Racism – Culprit or Contributor?

Dave Killion — July 31, 2011

Having read my post on the recent Pew report (Pee-ew!), commentator Kyle offers the following –

I’m not sure why including more economically successful “model minorities” like asians and arab-americans “monkey wrenches” the narrative that blames poor outcomes on race (or racism)… It’s quite possible that racial discrimination negatively impacts different minority groups unequally. Given the significant differences in the historical uses of state and social power for and against the economic development of different groups, it would be surprising if that were not the case. That aside, I’d be curious to hear alternate theories for the income distributions above.”

I’m always glad to have input, because it lets me know where people might misunderstand me. In this case, it appears that when I write that racism is not to blame for unequal economic development amongst different races, I might need to point out that that’s not the same as saying it has no impact whatsoever.

To further clarify matters, the inclusion of Asians and Arab-Americans into comparisons of income distribution monkey wrenches the afore-mentioned narrative because it suggests that racism itself is not a sufficient explanation for the lower incomes of blacks and hispanics. To those who think otherwise, I ask; why do some minority groups earn more than whites? Are whites discriminating in favour of those groups? Or is it actually those minorities keeping whites down some, and blacks and hispanics even more? And if that’s the case, why do those groups switch rankings with whites from time to time?

I’d love to see some responses to these.


kyle says

Thanks for responding to my comment Dave! I’ll break my response into two parts, I think. Firstly, you distinguish between:

A) racism being to blame for unequal economic development amongst different races
B) racism having an impact on unequal economic outcomes

This suggests that you are interpreting (A) as arguing racism is the sole contributing factor to racially disparate economic outcomes, and thus the better performance of Asians relative to whites introduces a monkey wrench into this narrative. I think that (A) as you have interpreted it is a bit of straw man, however – I don’t think anyone would reasonably suggest that racial discrimination is the sole determinant of economic outcomes in America, merely one amongst many, as you concede in accepting (B). Certainly, I only ever interpreted “the narrative that blames poor outcomes on race (or racism)” as (B), not (A).

Similarly, I think arguing that “racism itself is not a sufficient explanation for the lower incomes of blacks and hispanics” is arguing against another straw man – I certainly don’t think racism is a sufficient explanation, merely a significant one. I think the stronger argument to address is to what extent racism and its attendant injustices have played a role in influencing the current income distributions of the United States. If you are going to argue for a historical rather than a patterned theory of justice, as libertarians in Nozick’s tradition would, then this is a vitally important question – at the least, restitutions must be made for unjust uses of state power in the past, or else you have a “garbage in – garbage out” problem. I’m not attributing Nozick’s position to you here, just explaining why I think this is a question that needs to be grappled with from a libertarian perspective.

Secondly, you ask a few questions about current racial disparities in economic outcomes, I assume to tease out issues with (A) outlined above. To respond to these questions, I’ll return to my earlier point regarding “the significant differences in the historical uses of state and social power for and against the economic development of different groups.” My hunch is that minority groups that have equaled or outstripped whites in economic outcomes are those that have largely emigrated to America in the second half of the 20th century, and never faced the kinds of state and social discrimination and oppression that were leveled against blacks and native americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, this doesn’t really explain the position of Hispanics, though that might be explained by the relative poverty of the Hispanic immigrant population compared to say immigrant Asians and Arab-Americans, given the higher levels of illegal immigration from Hispanic countries. Now I’m not sure how much data there is to support my hunches, but I thought since you took the time to answer my comment, I owed you some guesses!

— August 1, 2011

JL says

“Racism – Culprit or Contributor?”

Probably neither.

— August 3, 2011

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