A conversation about race, genes, bias, and fairness.

Science, technology, and life.
May 8 2009 11:56 AM

Inequality Control

A conversation about race, genes, bias, and fairness.

Would you have predicted this? Click image to expand.
Would you have predicted this?

Over the last week and a half, I've been having—and if you're reading along and commenting, you've been indirectly having—a conversation about race with John McWhorter and Steve Sailer. This wasn't an agreed-upon discussion. It just started up, and people joined in, as often happens on the Internet. Yesterday, Noah Millman of The American Scene weighed in. I'm calling this a conversation even though not everyone involved is enamored of, or even talking directly to, everyone else. And there's a good chance we'll drift back into silence at this point, as each of us moves on to other things. But it's worth summarizing a few points we've covered so far.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The conversation started with the release of the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, followed by a New York Times report that focused on the racial angle (" 'No Child' Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap"). The discussion continued with:

1. McWhorter's thoughts on affirmative action, the NAEP report, and my reply to him;

2. My takes on the NAEP report, Sailer, and McWhorter;

3. Sailer's comments on the NAEP report, me, himself, McWhorter, himself again, and McWhorter again; and

4. Millman's take on the whole exchange.

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A few points worth noting:

1. Sailer, the person in this conversation who most vigorously defends categorizing people by race in the course of assessing their worth to society, has offered to give up that practice. In exchange, he wants proponents of affirmative action to give up the converse practice of categorizing people by race in the course of trying to equalize opportunity or outcome. I'm inclined to take this deal. My impression so far is that McWhorter, despite his criticisms of affirmative action, wouldn't. But I'll leave that question to him.

2. McWhorter has conceded that "it is utterly plausible, given indisputable differences between races of other kinds, that intelligence may prove to be one of them." It's important always to underscore that such differences are a matter of averages; nobody in this conversation is saying you can judge an individual by the color of his skin. McWhorter suspects that environmental factors, such as differences in peer groups, may account for racial gaps such as those highlighted by the NAEP report, even where income is ostensibly equal. But he's open to contrary evidence.

3. By the same token, McWhorter asks believers in genetic difference to remain open to complementary or alternative explanations. He writes:

The issue is poverty rather than race, and the cultural baggage it often means kids are bringing to school—which the schools poor black kids attend are less adept at compensating for than those attended by the poor white kids. Plus, poor white kids are more likely to have more fortunate students around them to imitate and learn from. We haven't seen yet whether addressing these things will close the gaps in question—or maybe narrow them to such an extent that whatever gap was left would be too small to interest anyone but obsessives of sinister motive. … I'd much rather see how far we can get with addressing what kind of schools poor kids go to. My money is on poor black kids looking better decade by decade if we do the right things—but that will mean assessing how the kids are doing by race, and publishing the data for all to see. …

That's a pretty compelling argument on every level. It accords each child the dignity of an open life. It also challenges the rest of us to keep paths of opportunity open. Theories of heredity tend to breed, if I may use that word, complacency. And that's a practical as well as moral problem, because each of us is a potential environmental factor in how a child turns out. So maintaining a sense of social responsibility about children "left behind" isn't just a feel-good delusion; it's part of a prescription for raising them to be healthy members of society.

McWhorter's appeal also resonates with an overall pattern in social science. Based on the evidence so far, there's good reason to believe that genes influence everything and exclusively control nothing. Intelligence, in particular, is a field with lots of evidence for heredity but little evidence for the precise impact of any known gene. We're very early in this research. If you start poking around in scholarly debates over IQ and general intelligence, or "g," you start to realize how much the field resembles astronomy or particle physics, with entities and qualities being calculated from complex inferences rather than directly observed. That's not to say inferences and calculations aren't scientific. But we should beware mistaking them for unshakeable facts. This point is very much on my mind because in my initial foray into race and IQ, I wrote this:

On the one hand, the IQ surge is hugely exciting. If it closes the gap to zero, it moots all the putative evidence of genetic barriers to equality. On the other hand, the case for it is as fragile as the case for the Iraq surge. You hope it pans out, but you can't see why it would, given that none of the complicating factors implied by previous data has been adequately explained or taken into account.

Well, guess what? The Iraq surge worked. To quote the old sports cliché: That's why they play the game. The lesson I take from this is that the left should beware fatalism in foreign policy, and the right should beware fatalism in domestic policy. We should do what we can, as McWhorter proposes, and see what happens.

4. This doesn't settle the further question of whether unresolved performance gaps should continue to be framed in racial terms. I'm afraid that racial framing will perpetuate and promote differential treatment of people by race. McWhorter isn't. He points to President Obama's election and Sailer's political impotence. This requires a much longer discussion, but my initial reactions are that 1) Obama got where he is by religiously avoiding racial framing and 2) Sailer's higher-brain parsing of racial data mirrors a broadly shared lower-brain human tendency to classify and prejudge others  by tribe or visible characteristics. But I suspect that some of my disagreement with McWhorter here is temperamental. I tend to fixate on dangers and slippery slopes. He's less fearful. Society probably needs personalities of both kinds.

5. Millman raises a further question: If achievement gaps persist, to what extent should we rethink our current version of meritocracy: choosing leaders and distributing goods "according to a scale in which talent, and particularly talent at passing tests, predominates"? As opposed to, say, taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need? I don't have a ready answer to that. In fact, even if I get my magic wish that race disappears from the conversation, I suspect that the convergence of meritocracy with genetics is leading us inexorably toward eugenics, with is really nothing more than an etymological expression of that convergence. But that's a topic for another day.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Keeping abortion safe, legal, and early. 2. No marijuana taxation without legalization. 3. First they came for the Mexicans.)

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