Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part VIII

One of the most essential tools in understanding the nature and dynamics of population groups is the normal distribution, which is popularly referred to as a bell curve. When the statistical distribution of virtually any characteristic, such as height, weight, intelligence and income, is graphically represented it invariably forms the general shape of a bell curve. The rate of outcomes and occurrences, from grades on a math test within a classroom, to the rates of incarceration within a nation, can also be plotted in this fashion. Populations can be grouped, analyzed and compared based an almost endless number of criteria, such as: region, religious affiliation, race, gender, profession, political orientation and even by attitudes towards science fiction. 

When we compare the bell curves of different populations, for almost any given factor, such as years of schooling obtained, we find: 

1) Members of each population group are represented at every point in the graph.

2) There is a tremendous degree of overlap between each population group.

3) There is a much greater degree of diversity within each group, rather than between the group.

4) But, never the less, the shape (distribution of scores) of bell curves are rarely identical, which means that at different points (outcomes) on the graph, some groups are better represented than others.

5) A good many individuals within a group with a lower mean score will still exceed the scores of a segment of the higher scoring group. 

In practical terms, what can this tell us about race and culture?

When we meet an individual, we have absolutely no way of knowing where they fall within a bell curve for any given socioeconomic factor, which I refer to as the: Iron Law Of Individuality. For many factors, the African-American bell curve is skewed to the left, yet the graph clearly demonstrates that there are many African-American individuals who outperform European-American individuals. Hence, it would be irrational and immoral to object to  an African-American (or member of any other group) from moving next door to you, solely based on their ethnicity. And conversely, it is foolish to automatically welcome any individual because of their ethnicity. The only instance in which prejudice is a rational option is if you are in a potentially dangerous situation in which you do not have the luxury to gather information on each stranger. When I walk down the street late at night, I will choose to avoid males over females, young over old and whites over Asian-Americans, because statistically crime rates are lower for the former. 

While a bell curve does not allow us to reasonably predict the nature of an individual, the larger a statistical sample is, the more predictable aggregate outcomes becomes, which I refer to as the Inescapable Law Of Averages. So while we cannot know what a Polish-American, Puerto Rican or Gay neighbor will be like, simply based on their identity, whether we admit it or not, we can make strong predictions on what a Polish, Puerto Rican or Gay neighborhood will be like. From the demographic makeup of a neighborhood, we can make reliable predictions on the level of crime, the quality of schools, the pervasiveness of litter and 101 other socio-economic factors. The exception to this rule is when the higher scoring outliers of a lower performing group congregate in an area, such as Chicago's Chatham Neighborhood, allowing for the establishment of stable, middle class milieu. But, with the end of de jure segregation, many upwardly mobile African-Americans have opted for more integrated neighborhoods, leaving once prosperous enclaves in decline. Given the significant overlap of bell curves, it would appear that the positive and negative outliers of a community have a disproportionate impact on its quality of life. Or, more specifically, in even the worst neighborhoods, the majority of residents are law abiding, yet a relatively small number of criminals can create  a violent, unstable environment, in which few businesses are willing to endure the risk of providing needed goods, services and employment opportunities. 

Most people of good will implicitly accept these principles; far from being hateful or resentful, they celebrate successful minorities that contribute to cultural, economic and political life, yet their actions indicate that they are not optimistic about the impact of demographic changes on their neighborhoods. This is why there is such a clear divergence between popular rhetoric and private choices, in which even the staunchest progressives will pull their children out of a school when it becomes "too diverse". Most educated people realize that the pathology they are fleeing does have historical roots in the terrible discrimination that minorities experienced. But, they do not want to subject their family to needless risk, especially considering that the fate of other individuals is rarely improved through osmosis. Due to the dearth of honest, viable narratives that synthesize these seemingly contradictory sentiments, many Americans experience a form of cognitive dissidence. And by default, they opt for well meaning, but flawed liberals narratives on race and racism that do not articulate their hopes and fears. The result is the silence of some, the insincerity of others and a nation that is none the more integrated. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part VII

In our previous post, we explored the paradox of how on an individual level, culture can be positive, while still leading to negative political and economic outcomes on a group level. Culture clashes are the exception for individuals, but the rule for groups. From personal experience, I can affirm that if you sit an Israeli and a Palestinian together, an Indian and a Pakistani, away from their countrymen, with few exceptions they will get along. The examples we presented were ones of stark incompatibility, such as the clash between secular western and conservative Islamic societies. But, there are many instances of  low level friction, caused by more subtle, cultural incompatibilities that rarely escalates to outright conflict. We hear this in the social and political narratives of different communities, that at times diverge to the point were it is hard to believe that two people are witnessing the same occurrence. Within the United States, this subtle friction is occurring between Anglo-American and Latin-American cultural spheres. This is most apparent to those who follow the polarized debate on immigration. The point is not to determine which narrative is more factually or logically sound, because in personal and political conflict, perception is reality.

Before I continue, I must emphasize: The said cultures are compatible in virtually every aspect, except for some political and civic values and traditions. For this reason, a great many Hispanic-Americans and European-Americans have formed friendships, families, businesses and communities together. And even in the political sphere, there is quite a bit of overlap, with a good many Hispanics supporting traditional American political values, while a growing number of European-Americans are drawn to corporatist and populist visions that are  reminiscent of Latin-American politics. But, never the less, there is evidence of a real divide. The most obvious is the recent presidential election, in which Obama received 71% of the Hispanic Vote, while only 41% of the white vote. Many commentators believe that this is because of the current Republican position on immigration, but a closer look at our electoral history casts doubts on this. In 1986 President Reagan and much of the Republican Party supported the Amnesty of 2.9 million undocumented immigrants, yet in the 1988 presidential election, George H.W. Bush received only 30% of Latino votes. And in spite of the immigration friendly legislation that he enacted during his own presidency, in the 1992 election, George H.W. Bush only received 25% of the Latino vote.

While immigration is important, the two most significant factors that draw many Hispanic-Americans to the left is income and political values. With some exceptions, families of limited means are more likely to support politicians that promise an expended welfare state. But, even among solidly middle class Latinos, there is a strong perchance towards the statist vision of the Democratic Party. Further evidence for this is found in a Survey of Values published by the Pew Center:

66% of Hispanics and only 36% of whites believe that: "The government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt."  

65% of whites and only 49% of Hispanics believe that "When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."

59% of Hispanics and only 22% of whites believe that "We should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment." 

Some right wing alarmists wrongly conclude that in the context of this divide, the growth of the Latino Vote should be conceived as the imposition of alien political values on the United States. It would be far more accurate to characterize it as an infusion of political blood and electoral vigor into the anemic body of the American Left. While the impact of the Hispanic vote in the last presidential election was overstated, it has allowed the Democratic Party to establish a near political monopoly on the once competitive state of California and make inroads into Republican Strongholds. And several moribund labor unions have stated that Latinos are their only hope for survival, with one commentator even declaring "Latino workers are not imbued with the...individualism which has been used against white workers," they "are often involved in institutions with a collective mentality..." It is doubtful that the growth of Latino Populism will translate into greater wealth and influence for poor and working class Hispanics, rather it will serve to empower the mostly white, liberal, political elite, much as it does in Latin-America.

Originally I believed the statist, clientelist streaks in Latin-America to be a more recent phenomena, taking root in the second half of the 20th Century. But, the Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa presents a compelling argument that almost every form of government that Latin-America has known, from right wing military regimes, to progressive reformists and Cuban Marxism, have all been plagued by the Five Original Sins, bequeathed by Spanish Colonial Rule. They are: Corporatism, State Mercantilism, Privilege, Redistribution of Wealth and Political Law. Absent is a strong tradition of Rule of Law and limited government; in its place is the right of politicians to arbitrarily bend or circumvent the law to reward their clients and punish their opponents. When favors and exemptions from the law are granted to a select few, such practices are decried as corrupt, but when they are used to seduce millions of voters, they are celebrated by many as the legitimate spoils of electoral victory.

I believe that one of the reasons why the immigration debate is so contentious is because to a degree, it represents a clash of political cultures. Many Latinos assume that resistance towards amnesty must step from xenophobia, not realizing that many otherwise welcoming Americans view it as an erosion of the rule of law. When individuals hear declarations that Obama should pursue immigration reform, because he owes Latino Voters, they become ill at ease, because these sentiments are at odds with long established political values and traditions. And even supporters of reform are not comfortable with suggestions that President Obama should simply circumvent the legislative process and declare amnesty through executive fiat.We should embrace the strong sense of work, family and friendship that immigrant communities bring, but the last thing we need is the expansion of Latin-American political traditions, for our own leaders and  institutions are already rotten enough.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part VI

Sometimes American Individualism Limits Our View of the World

America Culture has been noted by its admirers and detractors alike to be one of the most individualistic in the world. Since it's inception, this spirit is seen in world of laws, literature and popular culture. We see this is Thomas Jefferson's idealization of the Yeoman Farmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson's verses on self-reliance and non-conformity and in the rugged individualism celebrated in cowboy movies. Almost unique to the world, Americans believed that men could cast off their old national, religious, cultural linguistic, geographic and economic identities and recreate themselves. So, it is quite natural that most Americans can only analyze culture from the lens of individualism. On one hand, this is very positive, because it helps inculcate a spirit of tolerance. On the other hand, it leads many Americans to overlook the fact that culture is not only manifested in individual behavior, but also in the ways in which groups, communities and nations function. The increasingly strong reservations that most people (thankfully) hold against prejudging individuals, makes it quite difficult for them to make an honest, informed assessment of the beliefs and practices that predominate in other cultures.

Because of the dominant narratives on race and culture, few people can wrap their heads around the paradox that one can befriend and admire individuals of certain cultural backgrounds, while still be weary of the group dynamics that are driven by that culture. Having traveled in the middle east and befriended many Arab, Turkish and Persian Muslim, at the risk of overgeneralizing, I can say that on an individual level, they are among the most warm, hospitable and likable people you will ever meet. I admire the industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit of Palestinian Immigrants, the commitment to education and achievement of the the Iranians and the unbreakable sense of family of the Pakistanis. Clearly, on an individual level, religion and culture have not impeded their ethical, intellectual and professional development. But, on a national level, they have made the establishment of democracy, rule of law and economic freedom very challenging. Supporting evidence for this is found in the fact that Islamic Nations tend to score at the bottom of the Democracy IndexCorruption Index and Ranking of Women's Rights. Because, while individuals are unpredictable, groups dynamics are not. Based on the culture that predominates in a region, we can predict a host of socio-economic outcomes. This is readily apparent when we analyze a global map of corruption, which clearly shows a strong connection between regional cultures and the general level of corruption. For example, the least corrupt nations are part of the Scandinavian, Anglo-Protestant and Confucian cultural spheres. With the exception of Chile and Uruguay, Latin-America scored poorly. And the bottom of the list was mostly comprised of Islamic and / or Sub-Saharan African Nations.

What is the practical implication of the culturalist narrative? We should welcome diverse, talented individuals into our nation, neighborhoods and in my opinion, circle of friends and family. But we should not encourage the formation of large, unassimilated groups who will recreate the very social, economic and political dynamics that led them to leave their nations of origin. The most obvious example is the rise of "honor attacks"homophobic harassment  and calls to limit freedom of expression in England, but more subtle examples abound, which we will explore in future posts.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part V

Picture Above: A Casualty in the Jihad Against Educating Women

Before we continue our discussion, we must briefly highlight the difference between explicit culture and implicit culture. Explicit culture are the stated beliefs and values that predominate in a nation, the written laws of the state and the official beliefs of civic, religious and business institutions that hold sway. Implicit culture are the values implied by the behavioral patterns of the populace, in public and especially in private. When you analyze the constitutions and laws of most nations you find that the majority contain strong affirmations of equality, yet we see a divergence between nations that come close to realizing these stated ideals and others in which women and minorities languish as third class citizens. In international polls, even in nations with widespread abuse of women, the majority of respondents affirmed their belief that women should have equal rights. The same is true for education; few parents or government officials will respond that education is not a priority, but in many nations, data suggests otherwise. The source of the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality is the daily choices and strategies that individuals, families and communities make.

When we analyze the extent to which nations, with similar nominal GDPs and levels of corruption, have addressed illiteracy, we find a tremendous divergence, that speaks of their implicit cultures. For example, Kenya and Pakistan are both poor ($850 & $1,201) and corrupt, but Kenya's literacy rate has been raised to 87.4%, whereas in Pakistan it has languished at 54.9%. Hence, the actual behavior of individuals, families and the state imply the education is held in higher regard in Kenya. And when we analyze the literacy rate of women and men, we find that in Pakistan the rate for women (30.3%) is half that of men (68.6%), whereas in Kenya, the (90.6% & 84.2%) the gap is not nearly as pronounced.

Some will respond that this is simply a product of each nation's respective governments, which do not always reflect the will of people. This is a problematic notion, given that governments do not exist in a vacuum, but reflect the culture of the nations from which they arise. For the sake of the discussion, let us assume that this holds true in the example of Pakistan and Kenya and focus our analysis on the private behavior of families.  To do so, I compared the sex ratio of newborns, which is generally indicative of the extent of sex selective abortion, which is one the most misogynist act conceivable. Predictably, Pakistan has among the most skewed ratios (1.10) in the world, whereas Kenya enjoys one of the most equitable ones (1.02). Those who persist in the belief that this is simply a product of Pakistan's dire poverty should consider a recent study that found that such behavior even persists among well off South Asian immigrants in the United States. Clearly, the actual behavior that predominates in a nation tells us far more about their culture than laws and polls.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part IV

What is most striking about the narratives that present racism and discrimination as the primary explanations of  racial achievement gaps is that they are extremely macro-social and abstract in nature. While a broad, structural analysis can often bring insight to a discussion, in this case it allows ideology to supplant an honest, inquisitive exploration of data.The said narrative utilizes ill-defined, nebulous concepts, such as institutional racism and structural racism as articles of faith; the former is defined as "a form of racial inequality resulting not from conscious discrimination, but from the cumulative effect of subconscious racism and / or the aggregate inertial discriminatory effect of individuals within a non-diverse group favoring like-minded individuals."  Their very focus on a phenomena that they define as invisibleunintentional and even subconscious,  precludes a clear, empirical analysis of the actual manner in which individuals and groups advance or lag in different institutions.They fail to use data to construct a clear line of causality that demonstrates that privilege or discrimination determine the actual outcome. Rather their arguments rest of anecdotal evidence or the spurious explanation that the very presence of an achievement gap is proof of ongoing privilege and discrimination. The author of this blog believes that the foundation of understanding economic and social performance of individuals and groups must be based on intellectually honest case studies, grounded in rich, comprehensive details. Only once this has been established can we construct compelling abstractions and ideology. Or put simply, one cannot hope to grasp the dynamics of a forest, until they understand the nature of the flora and fauna that populate it.

Take the question of classroom achievement: logically, those who wanted to understand it should start by exploring the specific behaviors, norms and strategies of the students who academically excelled. For the sake of a sound analysis, naturally they should compare students of a similar economic background, who enjoyed access to equal educational resources, i.e. those from the same school. I am confident that they would find an exceptionally strong correlation between success and interrelated factors such as: discipline, a future orientation, intellectual curiosity and a desire to utilize all available resources. They could set forth a reasonable maxim, in order to academically succeed, a student must do X, Y & Z. We would certainly find that the majority of students with poor academic performance did not undertake these specific measures and strategies. I am strongly inclined to believe that the most relevant factor, regardless of race, is the extent to which students are not willing to utilize available resources and opportunities. And underlying the student's orientation is the values and specific that predominate in their families and communities.

The next reasonable step would be to determine if African-Americans who undertake X, Y & Z experienced positive outcomes, like their classmates, or did institutional racism prevent them from enjoying the fruits of their labors? To demonstrate that racism was a relevant factor we would require empirical data that showed that teachers and administrators engaged in statistically relevant patterns of discriminatory conduct. Did they grade them more harshly? Were they less willing to assist students simply because of their race? Did they discourage equally capable students from pursuing an honor's class, because of their background? Were they discouraged from utilizing free tutors that schools provide? Do any specific policies account for their much higher drop-out rate? I would be shocked if any one of these acts of discrimination were found to occur at a statistically significant rate, given that the mission statement of virtually every teacher training program and school district is to promote social justice, combat racism and celebrate diversity. This is especially unlikely considering that a large portion of African-Americans are taught by African-American educators. If indeed discrimination is not a key factor, the primary cause of the achievement gap is the varying rates that specific values and behaviors occur within different communities. But, for the sake of the discussion, let us say that I am understating the importance of structural factors, such as resource allocation, this still would not exclude the importance of cultural-behavior factors. The effects of institutional racism could be compounded by  normative patterns that lead many individuals to under-utilize the unequal resources and opportunities that are available to them.

To better understand the wealth gap, we would  investigate the extent to which specific financial behaviors occur within different ethnic groups. In order to compare "apples to apples" it would be imperative to control for age, education, the starting income level of the samples that comprise each group. Specifically, we would study the level of wealth creation over the course of 5 or 10 years, of individuals who started at comparable socioeconomic levels. The next step would be to determine the aggregate growth rate of each group over that period. And then using credit reports, bank statements and interviews, we would seek answer to the following questions: To what extent did the subjects amass debt in non-essential, luxury purchases? To what statistical extent did the members of each group lower their consumption level in order to save money? Did they invest the saved capital? If so, in what manners? What percentage of each group had poor credit scores? How often did the poor credit scores reflect uncontrollable circumstances (such as health issues) and how often were they the consequences of poor financial planning? Did poor credit limit their access to capital to invest in education, real estate and commercial enterprises? Analyzing the connection between wealth generation and specific behaviors and the extent to which they are found in each group would help us put together a credible explanation of the dynamics of the wealth gap. Of course we would also test the discrimination-privilege thesis, by discovering the extent to which each group experienced statistically significant rates of discriminationfavoritism and familial assistance. And if they were found to be statistically prevalent did unfavorable or favorable treatment occur in the absence of divergent behavior patterns or did simply serve to augment their effects? What is most puzzling is that so few of the individuals who sound the alarm on income equality bother to ask, yet alone empirically answer these essential questions.

The few liberals who are willing to concede the profound flaws in their narrative will most likely respond: the pathological behaviors of today, are a historical product of the legacy of past discrimination. The reason why a student is not willing to take advantage of the resources that are now available is because of the long history of the social, political and economic marginalization. And the challenges that students from impoverished communities face makes it harder to commit academically. I will concede that there is a great deal of truth to these positions. But, never the less misdiagnosing the source of the achievement gap as present discrimination that bars students from enjoying the fruits of their labor will ensure that the private sector will continue to pursue ineffective remedies. The  experiences of groups, such as Chinese-Americans, who have now surpassed European-Americans academically and economically, demonstrate that once legal equality has been ensured, culture and values becomes the strongest determinant of outcomes. In fact this has led to a virtuous cycle, in which the widespread adoption of positive behaviors has lead to favorable social and economic outcomes, which has all but eliminated the toxic stereotypes that most Americans once held about East-Asians. This may seem harsh, but in reality it is far more hopeful than the fatalist liberal narratives that hold that we are bound by past and present racism. For we as individuals and communities can transform our behavior and our culture, in the process changing the course that others set for us. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part III

Chimps and Humans: Hardwired For Xenophobia?

One key point that we must advance in our discussion of racism and culture is the difference between past and present critiques of the phenomenon of diversity and multiculturalism. For much of history, the said critiques were prescriptive in nature. In other words, in most cases, their purveyors were genuine racists and xenophobes, who were opposed to the goals of equality, democratic participation, freedom of association and prosperity for All Americans. And they promoted and prescribed legal and extra-legal measures to oppose these goals. One of the most appalling examples is the Ku Klux Klan that actively  sought to economically, socially and politically marginalize African-Americans and other groups. They viewed educated, entrepreneurial and upwardly mobile African-American families as a grave threat to white, Christian hegemony and exercised great brutality in their efforts to keep them in a state of debasement.

While the Klan and like-minded organization do still exist, they have been reduced to a withered pariah, a fringe held in contempt by the vast majority of Americans. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that on the rare occasions when hate groups march, they are dwarfed by anti-racist counter-protesters by a ratio of at least 10-to-1. In the last few years we have seen the emergence of critiques of diversity and multiculturalism that are descriptive in nature. Unlike their predecessors, they unequivocally recognize that the existence of poor, uneducated, alienated communities are not in the interests of the United States. At least in principle, most support the multitude of public and private sector initiatives to promote prosperity within diverse communities and to bridge the ongoing achievement gap . Most believe that diverse communities should be welcome to maintain their cultural distinctness, while working with other communities to achieve the common good. But, their honest observations and description of how diverse societies actually do function, have led them to question the veracity of the multicultural project. And unlike prescriptive critics of multiculturalism, their reservations do not stem from fear and ignorance. For example, those who take the time to research which countries are the happiesthealthiestleast violent and most economically equal, will find that they are by and large, homogeneous, which begs the question: why do diverse societies face such challenges? 

The descriptive critique has been compelled by a growing body of scientific knowledge. Arizona State University recently hosted an absolutely fascinating discussion entitled The Great Debate - Xenophobia - Why Do We Fear Others?, in which a panel of first rate scholars and researchers, which included a primatologist, a cognitive neuroscientist, an experimental social psychologist, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, an economist and a journalist presented compelling arguments that human beings and most other species are hardwired through evolution to form in-groups and recognize and be weary of out-groups. The end goal of this clearly liberal group was to spark debate on how we could address "such an important part of our evolutionary history" that has become "maladaptive as we a face a future increasingly dependent upon cooperation and shared responsibilities towards limited resources."  A growing body of research, in evolutionary psychology and neurology has cast serious doubt on liberal narratives that present in-group preferences as simply being the product of socialization. What I found most disheartening and supportive of this thesis was research that demonstrated that infants as young as 3 months demonstrated a preference for their own race. An important caveat to this discussion is that in-groups and out-groups need not solely be defined by race and language. The most obvious example is Bosnia, in which a racially and linguistically identical population formed in-groups based on religious and cultural identity and slaughtered the religious out-groups. Conversely, many Japanese-Americans and German-American valiantly fought for the United States, even though their respective nations of origin were members of the Axis.

This growing body of research is fairly clear in its conclusion, but the perplexing question remains: what are its practical implications in an increasingly diverse society? On one hand, it does support liberal measures: if we are wired to be reserved about members of out-groups, we must continue to educate the public against racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, policy that does not also recognize the facts on the ground and understand the nature and the shortcomings of human beings, are bound to fail. This was the case in communism and unless we adopt greater intellectual honesty, it may also come to pass with multiculturalism. But we need not abandon all of our idealism; good governance must strike a balance between leading man towards how we wish him to be, while accepting him for what he is. This means that we must do all that we can to ensure peace, goodwill and cooperation among the diverse populations that already reside within the United States, while not seeking to increase diversity for diversity's sake. We must never fall prey to the lure of heavy handed assimilation policies, for they too court conflict; amicable, democratic assimilation, guided by the spirit of E Pluribus Unum would be a wise course to pursue. No nation has shown a greater capacity to expand the scope of its in-group, which at one time only included white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This has been achieved through ever greater tolerance, coupled with a powerful melting pot; while the former remains strong, the flames of the latter have been allowed to grow dim. Given our knowledge about human nature and group conflict, we should seriously reconsider this path. In future posts we shall provide more detailed recommendations based on the historical experiences of the few diverse societies that were able to maintain relative peace, prosperity and democracy and the many that succumbed to inter-communal conflict.