Academic Questions: Testing the Tests for Racism

Wilfred Reilly:

Against the claim of decreased American racism over the past twenty years have come the audit studies. Throughout much of the modern era, a large number of empirically-minded social scientists have pointed out that racism seems by any objective standard to be declining.1 However, other scholars argue that anonymous tests show considerable modern-era bias against blacks and other racial minorities.2 How can both of these results co-exist, across dozens of well-designed studies? A review of the audit studies might help.

The fact that racism has declined in the United States in the modern era, following the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, would seem objectively obvious to most people. Eric Kaufmann points out that approval of black/white interracial marriage—often presented in the context of a close relative marrying a black person—rose from 4 percent among whites in 1958 to 84 percent in 2013.3 In 2017, “fewer than 10 percent of whites” surveyed by Pew agreed with a somewhat differently worded question asking whether inter-racial marriage was “a bad thing.” No doubt as a direct consequence of such changing attitudes, the percentage of newlyweds in multi-race marriages rose from 3 percent in the mid-1960s to 17 percent today.4 Most other anonymous polls focused on key issues of race find results similar to those dealing with marriage, with Gallup finding in 2015 that only 8 percent of whites would not vote for a qualified black same-party candidate for President—as vs. 7 percent who would not vote for a Catholic, 9 percent who would not vote for a Hispanic or Jew, and 19 percent who would not vote for a Mormon.5

An especially interesting sub-category of research on the prevalence and effects of modern racism has focused on examining what happens to the performance gaps between groups (in incomes, SAT scores, etc.) that are often attributed to racism—or to genetic factors by the fringe right—when adjustments are made for non-racial characteristics which vary between groups. The economist June O’Neill (1990; 2005), for example, has pointed out that gaps in income between blacks and whites vanish almost entirely following adjustments for such obvious traits as years of education, median age, region of residence, and any aptitude test score. To quote the earlier of her two papers on this subject at some length: “Overall, black men earn 82.9 percent of the white wage. Adjusting for black-white differences in geographic region, schooling, and age raises the ratio to 87.7 percent; adding differences in (standardized) test scores raises the ratio to 95.5 percent, and adding differences in years of work experience raises the ratio to 99.1 percent.”6