Thomas Sowell is great at demolishing liberal narratives. Unfortunately, he has a habit of building equally weak theories of his own in their place. One of Sowell’s favorite stories goes like this:
Blacks perform poorly in school, which in turn sets them up for lifelong failure because education is soft on them and encourages a chronic lack of motivation and self-discipline. Schools with majority Black student populations which set very high standards for students have high test scores and most of the students who graduate from such schools go to college. If schools, and families, all set these high standards for Blacks we would see Black life outcomes improve dramatically.
If you’ve read many of Sowell’s books, as I have, then this line of reasoning is very familiar to you. As are, hopefully, the problems with it. The schools that Sowell points to, schools in which Black students do very well, do not select students randomly from the general population. Instead, Black students with abnormally good parents (and, therefore, unusually good genes) enter into these schools which then expel those who cannot live up to their standards.
This is the case, for example, with schools in the “Knowledge is Power” program, which is Sowell’s most recent example in a very long list of schools Sowell likes to point to as demonstrations of Black people’s potential for over achievement. The students who enter these schools are better than average students to begin with and some research has found that a literal majority of students last less than three years in these schools.
All these examples show is that taking an already elite group of Blacks, and kicking out the lowest scoring individuals in this already above average sample, leaves you with a very high performing sample of Blacks. Thus, a school can create student bodies that score very highly on measures of educational success even if the school has virtually no causal effect on anything.
Studies which do put Blacks into highly enriched educational environments and compare their progress to proper control groups find that such programs have no long-term positive effects on cognitive ability. Sowell would likely respond to this by saying that these simply are not the right kind of programs. A problem with the teaching style is possible, but without a properly done study on the right kind of school, Sowell’s hypothesis runs the risk of being pseudo-scientific (unfalsifiable).
Regardless of which kind of schools Sowell thinks are needed to improve the educational attainment of Blacks, the idea that low levels of education causes Black poverty is easily falsifiable. As is detailed in an appendix to this article, the proportion of a city’s population which is Black is a better predictor of its poverty rate than is the proportion of a city’s population with a high school or college degree. Moreover, the size of a city’s Black population continues to predict its poverty rate when these measures of educational attainment are held constant.
In other words, if you have two cities, one all Black and one all White, the Black city will probably be poorer even if there is no difference between these cities populations in educational attainment.
Of course, Sowell’s line about education is not the only story that conservatives are like to turn to in order to explain Black poverty. They also love to talk about broken families. Unfortunately for them, this theory is no more sound than the previous one. As also shown at the bottom of this article, race continues to predict a cities poverty rate when holding the single motherhood rate constant. Moreover, the crime of African Americans has been falling for decades while the single motherhood rate has continued the steep rise that it began in the late 1960’s.
The factor that both liberals and conservatives ignore is genetics. Twin studies show that between 40% and 60% of the variation in individual’s educational attainment can be explained by genetic differences between them.
Recently, behavioral geneticists have begun to identify the specific gene variants which cause individual differences in educational attainment. In fact, a study published earlier this year found that a person’s score on a genetic test correlated at .3 with educational attainment. This is similar to the correlation found between parental socio-economic status and educational attainment.
(In the charts below, GPS means Genetic Polygenic Score, which is a score on a genetic test.)
Scores on these genetic tests, called polygenic scores, also predict educational attainment among people growing up within the same socio-economic class.
In fact, differences in these scores predict which siblings within the same family will end up doing better in school.
Just a few years ago, none of this was possible. This field is growing at an incredible pace and already has extremely impressive results to show even though we have only identified a fraction of the genes involved in educational attainment.
Returning to race, Whites are more likely than Blacks to possess gene variants that predict doing well in school and on intelligence tests.
On top of this, the more heritable a cognitive skill is the more Blacks tend to under perform whites on it.
This, and other research, suggests that genetics plays an important role in racial differences on intelligence tests and in educational attainment. In fact, a majority of intelligence researchers believe that genes explain the majority of why Blacks score more poorly than Whites on intelligence tests.
(Rindermann, Coyle & Becker 2013)
Moreover, in contrast to the other explanations looked at here, controlling for intelligence eliminates virtually all of Black/White differences in education and income.
Of course, genes cannot explain why Black crime has fallen in recent decades. In part, I think this is simply because the Black incarceration rate has risen, meaning that more Blacks are in jail and, as a result, fewer Blacks can commit crimes. Decreases in exposure to lead, and improvements in nutrition, also likely play a role. These environmental variables are important, but like most environmental variables which impact human behavior, they do not easily fit into a political narrative, and so are ignored by most people.
That genetics plays a role in racial differences is seen by many as being much worse than boring. The fact is that a large part of the Black/White gap in education, and the racial differences in life outcomes that appear later in life, are not fixable, and not anyone’s fault. We may not like it, but that’s just how it is, and it’s not going to change. The sooner we learn how to deal with these facts, the better.
Appendix: Predicting Poverty in American Cities Using Race and Educational Attainment
All this data came from the Census. Here are the bivariate relationships between the proportion of a city that is Black, poor, a high school graduate, and a college graduate, for 306 American cities in the year 2014:
And here is this same data entered into a multi linear regression with the poverty rate as the dependent variable: