Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The gender pay gap, the disparity between the aggregates of what men and women are paid, is often held up as evidence of pernicious discrimination towards women throughout society. Dr Anita Holdcroft, who authored a report on pay disparities within the National Health Service, said: “The man will often recognise the weakness of the woman’s negotiating position because she has children and so can’t move. Discrimination is the only way that we can explain the gender pay gap.” Similarly, there is a racial disparity between the youth unemployment rates. Sandra Kerr, Race for Opportunity’s national director, stated that: “I think its unconscious bias. Some employers are being really truthful about it already.” The disparity between the schooling types of students, as well as their racial composition, at the University of Oxford is also declared to be the result of discrimination. This general claim was rendered specific by Gordon Brown, then-Chancellor, describing the decision by Magdelan College to reject star pupil Laura Spence in 2000 as “elitism” and “an absolute scandal”.
It is the supposedly self-evident assumption of many political crusades that disparity and discrimination are indistinguishable. The assertion that disparities can be wholly explained by discrimination seems, at first, plausible. We are taught at school that if a coin continually throws up heads or a die shows mostly sixes, then that is a biased coin and a biased die. If we see across society that there are disproportionalities, such as between the aggregate pay of men and women, the number of women in managerial positions, the proportion of state-schooled children at top universities; then we conclude that we must live in a biased society. The fallacy is, unlike coins and dice, human beings are not random events.
The assumption that disparities exist only as the result of direct discrimination has even penetrated the realm of law in some countries. In the United States, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) can enforce penalties against banks and other lending institutions on the basis of ‘disparate impact’. This is when “a lender applies a practice uniformly to all applicants but the practice has a discriminatory effect on a prohibited basis and is not justified by business security.” Such laws and regulations mean that the FDIC can fine banks on the basis of lending differences, even though no actual discrimination can be found, or even need to occur.
Another assertion is that if society were free of discrimination and bias, then it would be also free of these disparities. However, disproportionalities and differences in either economic performance or civic engagement are the norm, and even approximately proportionate societies are very unusual. From important duties, like voting in elections, to trivial past-times, such as what television programmes we watch, there exist multi-dimensional disparities. Consequently, there are many disparities for which discrimination cannot be a rational explanation. In The Quest for Cosmic Justice by Thomas Sowell, he lists a small number of these incongruences: More than 80% of Californian doughnut shops are owned by people of Cambodian ancestry; in the 1960s, the Chinese minority in Malaysia provided 80-90% of all university students in medicine, science and engineering; in the early parts of the 20th century, people of German descent dominated many industries in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.
According to The Economist in 2003, “Malaysia is probably the only country in the world with racial discrimination explicitly written into its constitution.” After riots in 1969, the National Economic Policy was instituted in 1971, reserving a large amount of government jobs and university places for the bumiputras, ‘sons of the soil’; another term for the ethnic Malays. It also attempted to prescribe the ownership of publicly traded companies, and forced Malay schools to teach solely in Malay, rather than English, as they had previously under the British Empire. However, despite these discriminatory policies, the Chinese minority continues to economically outperform the Malaysian majority. This demonstrates that even though discrimination may be woven into a country’s very fabric, the disparities can be reversed.
Political missionaries entwine a statistical disparity with anecdotes, to reveal a great tapestry of permeating discrimination. These disparities almost always have better explanations than direct discrimination, and anecdotes may be isolated. Discrimination undoubtedly exists, but it cannot satisfactorily describe all of the various disparities in our society, and throughout other societies across the world.