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Race Differences: A Dialogue
"Silence is surrender. And I do not want to surrender. "
Written by Bo Winegard.
PHILO: My contention, which is, I will admit, controversial, is that race differences are real, pervasive, and consequential. Moreover, they should be discussed publicly. No more tactful silence. No more biting the tongue for the sake of social decorum and political tranquility. No more acquiescence to the myth of equality. The progressive left, with its insistence that all racial disparities that favor whites are caused by racism, has violated the original compromise that encouraged a seemly restraint about race. Thus, we must either submit to this erroneous narrative, or we must oppose it without apology. We must either accept the lie that America is rife with racism, or we must challenge it forcefully. We must either capitulate, or we must trespass upon the great taboo of race differences.
CLEANTHES: Of course, you are right that your contention is controversial. But we are here for a cordial and honest conversation. I will not impugn your motives or ascribe abhorrent views to you. That kind of petulance and dishonesty is best left to children or journalists on Twitter.
You claim that race differences are real and pervasive. I think that’s an overstatement. You also claim that the progressive left violated the compromise that allowed for self-restraint about discussing race differences. I think that’s a fair and accurate accusation. I will not defend the progressive left’s behavior. The fomenting of racial antipathy is odious, and I contemn it. What I will defend, however, is a commitment to the original compromise. Tactful silence as you called it. It was a wise and appropriate compromise. Do not misunderstand me. I am not defending mendacities, and I am not defending ignorance. Science has different rules from public discourse. It pitilessly pursues the truth. It cares about facts not consequences. And, at its best, it is entirely descriptive, not prescriptive.
I am only defending respectful silence in public. I do not think scientists should be prohibited from pursuing the topic of race differences. But I do think pundits should forebear talking about it in popular forums and articles. Just as we find it rude and even appalling to discuss an unsightly person’s appearance at a dinner table, so too we should find it rude to discuss racial differences in public forums. This is not a symptom of excessive authoritarianism; it is a symptom of civilization. Living together requires judicious silence.
PHILO: I applaud you for your commitment to cordial disagreement and debate. That is precisely how we will make progress on this apparently intractable problem. You expressed skepticism that race differences are pervasive, so let me start there. Nobody who is familiar with the literature disputes that there are large IQ gaps between races. This is in mainstream textbooks on the topic. Whites score about 100; Blacks score about 85; Asians score about 105. And so on. Estimates vary depending upon the sample and the year, but those numbers will work for this discussion. Thus, the only dispute among serious scholars is about causes.
These differences are not trivial; they have enormous consequences. Not only are the means different but the proportion of each race in different categories on the right-hand side (the higher side, if you will) of the IQ bell curve is vastly different. (The proportion on the left-hand side is different too, but that’s not important for this point.) The proportion of people who are three standard deviations smarter than the mean of their race, for example, is very small (roughly .15%). Since the mean for Blacks is roughly 85, the proportion of Blacks who have an IQ 130 and above is roughly .15%, whereas for Whites is about 2.35%. If we suppose, for instance, that being a successful physicist at an elite university requires a 140 IQ, then the pool of qualified Blacks will be quite small. And the pool of qualified Whites and Asians will be much bigger.
But crime disparities might be even more important. Few people want to die. And the fear of death is a great—some would even say the great—motivator of human behavior. In major cities, the homicide rate disparities between Whites and Blacks are enormous. For example, in New York, Blacks are roughly 18 times more likely than Whites to commit a murder. In Washington D. C., the number is staggering: They are almost 85 times more likely! Of course, these numbers change from year to year. But the basic pattern and the enormous disparity remains stubbornly constant. We can’t erase this or wish it away. It’s real. It’s incontrovertible. It’s pervasive. And it’s incredibly consequential.
CLEANTHES: I do not mean to deny all race differences. That’s clearly not an honest attempt to grapple with reality. However, I would dispute the importance of some of the figures you have presented. Take IQ. I’m not a denialist. I accept that intelligence is real and related to real-world outcomes. It's not a phantom, an epiphenomenon, a meaningless measure. But knowing that there are race differences in IQ, or even in homicide rates, does not allow one to make predictions about individuals. Furthermore, the IQ gap may have closed since the 1950s; and it may close more with improvements in nutrition and education. Ultimately, the country is composed of individuals and their traits. Not groups. And that is what we should focus on. Discourse about groups is divisive and reifies the ghosts of our tribal mind.
PHILO: That’s an honorable and high-minded position, but I fear that it’s too abstract to be of any use in the real world. Using your principle, one could say that the planet is composed of individual animals and their traits, but anybody who treated an alligator and a rabbit the same would be a fool. People who detect patterns might survive and flourish. People who do not detect patterns will be exploited and perhaps killed. The world is too dangerous, even in an affluent, post-industrial civilization, for such lofty idealism. What is more, it’s immoral, in my view, to contend that people should override their brain’s propensity for pattern detection since such a contention privileges those who are wealthy enough to live in areas free from crime. Only they can afford to ignore base rates. Or pretend to ignore base rates.
On the closing of the gaps. I am skeptical that they will ever disappear. A useful comparison might be the sex difference in height. Across time, this difference has fluctuated a bit. But it has remained relatively constant and ultimately intractable (though most people are not interested in closing it, so it doesn’t rankle activists). The same likely applies to the racial gap in intelligence. However, even if the gap could be closed in the future, it exists today. It will exist tomorrow. And the next day. And so on. Thus, it will be a reality for the foreseeable future. And my point is that we should talk about this reality since it is crucially important. If it closes or disappears, then we won’t need to talk about it!
CLEANTHES: The argument that my position favors privileged people, or at least those people lucky enough to live in safe neighborhoods, is fair and important. Undeniably, people who live in crime-free communities have the luxury of espousing views that those in crime-plagued communities cannot. “Abolish the police,” for example. Such a policy is easy to promote if you live in a gated community. But if you live on a block pestered and harassed by gangs, then not so much. But I am not arguing that people should ignore base rates in their private lives or espouse fatuous political fantasies. I am merely arguing that they should not discuss race-based disparities publicly. And I am arguing that because race is just too divisive. It is the fundamental dividing line in the United States, a fractious topic that could tear the country apart. Sex differences are different because sex is not so divisive as race.
Ultimately, my position is pragmatic. It is not based on abstract ideals or high principles. It is based on a tragic recognition of human nature and tribalism. Talking openly about race differences is playing a dangerous game of chance with society. And, I might add, it is not a particularly conservative position. It’s a radical and unnecessary experiment.
PHIILO: I agree that it’s a radical position. But one that has been forced upon us by the excesses of the progressive left and even by mainstream elites—all those who vilipend whites and blame social disparities on the anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism that supposedly plagues our society. Without addressing the underlying racial differences that cause the disparities, our response to these exaggerations and outright mendacities is inevitably ineffectual. You are asking for asymmetrical restraint. You are asking a soldier to keep his sword sheathed while an enemy army slaughters his battalion. It’s simply not realistic to expect ordinary whites to submit to a norm that most elites have long-since repudiated.
CLEANTHES: I want to be clear that I agree with you about the perfidy of elites. That is the original sin here. It is abominable. I won’t defend it.
My goal is to encourage both sides to stop obsessing over race. The question, as I see it, is this: what can we do in the real world to promote peace and harmony in a multiracial democracy whose tranquility is always imperiled by racial strife? The answer is that we can adhere to the taboo against talking about it publicly. But I don’t take this position lightly. Any taboo against public speech is dangerous. It obviously has costs. But I think the costs of widespread candor are higher.
Many elites have violated the compromise. That is true. And your argument is that people should violate it right back. I mean, why play by rules from which elites have exempted themselves? Only a sucker would do that! But I have an alternative position. The sucker is the person who succumbs to anarchism. To retaliation. To tit-for-tat gamesmanship that inevitably leads to ruin. The better strategy, the more principled strategy, is to preserve the ideal and to hold everybody to it. If your opponent in a debate engages in ad hominem attacks, do not insult him back. Instead, proudly play by the rules and highlight his boorishness. People will always break rules. If that excused lawlessness, civilization would be impossible.
PHILO: I applaud you for denouncing contemporary elites for their unhealthy obsession with racial disparities and their dishonesty about the causes of those disparities. But I think you are wrong when you contend that the healthiest response is simply to maintain the status quo. And your analogies are misleading. In the case of a debate full of ad hominem attacks, I agree that it’s best to remain polite and stick to the evidence; but that strategy only works because other people will enforce the norms of civility. The person who launches into churlish or profane tirades or resorts to personal insults in a debate will be judged by viewers, listeners, readers. Remaining calm and partial to facts and evidence will help to persuade others.
But when virtually the entire elite class has eschewed the principle of restraint, then it’s a losing strategy to stick to the outdated compromise of silence. It’s less about persuasion and more about rhetorical war.
And of course, you are correct that people will always violate the law. And that such violations do not excuse further violations. I cannot, for example, exonerate myself of a murder by noting to the judge that other people, say O. J. Simpson, have in fact committed murder without being punished. But this is because society as a whole is committed to enforcing the law. A few mistakes are inevitable. Innocent people convicted. Guilty people never charged. But in a generally lawful society, we tolerate such deviations from perfection because we know that the system as a whole and on average works. And therefore, we are wise to support and abide by the norms and laws of the society. However, in a thoroughly corrupt society, a society in which the police are as criminal as the criminals, and the government as in need of governance as the governed, obeying the law is foolish. And we are patsies if we support and abide by the norms.
It may be noble to be principled, but I do not see nobility in the pacificist who lets himself be slaughtered because he refuses to raise arms against violent marauders. I see cowardice and naivety.
CLEANTHES: I am not preaching a kind of naïve pacifism. I am preaching a courageous defense of basic decency, a courageous defense of the norms and sacrifices that permit a civilization to flourish. Allow me to illustrate this with a concrete example so our conversation doesn’t become too wispy, too elevated, too abstract. Take the IQ gap. Let us assume for the sake of our debate that the black average is roughly 85 and the white average is roughly 100. It’s a large gap. I’m not disputing that. But if we inhabit a meritocratic society, a society that diligently defends the principles of liberalism, then the group averages should be irrelevant. Some black people are extremely smart and will flourish. Some white people are extremely dim and will need help. Averages being about groups, a society based on individualism does not need to discuss averages publicly.
Again, I am talking about public discourse. Not science. Scientists should be free to pursue these topics. To discuss them. And to posit causal hypotheses. I don’t want a President Biden to talk about the IQ gap. But if a psychometrician at Yale talks about it, then that’s fine. We’ve always had different styles of discourse in different social domains, so this isn’t a novel idea. We may curse quite freely with our drinking buddies but speak like saints with our grandparents. That is not a form of hypocrisy. It’s the very basis for civilization. Freedom can only flourish when people practice discipline and restraint.
PHILO: Can you imagine Joe Biden talking about the IQ gap? That would be something! I will make a concession: I don’t want President Biden or President Trump or President Newsome or President DeSantis talking much about the IQ gap either. At least not in the near future. I’m enough of a conservative to promote judicious change. We need people to acclimate to such honesty. Race differences are so large and pervasive, so consequential, that many ordinary people would be shocked to encounter honest and unfiltered conversation about them. It would be disturbing and unsettling. And it would provoke a backlash. However, I do think that those who want to oppose the excesses of progressivism should talk about these differences—the sooner the better. Because right now progressivism is ravaging our institutions with very little resistance.
CLEANTHES: So we agree that, at least in principle, different domains of discourse have different rules. And that it is not unreasonable to desire a politician (or a media maven!) to refrain from discussing certain topics publicly because such a discussion would be unhelpfully inflammatory?
PHILO: We do. Our disagreement is about a concrete case, not an abstract principle.
CLEANTHES: Let us drill more deeply into specifics then. Do you think that it would be rude, uncouth, even immoral to talk openly about an unattractive woman’s face in a crowd of people in front of her?
PHILO: Yes. I think that would be wrong. But that would also be gratuitous. And that’s not what we are discussing here.
CLEANTHES: All right. Do you think it would be unseemly to talk openly about race differences in attractiveness in a classroom?
PHILO: It would require sensitivity and prudence, but not necessarily. Nevertheless, I would not recommend it. But this example is unique from other race differences since it is not relevant to current discourse, to progressivism, or to prevailing racial disparities. So, if the New York Times asserted that beauty contests are racist because whites and Asians win more often than blacks, then I think it would be reasonable to address those claims with data. I’m not sure what the data would say—but that’s the appropriate way to wrestle with an empirical claim.
CLEANTHES: That’s fair. And I think the better response would be to chastise the New York Times for participating in the “this must be racism” game. They are trying to divide, to fracture the country. It generates clicks. Poisonous discourse is often profitable. But we don’t have to play their game. We can abjure racially polarizing claims and conversations. We can promote liberalism. And we can resist the urge to flip the bird to those who vex us with their fallacious accusations of racism.
PHILO: But this is more than a reactive flip of the bird. This is a principled attachment to empirical data. And a refusal to tolerate lies. Racial disparities will always exist. And people will always notice them. We cannot escape that. Yes, we should discourage demagoguery. But the best defense against those who promote racial antipathy is neither bilious retaliation nor submissive silence—it is calm, fact-based refutation of the sea of lies that buoys racial progressivism. That is true today, and it will remain true for the foreseeable future. Demagoguery is like a cockroach: It thrives in the dark.
CLEANTHES: Demagoguery thrives when elite opinion diverges starkly from majority opinion. But if both elites and most people embraced the norm of tactful silence, then the opinion of elites would not alienate or rankle as it does now.
I must say, your view of human nature is more optimistic than mine. My belief in the prudence of silence stems from my dim view of human nature. I do not hate humans, mind you. That is too easy and artsy and melodramatic. But I do believe that humans are irrational, tribal, violent animals and that modern peaceful democracies are miraculous. As such, they should be protected and preserved as we would protect and preserve a marvelous work of art. And that means, we should refrain from unnecessary experimentation. Anything that might encourage rivalry between the races should be discouraged. This is precisely why we have many other taboos—those against public name calling and impoliteness, for example. Insulting other people might lead to violence. So, we discourage it. Well, talking about race differences in IQ might lead to violence. So, we should discourage it.
PHILO: I am a fan of realism about human nature, but your concessions to the supposed darkness of humanity are too much—and they end by infantilizing our species. Of course, we should not pine for chimerical utopias, but talking honestly about human variation is hardly a fantastical hope for society. And what is more, we should encourage people to distinguish between facts and values, between empirical claims and moral claims.
Still, I would be more sympathetic to your counsel of caution if the progressive left weren’t already running roughshod over it. And thus, we end in the same place we began. The compromise, important as it may have been, is over. You are clinging to a corpse. And the result will be widespread hypocrisy and vexing double standards. Elites will continue blame whites for racial disparities. People who disagree will continue to remain silent for fear of censure or worse. Of course, a few dissidents will be courageous (or obstinate!) enough to dissent publicly. And they will be punished.
CLEANTHES: Let us wind down, then, by summarizing our positions. My view is that race differences are real, though not quite so pervasive and consequential as you claim. I do not want to deny what is obvious to the senses and undisputed by serious scholars. And I also encourage scientists to study the topic of race differences as they study sex or class differences. Being a liberal, I firmly support free inquiry. Nothing about what I am saying requires rejecting liberalism or closing one’s eyes to reality.
However, I do want to preserve the taboo against talking about race differences publicly because it is such an incendiary and divisive topic, a topic that could tear society asunder. As I have said, I agree with you that progressives turned their back on the compromise that allowed for a tactful silence about race. They should be denounced for that. But the correct response is not eye-for-eye retribution. It is a steadfast defense of the wisdom of the taboo. We forgo talking about many things publicly because they would be offensive or uncouth; therefore, my position is not novel or especially coercive. Just as we do not discuss inflammatory religious doctrines in high-school classrooms, so too we should not discuss race differences in IQ in the New York Times.
PHILO: I respect your candor and cordiality. However, I think your prescriptions, though well intentioned, are ultimately pernicious. They impose unnecessary obstacles to those who want to oppose the baleful spread of racial progressivism. And, that concern aside, I worry that they are illiberal. Race differences are a source of legitimate public curiosity; compelling people to remain quiet about them strikes me as somewhat authoritarian. I understand that you are not advocating for authoritarian tactics, and I appreciate that, but I worry that your recommendations could easily be appropriated by people who are much less liberal than you are. You preach a policy that power mongers might find seductive. This does not refute your view, of course, but it at least weighs against it. And since the policy you recommend is already unwise, it is even more reason to reject it.
So, in conclusion, to defeat progressive illiberalism, we should talk honestly and openly about race differences. Of course, we should also be prudent and respectful while doing so. I’m not naïve. I understand that it is a potent and potentially combustible topic. But silence is not a viable option. Silence is surrender. And I do not want to surrender.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.
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