Demographics and People

In New Orleans, chef Tunde Way opened a food stall asking whites to pay $30 and nonwhites $12 dollars for Nigerian food to see if he could change the way people think about racial wealth disparity in the United States. The two-and-a-half-times differential purports to represent a statistical fact about the disparity between white and black households. Way tells white customers that the extra price paid by whites will subsidize the food for nonwhites. He estimates that 80% of white people pay the extra price.

Tunde Way

Does Way explain to customers that the statistical disparity between grouped means based on selected phenotypic feature does not indicate the actual ability of individual customers to pay? It is entirely possible that some of his white customers will have less money to spend on food than many of his nonwhite customers and, therefore, poorer customers will be subsidizing richer customers. Without knowing the wealth and income of each individual, Way has no way of knowing whether a customer is subsidizing a rich person’s meal – or making a poor person pay an amount that is larger relative to wealth and income. When a poor person pays more for her meal on the basis of skin color, Way is levying what amounts to a regressive tax.

Ironically, Way’s experiment mirrors from an opposite standpoint an experiment conservative students are fond of running at universities: the “affirmative action bake sale,” where customers are charged more money depending on their race, claimed to be an indicator of ability to pay, with Asian customers charged the most and black students charged the least. A variation on this is the “white privilege popcorn giveaway” where white males are given a full bag of popcorn, while persons perceived to lie at other intersections receive less than a full bag. Such social experiments crudely attempt to critique policies that treat concrete persons on the basis of their demographic identity.

Affirmative Action Bake Sale

Way is crudely attempting to educate people by owning the conservative complaint, attributing to individuals social harm and privilege based on demographic identification. Of course, demographic categories do not have such attributes. Moreover, they don’t come with attitudes, beliefs, motives, and actions. His experiment skirts the difference between abstract notions of aggregates and grouped means, on the one hand, and the concrete facticity of individuals and their actual situations, on the other hand. Although the principle of this view of things is dressed up in the language of statistics and social scientific truths, it is the same principle that lies behind collective and intergenerational guilt and punishment. It punishes people for things other people do, for things their ancestors did. 

Take poverty as an example. At the aggregate level, we may indeed note that as a group black people are more likely to report being poor than are whites. In fact, in the aggregate, blacks trail whites in every significant social and economic category, from educational attainment to household income and personal wealth. But at the level of concrete facticity, the black people one encounters may actually be richer than the white persons one encounters. Indeed, since most blacks and whites are not poor (black poverty is around 27% of that demographic), the next random black or white person one meets is unlikely to be poor at all.

An important question in all this is what explains the group disparity. It is in exploring this question that group statistics are important. The sources of the problem are already well understood: the disparity results from racism, defined as a social system with structures and processes that advantage one or more groups over other groups on the basis of an ideology that differentiates people on the basis of ancestry and selected phenotypical characteristics. The advantages are found in patterns of inheritance and institutional behavior that result from history (e.g. slavery, segregation) and on-going social dynamics (e.g. discrimination, over-policing, mass incarceration). We are able to identify causes and effects in part because we collect demographic data on persons.

However, the patterns and dynamics of racism do not tell us about the particular situation of an actual person and they tell us nothing about the guilt and responsibility of individuals. A black person may not have been affected by racism, at least not in any significant or limiting way. It depends on his biography and those of his parents. At the same time, white people are also confronted by history and biography, and these explain their personal situation as much as they do for black people. There are 200 million non-Hispanic whites in the United States. Eighteen million of them live in poverty.

In the age of left-wing identity politics, there is little sympathy among progressive elites and intellectuals for poor whites who are lumped with affluent whites. Nor is there much recognition on the left that benefits may accrue to affluent blacks via government policies that at the same time neglect poor whites. However, when confusing the concrete facts of individuals with the abstract demographic categories with which they are identified functions to harm the fortunes of nonwhites, elites and progressives express a different point of view.

Consider the following real-world example. In capital cases in the state of Texas, juries can either impose the death penalty or impose a penalty of life in prison with the possibility of parole. There is no sentence of life in prison without parole in the state of Texas. One strategy prosecutors seeking the death penalty can pursue is convincing a jury that the defendant is at high risk to repeat his crime and capital punishment removes that risk. Enter Walter Quijano, a psychologist working for the Texas prison system as an expert witness, Quijano testified in several cases that, because of the higher rate of recidivism among blacks compared to whites, black defendants should be subject to the death penalty.

Walter Quijano

At best, “race” describes a constellation of phenotypic characteristics that can be used to classify individuals as belonging to groups. Race does not indicate a propensity of an individual to perpetrate crime. Aggregate statistics tell us nothing about what an individual – black or white, male or female – will or will not do. Indeed, to make this leap is an indication of the presence of race prejudice. It’s what we call stereotyping. To treat individuals of demographic groups on the basis of aggregate statistics is discrimination.

The courts get it. In the case of Duane Buck, who received a sentence of death instead of life imprisonment in a crime of passion, in part because Quijano testified that Buck’s demographic identity made him a greater risk to reoffend, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans citing discrimination as a factor. Seventeen years earlier, Quijano saw six death sentences, achieved in part with his testimony, repudiated by state attorney general John Cornyn, five of which were concluded with new sentences.

Duane Buck

Let’s consider another example. African American males represent less than six percent of the US population. African American men are responsible for more than half of all homicides recorded by the FBI every year. Yet white anxiety upon seeing a black man approaching is irrational; that black men are overrepresented in homicide does not tell us whether the black man approaching is violent or criminal. When a police officer targets a black man on the basis of race, he may claim to be doing so because of what statistics show about overrepresentation of blacks in crime, but he is engaging in racial profiling. He should be policing on the basis of reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Being black and male is not the reason for black male overrepresentation in homicide and violent crime. It is also true that being white and male does not explain mass shootings. “Black male” is a descriptive category. As such, it has no agency. The same is true with the construct “white male.”

Such category errors are rampant in our society. They are the work of identitarian politics and essentialist thinking. It’s the way racists think. We expect it from racists. We should expect better from ourselves. 

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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