Racial Disparity in Wages Is Mostly Due to Racial Disparity in Skills

(p. A11) I was raised, in part, by my paternal grandmother—a phenomenal black woman born in 1925 who came of age during Jim Crow, attended Bethune-Cookman University in the early 1940s, and experienced both the promise and limitations of the civil-rights era when integrating schools in Florida in 1969. She did her best to teach sixth-graders subject-verb agreement minutes after being spat on by their parents. Her life’s journey provided unlimited content as we sat together for nearly three decades, stuck to the plastic slipcovers on her sofa, playing cards, drinking sweet tea, and talking uninhibitedly about race in America.

. . .

. . ., in graduate school, I read a 1995 paper titled “The Role of Premarket Factors in Black-White Wage Differences.” Using a nationally representative sample of more than 12,000 14- to 17-year-olds from 1979, Derek A. Neal and William R. Johnson estimated that blacks earned between 35% to 45% less than whites on average.

. . .

“We find,” they wrote in the abstract of their paper, “that this one test score explains all of the black-white wage gap for young women and much of the gap for young men.” With their approach, antiblack bias played no role in the divergent wages among women; a black woman with the same qualifications as a white woman made slightly more money. And it accounted for at most 29% of the racial difference among men, with 71% traceable to disparate performance on the AFQT. The AFQT itself was evaluated by the Pentagon, which found that black and white military recruits with similar AFQT scores performed similarly on the job—indicating no racial bias.

The paper felt like an attack on what I knew. An assault on all those conversations with my grandmother, which taught me that racism—present-tense racism—dictated black-white inequality.

. . .

I vented about my battle with Messrs. Neal and Johnson to a fellow graduate student at Penn State, a white guy from the cornfields of Southern Illinois.

. . .

I told him I was sure discrimination was a bigger factor than Messrs. Neal and Johnson were letting on, but “I just can’t get this data to cooperate.”

. . .

He pointed out how far I was straying from our Euler equations. How on any subject other than race, I would have never given in to such sloppy thinking.

. . .

Messrs. Neal and Johnson, as it turns out, aren’t bigots, and their conclusions have stood the test of time and my attempts to disprove them. I extended their analysis to unemployment, teen pregnancy, incarceration and other outcomes—all of which follow the same pattern.

. . .

Taken together, an honest review of the evidence suggests that current racial inequities are more a result of differences in skill than differences in treatment of those with the same skill.

. . .

A black kid who believes he will face daunting societal obstacles is likely to underinvest in trying to climb society’s rungs. Every black student in the country needs to know that his return on investment in education is, if anything, higher than for white students.

. . .

The solution isn’t to look away from discrimination. It does exist. But we also can’t point at every gap in outcomes and instantly conclude it’s racism. Prejudice must be measured rigorously. Statistically. Disparity doesn’t necessarily imply racism. It may feel omnipresent, but it isn’t all-powerful. Skills matter most.

For the full commentary, see:

Roland Fryer. “Disparity Doesn’t Necessarily Imply Racism.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 26, 2022): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 25, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Neal and Johnson paper discussed by Fryer in passages quoted above is:

Neal, Derek A., and William R. Johnson. “The Role of Premarket Factors in Black-White Wage Differences.” Journal of Political Economy 104, no. 5 (Oct. 1996): 869-95.

(Note: the reference is linked to the NBER draft of the paper, and not to the final published version, which can obtained from academic databases such as JSTOR.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *