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The external causes of inequality

We can't fall prey to the notion that blacks are to blame for inequality.

Whether the issue is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest, the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, or criticisms of the use of force by police, thinking clearly about racial justice can be very difficult. In particular, the causes of racial inequality are complex and controversial.

Many people now insist that much present day racial inequality is caused by the poor decisions of individuals and not by laws and discrimination. As a result, they see demands for racial justice to be unnecessary and misplaced. However, this focus on bad decisions by individuals to explain away demands for racial justice is mistaken, and a quick thought experiment can explain why.

Imagine there are two towns — Town A and Town B. These towns are identical to each other in every possible respect. In both towns, the same number of people smoke. In both towns, people get lung disease at an identical rate. Not all of this lung disease is caused by smoking, but much of it is.

Now imagine that a factory is built upwind of Town A and that the factory emits large amounts of pollution into the air. For 10 years, that pollution blows down over Town A, and the residents breathe it in. After 10 years, the rate of lung disease is 25 percent higher in Town A than in Town B. The only plausible explanation for the difference in the rate of lung disease is the presence of the factory near Town A.

We can use this thought experiment to think about racial inequality. Instead of two towns we can now think of two groups of people, in principle identical in all relevant respects. If there are no differences in ability or character between these two groups, then the various life outcomes for the groups should proportionally be the same.

However, in the United States racial inequality remains massive. In 2013, median household wealth was $134,230 for whites and $11,030 for blacks. The poverty rate for blacks is three times higher than for whites. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. In 2011, 35 percent of white students in Maryland passed Advanced Placement exams, but only 8 percent of black students did. Seventy percent of whites who took AP exams could pass them, but only 28 percent of blacks could.

These inequalities in outcomes between blacks and whites are just like the difference in lung disease between Town A and Town B. The only plausible explanation for the differences is external forces acting differently on the two groups, just like the factory produced the difference in rates of lung disease. There are countless external forces that explain racial inequality, including laws that disproportionately harm blacks, laws that disproportionately benefit whites, countless forms of discrimination, and the cumulative effect of past injustices on present realities.

Trying to blame racial inequality on the poor actions of black individuals is like blaming the smokers in Town A for the difference in lung disease between the two towns. Smoking in both towns causes lung disease. Similarly, bad life choices cause bad outcomes for both black and white people. The relevant question is what causes the differences in outcomes. For the towns, it is the factory. For blacks and whites it is forces that are not intrinsic to either group acting on those groups to the detriment of one and to the benefit of the other.

To believe otherwise is to assume a relationship of inferiority and superiority between the two groups. If one believes that racial inequality is not caused by external forces acting on blacks and whites as groups, then the only other option is to believe that it is caused by forces such as character and ability internal and intrinsic to the groups.

Such thinking would stigmatize black people, leading many whites to be suspicious of blacks as a group (even if they were not suspicious of select individual black people), and leading to high rates of self-doubt among blacks. It would also likely yield disproportionate uses of force in law enforcement in an effort to contain perceived black threats.

Nothing in science or common sense justifies such thinking, while endless examples from history justify explaining racial inequality exclusively in terms of external forces. We must now commit ourselves to the task of creating new external forces and eliminating some existing forces in order to rid ourselves that inequality. Only this way will we eliminate the stigma that perpetuates racial inequality.

Joe Pettit is an associate professor of religious studies at Morgan State University. His email is joseph.pettit@morgan.edu.

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