Confession time: I belong to a group that has government approval but not a single black member. Furthermore I recently attended an international conference of people from similar groups and saw not even one black person there. If someone looked only at the statistics they might claim that we are discriminating, but I can assure you we are not. In fact I cannot remember a black person ever applying for membership. That group is my rescue team and the immediate cause of that racial imbalance is that we recruit only among competent mountaineers. However for some reason there are few Blacks involved in mountaineering. In fact I've yet to meet any though I did talk with a woman who once saw two Blacks climbing Washington's Mount Adams.
Even lacking firm statistics, it is clear that Blacks are seriously underrepresented in the mountaineering community and in mountain rescue. The area where I live has plenty of black residents, so why are there hardly any black climbers? I don't have any answers though I am very curious. It cannot be lack of inborn talent; black athletes have long demonstrated great talent. Nor can it be discrimination; mountains and cliffs neither know nor care about the skin color of people climbing them. I suspect the reason is a combination of culture and finances but that is a guess on my part, not backed up with any research.
Though not a big issue, the racial imbalance among mountaineers does illustrate the fact that statistical differences between groups are not necessarily caused by discrimination. We don't need to know what the reason is in order to know that some suggested reasons are wrong. I needn't know why there are few black mountaineers to know that discrimination is not the cause.
Now I like statistics, I think they can be fun and useful. However acting on statistics alone usually means bypassing vital information. If our mountain rescue team were accused of discrimination, the statistics might support the charge. If we were forced to include a certain number of black people, we would probably out of business. I’m not sure we could find them and even if we did, they would likely lack the mountaineering experience necessary to safe and effective rescue work. They would become a danger to us, to our subjects, and to themselves. The effect would be bad for all concerned, including the occasional black hiker we are called to help.
Statistics tends to lump people together in large groups. That is both its strength and its weakness. It is a strength because that allows us to make sense of large amounts of data – if we are very careful how we use that data. However statistics cannot tell us much about individual cases. It may tell us that young inner city black men are more likely to be criminals than are men of middle age living in the suburbs, be they black or white. However we should not use that information to convict any particular young black man from the inner city, there are also upstanding citizens among that group.
Statistics alone cannot tell us why some groups have different characteristics than others. Blacks may be underrepresented in mountaineering, but we have to dig deeper than the numbers if we want to learn why. Likewise Blacks may be over-represented among NFL running backs and underrepresented among quarterbacks in that league. The numbers won’t tell us why. However it is highly unlikely that discrimination is the reason for the NFL statistics. Football fans want winners and any team owner who put skin color ahead of ability to win games would soon face a bankruptcy judge. Team owners seek the players who will help them win. Even if those owners happen to be biased, they cannot afford to discriminate on the basis of anything but ability.
I’ve not heard of anybody wanting to charge NFL or NBA teams with discrimination, even though player racial statistics clearly do not reflect the average racial make-up of the U.S. population. That is wise, those players are hired for their ability, which is as it should be. Unfortunately that is not the case in other businesses. If a manufacturer or retailer fails to hire the statistically expected number of women or Blacks, and hire them into the statistically expected positions, that employer will probably be accused of discrimination. Furthermore, in violation of standard judicial procedure in this country, the burden of proof will be on the employer, not the accuser.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has actually codified this over-reliance on statistics alone. Though the rules do show some understanding of variations from the statistical norm, that allowance is quite rigid, it fails to consider sample size or intergroup variations. Worse yet, they do not consider the fact that there are very real differences between groups. A factory located between an inner city and the suburbs is expected to hire people from the inner city into the same positions and in approximately the same proportions as employees from the suburbs. That ignores the fact that people from the inner city are almost certainly not as cognitively skilled as those from the suburbs.
Of course there is a way the factory owner can avoid that problem. He can move operations to a place where most people have the skills he needs, like somewhere a long way from the inner city. In fact if he wants to avoid bankruptcy he may be forced to do that. It is difficult to compete if you are forced to hire incompetent people. That means that the inner city people he might have hired into low paying jobs will now have no jobs at all. The rule intended to help those inner city people will in fact harm them.
The fact is that there are differences between groups. In many cities, the inner city black culture militates against doing well in school. It should be no surprise that the products of that culture lack the cognitive skills needed in many jobs. Research has also shown that women’s brains are different from men’s brains. That doesn’t mean one is smarter than the other, but it may well help explain differences in what they like to do and how they do it. It should be no surprise that women prefer different types of work than do men. That is no excuse foe discrimination against the inner city Black who does have the skills for a job, or a woman who happens to enjoy running a jackhammer. However it is a reason not to expect all groups to be equally represented in all occupations.
Unfortunately too many powerful people assume that any deviation from the most expected value automatically means discrimination. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However the fact that those people are sometimes in a position to force others to act on their false beliefs harms our economy.
Next I think I’ll have a little fun with the NFL running back and quarterback issue before I return to some statistical stuff.
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