Being Careful With Numbers, Words, and Visions: Review of Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities

There is much in Thomas Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities that the seasoned Sowell reader will find familiar. Nonetheless, Sowell brings new insights and a clear perspective to a pressing issue. I snatched up Discrimination and Disparities when it first appeared in 2018, and this past Spring I led a couple of students through an independent study based on the 2019 “Revised and Enlarged” Edition.

Throughout the book, Sowell evaluates what he calls “the invincible fallacy.” He starts his preface by pointing out “the seemingly invincible fallacy that statistical disparities in socioeconomic outcomes imply either biased treatment of the less fortunate or genetic deficiencies in the less fortunate.” I think it’s actually two fallacies. At one end of the spectrum, we have a kind of cultural or systemic determinism, where the former is deliberate oppression and the latter is unintentional oppression attributable to systems and structures constructed on the basis of racist assumptions. Even if people aren’t consciously and deliberately racist, the invisible dead hand of the past still guides them toward inequities which may be no part of their intention. At the other end of the spectrum, we have racist genetic determinism where one group lags behind another due to genetic deficiencies. 

Sowell, as his longtime readers well know, has little patience for simplistic, monocausal stories and easy answers. In light of their ubiquity in academia and politics, Sowell concentrates on explanations that attribute group differences to bias and discrimination. In addition to the invincible fallacy, he “takes on other widespread fallacies, including a non sequitur underlying the prevailing social vision of our time–namely, that if individual economic benefits are not due solely to individual merit, there is justification for having politicians redistribute those benefits.”

Sowell asks us to distinguish some important questions. First, are differences prima facie evidence of mistreatment? Sowell argues that they are not, and he explains that we have no reason to think they would be given the unimaginable diversity of the human experience. He instances geography, for example, noting the vast majority of tornadoes happen in a small sliver of North America. In a passage reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, he points out that the orientation of the Eurasian landmass means that European and Asian civilizations have been far less isolated from other civilizations than the peoples of Africa and the Americas. 

An issue that should probably get a little more attention is the difference in the pace with which people developed or adopted written languages. Written languages emerged in Western Europe before they emerged in Eastern Europe, and in reading a book of mesoamerican myths with our younger son I have been struck by how frequently the text has pointed out that this or that story was only written down a few hundred years ago by European missionaries. For better or for worse, a written tradition is a much more efficient way to encode and transmit knowledge than is an oral tradition. Sowell queries us not to ask whether or not this should be the case in some cosmic sense. He asks us to accept that it simply is and then asks us to see what that might imply about the group differences we observe today.

Second, there is the question of whether or not invidious, racist discrimination still exists. The answer is an obvious yes, of course, but Sowell asks us to look beyond the simple existence theorem or the mere existence of a residual that cannot be explained by other factors to a more nuanced analysis asking whether or not discrimination–which exists, and which he and I do not deny–is the primary or even an important cause. Armed with a unique historical and international perspective, Sowell concludes that discrimination is an obstacle but not an insurmountable one; moreover, he argues that hopes for improvement cannot be profitably based on the expectation that minorities will somehow suddenly be better treated by oppressive majorities. As he argues with reference, for example, to Jews and Asians, these groups excelled even in the face of discrimination and well before discrimination started to decline. With respect to the black experience, Sowell never tires of pointing out that so many of what appear to be the material gains of the Great Society reflect the continuation of trends that had started decades before.

Background, home life, and culture, according to Sowell, matter a lot. He notes near the beginning of the book that the children of parents with professional occupations hear 2,100 words per hour, the children of working-class parents hear 1,200, and children on welfare hear 600–with the added difference that a greater proportion of the words heard in professional households are encouraging while a greater proportion of the words heard in welfare households are discouraging. Sowell thinks it is basically silly to expect the same outcomes from people raised in such disparate environments; as he writes (p. 18), “The idea that the world would be a level playing field if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts.”

I have come to dislike the “playing field” metaphor. Sowell does not go into as much detail on this as I would like, but one of the most pervasive fallacies in discussions of discrimination and disparities is the zero-sum fallacy, which treats income or output or wealth as a fixed and unchanging pie. The fallacy infers or assumes–even if it does not explicitly state–that the child of a professional household hearing 2,100 words per hour and going on to a successful career as a doctor or lawyer is somehow taking something away from the child of the welfare household who only hears 600 words per hour and ends up in a much lower-status, much lower-income occupation. It has never been clear to me that we should care as much as we do about relative position rather than absolute position and opportunities to improve.

Sowell distinguishes two kinds of discrimination. “Discrimination I” is the kind of discrimination we practice all the time, which is trying to find out whether or not someone can actually do a job–as Sowell puts it, “ability to discern differences in the qualities of people and things.” “Discrimination IA” is discrimination based on information already obtained or less costly to acquire. A band looking for a new guitar player might hold auditions and discriminate against aspirants who only know two or three chords. “Discrimination IB” is discrimination based on information that might be costly to obtain and where, therefore, the discriminator relies on knowledge about group differences. A death metal band looking for a guitar player is likely to advertise in guitar shops and guitar magazines on the reasonable belief that people who frequent guitar shops and who read guitar magazines are more likely to be technically proficient. Meanwhile, the band is not as likely to advertise at a fabric store or quilting convention for what I hope are obvious reasons: there’s probably not a lot of overlap between quilters and death metal enthusiasts.

Discrimination II, meanwhile, is the kind of discrimination that pretty much everyone agrees is immoral. This is purely taste-based discrimination, what Sowell calls “arbitrary aversions or animosities to individuals of a particular race or sex.” Does Discrimination II exist? Undoubtedly. Does it explain the lion’s share of the discrepancies we wish to explain? Sowell grants that there is at least a residual that can be explained by Discrimination II, but he doesn’t think it is the primary cause.

Discrimination and Disparities is a lesson in being careful with numbers, being careful with words, and being careful with visions. Sowell points out that a lot of what he calls elsewhere “A-ha!” statistics–statistics that allegedly show something is amiss–crumble under additional scrutiny. There is a gap between the median incomes of Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans, for example, but as Sowell points out, the median age of Japanese-Americans is 51 while the median age of Mexican-Americans is 27. It should surprise us if there isn’t a large gap between a population centered around those in their peak earning years and a population centered around people who are not that far into their adult lives.

Furthermore, as Sowell argues, a lot of things people attribute to Discrimination II are far more likely the products of Discrimination IB or even Discrimination IA. He offers the example of prices at grocery stores in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. The fact that prices at these stores are higher than prices in the suburbs is sometimes offered as evidence that the poor are being treated unfairly. Sowell argues, however, that there are far more plausible explanations. First, stores that operate on the edge of town like Walmart, Target, and Costco can turn over their inventory more frequently. Second, he points out that it likely costs less to deliver 100 boxes of cereal to Walmart in the suburbs than to deliver ten boxes of cereal to ten different stores in town. Third, high prices reflect a risk premium for doing business in high-crime neighborhoods. As Sowell points out, the critics rarely acknowledge that while urban stores might charge higher prices, they earn lower profits.

Sowell also urges readers to pay particular attention to how people use words like “diversity,” “opportunity,” “access,” and “privilege.” Sowell is incredulous at statements claiming, for example, that members of a persecuted Chinese minority in Malaysia are “privileged” because of what they have achieved. In an effort to explain disproportionate Asian achievement in the United States, Sowell notes that at least one plausible explanation is data suggesting that Asians spend more time studying than others do.

Discrimination and Disparities is another in a long line of Sowell works explaining the importance (and stubbornness) of visions. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell argued that a lot of the intellectuals’ arguments about the “root causes” of crime and other elements of their vision “are not treated as hypotheses to be tested but as axioms to be defended.” He offers, for example, Karl Marx’s use of exploitation in Capital: It “was at no point…treated as a testable hypothesis. Exploitation was instead the foundation assumption on which an elaborate intellectual superstructure was built–and that proved to be a foundation of quicksand” (p. 27). He notes that the “surrogate decision-makers” who wish to organize society “often pay no price for being wrong, no matter how wrong or how catastrophic the consequences for those whose decisions they have preempted.” As opposed to the outcome goals of the aspiring surrogates, Sowell emphasizes processes: “those who are promoting process goals are seeking to have incremental trade-offs made by individuals directly experiencing both the benefits and the costs of their own decisions.” Maybe a better world is out there, but Sowell doubts that it will be discovered or designed by people who have little to no skin in the game.

Like a lot of the other work he has produced in the last several years, Discrimination and Disparities is classic Sowell, and people who are already familiar with his work will find a lot of claims he has made elsewhere. However, these will likely be news to people who haven’t already read Intellectuals and SocietyIntellectuals and Race, or Affirmative Action Around the WorldDiscrimination and Disparities is an important contribution with something to say to everyone who wants to understand the debate.

I am grateful to Andrew Clark and Sydney Rennich, both participants in Samford’s Brock Scholars Program, for hours of discussion of Discrimination and Disparities during our Spring 2021 Oxbridge Tutorial.