for all the repairs and improvements to the house. For eight years we had to call various city offices about their violations, such as putting a huge sign in their front yard advertising child care, or raising puppies and leaving the dogs unattended in their back yard all day to bark incessantly, or leaving their boat parked in front of their house. The wife earned her real estate license and they finally learned how to live in this neighborhood, but it took an enormous effort on our part, first complaining in person and then calling the relevant city office, over and over again, until change was achieved. The man had a nasty habit of telling our neighbors that he had friends with guns, which frightened some of them so much that my husband had a hard time gaining their cooperation. He stood up to this family, and although they resented him, relationships are finally smoothing out. All this from just one HUD house! I shudder to think what it would be like if two or three lower class families moved in.

February 15, 2019 4:04 PM

As usual, Dr. Sowell pretty much hits the ball out of the park. It seems like the message is that the SJW's are at war with effective parenting. And want to give public school educrates an excuse to not teach very well while getting lifetime job tenure. The data is pretty clear...the better the parents, the better the child's outcome. There is no shortcut. Infants are hungary for knowledge and positive parenting. Deny them that, and they fall by the wayside. America's public school system seems to teach PC inspired drivel. That's why our last 4 presidents had superior private secondary school education.
This isn't about race. I have a Jamaican niece, and her 4 year old son is as sharp as any white kid. Why ? Mom spends a lot of time with him and makes sure that the ( private) nursery school is up to par. It isn't hard, just requires some work.

February 15, 2019 10:29 PM

@bsinn - you have a good point. Unfortunately for those of us who work for a living, liberals have convinced their voting base that "work" is a 4-letter word.

February 16, 2019 12:05 AM

I'd love to read the book. The above precis is somewhat at odds with what Dr Sowell has said in his weekly columns. The major part of IQ is heritable. It can be degraded by environment, but never increased. This has been proved over and over by separated twins studies. So forget the thousand-dollar home programs for giving your child a better brain. As long as the mother didn't suffer severe hunger or take drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, the child is born with the best brain it's going to get.

February 16, 2019 1:59 AM

Will, this is a terrific article, thanks so much for it! Shared to FB!
We greatly appreciate the writings of Dr. Sowell!
Thank you again!

April 8, 2019 8:51 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...