A Brief Review of Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities

Despite my interest in race, racial injustice, and racial disparities, I’d put off reading any of the work of Dr. Thomas Sowell, a renowned economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute who has written extensively on these questions. My hesitancy stemmed from Sowell’s well-known conservatism (which I share). Because I want to focus on the ideological, philosophical, and theological issues at the heart of questions about race and justice, I avoid addressing empirical concerns that could be interpreted as partisan. However, empirical questions are crucial for understanding policy, so I finally decided to take the plunge and review Sowell’s most recent work Discrimination and Disparities. It was well worth it.

The central target of Sowell’s book is the assumption that “statistical disparities in socioeconomic outcomes imply either biased treatment to the less fortunate or genetic deficiencies in the less fortunate” (p. vii). Sowell aims to show that this “invincible fallacy” is false. In reality, statistical disparities can be produced by any number of causes, which certainly include –but are by no means limited to– discrimination.

In chapter 1, Sowell points out that drastic disparities are not only common, but ought to be expected. For instance, Sowell notes that geographical differences will produce dramatic disparities quite apart from any human intervention: “Coastal peoples around the world have long tended to be more prosperous and more advanced than people of the same race living farther inland, while people living in river valleys have likewise tended to be more prosperous and more advanced than people living up in isolated hills and mountains around the world…Areas that are located both near the sea and in the temperate zones have been found to have 8 percent of the world’s inhabited land area, 23 percent of the world’s population, and 53 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product” (p. 19-20). Sowell lists other factors like transportation costs and climate/soil which likewise affect the prosperity of different societies quite independently of any form of bias or discrimination. The Irish Potato Famine is estimated to have killed 1 million Irishmen and displaced 2 million more. Yet this devastation was not caused by the depravity of Irish culture or by the inherent inferiority of the Irish people (full disclosure: I’m part Irish!) but by a fungus that flourished in Ireland and not in the United States (p. 164-165). Similarly, “In the second half of the twentieth century, with Jews being less than one percent of the world’s population, they received 22 percent of the Nobel prizes in chemistry, 32 percent in medicine, and 32 percent in physics” (p. 11). These examples and many others show that disparities between societies and people groups do not necessarily indicate that something nefarious is occurring.

Even more intriguing were the surprising and dramatic disparities that exist within our current culture on the basis of factors that we rarely consider. Particularly interesting was the influence of birth order: “A study of National Merit Scholarship finalists… found that, among finalists from five-child families, the first-born was the finalist more often than the other four siblings combined” (p. 6). Sowell asks: “If there is not equality of outcomes among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, why should equality of outcomes be expected –or assumed– when conditions are not nearly so comparable?” (p.7).

Similarly, while Sowell acknowledges that “discrimination” can produce disparities, he asks us to be more precise in our language: what exactly do we mean by “discrimination”?

He distinguishes three different types of discrimination: Discrimination IA, IB, and II. Discrimination II is how we normally define “discrimination”: “treating people negatively, based on arbitrary aversions or animosities” (p. 30). On the other hand, Sowell points out that we discriminate in entirely reasonable and necessary ways when we “discern differences in the qualities of people and things, and [choose] accordingly… judging each person as an individual, regardless of what group that person is a part of.” (p. 30). This kind of “discrimination,” which Sowell refers to as Discrimination IA, is simply the kind of impartiality that the Bible commands (Lev. 19:15, Deut. 25:13-16). Lastly, Sowell identifies the murkier Discrimination IB: when “individuals [are] judged by empirical evidence on the group they are a part of [despite no] animosity or aversions against particular groups” (p. 33).

Before we rush to condemn Discrimination IB as immoral, we should recognize that we routinely and almost unavoidably engage in it on a daily basis. For example, if a woman is walking down the street at night and sees a figure approaching, she may cross to the other side if it is a man but not if it is a woman. Is her action is immoral, since she is assessing her danger on the basis of the person’s sex rather than on the basis of their individual character? Do we fault her for making a decision based on a stereotypical, but accurate, belief that men are more violent than women?

Or imagine an employer making a hiring decision. The employer may wish to exclude sex offenders and since men commit sex offenses at roughly 10 times the rate of women, he might discriminate against men by preferring to hire women. Is the employer’s behavior moral? What if the employer runs a day-care center or a nursing home? At what point does his responsibility to protect his clients outweigh his responsibility to treat applicants solely as individuals?

This kind of moral conundrum has real policy implications. For example, “ban the box” laws, which prohibit potential employers from asking applicants if they have a criminal record, were passed with good intentions, aiming to give the formerly incarcerated an opportunity for employment. However, several studies have shown that they result in increased racial discrimination. Why? These studies suggest that when employers are legally prevented from asking about an applicant’s criminal background they discriminate against Blacks out of a desire to avoid hiring the formerly incarcerated, who are disproportionately black. Conversely, when background checks are allowed, racial discrimination drops. Regardless of how we feel morally about such “statistical discrimination,” the policy implications are clear even if they are are counterintuitive: if we want to reduce racial discrimination, we should permit employers to perform criminal background checks.

The use of free markets to discourage discrimination is another of the book’s theme. Sowell points out that the infamous Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which legalized segregation by supporting laws forbidding blacks to ride in white train cars, arose “from the cooperation of the railroads with Homer Plessy, who was challenging these racial segregation laws” (p. 48). “Like municipal transit companies, railroad managements in the South opposed the racial segregation laws” because they realized that creating segregated cars would cut into their profits (p. 48). In the same way, despite apartheid laws in South Africa and plenty of racial animus, “white South African employers in competitive industries often hired more blacks than they were allowed… Apartheid laws also made it illegal for non-whites to live in certain areas… Yet many non-whites in fact lived in these whites-only areas… There was at least one whites-only area in South Africa where non-whites were a majority of the residents.” Sowell remarks dryly: “While racists, by definition, prefer their own race to other races, individual racists –like other people– tend to prefer themselves most of all” (p. 45).

While the book was filled with intriguing observations like these, it had a few shortcomings.

First, Sowell often draws inferences in support of conservative economic positions that seem unwarranted by the evidence. Sowell is extremely skeptical of the ability of government interventions to alleviate social problems and points to numerous occasions where such interventions have either failed to achieve their goals or have made conditions worse. Yet we should be just as careful not to adopt a dogmatic anti-intervention stance as we are not to adopt a dogmatic pro-intervention stance. In both cases, an a priori commitment to a particular approach will exclude careful consideration of the evidence.

A second, related concern is that while Sowell acknowledges that various forms of discrimination (IA, IB, and II) can produce disparities, he spends no time trying to determine their relative contributions. For example, Sowell recognizes that racial hiring disparities can come from a variety of sources: a smaller percentage of Blacks who fulfill the relevant job qualifications (Discrimination IA), statistical discrimination against Blacks due to concerns about criminal history (Discrimination IB), or racial animus (Discrimination II). But how big are each of these factors? Is it a 90%-5%-5% split? Or 30%-40%-30%? Or 10%-20%-70%? In her fair and accessible review of the book, Prof. Jennifer Doleac points out that Sowell interacts very little with the academic literature that addresses this question, which is crucial for policy makers.

That said, I don’t think Doleac’s observation detracts from Sowell’s main thesis: disparity does not necessarily equal discrimination. The degree to which this false assumption is driving modern discussions of injustice merits a clear refutation even apart from determining the relative contribution of various causal factors. In Stamped from the Beginning best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi writes “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large” (p. 11). Through countless examples, Sowell shows that this claim is false. It is driven not by careful analysis but a particular social vision, one that Sowell considers particularly pernicious and dangerous because it misidentifies the cause of disparities and then prescribes solutions that are unlikely to help and –in Sowell’s opinion– very likely to harm.

Disparities and Discrimination is suffused with statistics, data, and historical analysis that challenge the “orthodox” interpretation of disparities as arising from injustice of one kind or another. The main lesson of Sowell’s book is that reality is complex, that there are no magic bullets, and that we should let our policies be driven not by ideology but by data. Those are conclusions that people of all political persuasions should endorse.


Related articles: