Inequality, racism, and framing.

Science, technology, and life.
May 4 2009 8:01 AM

Mental Segregation

Inequality, racism, and framing.

(Continued from Page 1)

We shouldn't overstate the case. Genes don't determine everything, and most genes don't vary significantly between populations. But research is constantly finding new gene-trait correlations and group differences. If your faith in equality depends on an ethnically or racially even distribution of all ability-influencing genes, you're in trouble.

That's why the framing question matters. People of your race may be on average faster, smarter, or more volatile than people of my race. But the opposite pattern may turn up if you and I are classified in some other way. My dad was black, my mom was white, I was born in Hawaii, I was raised in a broken home, I grew up in Indonesia, I went to private school, I played basketball, I used drugs, my grades were unspectacular, and I went to Harvard Law. Guess my IQ.

The distribution question doesn't settle the framing question, because race is just one way in which ability can be unevenly distributed. To answer the framing question in the affirmative, you have to show something more. You have to show that classifying and comparing by race, rather than using some other classification system or judging each person as an individual, does more good than harm.

Sailer's argument is that racial classification is natural—that we "can't help but be interested in race" because we tend to define others as in or out of our extended family. I think he's right about that. We're prone to tribalism. But that's not a reason to encourage racial classification. It's a reason to beware it.

Consider Sailer's views on immigration. A few months ago, he wrote:

Typically, the two most important factors influencing the long-term success of an organization are the quantity and quality of people involved. … This is particularly true for a country. Yet there has been barely any discussion in the U.S. prestige press on the implications of the demographic change imposed by immigration. … Is adding 100 million Latinos to the U.S. population a good idea? …
And there has been little change in the racial disparities in crime rates. Racial and ethnic differences of all kinds have been strikingly stable since the 1970s. In particular, the word that best sums up Latino America is inertia. Things just sort of keep on keeping on in the general direction that they were already moving. What we do know is that all of these troubles are exacerbated by the mass immigration of people with low human capital.

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This is what can happen when you constantly look for racial angles in data on crime, IQ, and other measures of the "quality of people." You start aiming policies at ethnic groups. But I don't think this kind of racism is a product of uneven distribution.  It's a product of bad framing.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Surrogate mothers and Big Brother. 2. The mainstreaming of marijuana. 3) Emergency contraception and personal responsibility.)

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