Racial Distribution in America

The WSJ today has an article on race in America by Jason Riley with heavy use of quotations from Abigail Thernstrom. It is provocative throughout. I have not read any of Dr. Thernstrom’s books, but I found the following quote interesting:


“I think there’s a running assumption through all of the writing on the left about racial issues that, were it not for racism, you would have random distribution of racial and ethnic groups in education, employment, contracting, elections—whatever you’re looking at. But the notion of random distribution of blacks, Latinos, Jews, Armenians or whomever is absurd. It’s indifferent to the reality of society. That’s just not how people distribute themselves.”


I think that’s about right as a first pass criticism of a lot of what you hear in the public sphere. Though I’m not sure what Thernstrom means by “random distribution.” Perhaps “equal distribution” would be more apt. This, of course, applies to the distribution of men and women as well. As for how “people distribute themselves,” I’m not sure of the answer to that question. If we suppose, first, an absence of racism and, second, an equal probability that minorities and women distribute themselves in any particular way across, say, American firms, it may well be that an “equal distribution” is perfectly reasonable, however unlikely probabilistically. Both assumptions, however, are dubious.


But to piggyback on Dr. Thernstrom’s point, I think one problem that equal rights advocates have is that there is no obvious normative standard against which to judge progress. Is 50% representation by women on the boards of Fortune 500 companies the correct amount? Too much? Too little? I have no idea. Women make up about 50% of the US population, but it isn’t immediately obvious that this implies they should make up roughly half of the population of whatever institution we’re examining. The same is true for minorities. If we want to honor the differences of minorities and women at the macro level, I’m not sure why we expect, or advocate, that these groups make the same educational and occupational decisions as white men. What is the normative basis for this type of advocacy?


Sure, I can understand the elements of power involved—we don’t want white men to be the only ones running businesses or representing us in local, state, and national politics, because “we” are not all white men and there is a normative discourse about the types of values American democracy should stand for and a general feeling of what is equitable when it comes to power distribution. I just think that tacitly implying that proportional minority representation is normative is an oversimplification and actually disenfranchises those that want to make non-normative educational and employment decisions. I’m sure Critical Race Theory has a lot to say on this subject (probably in disagreement with me), but unfortunately I am not familiar enough with the field to speak intelligently.


To be fair, equal rights advocates look at a lot more than simply the proportion of minorities and women in any given setting. They look at public discorse, media representation, personal experience, and historical accretion (to name just a few factors) to determine whether things “look out of whack.” Nonetheless, I have a feeling these broad statistics largely drive the examination of the other factors. So if women did enjoyed equal pay and happened to represent half of any particular US occupation, I think the critics would be less boisterous and fewer in number.


However, this is where I think things get complicated. Minority representation in US universities and occupations most probably influences the factors I mentioned above, which in turn further influence the choices minorities make. So, in fact, these elements are impossible to disentangle. Dr. Thernstrom seems to overlook the fact (in her quote, at least) that the way minorities choose to distribute themselves is itself influenced by the current distribution. Moreover, what constitutes a “choice” gets very sticky. If we momentarily ignore the effects of the structural composition of society and introduce a framework of rational choice, it wouldn’t be too difficult to determine the efficient distribution of minorities across US society. It would be that decision set that is absent of any coercive forces, such as legal preference or economic incentives given by the government. I see this as the classical liberal stance.


However, it is unclear what a neutral legal structure looks like. To have any legal system at all is to preference some at the expense of others. And even if we ignore that problem, we still wouldn’t have things quite right since undoubtedly parents and friends heavily influence how people choose to distribute themselves, by offering advice on the best colleges or the companies with the most generous benefits, for example. Even interactions that are not specifically geared toward such distribution decisions undoubtedly end up affecting them. Surely, growing up in Arizona for one’s entire adolescence, for instance, helps to determine what climate a person likes or dislikes and, thus, how he or she distributes him or herself. Once we add back in any structural elements of society, long histories of slavery and Jim Crow-era regulation, for example, things get even more complicated. It’s clear that what we see as free choice is actually a complex biological system constantly influenced by long-lasting exogenous shocks from the environment around us.


The world, then, is socially constructed (not a new insight by any stretch of the imagination, see Sociology since the field began, for example). And it’s constructed such that we can’t simply ignore the way society is structured or define “free choice” in any meaningful sense. (Indeed, philosophers can’t even agree on its meaning). But this leads me back to my original point. There is no such thing as an “authentic” distribution of any category of persons across any institution. Any distribution is valid in the sense that at any point in time the distribution is the result of the accumulation of the world’s social action. And so again, I don’t know know what a normative distribution looks like, since I don’t know what normative means in this context.


But that doesn’t get us very far. Throwing up your hands and saying, “it’s all relative” is a distasteful, and to some extent, intellectually lazy position to take. To revisit an earlier point, I think equal rights advocates, as well as Critical Race theorists would, and have, advocated for a world without white hegemony. A world in which “whiteness” doesn’t bestow unique privileges and rights beyond those who weren’t granted “whiteness” at birth. I think that’s right. And Dr. Thernstrom, and others, seem to overlook the contributions of Critical Theory, instead adopting their own set of aggregate statistics to show how much progress has been made.


But even when I accept the “white hegemony” argument, which I largely do, I still come up short, because (1) I think a world without such hegemony is very hard to envision (though, again, I’ve read relatively little on the subject, so haven’t been exposed to the full panoply of ideas); and (2) I’m still not sure that this argument ex ante prescribes any particular distribution of minorities across institutions, other than saying that when such a world is achieved we will sufficiently have crossed over into the realm where “free choice” takes over and so whatever distribution arises ex post must be the correct one.


In conclusion, perhaps both sides should stop using aggregate statistics to try to prove one way or the other that the current distribution is either just or unjust, and instead focus on defining normative institutional and societal forms using such tools as Critical Legal Theory as a basis (again, probably already been done). That’s more challenging and more amorphous, and certainly harder to measure, but it is probably more intellectually rigorous across many dimensions and will likely offer an ultimate outcome that is more agreeable to everyone involved…except for White men, of course.


Note: To those with a Critical Studies background I’m sure this post sounds unbelievable naive. So please, inculcate me with your knowledge.