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Equality of Outcome

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"If there is not equality of outcomes among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, why should equality of outcomes be expected—or assumed—when conditions are not nearly so comparable?"— Thomas Sowell (@ThomasSowell) May 22, 2018 link to the tweet aboveThe trouble with Thomas Sowell’s invocation of differences among siblings is that most discussions of equality of outcome are about groups to whom the law of averages should apply, rather than about individuals. Because the gene pools for different ancestry groups are so similar, an identical environment for a long enough time should result in equality of outcome. And for those whose ancestors came to the United States centuries ago in chains, the key difference in environment was racism. Of course, one of the most

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link to the tweet above

The trouble with Thomas Sowell’s invocation of differences among siblings is that most discussions of equality of outcome are about groups to whom the law of averages should apply, rather than about individuals.

Because the gene pools for different ancestry groups are so similar, an identical environment for a long enough time should result in equality of outcome. And for those whose ancestors came to the United States centuries ago in chains, the key difference in environment was racism. Of course, one of the most powerful expressions of—and uses for—racism was slavery itself.

So for African-Americans, inequality of outcome is an indication of racism. But it points to racism operating over a long period of time, not just at, say, the latest hiring, promotion or admissions stage. My brother Chris once pointed out that many legal cases are about questions such as “Which insurance company should pay how much of the costs of this disaster?” Racism has had a huge effect on African-Americans. But whose racism? When?

Genetic data is becoming plentiful and often shows strong causal effects of genes. But one of the reasons genetic effects are so strong is because they operate throughout life. Similarly, racism (an aspect of environment) operates throughout the life of an African American, and has effects by having affected parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as the social structure of African-American communities. On all the most important things, gene distributions are equal across races, but the effects of racism are not.

In most cases, it is a mistake to blame the racism of the most recent encounter for more than a sliver of the inequality of outcome we see. But racism stretching back hundreds of years can explain a lot. Many slivers create a huge burden.

That leaves the question of what to do now. It would be unfortunate if recognition of the reality of racism made anyone take less individual responsibility for what they can do to better their own condition. And some of that betterment of condition can be done collectively through demonstrations and other political action. Some of that betterment of condition is action in relation to one’s own individual life. Ultimately, more important than how the current situation arose is what to do about it now.

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Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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