What Explains Racial, Gender, and Other Group-Based Gaps?

The "Gap=Discrimination" Assumption Critically Evaluated

Posted Mar 13, 2016

Gaps are everywhere. Women earn about 75-80% of men. On intelligence and standardized achievement tests, Asian Americans score higher than Whites, who score higher than Latinos, who score higher than Blacks.  

Girls receive higher grades at every level of schooling, from elementary school through graduate school, than do boys. Girls even receive higher grades than do boys in science courses. Girls receive high school and college degrees at higher rates than do boys. Boys receive diagnostic labels (learning disabled, ADHD, and so on.) at higher rates than do girls.

Jews and Asians earn higher income than most other American groups; African Americans and Latinos less. Whites live longer than African Americans. Rich people live longer than poor people.  

Nearly all recipients of Nobel Prizes in the various scientific fields are White men. Nearly all heads of Fortune 500 companies are White men. Sheryl Sandberg had to promote "leaning in," in part, because so few women have leadership positions in the tech industry.  Young African American men are shot and killed by police proportionally far more than young men of any other group.

And academia is mostly a club for liberals. About 80-90% or more of the faculty at many colleges and universities are left of center. The split is even more extreme in many social science and humanities departments. I suspect that, at many, there are more leftist radicals and Marxists than there are conventional American conservatives. 

Gaps.  Are.  Everywhere.

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

Where do these gaps come from? The selective go-to explanation in the social sciences is discrimination. It is selective, because it is typically only applied when the group is one the left deems both oppressed and protected in some way (racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBT, and so on). There is some, but not much, scholarship on why schools so consistently disadvantage boys, though understanding the gender gap in science fields is a hot topic.

However, for those groups the left does care about, even leftist academics who one might think should know better equate gap=discrimination.  

And, in fact, sometimes gaps do result from discrimination. In rare cases, they may result exclusively from ongoing discrimination in the present. In many cases, they probably result in part from such discrimination. They rarely, however, result exclusively from ongoing discrimination in the present.

Welcome to my new blog series on gaps. Because gaps are often complex, simplistic, single-cause explanations, such as "discrimination," are rarely justified. I will be exploring specific gaps—racial, gender, political and more—and reviewing how social science evidence can and should influence our understanding of those gaps. I will be critically evaluating the "all discrimination all the time" explanations for gaps advanced in many academic circles. I will be identifying a slew of explanations, other than discrimination, that can be a source of some or most or even all of many gaps.  

I will also, as a part of this series, be pointing out forms of discrimination against high status groups that the left, including leftist academics, routinely ignore. These are important because, in their very different way, they undermine the "gap=discrimination" assumption.  

There is, for example, ample evidence of prejudice against Asian Americans and Jews, which receives little attention in social science research, because of an attitude among academics that only prejudice against lower status groups matters (never mind that genocide and mass murder have often been committed against successful minority groups—Jews, Armenians, Tutsis, Kurds, Kulaks, and the teachers/professionals/intellectuals in China [during the Cultural Revolution], and Cambodia [during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror]).

This series will also examine proposed "solutions" for gaps. Diversity programs, affirmative action, and so forth. Such programs typically aspire to provide remedies to discrimination, though sometimes they have other goals. If discrimination is the problem, they may or may not be effective. If they target discrimination, and discrimination is not the main source of some gap, they are highly unlikely to be effective (like attempting to cure cancer with antibiotics).    

Gaps do not always result from discrimination. And discrimination, even when it occurs, does not always result in a gap disadvantaging the discriminated group.  

For the next blog in this series, consider the following question: If a university admitted 70% of the men who applied, and only 30% of the women who applied, and the men and women were exactly equally qualified, would that be conclusive evidence that that university was engaging in sex discrimination?