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Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?

This is a response to a thoughtful comment from Vicky to my blog critical of the supposed ubiquity of racism.  This response turned out to be too long for a comment; hence this new blog. (It also made Psychology Today uncomfortable).

Apropos race differences in IQ and SAT: They do exist, both in the US and in comparisons between white Europeans and Africans.  What they mean is much less clear.  Since IQ and SAT predict college performance, we can expect that blacks will on average do worse in college than whites and Asians, and they do.  Consequently, the pernicious “disparate impact” need not (although it may) reflect racial discrimination.

If a phenomenon has more than one possible cause, you cannot just favor one – as British TV person Cathy Newman did repeatedly in her notorious interview with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson.  She kept pulling out “gender discrimination” as the cause for wage disparities and Peterson kept having to repeat his list of possible causes – of which discrimination was only one.  Since there are at least two possible causes for average black-white differences in college performance, it is simply wrong to blame one – racism – exclusively.

I believe you agree, since you refer to “hundreds of variables that could each play a role in explaining why someone of very low SES might fail academically.”  Even Herrnstein and Murray say as much in their much-maligned The Bell Curve.  Nevertheless, the late Stephen Jay Gould falsely accused them of just this crime, writing that “Herrnstein and Murray violate fairness by converting a complex case that can yield only agnosticism into a biased brief for permanent and heritable difference.”  Herrnstein died in 1994, just as the book was published. But the accusation dogs Murray to this day, despite the fact that what they actually said was: “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences.  What might the mix be?  We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (my emphases)” Gould’s baleful influence lives on as their critics continue to misrepresent Herrnstein and Murray’s position.

The genetic component might well be less than they suspected. African immigrants to the US presumably have a smaller admixture of “white” genes than African Americans, descended from slaves – and their masters.  If “white” genes make you smarter than “black” genes, American-born blacks should do better than immigrants. Yet immigrants seem to do better socioeconomically than American-born blacks. There are many possible reasons for this, of course. But it serves to remind us that statistical differences between groups need not reflect genetic effects.

A more worrying issue is the assumption that racism is everywhere.  At one time, a religious nation accepted as axiomatic that “we are all sinners!”  The idea of sin has fallen out of favor in a secular age, but racism has taken its place.   We are all racist, whether we know it or not.  Vicky writes: “we are all implicitly biased against people of color”.

Are we, really? There is a problem is with the concept of implicit bias. It appears to be a “scientifically proven” version of sin.  The problem is: it isn’t scientifically proven at all.  The clever ‘scientific test’ for implicit bias – especially racial bias – has not been, and perhaps cannot be, scientifically validated.  The test is the ‘scientific’ equivalent of telling entrails or reading tea leaves.  (The problem is that you can validate a test for an unconscious process only by showing that it predicts some actual behavior. In other words, to validate implicit bias, you must show that it predicts explicit, overt bias. If there is in fact explicit bias, the test is validated – but then you don’t need it, since you have the actual overt bias. Otherwise, no matter what the test says, you can conclude nothing.)

We have had a black president for two terms; there are more than a hundred black members of congress and many more state and local black elected officials.  Many beloved icons of sports and entertainment are black. The rate of interracial marriage continues to increase.  The racial situation in the US is infinitely better than it was 40 or 50 years ago.  It is time to stop imagining, or at least exaggerating, racial bias when little exists. Let’s pay some attention to more critical problems, like the development character and citizenship in the young, the roles of men and women, the place of marriage in a civilized society, and a dozen others more important than a tiny racial divide which agitation about an imaginary implicit bias serves only to widen.


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