The Magazine

Mind the Gaps



These remarks were delivered at a panel discussion organized by the Black Law Students' Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, April 5, 2010. The official title of the event was "Revisiting Race and Remedies: Should the Government Play A Role in Eliminating Racial Disparities in Education and Employment?"

I am here this evening in the capacity of a wet blanket. I am here not to take one side or the other on the topic under debate, but to say that the topic, as written, is based on a false premise, and therefore has no satisfactory answer. I don't believe the disparities under discussion can be eliminated. Debate about whether government should play a greater or lesser role in eliminating them is therefore, in my opinion, otiose.

When the organizers first emailed me to suggest I appear on the panel, I told them that this is my view of the matter. I said that I was flattered to be invited to speak at such a prestigious institution, and that, having two teenage children, I am always glad to get out of the house for a few hours; but that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races. Those differences are facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets. They can't be legislated out of existence; nor can they be "eliminated" by social or political action.


That there are natural, intractable differences between the human races seems apparent to me on both rational and empirical grounds.

First, the rational grounds. If a species is divided into separate populations, and those populations are left in reproductive isolation from each other for many generations, they will diverge. If you return after several hundred generations have passed, you will observe that the various traits that characterize individuals of the species are now distributed at different frequencies in the various populations. After a few ten thousands of generations, the divergence of the populations will be so great they can no longer cross-breed; and that is the origin of species. This is Biology 101.

Our species separated into two parts 50, 60, or 70 thousand years ago, depending on which paleoanthropologist you ask. One part remained in Africa, the ancestral homeland. The other crossed into Southwest Asia, then split, and re-split, and re-split, until there were human populations living in near-total reproductive isolation from each other in all parts of the world. This went on for hundreds of generations, causing the divergences we see today. Different physical types, as well as differences in behavior, intelligence, and personality, are exactly what one would expect to observe when scrutinizing these divergent populations.

Now, the empirical grounds. We all notice the different physical specialties of the different races in the Olympic Games. There was a run of, I think, seven Olympics in which every one of the finalists in the men's 100 meters sprint was of West African ancestry — 56 out of 56 finalists. You get less pronounced but similar patterns in other sports — East African distance runners, Northeast Asian divers, and so on. These differences even show up within sports, where a team sport calls for highly differentiated abilities in team members — football being the obvious example.

We see the same differences in traits that we don't think of as directly physical, what evolutionary psychologists sometimes refer to as the "BIP" traits — behavior, intelligence, and personality. Two of the hardest-to-ignore manifestations here are the extraordinary differentials in criminality between white Americans and African Americans, and the persistent gaps in scores when tests of cognitive ability are given to large population samples.

There is a huge academic literature on the gaps in cognitive test results, practically all of it converging on the fact that African American mean scores on cognitive tests fall below the white means by a tad more than one white standard deviation. There is in fact so much data on this now that we have meta-studies — studies of the studies: the one best-known to me is the meta-study by Roth et al. in 2001, which covered 39 studies involving nearly six million test-takers. That one standard deviation on cognitive testing has been so persistent across so many decades, a friend of mine, an academic sociologist, calls it "the universal constant of American sociology" — it's like the speed of light in physics.

To see whether that universal constant appears in the study of law, I looked up the LSAC database before coming here tonight. LSAC — the Law School Admission Council — publishes splendid statistical tables on the results of the LSAT exam, broken out by sex, region, race, and so on. The last figures I could find were for 2007-08. In that year, 117,530 students took the LSAT at least once. Of these persons, 69,792 identified themselves as "Caucasian." Their mean score was 152.56, standard deviation 8.96. In that same year, 12,152 test-takers identified themselves as "African American"; their mean score was 142.15, standard deviation 8.40. That's a difference between the means of 10.41 points, which is 1.16 times the white standard deviation. So perhaps my sociologist friend is on to something.

Should you want to say at this point that these so-called tests of so-called cognitive ability measure nothing important, you had better go and argue with the authorities here at the University of Pennsylvania law school. They have carefully recorded, and posted on the internet, that half their student intake, second and third quartiles, falls between LSAT scores 166 and 171.**


Thus there are both rational and empirical grounds for believing in intractable group differences between the big old inbred paleolithic populations of Homo sapiens. In the context of this discussion, there are two things that need saying about these differences.

First, the differences are statistical. Any population contains variation. Variation within a population is the essence of biology. Those of you familiar with Charles Darwin's great classic On the Origin of Species will recall that three of the first five chapters have the word "variation" in the chapter title. Any population will contain individuals who are fat, thin, fast, slow, tall, short, and so on.

And in the grand biological scheme of things, human population divergences are slight, the populations overlapping massively on most kinds of traits. To go back to that "universal constant of sociology," for instance: Given a one standard deviation gap between black and white means, one thing we can deduce from pure mathematics is that around six million African Americans score higher on cognitive tests than the average white test-taker. In LSAT terms, over 1,300 African American test-takers in 2007-2008 scored above the white mean.

Second, the differences are abstract. Group differences are statistical truths. They exist in an abstract realm quite far removed from our everyday personal experience. They tell you nothing about the person you just met.

Group differences are, for example, one degree more abstract than individual differences. We all acknowledge individual differences all the time: she's fat, he's thin, she's shy, he's outgoing, she's smart, he's dumb.

We are all, to various degrees, aware of our own individual strengths and limitations. Certainly I am aware of mine. For example: My wife is a keen ballroom dancer. Because I love my wife, I did my best to become a ballroom dancer myself. For two years — two blessed years, ladies and gentlemen — I went along twice a week with her to the local Arthur Murray studio to take instruction. At the end of it, I still had two left feet. The instruction I received was like water poured on to a sheet of glass.

Even at the things we are good at, most of us are not very good. I make my living by writing; yet I can name, in my own small personal acquaintance, a dozen people who are better writers than I am. That's not even to mention the Shakespeares and Tolstoys. Most of us are hopeless at most things, and mediocre at the rest.

And yet — look! We don't lose sleep over this. We don't sink into rage and frustration at our own individual differences, or agitate for politicians to put balm on our psychic wounds. We accept our individual shortcomings with remarkable equanimity, playing the cards we've been dealt as best we can. That is the attitude of a healthy human being. To do otherwise would, most of us I'm sure would agree, be un-healthy. How much more unhealthy, then, to fret and rage and agitate about mere statistical abstractions?