Racial Bias

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Key to my thinking about this intractable problem has been the need to distinguish the role played by discrimination against black people from that played by counterproductive behavioral patterns among blacks.
This puts what is a very sensitive issue rather starkly. Many vocal advocates for racial equality have been loath to consider the possibility that problematic patterns of behavior could be an important factor contributing to our persisting disadvantaged status. Some observers on the right of American politics, meanwhile, take the position that discrimination against blacks is no longer an important determinant of unequal social outcomes. I have long tried to chart a middle course—acknowledging antiblack biases that should be remedied while insisting on addressing and reversing the patterns of behavior that impede black people from seizing newly opened opportunities to prosper. I still see this as the most sensible position.
These two positions can be recast as causal narratives. One is what I call the “bias narrative”: racism and white supremacy have done us wrong; we can’t get ahead until they relent; so we must continue urging the reform of white American society toward that end.
The other is what I call the “development narrative,” according to which it is essential to consider how a person comes to acquire those skills, traits, habits, and orientations that foster successful participation in the American society. To the extent that African-American youngsters do not have the experiences, are not exposed to the influences, and do not benefit from the resources that foster and facilitate their human development, they fail to achieve their full human potential. This lack of development is what causes persistent, stark racial disparities in income, wealth, education, family structure, and much else. (The charts and tables on this, and the next several pages offer a glimpse of the magnitude of these disparities.)
In terms of prescribing intervention and remedy, these causal narratives point in very different directions. The bias narrative says that we need to have a “conversation” about race: white America must reform itself; racism must end; we need more of this or that, whatever the “this” or “that” is on the agenda of today’s race reformers. One hears this kind of talk, one reads these exhortations, in newspapers and other media every day.
The development narrative puts more onus on the responsibilities of African-Americans to develop our human potential. It is not satisfied with wishful thinking like: “If we could only double the budget for some social program, the homicide rate among young African-American men would be less atrocious.” Or, “If we can just get this police department investigated by the Department of Justice, then.…” The development narrative asks, Then what? Then it will be safe to walk on the south side of Chicago after midnight?
Meanwhile, the terms themselves—race and discrimination—are often bandied about without being rigorously defined. In a 2002 book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, I sketched a theory of race applicable to the social and historical circumstances of the U.S., speculated about why racial inequalities persist and advanced a conceptual framework for thinking about social justice in matters of race.[1] Because there remains so much confusion in today’s public discussions about race and racial inequality, I need to revisit that framework. Bear with me. The relevance of this conceptual excursion will be clear soon enough.
Categorization Versus Signification
For me, the term “race” refers to indelible and heritable marks on human bodies—skin color, hair texture, bone structure—that are of no intrinsic significance but that nevertheless have, through time, come to be invested with social expectations that are more or less reasonable and social meanings that are more or less durable. When we talk about race in America or anywhere else, we are dealing with two distinct processes: categorization and signification. Categorization entails sorting people into a small number of subsets based on bodily marks and differentiating one’s dealings with such persons accordingly. It is a cognitive act—an effort to comprehend the social world around us.
Signification is an interpretative act—one that associates certain connotations or “social meanings” with those categories. Informational and symbolic issues are both at play. Or, as I like to put it when we speak about race, we are talking about “embodied social signification.”[2]
It is instructive to contrast a social-cognitive conception of the race with acts of biological taxonomy—sorting humans based on presumed variations of genetic endowments across what had for eons been geographically isolated subpopulations. Such isolation was, until recently, the human condition, and it may be thought to have led to the emergence of distinct races. Nevertheless, using the term “race” in this way is controversial, particularly if the aim is to explain social inequalities between groups.
Thus, scientists, such as the population geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza,[3] and social critics, such as the philosopher Anthony Appiah,[4] deny that “race” refers to anything real. What they have in mind is the biological-taxonomic notion, and what they deny is that meaningful distinctions among human subgroups pertinent to accounting for racial inequality can be derived from this notion. I am not arguing this point—though it would appear to be eminently arguable. What I am emphasizing is that to establish the scientific invalidity of race demonstrates neither the irrationality nor the immorality of invoking racial classification as acts of social cognition. So I shall employ the concept of the race here, with an emphasis on the negative interpretative/symbolic connotations attached to “blackness” in the U.S.[5]
Reward Bias Versus Development Bias
Given this theoretical understanding of race, what might one say about the causes of persistent racial inequality? Fundamental is the elemental distinction I first drew in 2002 between racial discrimination and racial stigma. Discrimination is about how blacks are treated; stigma is about how blacks are perceived.
What I call “reward bias” (conventional racial discrimination) is now a less significant barrier to the full participation of African-Americans in U.S. society than what I call “development bias.” Reward bias focuses on the disadvantageous treatment of black people in formal transactions that limit their rewards for skills and talents presented to the market. Development bias refers to impediments that block access for black people to those resources necessary to develop and refine their talents but that are conveyed via informal social relations. This is where the consideration of culture enters the picture.
Reward bias is grounded in racially discriminatory transactions, but development bias is ultimately rooted in racially stigmatized social relations. Many resources that foster human development only become available to persons as the by-product of informal, race-influenced social interactions. Another way to put this expanded view of discrimination: reward bias reflects discrimination in the contract while development bias reflects discrimination in contact.
These two forms of bias are not mutually exclusive. The acquisition of skills can be blocked by overt discriminatory treatment, and a regime of market discrimination under pressure from the forces of economic competition may require informal instruments of social control to maintain that discriminatory regime.[6] Though both kinds of bias promote racial inequality, the distinction is useful.
The moral problem presented by reward bias is straightforward and calls for an uncontroversial remedy: laws against overt racial discrimination. Development bias presents a subtler and more insidious ethical challenge that may be difficult to remedy via public policies in any way that garners majoritarian support. Ultimately, development bias deals with some cultural patterns that are characteristic of both a racial minority group and the society at large, while reward bias deals with overt antiblack discriminatory treatment that, even though it has not been fully eliminated, is nevertheless nearly universally condemned.
The difficulties for remedying development bias have a cognitive and ethical dimension. In terms of cognition, when confronted with a racial group’s poor social performance, an observer may be unable to distinguish between blocked developmental opportunities and limited capacities or distorted values. In ethical terms, citizens who find the “transactional discrimination” associated with reward bias to be noxious may be less offended by the covert, subconscious “relational discrimination” that underlies development bias.[7]
Regarding the distinction between reward bias and development bias: to understand persistent racial inequality in America, it is crucial to put relations before transactions. The focus on discriminatory economic transactions may not be sufficient; one will need also to consider the consequences of racially stigmatized social relations. Stigma—the distorted social meanings attaching to “blackness”—inhibits the access that some black people have to those networks of social affiliation where developmental resources are most readily appropriated. This might happen because black people are socially excluded; it might also happen because we choose to be socially withdrawn.
On this view, persistent inequality may no longer be due mainly to a racially discriminatory marketplace, or an administrative state that refuses to reward black talent equally, as was the case in decades past. Rather, today’s problem may be due, in large part, to race-tinged psychology of perception and valuation—a way of seeing black people, and a way of black people seeing themselves, that impedes the acquisition of traits that are valued in the marketplace and are essential for human development.
This can lead to a vicious circle. The status of a racial group as stigmatized in the social imagination—and crucially, in its self-understanding—can be rationalized and socially reproduced because of that group’s subordinate position in the economic order. Moreover, this way of thinking implies that the explanatory categories of “racial discrimination” and “racially distinct behaviors” are not mutually exclusive.
Social Capital Versus Human Capital
A quarter-century before the publication of The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, I coined the term “social capital” to help account for persistent racial inequality in the U.S.[8] The concept behind social capital illuminates the difference between informal social relations and formal economic transactions—between reward and development bias—as mechanisms perpetuating the subordinate position of African-Americans.
As an economist, I sought to differentiate social capital with the more familiar term in my field: “human capital.” The human-capital theory attempts to account for variation in people’s earnings capacities by analogy with well-developed theories of investment. These theories begin with the assumption of competitive markets and rational choice by forward-looking individuals, and then analyze investment decisions in light of individuals’ time preferences, their anticipated rates of return, and the available alternatives for uses of their time. Human-capital theory imports into the study of human inequality an intellectual framework that had been well developed in economics to explain the investment decisions of firms—a framework that focuses on the analysis of formal economic transactions.
I argued that associating business with human investments is merely an analogy, not an identity—particularly if one seeks to explain persistent racial disparities. Human capital, as an economic concept, overlooks two important facts having to do with informal social relations.
First, all human development is socially situated and mediated. Human development takes place between people, by way of human interactions, within social institutions—the family, the community, the school, the peer group. Many resources essential to human development, such as the attention that parents give to their children, are not alienable. These resources, for the most part, are not commodities and are not up for sale. Instead, structured connections between individuals create the context within which developmental resources come to be allocated to individual persons. Opportunity travels along the synapses of these social networks.
The resulting allocation of developmental resources need not be responsive to prices or be economically efficient. The development of human beings is not the same as the corporate investment, and it is not a good metaphor, or a good analogy, to reason as though this were so.
Human development begins before birth. The decisions a mother makes—about how closely to attend to her health and nutrition during pregnancy, for instance—will alter the neurological development of her fetus. This, and a myriad of other decisions and actions, all come together to shape the experience of the infant, who will mature one day to become a human being, and about whom it will be said that he or she has this or that much productivity, as reflected in his or her wages or academic test scores.
This productivity, the behavioral and cognitive capacities bearing on a person’s social and economic functioning, are not merely the result of a mechanical infusion of material resources. Rather, these are by-products of social processes mediated by networks of human affiliation, and these processes are fundamentally important for understanding persistent racial disparities.
Second, what we call “race” is mainly a social, and only indirectly a biological, phenomenon. The persistence across generations of racial differentiation between large groups of people, in an open society where individuals live in proximity to one another, provides irrefutable indirect evidence of a profound separation between the racially defined networks of social affiliation within that society. There would be no races in the steady-state of any dynamic social system unless, daily and concerning their most intimate affairs, people paid assiduous attention to the boundaries separating themselves from racially distinct others. Over time, the race would cease to exist unless people chose to act in a manner so as biologically to reproduce the variety of phenotypic expression that constitutes the substance of racial distinction.
If the goal is to understand durable racial inequality in a society, one needs to attend in detail to the processes that cause the race to persist as a fact of life, because such processes will be related to the allocation of human developmental resources in that society.
Race, as a feature of a society, rests upon the cultural conceptions about identity held by the people—in America, principally blacks and whites alike—in that society. These are the beliefs that people hold about who they are and about the legitimacy of conducting intimate relations (and not only sexual relations) with racially distinct others. Beliefs of this kind affect the access that people enjoy to those information resources that individuals require to develop their human potential. Social capital is a critical prerequisite for creating what economists refer to as human capital.
Any conceptual framework for the study of persistent racial inequality is incomplete if it fails to consider the interactions between those social processes ensuring the reproduction of racial difference, on one hand, and those processes facilitating human development, on the other hand. If we consider these interactions, it becomes easier to see the many intimate connections between the antiblack “racial bias” that liberals emphasize and the “behavioral pathology” of (some) blacks that (some) conservatives are so keen to focus on.

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