November 15, 2007

Modern Discrimination

By: Robert VerBruggen

It’s an article of faith among many conservatives that pervasive American racism died with Jim Crow. Much of conservative ideology rests on that assumption. If businesses and schools will discriminate against minorities in the absence of a concerted effort to the contrary, who could oppose such an effort? How can you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if The White Man keeps knocking them back down?

The right has had some success with this assertion. Virtually everyone agrees that America has made great strides in racial progress, with a black Secretary of State and a serious black contender for president. A recent Opinion Research Corp. survey found that only 18 percent of whites thought modern racial bias was “very serious” (compared to 49 percent of blacks; 48 percent of whites called it “somewhat serious”). The Left, after the civil rights era made outright discrimination illegal, retreated into allegations of “unconscious” racism.

And so when two new studies found that game officials — umpires in baseball and referees in the NBA — call strikes and fouls differently by skin color, conservatives rushed to denounce the research. Talk radio host Neal Boortz fumed over the baseball study, “Now here’s a shocking statistic. According to the article, ‘It doesn’t happen all the time.’ Oh yeah? Ok then how often does it happen . . . 1% of the time . . . that’s about one pitch per game — enough to Time magazine to run a story titled ‘Are Baseball Umpire [sic] Racist?’ Could we possibly overuse that word just a little more?”

In The American Spectator, Lisa Fabrizio denounced the NBA study as “the usual kind of junk-science that liberals love.” “Phi Beta Cons,” National Review’s college blog, called it “just plain silly,” arguing in part that the NBA’s close monitoring of refs didn’t leave much room for judgment. And criticized the New York Times for even covering the study: “Years after failing to secure Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor the right to golf at Augusta National Golf Club, the Times has now turned to the plight of multimillionaire NBA players who get bad foul calls.”

The problem is this: Not only are the sports studies solid, but they build on a whole body of research. This research indicates conclusively that whites — even those who don’t consider themselves racists — look more positively upon other whites than upon blacks.

In other words, unconscious racism exists, and the liberals aren’t just grasping at straws. This bias has real-world consequences, and conservatives will have to face that fact.

What’s more, a conservative worldview can face that fact. Some conservatives have been doing so for years. Those on the right need to point out discrimination’s many causes, propose alternative policies, and encourage whites to take hard looks at themselves.

First, a look at the evidence. The baseball study’s four authors analyzed more than 2.1 million pitches — three seasons at 150 pitches from each team per game. Boortz has a point that one pitch per game is a minor difference, but the sheer amount of data lets the scholars tease out such subtle relationships. What’s more, the researchers discovered that the more scrutiny an umpire faces, the less likely he is to favor his own race. High game attendance and the presence of the electronic QuesTec ump-monitoring system in some parks mitigated the discrimination. Were the difference not due to racial preference, the umpires would not have altered their behavior like this.

Similarly, in studying the NBA, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers analyzed the association’s box-score data. They compared the refs’ and teams’ racial makeup to the number of foul calls against black and white players.

The most revealing and simple numbers are these: White players averaged 4.954 fouls per 48 minutes played when the majority of refs (two or three out of three) were also white. But when the majority of refs were black, white players got 5.023 fouls per 48 minutes. It’s a small difference — for every 100 fouls a black ref team calls on a white player, a white ref team will call 98.63 — but it can change close games, and it shows that race matters. Either white players foul more in front of black refs, or black and white refs call white fouls at different rates.
There are a few things worth noting here. For one, it’s a good sign that black players didn’t experience the same problem. Majority white ref teams called 4.330 fouls against black players per 48 minutes of play, compared to 4.329 fouls for majority black ref teams. For every 100 fouls a white ref team calls against a black player, a black ref team will call 99.98.

And a keen observer will notice that both white and black refs call more fouls against white players than against black ones (contrary to the New York Times’s assertion that “white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players”). However, that’s not likely due to discrimination; Price and Wolfers note that white players are “taller, heavier, and more likely to play center.” Center is a high-fouling position.

It’s reasonable to argue that two very similar studies can’t prove much. Experts can make mistakes with huge sets of numbers, and even without error these data can, by coincidence or some unrelated factor, show a pattern where there really is none. The NBA even claims its own review found no bias — it keeps more thorough records than Price and Wolfers had, yet it won’t release the data.

But that’s where a whole collection of other studies comes in. One of the most popular among liberal college professors is the implicit association test, or IAT. This task has respondents pair “white” with “good” and “black” with “bad,” or vice versa, and then switch.

Say Jim Smith takes the test, and he’s been randomly selected to pair “white” with “good” first. An image or word flashes on the screen, and he has to push Button A if the person pictured is white or if the word is good (say, “love”). He has to push Button B if the person pictured is black or if the word is bad (say, “hate”). Then the task switches over, and he has to push Button A for good words and black faces.

Many studies’ results: Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of white respondents have an easier time pairing “white” than “black” with “good.” They perform faster and with greater accuracy, and brain scans indicate that black faces engage their fear reflexes. Black respondents tend to split 50-50 between pro-white and pro-black bias. One can take the test at

So whites have a pro-white/anti-black bias, where blacks are pretty neutral as a group — this is consistent with the baseball and NBA studies (the latter of which would suggest the bias is pro-white rather than anti-black, because white and black refs called fouls against black players equally). But can this discrimination make a difference in non-split-second judgments? Does it really injure the average black person? Many researchers have left the lab for the real world to find the answers.

The most disturbing result comes from Devah Pager of Princeton University. In “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” she sent two matched pairs of college students (“testers”) out to apply for entry-level jobs in Milwaukee. In one pair, both students were white; in the other, both students were black. They claimed the same qualifications on their applications (high school diploma, no college, good work history, reliable transportation), except that some copped to felony drug convictions while others didn’t. They set up answering machines at the phone numbers they gave so they could count how many employers called them, and they added in on-the-spot job offers.

Employers called whites with clean records 34 percent of the time. Tack on a conviction, and the number drops to 17 percent. And here’s the kicker: For blacks, the numbers were 14 and 5. Statistically, African descent hurt about as much as a criminal record did.

Ian Ayres conducted a similar study of car salespeople. He found they offered higher starting bids to blacks, and particularly to black men. The race and gender of the salesperson didn’t change things. Ayres’s book Pervasive Prejudice? also demonstrated racial disparities in bail bonding and FCC licensing.

Other research adds to the list — poke holes in any study if you like, but as a whole it is convincing. Regarding mortgage lending, the Urban Institute noted that “[m]inorities were less likely to receive information about loan products, they received less time and information from loan officers, and they were quoted higher interest rates in most of the cities where tests were conducted.” The National Fair Housing Alliance found that real estate agents steer clients by race. Steven Levitt studied policing with John Donohue, and summarized his results that “when police departments hire more White officers, arrests of minorities rise, but not arrests of Whites. The opposite is true when more minority officers are hired.” Et cetera.

All this can certainly shake a conservative’s worldview. Right-wingers have long argued that free markets moot race — discriminating against qualified blacks decreases profits. Even a racist business owner can see the stupidity in that, and neither the NBA nor the MLB liked the publicity the new studies brought.

Even if racist sentiments aren’t dead, many thought, racist actions just don’t make sense. There’s some truth to this. Thomas Sowell once noted that transportation companies lobbied against Jim Crow laws to make money from black customers.
But as we’ve seen, even today, there’s a pervasive bias against blacks in many of life’s spheres. Markets don’t fix everything. As the research comes out, many conservatives are learning to integrate it into their ideologies.

One of the more interesting epiphanies is Steve Sailer’s. He’s an often controversial and (just as often) uniquely insightful journalist/blogger. He wrote on his Web site,

Ayres’ study of price discrimination by car dealers had a big impact on me . . . It is an excellent piece of work. I found it quite disturbing when I first read it in the mid-1990s, and I spent a lot of effort trying to discover a flaw in the methodology to no avail.

At the time, I was a libertarian fellow traveler and had just published a cover story in National Review (“How Jackie Robinson Desegregated America: Competition v. Discrimination”) trumpeting the Milton Friedman-Gary Becker theory that a competitive market would squeeze out racial discrimination because it was irrationally expensive. (I showed how the baseball teams that integrated first, such as the Brooklyn Dodgers, went on to great success . . .)

But then along came Ayres’ study that shows how, in certain circumstances, racial discrimination can prove profitable decade after decade, even in a very free market. That was quite unsettling to me because it showed that the free market wasn’t the cure for all forms of racial discrimination. I hadn’t really thought about the economist’s concept of “statistical discrimination” [i.e., treating someone differently based on the average traits of his race, particularly if race is the only thing one knows about that person] much before, so Ayres’ study was a real eye-opener for me.

That’s one way conservatives can make sense of lingering discrimination: Look closely at why it happens, rather than reflexively attributing the phenomenon to bigotry. Maybe car salesmen offer higher prices for a reason. Perhaps black men tend to enjoy being seen as big spenders (Sailer’s theory — he cites everything from marketing research to rap videos), or perhaps, for whatever reason, they tend to falter at price haggling.

In other words, sometimes people discriminate because it’s smart to, not because they’re hateful. Dinesh D’Souza calls this “rational discrimination,” using as an example the fact that even black cab drivers hesitate to pick up blacks. Sowell noted the phenomenon as well, pointing out that, when a group as a whole lags in work ability, it’s costly for an employer to pick out the good employees.

The latter concedes it’s “bitter medicine to the fully qualified individual to be denied employment because of the racial, ethnic, or other group to which he belongs.” As Pager’s criminal record study shows, it’s quite bitter medicine indeed.

Much discrimination makes sense through this theory. Maybe whites fear blacks because whites see a lot of black criminality, for example. Watch enough TV (or even read statistical reports of racial crime disparities), and it’s only a matter of time before some uncomfortable truths sink in. Thus whites fear blacks in general, even though most blacks are perfectly upstanding citizens — group tendencies beget individual discrimination.

Similarly, maybe real estate agents steer blacks to black neighborhoods because blacks are more likely to buy houses there. In that case discrimination could simply save everyone time, because there’s no point in promoting neighborhoods the client doesn’t want to live in.

Of course, none of this is intended to defend discrimination, only to explain why some of it happens. More on the morality question later.


So the bottom line is that racism still exists, it is pervasive, and, though some of it is rational, it hurts blacks in the real world. From here it seems to follow logically that the government’s nondiscrimination mission is incomplete, and that racial preferences simply counteract this racism.

But there is a case against racial preferences that doesn’t rely on asserting that racism no longer holds people back. Thomas Sowell, in essays including a chapter on the United States in Affirmative Action Around the World, has been making this case for years. With proof of lingering racism piling up, conservatives need to study Sowell’s work closely.

Sowell suggests, basically, that genuine racial differences make “subtle” racism almost impossible to systematically detect, much less eliminate via legislation. What’s more, affirmative action doesn’t help much.

Individuals of all races are morally equal as human beings, but the races are significantly unequal when it comes to average skills in different areas — regardless of whether said inequality is due to culture or genetics. If a city has a large but disproportionately uneducated black population, it’s not the local law firm’s fault if it can’t find a proportionate number of black paralegals.

So without forcing human resources directors to undergo IAT screening (and even that wouldn’t completely solve the problem), there’s no way to tell which businesses and schools discriminate and which simply hire by merit. Both processes can result in disparate outcomes. When the government uses proportional representation as a baseline (assuming, say, that if 30 percent of a community is black, then 30 percent of employees should be), it often punishes innocent businesses, saddling them with the burden of proving their hiring practices are fair. This gives companies a reason to move away from black areas altogether.

That’s also why affirmative action so often mismatches students to colleges — for example, blacks drop out of law schools far more often than do whites. Similarly, some black students, brought to overly demanding institutions by affirmative action, switch to “black studies” majors to make their academic load more manageable. Had they gone to colleges a step or two down the prestige chain, they could have gotten more useful degrees in their original majors. Proportionality comes at the expense of black success.

Perhaps Sowell is most convincing, though, on the very simple point that affirmative action has shown few empirical results. Black education (measured in years of schooling) increased as much before as after affirmative action. Black poverty declined before affirmative action but not much since it — even though wealthy blacks have seen their incomes rise. Government set-aside contracts for minorities typically wind up in rich blacks’ hands.

So not only does affirmative action not dispel white racism (and quite arguably entrenches it through backlash), it doesn’t help the neediest blacks much, either. That’s why conservatives can concede that racism hurts blacks, and yet maintain right-wing positions on racial matters: A problem’s existence does not prove government can help.

Which, of course, isn’t to say there’s nothing the government can do. White racism is but one of the black community’s obstacles, alongside crime, poverty, low-quality education, etc. This isn’t the place to lay out and defend every conservative position on these issues, but it is the place to remind readers that all sorts of non-preference policies affect race.

There are a plethora of conservative ideas that could disproportionately help blacks — controlling crime (through enforcement), reducing poverty (through welfare policies that don’t discourage work), and improving education (through choice), for example. And not to step on a conservative fault line, but libertarians should continue opposing the drug war. It’s not a matter of conservatives throwing up their hands; it’s a matter of shifting the debate from white racism to problems policy can actually help with.

So there’s no reason that recognizing pervasive racism should bring conservatism to its knees. But conservatives, disproportionately, are white, and that means many of the discriminators are likely conservatives themselves. As such, conservatives (and white liberals) should engage in some serious introspection, and encourage their ideological compatriots to do the same. “Rational” and “acceptable” are not always the same thing.

Go back to the IAT, where whites have an easier time pairing “white” with “good.” As noted, many of the biases behind this have statistical merit. But one can recognize that blacks commit more crimes without flat-out connecting blackness with badness. The latter is, indeed, immoral and unfair.
The same goes for business owners making hiring decisions; experience may show that the average white is a better hire than the average black, but that’s no excuse for only interviewing whites. Make the extra effort, even if there’s no way for law enforcement to figure out if you did.

Will encouraging whites to do this ensure they listen? Of course not, and many to most probably won’t. However, the suggestion is more than just the right thing to do. When conservatives insist they oppose the diversity agenda out of principle, not bigotry, a campaign like this — a sincere one — will give them credibility.

Racial differences persist as a fact of life. Americans will never stop noticing them and acting upon them — in that way we will never be truly, statistically colorblind. But good policy can improve life for all Americans, and conservatism has much to offer on that question.

Robert VerBruggen ( is assistant book editor at the Washington Times.