Racism in America? A Closer Look at the Numbers

The popular SWPL Youtuber John Green recently uploaded a video entitled Racism in the United States: by the Numbers. In the video, Green cites recent polls showing that many white people don’t believe that racism is a significant problem in America today. Green finds this data troubling because, in his mind, the existence of racism in America is borne out so strongly by the relevant data that it isn’t even debatable. To support this contention Green points to numerous statistics which purport to show that blacks and whites, who are more or less identical, except for their race, differ significantly in terms of how they are treated by the criminal justice system, the health care system, and the economic system.

The most punchable face in America pontificates on race.
I’ve reviewed the statistics that Green presents and I don’t think that a single one of them can be rationally interpreted as demonstrating that racism against blacks is a serious problem in America. With out exception, the differences between blacks and whites that Green cites can be explained without any reference to racism. Below I will examine each of Green’s data points to show that this is the case.

Before I do that, it is important to define what I mean by racism. Racism, in my view, takes place when people hate, or significantly dislike, certain groups of people solely because of their racial heritage. This will be important later on. The existence of racial differences cannot, in and of itself, be taken as proof of racism. Racial groups may differ because of internal difference in culture, history, or other causes. Because of this, assuming that racism explains group differences merely because group differences exist is a fallacy.

Blacks Receive Longer Sentences for the Same Crimes

The first statistic Green cites is this: black male prisoners receive, on average, 20% longer sentences than whites, even when the people being compared committed similar crimes. This statistic doesn’t demonstrate racism for at least two reasons. First, “similar” crimes are not identical crimes. It may be that the average assault committed by a black man is significantly worse than the average assault committed by a white man. Secondly, a criminal’s sentence is determined by more than just his most recent crime. Past criminal behavior and other factors about the individual will also have an impact. Because of this, it is worth noting that a 2013 study found that blacks and whites who had similar histories of violence and were matched for intelligence had identical average sentences. Thus, this racial disparity seems to be accounted for entirely by factors other than racism.

Yeah, oops.
The War on Drugs

Green’s next statistic is this: blacks and whites use drugs at the same rates but blacks are far more likely than whites to be arrested for drugs. Since differences in drug use rates can’t account for the difference, racism must.

The biggest problem with this statistic is that it is false: blacks do not use drugs at the same rate that whites do. The data Green is relying on is self report data. What the research he points to shows is that blacks admit to using drugs at the same rate that whites do. This doesn’t mean that they actually use drugs at the same rate. As difficult as this is for some to accept, the truth is that blacks are more likely to lie about using drugs than whites are. This may sound like a harsh conclusion, but many studies done over several decades have shown that this is the case. In these studies researchers asked participants about their recent drug use and then used biological tests of drug residue, such as analyzing urine or hair, to determine if the participants were lying. Study after study after study has shown that blacks are more likely to lie about drug use than whites are. So blacks admitting to using drugs at the same rate that whites do is perfectly consistent with them using drugs more and, therefore, getting arrested more often. On top of this, reports issued by the Justice Department have shown that Black drug users use drugs more often than white drug users, use more dangerous drugs than white drug users, and are more likely to use drugs in areas with high crime rates. Each of these factors increases the arrest gap between Black drug users and White drug users. And none of them are obviously attributable to racism.

Blacks Are Stopped By Cops. A lot.

Green also points to the fact that Blacks are more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people are, even though searches of whites uncover illegal material more often than searches of blacks.

The fundamental problem with this data is simple: there are lots of reasons why blacks might be getting stopped more than whites that have nothing to do with racism. The use of this statistic to prove racism assumes that none of these alternatives are true. For instance, black people are far less likely than white people to own a car. So this argument assumes that walking around town doesn’t increase your chances of getting stopped. It also assumes that blacks don’t spend more time away from home than whites do. If you’re out of the house more, your chances of getting stopped by police will go up. It assumes that blacks don’t act more suspiciously than whites do. Blacks might be more likely to wear clothing associated with criminality, to loiter for long periods of time, etc. Green’s argument makes all of these assumptions but he provides evidence for none of them.

It’s also important to note that these data sets come from two large cities: LA and New York. Both of these cities are disproportionately black relative to the rest of the United States. Because of this, and the relatively high violent crime rate among blacks in general, most people that commit violent crimes in these cities are probably black. And so black people will be more likely to match descriptions of perpetrators than whites will. This will also lead to blacks getting stopped by police more often. Any of these variables, and many more, could lead to blacks being stopped more than whites. And none of them imply that the police are acting in a racist way.

Blacks Are More Likely To Be Falsely Imprisoned

Green also brings up the fact that blacks are more likely than whites to be proven innocent by DNA evidence after a false conviction. The implication is that blacks are falsely convicted more of than whites and that this can only be explained by racism.

This is a pretty weak argument. There are lots of reasons for which blacks might get falsely convicted more often than whites that have nothing to do with racism. For example, according to project innocence, the organization that compiled the data Green referenced, not being able to afford a good lawyer is the most common cause of a false conviction. Blacks are poorer, on average, than whites are. So they probably can’t afford good lawyers. But that is no proof of racism.

Additionally, activist groups that get cases reexamined might be more likely to help black prisoners than white ones. This too could explain why blacks are more likely than whites to be exonerated by DNA evidence. One might argue that this is a form of racism, such groups would be discriminating against white people after all. But it’s obviously not the kind of racism that Green has in mind.

Blacks Are More Likely To Be Tried As Adults

Green’s next statistic is that black juveniles are more likely to be tried as adults than white juveniles are. I’m not sure why Green thinks that this is indicative of racism. Juveniles are supposed to be tried as adults when their crimes are especially serious or when they have a history of crime. How do we know that black juveniles aren’t simply more likely than white juveniles to commit serious crimes or to have histories of crime? In fact, this is what we should expect given that data from the FBI shows that black adults are far more likely than white adults to commit serious violent crimes and therefore should have longer histories of crime.

The New York Times article that Green references for this statistic also reports an experiment in which thinking about a black juvenile made study participants more likely to view juveniles as similar to adults than thinking about a white juvenile did. This is interesting because blacks actually do physically mature faster than whites. Even as infants blacks posses brain waves and skeletal features which suggest greater physical maturity. And studies looking at many different bio-markers show that this is true of blacks as adults as well. Similarly, studies of black adolescents show that blacks enter puberty sooner than whites do. So there is no need to invoke racism. People may just be picking up on the fact that blacks mature faster than whites and thus black juveniles really are more similar to adults than white juveniles are.

Blacks Get Fewer Callbacks For Jobs

Green also cites two studies with similar designs which attempt to show that employers discriminate against black applicants. Researchers submitted identical applications to employers with the exception of the race of the applicants: some of the applicants were black and some were white. Both studies found that blacks were less likely to be called back than whites and Green attributes this to racism.

The reasoning behind this is that black and white applicants who have similar credentials will also be similarly competent at work and so the only reason why blacks are getting called back less is because employers don’t want to hire black people. The basic assumption here, that blacks and whites with similar credentials are equally competent, is just not true. Consider the data compiled by the Department of Education’s National Survey of Adult Literacy. The NSAL interviewed a nationally representative sample of nearly 14,000 people and tested their ability to read, understand documents, and engage in practical quantitative reasoning. This study found that whites out-preformed blacks at every level of education. In fact, blacks with graduate degrees performed worse on tests of functional literacy than whites who had completed some college but hadn’t gotten a 2 year degree. In quantitative reasoning whites who had graduated high-school and had never even been to college did just as well as blacks who had 4 year degrees. So employers may be discriminating against blacks with similar credentials based on the fact that this will tend to get them better employees. This doesn’t imply that they hate blacks. At most, it just implies that they know what black people at given levels of qualification are like. And so I don’t see how you can call this racism. In fact, calling this racism will leave you in an pretty awkward position since it’s also completely rational.

If you understand the basics of probability distributions it is actually easy to show that credentialed blacks will, on average, have lower cognitive abilities than identically credentialed whites. Credentials like degrees or work experience typically take some minimum amount of intelligence to obtain. But having too much intelligence won’t make them any harder to obtain. So these credentials correspond to minimum, but not maximum, ability thresholds. As the Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen documented in his book The G Factor: the Science of Mental Ability, blacks score lower, on average, on intelligence tests than whites do and the white intelligence distribution has a significantly larger standard deviation than the black standard deviation, (The G Factor: the Science of Mental Ability, page 353, by Arthur Jensen) Because the white distribution has a higher mean and higher variance, the average white intelligence score to the right of any minimum threshold will be significantly higher than the black average intelligence score. For instance, if you just look at people who score 115 or above on intelligence tests the chances of a white having scoring 130 or more is about ten times larger than the probability of a black scoring 130 or more. (The white mean is 100 and the black mean is 85 and the white standard deviation is 15 and the black standard deviation is 12. So the Z score of a 130 IQ will be 2 for whites and 3.75 for blacks. Use this formula to get the results I reported. Calculate probability Q from Z.)

Wait, nobody said there would be math…
Ending on a Low Note

Thus far, Green’s arguments have followed a similar logic: he’s attempted to show that black and white people who are identical in every way except race are treated differently in a way that negatively impacts blacks. These are reasonable arguments. The reason why they all fail is because the blacks and whites that Green compares are not, in fact, identical except for their race. But if they were, if Green’s assumptions were accurate, then concluding that racism explains group differences would be reasonable.

Unfortunately, towards the end of his video Green departs from this kind of reasoning and uses statistics which simply show differences between blacks and whites as evidence for racism. Green notes that whites normally go to better schools, have better health care, and inherit more money. None of these data points constitute serious evidence of racism. There are innumerable reasons which have nothing to do with racism which might explain any of them. The mere existence of group differences does not tell us anything about the causes of group differences. To think otherwise is frankly childish.

For example, all three data points might be explained by whites having a lower time preference than blacks. This means that they are more willing to put off immediate gratification to pursue long term rewards. There are several sources of evidence, including replicated experimental evidence, which indicate that such differences exist which I have discussed elsewhere. This could lead to whites making better students, and thus causing their schools to offer better classes, to whites being more likely to purchase insurance and engage in healthy behavior, and to whites saving more and so leaving behind a greater inheritance. I’m not saying that this is necessarily the cause of group differences. The point is that I can easily think of explanations, for which there exist some evidence, that could account for these data points and which have nothing to do with racism. And so inferring racism from them is not a valid argument.


Green is a very popular youtuber. As of now, his video has over half a million views. And most people seem utterly convinced by his arguments. Obviously, this post isn’t going to get anywhere near as many views as Green’s video. But the more people who see that Green’s uncritical approach to evidence is leading him to reach unjustified conclusions the better. So I encourage people to either engage some of the people on Green’s video with some of the evidence I have presented here, or to link this post. (Assuming you think that it is compelling.)

(Or link to the original post on Sean’s blog, which doesn’t have the association of being on an edgy right wing site. – ME)

Here is the original Green video in all its irritating glory.