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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Diversity, Ignorance, and Stupidity

George Orwell admonished, “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” That’s what I want to do—talk about the obvious.

Law professors, courts, and social scientists have long held that gross statistical disparities between races are evidence of a pattern and practice of discrimination. Behind this vision is the notion that but for discrimination, we’d be distributed proportionately by race across socioeconomic characteristics such as income, education, occupations, and other outcomes.

There is no evidence from anywhere on earth or any time in human history which demonstrates that but for discrimination there would be proportional representation and absence of gross statistical disparities by race, sex, nationality, or any other human characteristic. Nonetheless, much of our thinking, laws, litigation, and public policy are based on proportionality being the norm. Let us acknowledge a few gross disparities and decide whether they represent what lawyers and judges call a “pattern and practice of discrimination,” while at the same time thinking about what corrective action might be taken.

Jews are not even 1 percent of the world’s population and only 3 percent of the U.S. population, but they are 20 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize winners and 39 percent of American Nobel winners. That’s a gross statistical disparity. Is the Nobel committee discriminating in favor of Jews, or are Jews engaging in an educational conspiracy against the rest of us?  By the way, during Germany’s Weimar Republic, Jews were only 1 percent of the German population, but they were 10 percent of the country’s doctors and dentists, 17 percent of its lawyers, and a large percentage of its scientific community. Jews won 27 percent of Nobel Prizes won by Germans.

The National Basketball Association in 2011 had nearly 80 percent black and 17 percent white players. But if that disparity is disconcerting, Asians are only 1 percent. Compounding this racial disparity, the highest-paid NBA players are black, and blacks have won Most Valuable Player 45 of the 57 times it has been awarded. Such a gross disparity works in reverse in the National Hockey League, where less than 3 percent of the players are black. Blacks are 66 percent of NFL and AFL professional football players. Among the 34 percent of other players, there’s not a single Japanese player. But not to worry, according to the Japan Times Online (Jan. 17, 2012), “Dallas Cowboys scout Larry Dixon believes that as the world is getting smaller through globalization, there will one day be a Japanese player in the National Football League—though he can’t guarantee when.”

While black professional baseball players have fallen from 18 percent two decades ago to 8.8 percent today, there are gross disparities in achievement. Four out of the six highest career home-run totals were accumulated by black players, and each of the eight players who stole more than 100 bases in a season was black. Blacks who trace their ancestry to West Africa, including black Americans, hold more than 95 percent of the top times in sprinting.

How does one explain these gross sports disparities?  Do they warrant the attention of the courts?

Other Disparities

There are some other disparities that might bother the diversity people. For example, Asians routinely get the highest scores on the math portion of the SAT, while blacks get the lowest.

Then there are deadly racial/ethnic disparities. Vietnamese American women have an incidence rate of cervical cancer that is five times higher than that of Caucasian women. The rates of liver cancer among Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese populations are two to eleven times higher than that among Caucasians. Tay-Sachs disease is rare among populations other than Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent) and the Cajun population of southern Louisiana. The Pima Indians of Arizona have the highest known diabetes rates in the world.  Prostate cancer is nearly twice as common among black men as it is among white men.

Then there’s the issue of segregation. The New York Times “Room for Debate” section on May 21, 2012, led with, “Jim Crow is dead, segregation lives on. Is it time to bring back busing?” The Civil Rights Project of Harvard University in January 2003 declared that schools are racially segregated and becoming more so, adding, “Civil rights goals have not been accomplished. The country has been going backward toward greater segregation in all parts of the country for more than a decade.”  Six years later, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reported that “schools in the United States are more segregated today than they have been in more than four decades.”

Let’s look at segregation. Casual observation of ice hockey games suggests that blacks’ attendance is by no means proportional to their numbers in the general population. A similar observation can be made about black attendance at operas, dressage performances, and wine tastings. The population statistics of South Dakota, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Wyoming, and Vermont show that not even one percent of their populations are black. On the other hand, in states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, blacks are overrepresented in terms of their percentage in the general population.

Blacks are a bit over 50 percent of the Washington, D.C., population. Reagan National Airport serves the Washington, D.C., area. Like other airports, it has water fountains. At no time has the writer observed anything close to blacks being 50 percent of water fountain users. It is a wild guess, but I speculate that on any day, not more than 10 or 15 percent of the people at water fountains are black. Would anyone suggest that Reagan National Airport water fountains are racially segregated?  Would we declare South Dakota, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Wyoming, and Vermont racially segregated? Are ice hockey games, operas, dressage performances, and wine tastings racially segregated?  Moreover, would anyone propose busing blacks to South Dakota, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and Wyoming and whites from those states to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to achieve racial balance?  What corrective action might be taken to achieve racial integration at ice hockey games, operas, dressage performances, and wine tastings?

A little reflection shows that people give the term “racial segregation” one meaning for water fountains, operas, and ice hockey games, and an entirely different meaning for schools. The sensible test to determine whether Reagan National Airport water fountains are segregated is to see whether a black is free to drink at any fountain. If the answer is affirmative, the fountains are not racially segregated even if no blacks drink at the fountains. The identical test should also be used for schools. Namely, if a black student lives within a particular school district, is he free to attend a particular school?  If so, the school is not segregated, even if not a single black attends. When an activity is not racially mixed today, a better term is “racially homogeneous,” which does not mean segregated in the historic usage of the term.

I hope that the people who say schools are segregated won’t make the same claim about water fountains, states, operas, and ice hockey games.

  • Walter Williams served on the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics since 1980. He was the author of more than 150 publications that have appeared in scholarly journals. Learn more about him here.