Monday, December 9, 2013

Focus on fixing the problems not arguing the ideologies

Every now and then you come across information that you believe to be immensely valuable and yet are astonished at how little publicity it receives. Such is my response to this article, A new kind of ghetto from The Economist.

I have long held that there is no biological determinism, that races are not preordained to exist in some hierarchy of ability based on genetic endowments. That hierarchies of accomplishment are largely shaped, at least in the West, based on cultural values and behaviors in combination with individual decision-making. While this might be a reasonably widely held view, it is surprisingly hard to prove in day-to-day conversations.

Steve Olson did a reasonable job of arguing against biological determinism in Mapping Human History. Thomas Sowell has provided a series of case studies that appear in several of his books. Ian Morris tackles the issue explicitly and made a good but not airtight case in Why The West Rules - For Now. And I have posted on the subject with some frequency as I come across data that helps make the case against biological determinism.

But A new kind of ghetto is pretty powerful stuff. Still not airtight but pretty good. Read the whole thing. Their general point is that disparate outcomes in the UK are now much more related to very specific contextual circumstances rather than racism or discrimination. I have also long argued that we in the US ought to be considering class as a factor more strongly associated with disparate impacts, the powerful effect of which this article also makes apparent.

We in the US get so accustomed to a certain set of assumptions about race and gender, principally because there are very powerful advocacy groups whose well-being depends on such a focus, that we forget or ignore the evidence. Looking at another country with whom we share many cultural traditions is sometimes a useful reminder that our unstated assumptions are not necessarily true.

Here is one example.
In the US, Asian Indian immigrants are usually viewed as "good immigrants", doctors, engineers, computer programmers. They are great and they do fantastically well in terms of integration, income and education attainment.

But look at the chart from the UK. In what we in the US would call the bottom income quintile, the best pass rate (for 5 acceptable GCSEs, the UK education performance measure) is among Black African immigrants at nearly 60%. Asian Indians, so successful in the US, in the UK are the second lowest achievers in the bottom quintile. And who are the lowest achievers? British born Whites with only a 30% pass rate.

That is a pretty powerful refutation of biological determinism and endorsement for the idea that culture, class, behaviors and individual decision-making are far more relevant. The Guardian had a pretty good summary of the findings of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission's 2010 report How Fair is Britain? which echo the key messages in The Economist article. Our old assumptions are ill founded and that reality is far more nuanced and complex than we are willing to acknowledge.

From The Economist.
Things began well, but Stockbridge gradually slid. In the ward that contains much of the estate, 42% of working-age adults depend on benefits. Low aspiration begets low aspiration. The local secondary school, Christ the King, inhabited a spectacular modern building. But its pupils did so poorly in exams that it was closed earlier this year.

Stockbridge is also one of Britain’s most concentrated urban ethnic ghettos. Locals aver that people with the wrong skin colour are no longer beaten up if they wander into the estate, as they were until recently. Then again, few take the risk. Fully 96% of the population of Stockbridge is of the same race: Caucasian.

Ghettos are normally thought of as black or Asian: the Bangladeshi housing estates of Tower Hamlets or the intensely African neighbourhood of Peckham, both in London. But Stockbridge Village qualifies, too. It is whiter than Britain or Merseyside as a whole, as well as far more homogeneously working-class. And it has social problems to match any ethnic-minority ghetto. Many of its inhabitants are ill. It is plagued by loan sharks. And its children are failing spectacularly. White 16-year-olds in Knowsley, the borough of which Stockbridge forms part, attain worse GCSE results than do black 16-year-olds in any London borough.


Places like Knowsley also reveal something about race in Britain. Not that poor whites are exceptionally hard done by, though men with shaved heads and black bomber jackets will argue that they are. Rather, that the country tends to look at race in the wrong way. These days, overt discrimination is not nearly as big a problem as isolation. This is true of blacks and Asians as much as whites.


Britons are also more tolerant than other Europeans. Polls show they are unusually at ease with the idea of a non-white political leader. Immigrants fare reasonably well in the job market. In 2011, 7% of British-born people and 8% of immigrants were unemployed. In Sweden, where racial attitudes are just as liberal as in Britain, the unemployment gap was much wider: 7% for natives, 15% for immigrants. Britain is the only large European country where immigrants are less likely to drop out of school than are their native-born peers.


Why are Bradford Pakistanis so cut off? Not primarily because of racism or Islamophobia, though both exist. Nor because they have decided to isolate themselves—though that is true of some. Pakistanis who make good, as doctors or solicitors, often move to mainly white suburbs. Their houses have fancy painted railings in front: an evocation of a South-East Asian family compound.

It is more their clan-based culture that sets them apart from British life, and perpetuates itself. Britain’s Pakistanis can escape this culture, but not easily, and their departure does not undermine it. Ms Ali says a growing number of people scorn first-cousin marriage, including herself, though she did marry a cousin. But the old ways remain mainstream: the biraderis and the imported spouses persist.

The problem is specific, not general. It is with Pakistanis in Bradford, not Pakistanis as a whole. Elsewhere, many have blended happily into British life—notably in London, where a fifth of Britain’s Pakistanis live. But this group in this place is stuck, just as the working-class whites who live in Stockbridge are stuck.


The really important thing is to understand where the problems lie. They do not lie with whole ethnic groups, nor with mass immigration. Instead, they are specific and deep. Britain mostly gets on well—better than most other countries. But the exceptions are woven tightly into the national fabric.
Fixing specific measured problems under particular circumstances. That would seem the way forward rather than dealing vestigial abstractions, usually of an ideological origin.

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