Inequality, racism, and framing.

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

Mental Segregation

Inequality, racism, and framing.

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Can achievement gaps be explained by genetics?

People vary in their abilities based in part on genetic differences. Suppose these differences at the individual level sometimes add up to differences in average ability between people of one race and people of another. Should we say so?

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Here are three perspectives on the question. On Wednesday, the New York Times ran the following story:

'No Child' Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap

The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics, according to results of a federal test considered to be the nation's best measure of long-term trends in math and reading proficiency.

On Thursday, I raised a question about the Times story:

Why categorize and measure students by race? Aren't there better ways to organize the data? … [Parts of the test report] organize the data by factors that can help us target and adjust educational policy: kids with low scores, kids in public school, kids in high school, kids whose parents didn't graduate. …  But race? Does that category really help? And what message does it send to kids when headlines assert a persistent "racial gap"?

On Friday, Steve Sailer, the founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute, responded to my question. He argued that I was wrong to propose to "stop counting" scores by race:

The reason people all over the world and of all different ideologies can't help but be interested in race is [that] a racial group is, fundamentally, an extended family. So, race is about who your relatives are, which is an inherently interesting topic.
Saletan has been arguing that we should just group people by looking at one gene at a time. (Of course, on average, individual gene differences will tend to follow racial lines.) But, more fundamentally, what he doesn't get is that racial groups have an existence independent of genetics. They are fundamentally genealogical entities—who begat whom. Unsurprisingly, when you stop and think about it, the genes tag along with the begats.

Sailer, like the Times, is embracing racial averaging of test scores. But unlike the Times, he's doing so in the belief that differences in the resulting averages are in large part genetic. He's arguing not just that some people do better than others based on inherited ability (the genetic question) and that this ability is more prevalent among people of one race than among people of another (the distribution question), but that this is how the data should be aggregated, averaged, and compared (the framing question).

It's important to separate these three questions. We know that genes influence many abilities. We also know that some of these genes vary considerably in prevalence between ethnic groups. One example is the RR variant of ACTN3, a gene that affects fast generation of muscular force and correlates with excellence at speed and power sports. The opposite variant of the gene is called XX. Tests indicate that the ratio of people with RR to people with XX is 1 to 1 among Asians, 2 to 1 among European whites, and more than 4 to 1 among African-Americans.

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.

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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