EXCUSES EXCUSES: HOW THE RIGHT RATIONALIZES RACIAL INEQUALITY IN AMERICA (PARTS ONE AND TWO)
BY TIM WISE
Whenever I write an article about racism, or give a speech concerning the ongoing reality of discrimination in the labor market, I am assailed by those who refuse to believe what virtually any study done in the past two decades confirms: namely, that people of color are not seeing things, nor crazy when they suggest that racial bias is very much a modern-day phenomenon.
These assaults typically arrive in my e-mail inbox, within hours of an article going out over the web, as if pre-prepared long before, and as if their authors were simply waiting for an opportunity to pick an electronic fight.
Sometimes their retorts are little more than racist rants about how blacks and Latinos are lazy, or how American Indians are all drunk. But oftentimes the denial comes wrapped in far more sophisticated garb than that, occasionally bordering on the scholarly, in fact.
While some of the conservatives who regale me with their rationalizations for racial inequality manage to quote a gaggle of right wing "experts" to help make their case, the claims they forward are hardly the stronger for it.
For example, the argument that racial wage gaps merely reflect different levels of experience and qualifications between whites and blacks is simply untenable, when one examines the data.
Fact is, earnings gaps persist at all levels of education. According to Census data, whites with high school diplomas, college degrees or Master's Degrees all earn approximately twenty percent more than their black counterparts. Even more striking, whites with professional degrees (such as medicine or law) earn, on average, thirty-one percent more than similar blacks and fifty-two percent more than similar Latinos.
Even when levels of work experience are the same between blacks and whites, the racial wage gap remains between 10-20 percent.
Looking at whites and blacks of similar age, doing the same work, earnings gaps remain significant. Among 25-34 year olds, white lawyers, computer programmers, and carpenters earn, on average, about one-fourth more than comparable blacks; white doctors and accountants earn, on average, one-third more than comparable blacks; and even white janitors earn sixteen percent more, on average, than comparable blacks.
Although these gaps do not necessarily reflect overt discrimination by employers – in fact, they mostly reflect the segmented labor market, whereby whites have greater access to more lucrative clients and companies – the effect is the same: whites continue to receive advantages in the labor market over equally qualified blacks.
And contrary to the claims of some, differences in black and white wages are not the result of different cognitive abilities or IQ scores. The results of over thirty studies confirm that test scores and other academic achievement differences can account for no more than three percent of the wage gaps between whites and blacks.
The two most common excuses for racial wage inequity are age and geography: excuses popularized by black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, and repeated ad infinitum by white reactionaries like Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom.
Since blacks are, on average, younger than whites they will earn less, so the argument goes; and since blacks disproportionately live in the South – a lower-wage region of the country – they will earn less, even if there were no racism operating in labor markets.
Regarding age, though the median age among whites is about nine years older than the median for blacks, and although persons who are older typically earn more than those who are younger, this fact does not explain differences between white and black earnings, and even to the extent it is a factor, it cannot be separated from the issue of racism.
First, even when whites and blacks of comparable age are compared, wage gaps remain substantial. Black men with college degrees earn, on average, 20-25 percent less than comparable white men, even when they are the same age.
White families headed by persons of every age group are far better off than comparable blacks, and indeed a black family headed by a 45-54 year old is 3.5 times more likely to be poor than a comparable white family, and twenty percent more likely to be poor than a white family headed by someone who is twenty years younger!
Secondly, the older median age for whites is due to a larger number of elderly citizens, which is the result of longer life expectancy. But of course, life expectancy itself is related to racism, so age gaps between whites and blacks hardly qualify as an independent variable to explain income inequality.
As a number of studies have documented, blacks routinely have less access to high-quality health care, and also suffer from discriminatory treatment at the hands of doctors. Even when health care is available, doctors are less likely to order a full range of diagnostic tests and treatments for black patients than for whites, even when these patients' finances and insurance coverage are comparable to their white counterparts.
Even when comparing blacks and whites of comparable age, sex, severity of disease, geographic location, and other factors that could influence the quality of medical treatment, blacks are sixty percent less likely to receive a coronary angioplasty or bypass surgery to relieve a serious heart condition.
As one study found, doctors presented with identical patient histories and symptoms overwhelmingly refer whites for more advanced treatment. According to the study, which presented doctors with videotaped patient interviews (actually actors trained to pose as patients with identical medical histories and symptoms), doctors were far less likely to refer black women for aggressive treatment of cardiac symptoms than white women.
When asked to give their impression of the actors (whom they believed to be real patients), doctors routinely said they perceived the black "patients" as less intelligent, less likely to follow doctor's recommendations and thus cooperate with a treatment regimen, and more likely to miss appointments: this, despite the fact that the actors had made identical comments and had presented identical symptoms.
So, if whites have a longer life expectancy, and if this is due in part to racially disparate provision of health care, it is absurd to claim that the younger average age of the black community explains racial earnings gaps, independent of racism, since the age gaps and racism are intimately related.
Even racism experienced outside the realm of health care is correlated with negative health outcomes. After all, the biggest killer of African Americans is high blood pressure leading to stroke, heart disease and kidney failure; and high blood pressure has been shown to be associated with experiences with racism.
Additionally, there is a significant reason why median ages for whites and blacks, despite their disparity, would have virtually no actual impact on median wages for either group, and thus would be incapable of explaining racial earnings gaps: namely, the younger median age for blacks is caused by a disproportionate number of youth in the black community relative to whites. But neither the elderly whites who skew white average ages upward, nor black youth who skew black average ages downward, have an effect on median earnings for either group. This should be obvious since neither white elderly or black children are generally in the labor force, and thus are incapable of affecting the earnings of those between the ages of 15-65 who are.
The only real issue of importance in terms of relative white or black ages, and how those might affect earnings, is the relative ages of whites and blacks who are actually in the labor force, or potential labor force, which will generally mean those between 15-65.
If anything, white workers are probably a bit younger on average than black workers, for two reasons. First, white teens are more likely to be working or looking for work thanks to greater job opportunities. Indeed, there is a persistent 15-20 percentage point gap between white and black teen unemployment rates. While whites are only sixty-five percent of persons 15-17, they are seventy-six percent of such persons with a job (thereby affecting wage rates). Likewise, blacks are fifteen percent of 15-17 year olds, but less than eight percent of such persons with a job.
Secondly, blacks are more likely to work longer into their older years, thanks to having less accumulated capital and thus being unable to retire as early as whites. So, if anything, the median age of those in the workforce would likely be higher for blacks than whites, which means that using conservative logic, the older average black workforce should earn more than its younger white counterpart.
According to Census data, 66.5 percent of whites and sixty-six percent of blacks are between the ages of 15-64: the years of typical labor market eligibility; sixteen percent of whites and sixteen percent of blacks are 35-44 and fifteen percent of whites and a little more than twelve percent of blacks are 45-54, the peak earning years for those in the American labor market.
In other words, the median age differences for the cohorts whose potential presence in the labor market might actually affect wages are not capable of explaining the substantial wage differentials between blacks and whites.
Finally, some dismiss claims of discrimination as central to the earnings gap, by claiming that disparities are largely a function of geography. In other words, because blacks are concentrated in the south and because the south is a lower-wage region, naturally blacks will have lower median earnings.
But where blacks live is hardly a variable that is independent of racism: after all, blacks are heavily concentrated in the south due to a history of slavery and sharecropping that was disproportionately concentrated in the southern states. As such, to whatever extent geography plays a role in lower black wages, it is impossible to disentangle this reality from the history of racial oppression.
Secondly, although there are earnings differences between families living in different regions, these differences are far smaller than the observed racial gaps. The region with the least blacks, for example, only outstrips the south in terms of median earnings by about a thousand dollars annually.
This is far below the typical racial gap between white and black families, which is over $15,000 a year.
In truth, black median incomes in every region are lower than median incomes for whites, so that even if one controls for location of residence and only compares like families, racial disparities remain.
As a parent, I have learned how readily children will offer virtually any excuse for their own misbehaviors, some of which can be quite creative, even comical. While such prevarication can be endearing when practiced by a four year old, it becomes quite a bit less amusing when practiced by so-called social scientists out to debunk what all rational persons realize, and what all the best evidence demonstrates: namely, that racism is far from a thing of the past, and that whites continue to receive substantial privileges and preferences in the American labor market.
Tim Wise is the author of two recently published books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press) and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge). His website is www.timwise.org and he can be reached at email@example.com.
You are encouraged to write to Mr. Wise for footnotes to this article.
"It's the crime stupid!"
Thus read the first line of an e-mail I received a few weeks ago.
This particular love note came from someone who had run across an old article of mine in which I had discussed racism in the criminal justice system: specifically the racially disparate rates of incarceration for persons of color, over and above the rates for whites.
In this one sentence, all the weight of white America's racial anxiety and hostility was poured out into my web browser, the implication being that there was no racism in the justice system, but rather, that the position of African Americans within that system was merely a function of disproportionate criminality. If blacks would just straighten up, everything would be fine.
As with white America's denial of racism in labor markets, the refusal to believe that bias plays a role in policing, prosecution or incarceration is commonplace. Although white Americans are more willing to accept the possibility of discrimination in the justice system than in other areas – such as education, housing or employment – still, two-thirds according to one poll insist that blacks and Latinos are treated equally in terms of law enforcement in their communities.
Would that the evidence supported such optimism. Fact is, from the earliest stages of policing to the point of being jailed, evidence of racial bias is clear and overwhelming.
According to a Justice Department report from February 2001, police are more than twice as likely to search vehicles driven by blacks after pulling them over, even though whites, when searched, are more than twice as likely to be in possession of illegal items, such as narcotics. Latino drivers were between 2 and 2.26 times more likely to be personally searched or to have their cars searched by police, even though they are less likely than whites to use drugs and thus possess them at any given moment.
In New York City, stop-and-frisk searches by police highlight the unfair treatment to which people of color are subjected. Even after controlling for differential crime rates and the population demographics of a given neighborhood, black and Latino residents of New York are far more likely to be stopped by police than whites.
In mostly white parts of town, blacks are 2.25 times more likely to be stopped and searched on suspicion of weapons possession and three times more likely on suspicion of having committed a violent crime, relative to their arrest rates for those crimes. In other words, the fact that blacks have higher rates of offending in those categories does not explain the higher stoppage rates. The above-mentioned disproportions reflect the level of unequal treatment that remains after factoring in all the non-racial reasons that could explain searches.
In heavily black parts of town, one would obviously expect most persons stopped by police to be black, as this would merely reflect local population demographics and probable crime rates in the area. But once again, even after controlling for those factors, blacks in mostly African American neighborhoods are still more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped by police on suspicion of weapons possession or the commission of a violent crime.
Perhaps most telling, police appear more likely to stop innocent blacks than whites. For every 4.6 whites stopped in 1997-1998, for example, police were able to make one arrest, meaning that roughly 22 percent of the time their suspicions were justified. Even this is not a very impressive percentage but it is far better than that for blacks. Police had to stop 7.3 blacks before making a single arrest, meaning that only 14 percent of the time was their suspicion justified. In all, whites stopped were more likely to actually be guilty of having committed a crime and yet the NYPD continued to disproportionately stop people of color.
Bias hardly ends at the point of police arrest or harassment, however. Black incarceration has exploded several times over, even while black crime has plummeted in the past twenty years. (And no, this is not because the incarceration itself has caused the black crime rate to plummet: crime has dropped just as much if not more in states with less punitive anti-crime tendencies).
Interestingly, while black and Latino crime, as a share of all crime is hardly different than in 1964, the share of persons incarcerated who are persons of color has risen from one-third to two-thirds in that period, while the share who are white has been cut in half.
Comparing crime data from the FBI (which includes only those crimes reported to law enforcement), with Justice Department data on criminal victimization (culled from victim reports, and which include crimes not reported to police), makes clear that black crime rates cannot explain the overrepresentation of African Americans in the justice system.
Although black crime rates are higher than those for whites (for reasons that studies indicate are due to socioeconomic conditions disproportionately faced by blacks, like crowded housing, extreme poverty, and community disintegration), there is still evidence that blacks are arrested more often, and whites less often, than would be expected based on rates of offending.
In 2001, for example, for all violent crimes, including simple assault, blacks committed twenty-eight percent of the total, according to the Justice Department. Yet, African Americans comprised thirty-four percent of all persons arrested for those crimes that year, meaning that blacks were arrested at a rate that was twenty percent above their rate of offending. Indeed, if blacks and whites had been arrested for these violent crimes at a
rate that was equal to their rate of committing them, tens of thousands fewer blacks, and tens of thousands more whites would have been arrested for violent crime in 2001.
Comparing racial arrest data with racial offending data for 2001 reveals that for every 100 violent crimes committed by blacks, roughly thirty were arrested, while for every 100 violent crimes committed by whites, about 26 were arrested, meaning that white offenders were about fifteen percent more likely to get away with their offenses than black offenders.
In addition to black arrest rates being higher than black offending rates would justify, there is also racial disparity in terms of who gets imprisoned and who doesn't. In New York State, according to one recent study, if blacks arrested were treated the same as whites for the same crimes, with the same priors, in the same jurisdictions, one-third of all blacks in the state sent to jail or prison annually would have been spared such a sentence. This amounts to nearly 4500 blacks sent to jail or prison each year in New York who would not have been incarcerated had they merely been white. In Pennsylvania, even when prior records and severity of a given crime are the same, white male offenders between the ages of 18-29 are thirty-eight percent less likely to be imprisoned than similar black males.
Not only are blacks more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than their crime rates would justify, but whites are much less likely to wind up in prison despite their share of serious crime. More than half of all violent crimes are committed by non-Hispanic whites, but only a quarter of today's prison population is white, according to the Justice Department. Blacks, on the other hand, commit a little more than one-fourth of all violent crime (according to victim recollections), but comprise nearly half the jail and prison population.
Racial bias seems especially evident in the case of juvenile offenders. One study in Florida, for example, found that even when prior records and severity of offense were taken into consideration, equally criminal black and Latino youth were twice as likely to be confined in a juvenile facility or transferred to adult court for more serious disposition. Nationally, black youth are forty-eight times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for a first-time drug offense, even when all factors surrounding the crime are the same.
Bias is especially evident with regard to non-violent, drug related offenses. African Americans, though only thirteen percent of drug users and sixteen percent of dealers, according to federal data, comprise more than a third of all drug arrests, and when convicted of low-level drug dealing, are considerably more likely to be sent to prison and for longer sentences than comparable whites.
Although blacks and Latinos are ninety percent of persons incarcerated nationally for drugs, they represent only twenty-three percent of drug users, according to the most recent federal data. Meanwhile, whites, who are between seventy percent and three-fourths of users, comprise less than ten percent of those incarcerated for drugs.
In all, black drug users are nearly twenty times more likely than anyone else to spend time in prison for their use, and in fifteen states, the rate of black incarceration for drug offenses is anywhere from 20-57 times greater than for whites, despite equal or greater rates of drug law violations by whites. Amazingly, when all other factors surrounding an arrest are the same, black cocaine offenders are twice as likely to be sent to prison and will serve, on average, forty months more than white offenders.
The unequal prosecution and sentencing of drug offenders has been so severe that as many as a half-million blacks may have been imprisoned since the late 1980s, above and beyond the numbers one could have expected based on their rates of drug offenses.
Likewise, whites receive racial privilege in this process, since our own criminality is less likely to result in punishment, or even detection. Examining the magnitude of these privileges, just with regard to the war on drugs is instructive.
In 2000, there were roughly 750,000 arrests for drug possession in the U.S. If arrest rates had mirrored drug usage rates for that year, roughly seventy-six percent of those busted would have been non-Hispanic whites, while 13.5 percent would have been black. This would have translated into roughly 570,000 whites and 100,000 blacks arrested for drug possession that year.
But in truth, the numbers looked nothing like this at all. In 2000, approximately 260,000 African Americans were busted for possession: 2.6 times more than the number of blacks who would have been arrested had arrest rates followed usage rates. Although data indicates that whites were a little over 64 percent of all persons arrested for drugs in 2000, this figure obscures the fact that those whom the government classifies as "Hispanic" are rolled in with whites for the purpose of state level drug arrest figures, meaning that the arrest rate for persons typically viewed as "white" (at least by other whites) is far lower.
Once Hispanic whites are excluded from drug arrest figures for whites as a whole, even using a conservative methodology, there were no more than 325,000 possession arrests for whites in 2000: this represents a quarter-million fewer whites arrested than would have been the case had arrest rates mirrored usage rates.
That's a quarter-million whites able to blaze up or snort coke in their suburban homes, office suites, dorm rooms or fraternity houses, safe and secure in the knowledge that the drug warriors will not likely be dropping by for a visit.
Interestingly, even if whites do get busted, and go to jail for a drug offense, their future prospects will remain far brighter than those for the average black man in America. As one recent study in Milwaukee discovered, when equally qualified white and black men are sent out to look for jobs, and half of each group claim to have served eighteen months in prison for possession of drugs with intent to distribute (while the other half of each group claim to have no criminal record), those whites who claim to have done time are slightly more likely to get a callback for an interview than blacks who claim to be crime-free.
And thus the cycle perpetuates itself, with worse job prospects only increasing the likelihood of criminal behavior, which will then be used to" justify" harsher criminal justice treatment.
While it's true that the left has often made a mess of the case for racism in the justice system - for example, by fuming that blacks are only twelve percent of the population, and yet represent roughly half of all persons incarcerated (a point that means nothing, since incarceration would logically mirror crime rates, not population demographics) - the fact remains that even with regard to actual offending rates, especially for drugs, blacks are over-arrested, over-prosecuted and over-incarcerated.
In other words, it isn't the crime stupid; it's the color.
Tim Wise is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge, 2005). Footnotes for this article can be obtained from the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.timwise.org.