“Discrimination and Disparities” by economist Thomas Sowell is a book about statistics and their explanations. More specifically, it calls into question many of the statistics and narratives common to contemporary discussions about the disparities between different racial demographics.
What is the Cause?
He first addresses the progressive tendency to blame disparity in outcome—be it educational, income differences, or anything else—on racism of some kind. Put another way, without discrimination, all outcomes between racial groups should supposedly be equal.
In response, Sowell suggests that there are so many factors at play in the success of one group over another that it is illogical to hold some poorly-defined ‘discrimination’ culpable. Geography has led to unequal outcomes in the past. Birth order plays an impact. The average age of a demographic is important. Personal decisions and preferences change outcomes. Cultural differences must be taken into account. Whether or not individuals stay married and the presence of print-based texts in the home are foundational. In short, even if there was not an ounce of discrimination in the world, Sowell argues we should still expect inequality.
What’s the Solution?
It’s not the government. In fact, Sowell shows that it’s often government policies that allow discrimination to have an outsized impact.
Take for example the question of criminal background checks. Because hiring a criminal could have a negative impact on a business, owners want to know if their employees have a record. When allowed to run background checks, business owners have a larger base of knowledge and are thus able to make decisions for employment based upon individual merits instead of statistical norms across groups. Conversely, where criminal background checks have been outlawed as a discriminatory hiring practice, the employment of African-Americans has decreased because, without the knowledge about individuals that background checks provide, employers must resort to general statistics, be they fair or not.
Again, in California, rent controls have created a disincentive for the construction of new homes and apartment buildings. During the 1970s, these controls quadrupled the cost of homes in Palo Alto which effectively barred certain areas off to the poor. According to Sowell, “the racial impact of these housing restrictions was more pronounced than many racially explicit restrictions.”
Again and again, it is government policy—more often than not with positive intentions—that enables racist ideologies to impact society. Conversely, the market plays against them. Milton Friedman, an economist and one of Sowell’s mentors, writes that in a market economy, “no one who buys bread knows whether the wheat from which it is made was grown by a Communist or a Republican, by a constitutionalist or a Fascist, or, for that matter by a Negro or a white.”
Due to the impersonal, dispersed nature of a market, discrimination loses power. Sowell provides many examples. In Apartheid South Africa, where it was illegal to hire or rent to blacks in certain situations, many employers and property owners broke the law. To be the first one to do so was to tap into a market that few others had access to. Being unbiased was profitable. Sowell writes “the costs of refusing to hire black workers who would make their business profitable could be considerable,” and so they broke the law and often went against even their own racial biases because of the market.
Again, when buses were segregated, most drivers and companies opted to at first continue allowing anyone to sit anywhere for fear of offending a customer base and losing money. In each case, the market made it unprofitable to discriminate.
Sowell continues on with more and more historical anecdotes and striking statistical analysis. By the end, he shows that, because of the pressure it applies, the market promotes racial equality while government intervention enables or forces businesses to discriminate without consequence.
If there is one sentence that summarizes his book it is this: “the assumption that discriminatory bias can be automatically inferred when there are differences in socioeconomic outcomes—and that the source of that bias can be determined by where the statistics are collected—seems indefensible. Yet that seemingly invincible fallacy guides much of what is said and done in our educational institutions, in the media, and in government.”
Even in his late 80s, Sowell has written and now revised a powerful book. It challenges assumptions and narratives that are considered orthodox and thus, where other books tout redundant generalities, Sowell has created a work that will genuinely advance the discussion forward.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.