Livestream on our YouTube page

Discrimination and Disparities : Summary and Analysis

Sowell

For the next book in our Gospel & Race Project, I’ve put together a summary and analysis of Discrimination and Disparities by Thomas Sowell. Sowell is a is an American economist, social theorist, and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Sowell is not a Christian and writes from a secular perspective. He is one of the most prolific scholars on the libertarian–conservative end of the spectrum. He has masterfully incorporated aspects of history, economics, and political science in his writings that challenge the typical social narratives and has given us much to think about. Similar to last month’s book from the secular left, I will try and articulate Sowell’s main points in the book and then provide some of the strengths and weaknesses I observed.

Main Points

1. Disparaities Do not Always Mean Discrimination

Large disparities in the economic and other outcomes of individuals has often been the source of much debate and discussion. Sowell begins by setting up the anthesis of his argument that he sets out to critique. On the one hand, he critiques those who believe that disparities in outcomes are a result of genetic differences between people. On the other hand, he critiques the belief that those less fortunate are victims of other people who are more fortunate (p. 1). Sowell argues for a more complex reality in which we must realize that that each endevor may have multiple prerequisites to ensure success. And even if a person has most of the pre-requisites and is short one, may still end up failing in that particular endevor. He says,

Neither in nature nor among human beings are either equal or randomly distributed outcomes automatic. On the contrary, grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, including in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved (p. 18).

He goes on to  give several examples of how all regions in a population never develop equally. Geography is one of the clearest examples of this. For example, most mountain peoples have had nothing resembling equal opportunity, compared to their contemporaries in more favorable geographic settings, even though the cause of their plight was not other human beings but the inherent geographic (p. 21). Sowell argues that we should not expect success to be evenly or randomly distributed among individuals, groups, institutions or nations in endeavors with multiple prerequisites. In other words – disparities are normal and should be expected.

2. Discrimination is Nuanced and Must be Carefully Defined

Sowell argues that racial discrimination can be a factor in determining outcomes, but discrimination must be carefully defined. He distinguishes three different types of discrimination: Discrimination IA, IB, and II. Discrimination IA means judging each person as an individual, regardless of what group that person is part of (p. 30). This is consistent with the biblical ethic of impartiality (Lev. 19:15, Deut. 25:13-16).

Discrimination II means treating people negatively, based on arbitrary aversions or animosities (p. 30). This is how we normally define discrimination and can be defined at the sin of partiality (James 2:1-7).

Discrimination IB means that individuals are judged by empirical evidence on the group they are a part of despite no animosity or aversions against members of particular groups (p. 33). He argues that at times we naturally make decisions through this type of discrimination when the cost of making decisions through IA do not make sense. For example, while most people are not necessarily criminals in high crime neighborhoods, it seems impractical for us to sort through the local population individually (Discrimination IA) to determine our safety. Therefore, more people resort to Discrimination IB by avoiding these neighborhoods even if they do not have any Discrimination II type thoughts toward people in that neighborhood (p. 34). Sowell does admit that this type of discrimination is common in all spheres of life including; employment, housing, neighborhood resourcing etc. While he understands that there might be moral objections to this type of discrimination, he believes that they will eventually be resolved by the higher lever decisions of profit and loss that are made in a competitive market (p. 42). He goes on to give several examples from segregation in America to apartheid in South Africa when market pressures and incentives for profit have historically overcome the the racist and sexist beliefs of business owners. More on this later.

3. Government Intervention Often Leads to Unintended Consequences

Sowell is writing from a libertarian – conservative perspective and makes a case that government intervention, while good intentioned, often leads to negative unintended consequences. For example, he demonstrates empirically how minimum wage laws reduce the employment prospects of inexperienced and unskilled black teenagers (p.55). Similarly, the building restriction laws that were put in place in the 1970s in the name of preserving “open space,” “saving farmland,” “protecting the environment,” “historical preservation,” often led to racially disparate outcomes for homeownership for Blacks (p.56).

Throughout the book, Sowell shares many such examples and concludes the same thing John Stuart Mill did back in the nineteenth century, when he said, “even if a government were superior in intelligence and knowledge to any single individual in the nation, it must be inferior to all the individuals of the nation taken together.” Just like Mill, Sowell sees that the knowledge and understanding required to make complex socio-economic tradeoffs is too vast too me understood will be any individual or a small set of individuals in the government. (p. 211)

4. Process Oriented Goals Are Best for Society

Sowell defines his goals for progress in society as “process oriented goals” in contrast to “outcome oriented goal.” The primary example of the process goal that he promotes throughout the book is “free markets.” In contrast, those with outcome oriented goals, tend to focus on eliminating socioeconomic “gaps” or “disparities” between individuals or groups. Moreover, different kinds of institutions may be more suited to achieving these different kinds of goals. Progress for those with “process goals” is evidenced when incremental trade-offs are made by individuals directly experiencing both the benefits and the costs of their own decisions. In contract, those who are promoting outcome goals are seeking to create certain categorical priorities which are imposed by government compulsion on those who directly experience both the benefits and the costs (p. 209).

Helpful Insights

There are many strengths in this book, let me highlight a few that stuck out to me.

1. Empirical Evidence Matters

Empirical evidence is a key strength on Sowell’s analysis. He is especially apt at unpacking assumptions in statistics that are meant to be consistent with the prevailing social narrative that places the blame for economic disparities at the feet of discrimination alone. Sowell uses statistics, data, and historical analysis to significantly challenge if not overturn this oft accepted interpretation of disparities. As Christians, we must love the truth, because God is truth (John 14:6) and be careful not to have data fit our preconceived notions. This book ought to challenge Christians to deal with the data and determine which policy decisions make best sense to implement and which policies have been implemented with disregard to the data.

2. Simplistic Assessments Can Have Devastating Consequences

In line with the previous point, Sowell rightly shows that a simplistic assessment of the causes of disparities can have devastating consequences. Not only can there be unintended consequences of economic policies, but there can be all sorts of evils that can rise within our heart because of a misdiagnosed cause. While Sowell does not directly use these moral categories, it is easy to see how feelings of envy, hatred, anger could rise within the hearts of the less fortunate, if the sole reason for their circumstances is blamed on the intentional actions of the fortunate or even the unintentional results of systems and institutions. Christians must be careful to both be careful to learn to be content in every circumstance (Phil 4:11-12) while ensuring that our hearts do not grow envious and proud against those that have more than us. In the context of race conversations, we must be careful to determine if indeed particular laws or policies are affection a particular ethnic group negatively before assuming that it does.

3. Black Voices are Not Monolithic

One aspect I appreciate about Sowell is that his voice is a minority in today’s society. Not only from is economic analysis, but from his ethnic perspective. It can be easy for us to speak on behalf of “black people” as if they are a monolithic group with similar experiences and ideas. Sowell helps us see that there are black voices who staunchly reject the prevailing social vision who we need to hear and learn from as well.

4. Free Markets Help Overcome

Sowell does make a good case for how free markets are the best economic system in which people can move up the economic ladder. From a biblical perspective, capitalism is the best system we have that is the fairest, most efficient and one that is most likely to benefit everyone in the long run and reduce poverty across the board since it encourages free trade, entrepreneurship, and minimal government intervention in the market. I think there are many biblical priorities that undergird capitalism – private property, hard work, entrepreneurship, stewardship. Where these ideas are commended in the book, we ought to commend them as well.

A Few Criticisms

At the risk of going up against Thomas Sowell, let me share a few weaknesses in the book that stuck out to me from a biblical perspective. Certainly there is room for some level of disagreement here and I welcome your thoughts on it.

1. Free Markets Alone Cannot Help Overcome

While I noted Sowell’s analysis of free markets as a strength in his book, I also think that it is insufficient not only to address economic disparities, but to adress the racial division in America. Sowell gave us examples of free market principles overcoming intentional discrimination because ultimately business oweners make decisions based on profit and loss. But the examples he uses were during segregation and apartheid which were pretty recent when compared to the historical context of slavery. Sowell conveniently ignores the 400 years of slavery in America where free market principles gave way to racist policies and the subjugation of African Americans because of the financial gain that was at stake for White slaveholders. While slavery finally ended and so did segregation and apartheid, it can hardly be said that it was the free market principles of profit and loss that led to emancipation. Are there not moral categories of right and wrong that caused abolitionists and eventually lawmakers to change the laws to address racial discrimination? Sowell barely speaks of moral categories in this book which is one of its major weaknesses. But a secular book likely finds it easier to ground its goals in a nebulous free market than a Creator who is the divine lawgiver and the absolute source of right and wrong.

2. Legacy of Slavery and Segregation is Minimized

Sowell uses stastics to show throughout the book that there are “many complex reasons” for disparities and most of them are hard to determine as solely causative. While he makes a strong case for that, he also seems just as certain that the legacy of slavery is certainly not a contributing factor in mainitaining disparities today. While he does use some statistics to show how blacks experienced better conditions in America prior to the growth of the welfare state, I thought that there were many other current statistics of disparities in income, housing, healthcare that he did not address. Sowell also often used the example of geography to show that it can be a major cause in creating disparate outcomes. But the examples he used were so extreme (e.g. mountain people vs. city people). It would have been helpful to see how he would analyze the reasons economic disparities of two distinct ethnic groups that live in the same geographic location but experience such difference economic conditions. You don’t have to go much further than our segregated city of Dayton to ask these questions and see the reality.

3. Economic Solutions Cannot Solve the Deeper Problems

Sowell does give us some help economic principles, but when it comes to his entire worldview, it cannot address the deeper problems that are causing the ethnic tensions in our country. How does the reality of sin affect this conversation? There are many economic factors that Sowell rightly considers, but what about the heart? While it is easy to say that people should take personal responsibility, he does not (and cannot) talk about what are the root causes that cause the  lack of personal responsibility that leads to disparate outcomes and cause much of the racial hostility today (e.g. guilt, despair, hopelessness, or greed, hate and fear). And if these sins are at work, what are the solutions that not only adress our sins but bring reconciliation between ethnic groups? Absent from his worldview is any concept of grace, forgiveness, or reconciliation. Ultimately it is the economic principles of the free market that in his mind lead to progress. Secular perspectives, like Sowell’s, are unable to grasp human nature in its fullness and be able to rightly assess the problem and provide a robust full orbed solution that the gospel provides. Not taking away from his economic insights - they were excellent! I'd just say that is one layer and this issue is multi-layered and multi-faceted.

Conclusion

This book is an important read on the many sources that bring disparities among different people groups. I loved Sowell’s unrelenting focus on statistics and data to challenge some of the commonly held interpretation of all disparities arise from discrimination. This world is more complex and we need to be careful to look at the data before buying wholesale any particular narrative on disparities. As good as this book was, it only addresses the race issue from an economic perspective and leaves many of the other theological, sociological questions on the table as I highlighted in the section on the weaknesses above. At the end of the day, we can learn much from secular perspectives like Sowell, but we need a robust biblical perspective to address the multi-faceted nature of racial tensisons from a theological, personal, and relational perspective. The focus of our last phase in the Gospel & Race Project will be sharpening our thinking on these issues from a biblical perspective.

What’s Next?

Now that we have spent the last several months considering some of the history of this issue in America as well as some of the secular perspectives on race both from a progressive and conservative perspective, we will finish out the year with considering this issue from a biblical perspective. The first book we will read is, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race which is written by. Daniel Hays and edited by D. A. Carson in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. This book traces the theme of race/ethnicity that runs throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, constantly pointing to the global and multiethnic dimensions inherent in the overarching redemptive plan of God. The next book we will read is, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation written by Mark Vroegop. This book presents lament as a bridge to racial reconciliation which begins with  “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

Next, we will read Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice by Thaddeus Williams. In this book, Williams makes the case that we must be discerning if we are to "truly execute justice" as Scripture commands since not everything called "social justice" today is compatible with a biblical vision of human flourishing. Finally, we will read, The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity by Shai Linne who proposes a new way forward in addressing the critical question of what it means for people of all ethnicities to be the one people of God. And how can Christians of different ethnicities pursue unity in an environment that is so highly charged and full of landmines on all sides?

As far as our Gospe & Race discussions, we can continue to have those if anyone is reading along and interested in interacting on the content of the books or the blogs. Please let me know if you are interested and what particular topics from the book or blogs you would be interested in discussing.

Reflect

  • What were some helpful insights for you from this book?
  • What are areas that you disagreed with in this book?
  • How can you grow in seeing the strengths and weaknesses in secular perspectives?

Pray

  • That we would humbly learn from others with whom we disagree, even secularists
  • That the Lord would help us grow in loving biblical solutions instead of secular solutions