The ex­ter­nal causes of in­equal­ity

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Joe Pet­tit Joe Pet­tit is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity. His email is joseph.pet­tit@mor­gan.edu.

Whether the is­sue is San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick’s na­tional an­them protest, the de­mands of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, or crit­i­cisms of the use of force by po­lice, think­ing clearly about racial jus­tice can be very dif­fi­cult. In par­tic­u­lar, the causes of racial in­equal­ity are com­plex and con­tro­ver­sial.

Many peo­ple now in­sist that much present day racial in­equal­ity is caused by the poor de­ci­sions of in­di­vid­u­als and not by laws and dis­crim­i­na­tion. As a re­sult, they see de­mands for racial jus­tice to be un­nec­es­sary and mis­placed. How­ever, this fo­cus on bad de­ci­sions by in­di­vid­u­als to ex­plain away de­mands for racial jus­tice is mis­taken, and a quick thought ex­per­i­ment can ex­plain why.

Imag­ine there are two towns — Town A and Town B. These towns are iden­ti­cal to each other in ev­ery pos­si­ble re­spect. In both towns, the same num­ber of peo­ple smoke. In both towns, peo­ple get lung dis­ease at an iden­ti­cal rate. Not all of this lung dis­ease is caused by smok­ing, but much of it is.

Now imag­ine that a fac­tory is built up­wind of Town A and that the fac­tory emits large amounts of pol­lu­tion into the air. For 10 years, that pol­lu­tion blows down over Town A, and the res­i­dents breathe it in. Af­ter 10 years, the rate of lung dis­ease is 25 per­cent higher in Town A than in Town B. The only plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the dif­fer­ence in the rate of lung dis­ease is the pres­ence of the fac­tory near Town A.

We can use this thought ex­per­i­ment to think about racial in­equal­ity. In­stead of two towns we can now think of two groups of peo­ple, in prin­ci­ple iden­ti­cal in all rel­e­vant re­spects. If there are no dif­fer­ences in abil­ity or char­ac­ter be­tween these two groups, then the var­i­ous life out­comes for the groups should pro­por­tion­ally be the same.

How­ever, in the United States racial in­equal­ity re­mains mas­sive. In 2013, me­dian house­hold wealth was $134,230 for whites and $11,030 for blacks. The poverty rate for blacks is three times higher than for whites. Black men are six times more likely to be in­car­cer­ated than white men. In 2011, 35 per­cent of white stu­dents in Mary­land passed Ad­vanced Place­ment ex­ams, but only 8 per­cent of black stu­dents did. Seventy per­cent of whites who took AP ex­ams could pass them, but only 28 per­cent of blacks could.

These in­equal­i­ties in out­comes be­tween blacks and whites are just like the dif­fer­ence in lung dis­ease be­tween Town A and Town B. The only plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the dif­fer­ences is ex­ter­nal forces act­ing dif­fer­ently on the two groups, just like the fac­tory pro­duced the dif­fer­ence in rates of lung dis­ease. There are count­less ex­ter­nal forces that ex­plain racial in­equal­ity, in­clud­ing laws that dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm blacks, laws that dis­pro­por­tion­ately ben­e­fit whites, count­less forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of past in­jus­tices on present real­i­ties.

Try­ing to blame racial in­equal­ity on the poor ac­tions of black in­di­vid­u­als is like blam­ing the smok­ers in Town A for the dif­fer­ence in lung dis­ease be­tween the two towns. Smok­ing in both towns causes lung dis­ease. Sim­i­larly, bad life choices cause bad out­comes for both black and white peo­ple. The rel­e­vant ques­tion is what causes the dif­fer­ences in out­comes. For the towns, it is the fac­tory. For blacks and whites it is forces that are not in­trin­sic to ei­ther group act­ing on those groups to the detri­ment of one and to the ben­e­fit of the other.

To be­lieve oth­er­wise is to as­sume a re­la­tion­ship of in­fe­ri­or­ity and su­pe­ri­or­ity be­tween the two groups. If one be­lieves that racial in­equal­ity is not caused by ex­ter­nal forces act­ing on blacks and whites as groups, then the only other op­tion is to be­lieve that it is caused by forces such as char­ac­ter and abil­ity in­ter­nal and in­trin­sic to the groups.

Such think­ing would stig­ma­tize black peo­ple, lead­ing many whites to be sus­pi­cious of blacks as a group (even if they were not sus­pi­cious of select in­di­vid­ual black peo­ple), and lead­ing to high rates of self-doubt among blacks. It would also likely yield dis­pro­por­tion­ate uses of force in law en­force­ment in an ef­fort to con­tain per­ceived black threats.

Noth­ing in sci­ence or com­mon sense jus­ti­fies such think­ing, while end­less ex­am­ples from his­tory jus­tify ex­plain­ing racial in­equal­ity ex­clu­sively in terms of ex­ter­nal forces. We must now com­mit our­selves to the task of cre­at­ing new ex­ter­nal forces and elim­i­nat­ing some ex­ist­ing forces in or­der to rid our­selves that in­equal­ity. Only this way will we elim­i­nate the stigma that per­pet­u­ates racial in­equal­ity.

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