All or Nothing: Why Our Discussions Over Inequality Go Nowhere

In spite of Barack Obama’s 2013 declaration that inequality is the “defining challenge of our time,” we remain paralyzed in our inability to have productive conversations about it, especially when it comes to gaps in education, wealth and income along racial and gender lines. Those on the political left argue that inequalities represent acute social problems, which demand immediate action. Those on the right have more muted reactions and are less likely to advocate for aggressive governmental responses, particularly programs that redistribute wealth. Moreover, in 2016, differences between Democrats and Republicans on whether the government should reduce income inequality were at their highest level in over thirty-five years. This is in spite of evidence indicating that Americans across the political spectrum don’t actually want equal distributions of, for instance, wealth or income; they just don’t want the degree of inequality we currently have.

What accounts for these different reactions? Are those on the right simply selfish and unfeeling towards the poor and oppressed? Or are those on the left blind to how the world really works? These caricatures are simplistic and yet they reflect what many people think. We argue that sharp differences of opinion on social inequality arise from disagreements on three issues:

  • Moral priorities: disagreement over how to define social problems based on different moral intuitions.
  • Causes: disagreement over the causes of inequality.
  • Plausible solutions: disagreement over solutions not only because they differ on the two items above, but also because they diverge on whether we have the ability to engineer solutions to complicated social problems.

Moral Priorities

With regard to the first issue, moral foundations theory (MFT), a framework developed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, is instructive. Haidt identifies six moral concerns (or foundations), which people differentially draw on in shaping their political opinions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.

Briefly, care/harm is activated when we see vulnerable groups threatened or harmed. Fairness/cheating is activated when we see individuals or groups get what they don’t deserve. Loyalty/betrayal is activated when we see individuals put their own interests before those of the groups to which they belong, and can be manifested, for example, as disloyalty to one’s nation. Authority/subversion is activated when we see individuals disrespect authority figures and traditions. Sanctity/degradation is activated when we see individuals behave in impure ways, including by desecrating sacred objects. Finally, liberty/oppression is activated when we see individuals use their power to oppress others or limit their freedom.

Haidt has shown that those on the political left place great weight on the care/harm foundation, and give additional support to the fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression foundations, while those on the right place more equal weight on all six. Those on the left, for example, are more likely to support protections for undocumented immigrants, as they are concerned by the harm caused to individuals who are deported. Those on the right might, instead, draw upon other moral foundations, such as respect for authority, which includes following laws and rules regarding immigration and loyalty to one’s nation. They see illegal immigration (or overstaying visas) as a threat to the system as a whole. Consider the following headlines:

“Asylum Seekers Don’t Think They Can Survive for Months in Mexico. Trump Wants to Force Them to.

“Members of Migrant Caravan Demand $50,000 Each from U.S. Consulate to Return Home”.

The first comes from left-leaning Vox and the second from the right-leaning National Review. The first draws on concerns about the wellbeing of migrants, while the second taps concerns about fairness and cheating.

The left also is drawn to welfare policies designed to reduce harm, such as increases in aid for the poor. These policies require resources and are typically funded through redistributive taxing. Those on the right oppose such policies for a variety of reasons but, with regard to moral foundations, their concern is with people who cheat and abuse the system (the fairness/cheating foundation) and they often argue for lower levels of redistributive taxation (the liberty/oppression foundation). Indeed, evidence suggests that people aren’t concerned with only inequality per se, but with fairness, which is inconsistently measured through equality of outcome or equality of opportunity. By contrast, liberals are willing to tolerate some level of cheating and higher taxes if the programs funded aim to reduce human suffering.

Overall, those on the left are concerned with social inequalities—including racial, gender, and class inequalities—and are therefore more likely to advocate for progressive social policies, than those on the right, who would balance concerns about inequality against compelling concerns about how such policies might conflict with other moral obligations.

Causes

We have dueling narratives about the causes of inequality in the United States. For the sake of brevity, and because they are of fundamental concern to many, we focus here on racial and gender inequality. On the one side are those who emphasize the causal role of discrimination in producing unequal outcomes. For example, a 2018 report issued by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, entitled “Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Slowly Narrowing Gender Wage Gap” highlights the importance of discrimination in producing a wage gap (though it also notes the role of lower labor force attachment among women) and concludes that, from a policy perspective, “strengthening enforcement of equal employment opportunity policies and Title IX in education is … crucial to narrowing the gender wage gap further. Improved enforcement will help women enter higher-paying fields that are now, despite decades of progress, still too often off-limits to women.”

Likewise, studies of racial inequality often highlight the role of racism in causing disparities. For example, a New York Times article, summarizing a research paper by economist Raj Chetty and co-authors, reports in its headline, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.” The research itself focuses on how black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys. The authors do not observe discrimination directly, but infer that discrimination is important because they are able to consider many factors, such as family background and neighborhood of residence, in their analysis. The Times article includes the following comment:

‘One of the most popular liberal post-racial ideas is the idea that the fundamental problem is class and not race, and clearly this study explodes that idea,’ said Ibram Kendi, a professor and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. ‘But for whatever reason, we’re unwilling to stare racism in the face.’

The countervailing narrative holds that gender and racial inequalities are explained by factors other than racism or sexism. The gender pay gap is explained by the choices men and women make about what they study in college, their subsequent careers and the amount of time they choose to devote to working versus caring for family members. Specifically, men more often choose to major in fields with greater market value than women (such as engineering and computer science), more often work in jobs that have higher wages because they would otherwise be undesirable or hazardous (e.g. logging workers, roofers), and more often work longer hours than women.

The choice explanation can be applied to racial inequality as well. For example, it has been shown that, regardless of racial background, people who follow the success sequence, graduating from high school, getting married and having children—in that order— become more financially well off than those who do not. Racial inequality, according to this view, is a function not of racism but of cultural and behavioral differences between groups regarding the emphasis placed on education and marriage, which affect the choices people make and the financial outcomes they reap.

Empirical evidence on these perspectives is less than definitive. While studies document that discrimination has been important in explaining the gender wage gap in prior eras, they also show that its effects have declined over time, though perhaps they have not disappeared altogether. The reason why men and women choose different college majors and occupations is still a topic of considerable debate, with those on the left arguing that such differences are themselves evidence of inequities further upstream. Women may be actively dissuaded from or otherwise made to feel unwelcome in certain majors and jobs, and gender-based socialization may play a role in funneling men and women into different career (or non-career) paths. Those on the right may not deny that socialization plays a role but they often note that today there are few practical constraints on the choices individual women can make. Some also point to evolutionary biology and psychology in explaining differences in such choices. For example, some evidence suggests that men are by nature more interested in objects, and thus are more likely to become engineers, while women are more interested in people, which is why they are more likely to become teachers. The precise role that socialization plays, and the extent to which it is shaped by evolutionary forces, has not been resolved, leaving people to their own preferences and biases in adjudicating between these causal stories.

With regard to racial inequality, there is little debate about the principal role that racism has played in preventing upward mobility among blacks throughout history. The Civil Rights movement and subsequent legislation helped reduce racial discrimination, but many argue that discrimination and systemic racism still hinder socioeconomic achievement among blacks and other minority groups. Discrimination can be difficult to directly observe and prove, though audit studies, in which blacks and whites with nearly identical resumes apply for jobs, have found that blacks are still disadvantaged in the labor market. Of course, the pervasiveness of discrimination could vary considerably across industries and occupations; minority group members may actually have an advantage today in industries where there is considerable demand for greater diversity and representation, such as in academia, high tech, and the media. However, the current research examining the role of race in these industries has been limited.

Cultural variation may also explain differences in average socioeconomic outcomes. But this notion is fraught, as it has sometimes been invoked to blame the victim, by seeming to hold poor people accountable for their poverty, while ignoring the broader structural forces that might be at play. Nevertheless, ethnographic research and journalistic accounts have shown that cultural values and lifestyles, such as a weak work ethic and non-marital childbearing inhibit upward mobility among some groups, such as blacks in low-income neighborhoods or whites in isolated rural communities. Importantly, it may not be culture alone, but rather culture interacting with structural circumstances, such as depressed economic conditions, that matters most. This is precisely the complexity of understanding we need to—but seldom do—bring to policy discussions. Culture also provides an explanation for the high levels of educational attainment among Asian immigrants, who highly value education and its potential to foster upward mobility, and communicate this to their children, who in turn put more effort into their schoolwork than their white and other non-Asian peers. As with discrimination, however, the extent to which contemporary inequality is driven by culture remains difficult to quantify.

Returning to the example of the New York Times story about black boys falling behind white boys, it may well be that discrimination fully explains the racial difference in achievement. However, it is also possible that culture (or other factors not related to discrimination) explains the difference—the problem is that neither cause was directly observed in that study. This is the root of the problem: the magnitude of the effect of discrimination in explaining group differences is very likely significantly above zero, but also likely quite short of 100 percent. This vast area of uncertainty perpetuates the protracted debate on what causes unequal outcomes by race, an uncertainty that plagues debates about gender inequality as well.

Plausible Solutions

Finally, people disagree on solutions not only because they employ different moral frames and have different views on the causes of inequality, but also because they differ in the faith they have in human beings to engineer solutions to complicated social problems. Economist Thomas Sowell refers to this as a conflict of visions. Those on the left tend to be more optimistic about the ability of policymakers to engineer positive social outcomes. Those on the right, on the other hand, tend to be skeptical of government interventions and believe that policies to reduce inequality often not only fail to achieve their goals, but sometimes have unintended consequences, such as the fostering of dependency, and making things worse for all, including the intended beneficiaries.

Part of this difference in visions rests on whether we view people as blank slates who are amenable to change through social planning and psychological engineering. If inequality is a function of oppressive forces, then we are morally obligated to do what we can to reduce it. To endorse this approach—as do many on the left—is to believe that people and institutions can be changed for the better and that human beings are capable of engineering that change. In contrast, those on the right are more likely to see society as the outcome of an eons-long balancing act, so that any changes implemented by human beings must be approached with caution, in order to avoid unintended consequences. If existing inequalities are a function of deep-rooted cultural norms and, in the case of gender, evolutionary processes as well, then all change must be implemented slowly and carefully in order to give the society a chance to adapt and to systematically address any unintended consequences that may arise. This view is inherently conservative (in the sense of seeing the good in the ways of the past), and therefore leads to an underestimation of the role of negative forces, such as racism and discrimination, as causes of inequality.

The rise and expansion of the welfare state is a result of the view that individual suffering due to inequality can effectively be reduced by redistributing resources from the wealthy to the less well-off. Welfare policies, of course, vary considerably. Some, such as social security, function as social insurance, whereby one pays into the system at one point in one’s life, in order to withdraw later when the need arises. Other programs are more purposefully redistributive, such as cash welfare payments to poor families and housing assistance programs. Still others are regulative in nature, such as setting a minimum wage.

These programs have done much to reduce financial insecurity and help families in desperate need. As such, they have met the moral imperative of reducing harm by meeting the short-term needs of people in crisis. Their redistributive nature has also effectively reduced poverty among some groups, such as the elderly, many of who depend on social security and Medicare. Those on the left point to these successes as evidence that we can reduce income inequality, and that additional well-implemented programs can further reduce it, as well as reverse persistent racial and gender inequality.

However, those on the right are often concerned about the long-term consequences of such policies. Yes, cash welfare assistance helps families in difficult times, but over the long run, it may incentivize self-defeating behavioral responses. As such, many of these programs represent moral hazards. Some commentators, such as Sowell, have argued that the welfare state has served to undermine the economic foundations of families, and blame these policies for the weakening of the black family in the last half of the twentieth century. According to this view, the rise of the paternalistic welfare state actually exacerbated racial inequality. Regulative policies can likewise have unintended consequences. Efforts to increase the minimum wage, for example, can render some businesses unable to cover labor costs, leading them to employ fewer people. This hurts low-wage workers by reducing the number of opportunities available to them. According to this view, the well-meaning regulatory state impedes economic activity and reduces growth and standards of living for everyone over the long run. It causes rather than reduces harm.

Debates about these issues will not be settled by empirical research. Certainly, there have been demonstrations of the effectiveness of specific policies and interventions, and some have been found more effective than others in meeting their intended goals. But to understand the long-term effectiveness of the suite of policies that comprise our welfare state is beyond the current technical ability of economists and other social scientists. And so debate rages on.

As our society has become more polarized in recent years, constructive discussions about inequality have become more elusive. Specifically, for those on the left, a singular view of harm and oppression has led to a blind spot for other moral concerns. Thus, those who favor deporting illegal immigrants, who are against affirmative action and who seek to reduce the size of government seem not only selfish, but also, in discussions of racial and gender inequality, racist and sexist. Further complicating this issue is that a small but vocal minority on the right actually is motivated by base intentions (such as racism and sexism). Nevertheless, the moral certitude of the left has contributed to the stifling of discussion and debate in institutions where the left holds power, such as academia and mainstream media. We must return to a place where we can have open and honest conversations about inequality if we are to better understand its origins, consequences and what, if anything, to do about it. Perhaps by recognizing the potentially obfuscating roles of moral, causal and solution pluralism in our public discourse we may one day learn how to speak across those divides in order to achieve what we would all agree is the ultimate goal: a fairer, safer, freer and more humane society for all.

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22 comments

  1. There’s been a shift from Lyndon Johnson’s “War Against Poverty” to today’s “War Against Inequality.” The obvious difference between the two is that the former is absolute while the latter is relative.

    Johnson’s War Against Poverty was predicated on the assumption that if everyone could have a material existence above some minimum level then (so long as this could be sustained) the “war” would be won. Yet today’s “War on Inequality” presents a moving target, as it implies that redistributive justice shall be required should the rich become even richer.

    If I can afford a comfortable middle-class life yet live some of the truly rich then, no matter what comforts I may or may not have, I exist in a state of extreme inequality. Yet how, exactly, do my neighbor’s riches detract from me? Does just knowing that someone, somewhere, has far more than I do (or likely ever will) somehow create an intolerable deprivation, a deprivation so severe that the coercive powers of government must be brought to bear to correct it?

    1. Perhaps the authors should have used the word “employment” rather than work.

      Employment is work that someone is willing to pay you to do. Removing that unsightly ring around my bathtub is surely work (and not very pleasant work at that), yet unfortunately it seems no one is willing to pay me to remove it. For if one is to compare the wages of men and women (in the aggregate) then surely it makes sense to compare only work that can be characterized as market work; i.e., work for wages.

      Families can, if they wish, implement internal market economies. If I want something done but can’t or don’t wish to do it then I might offer compensation to other family members. Or (depending on how my family had chosen to organize itself) and for a variety of reasons offer this work to those outside the family.

      Yet most families don’t seem to organize themselves along the lines of a market economy, presumably because they prefer a more informal give-and-take.

      Finally, one could impute cash value to unpaid labor, yet the difficulty in doing so is that such work is not subject to the discipline of the market. One can determine the market rate for washing dishes in a restaurant, yet for a variety of reasons washing dishes at home is not really comparable. In the market, something is worth just what someone is willing to pay for it- no more and no less. But when there is no market then attempts to impute value must lack accuracy as there is not only self-interest and bias but little or no means to measure the accuracy of the imputation.

  2. I appreciate the studied balance in this essay. But there are important specifics concerning women that are left out of this article. For example, the authors say “[men] more often work longer hours than women.” But– can this be true? What are the authors defining as “work”? How about housework, that studies show still falls in large part to women? Is housework not WORK? Indeed, don’t women (especially women who work outside the home in addition to having to do the bulk of housework) effectively end up “working” longer hours than men, but at tasks (childrearing, housework) not traditionally accorded visibility and recognition by labor economists, sociologists, pundits? The authors should have either continued that paragraph to account for these things, or added another paragraph that would address these counterfactuals. They should have acknowledged that there is much unpaid work in our society, and that its entwining with cultural and social traditions around gender, marriage, and family often make the inequities difficult to discuss without stepping on conservative ideological toes.

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    1. “but at tasks (childrearing, housework) not traditionally accorded visibility and recognition by labor economists, sociologists, pundits?”

      You should be careful what you wish for. I saw a documentary once about a professional victimologist who made her living flying around the planet to give lamentations about the Oppression of it all — the ‘invisibility’ of women’s work. Latter on, the documentary went on to explain what when the world’s economists were setting up the global economic order just after WWII, in a rare moment of compassion for the poor, they decided that ‘women’s work’ would indeed be ‘invisible’ for precisely the reason that they had decided not to tax it. Men’s work around the house would likewise not be visible and also not taxed. Since the poor generally have much more of their household economies consisting of ‘women’s work’ and men doing things like raising chickens and growing a bit of food in the back yard and fixing the roof and keeping the car running — things that the rich would pay others to do — what the global order was doing was giving the poor the biggest tax break that they would ever get. We should think twice before complaining about this.

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      1. Very interesting! You are right that the work men do around the house isn’t recognized as paid “work” either. The desire to have families is shared by husbands and wives, but it more often shakes out that the couple decides that the woman should, or could, stay home and do childrearing, and for the family to count on the man’s ability to either keep his job, or find jobs that might bring income to the family. So yes, the work the man does at home for the “honey do list” is unpaid labor he contributes to the family, just as the childrearing and/or housework are unpaid labor the woman often (and, increasingly, the man) contributes. But most families don’t willingly give up the highest earner’s earnings in such a situation; and the highest earners are still more often than not the men. It sounds to me (and I could be wrong, so would love an explanation) that you’re implying that women shouldn’t embrace feminist/social justice calls for greater opportunity and higher pay, or for recognition of housework/childcare as work, because men don’t grouse about how their home labor is unpaid– and by extension, suggesting something along the lines of “shouldn’t the women just shut up and be grateful for what they are getting? After all, those impoverished people scratching about in the dirt with their chickens don’t earn much from the labor THEY do!” Iceland and Redstone Akresh note that “Americans across the political spectrum don’t actually want equal distributions of, for instance, wealth or income; they just don’t want the degree of inequality we currently have.” So I suppose we all need some shared vocabulary for talking about “work,” “income,” “inequality,” “domestic,” “public,” “family,” etc. Shared understandings of terms and semantics might help us move ahead in figuring out how to reduce the degree of inequality we currently have.

        1. That’s a pretty fair comment.

          “or for recognition of housework/childcare as work, because men don’t grouse about how their home labor is unpaid”

          It’s true that men do not grouse, but that’s not the point. I’m just saying that ‘recognition’ would involve taxation and that is not something to wish for. As you say, couples usually choose to have the highest earner continue to ‘work’ and that is usually the male, but it is entirely up to them. My sister’s boss has a stay at home husband because she makes more than he did.

          “how to reduce the degree of inequality we currently have”

          Why would we suppose that it should be reduced? If women choose to devote less of their lives to a career, why should we want to change that? Women seek to marry men who earn more than they do. Should they not? Nurses seek to marry doctors. Unmarried women with no kids make on average more than men. There is no systemic. If women on average make less, it is because they make different choices. That is not a problem, it is their freedom to do so. If Buddhist monks make less money on average than Wall St. tycoons, is that a problem? The former have chosen a different set of values.

          1. The issue is that (as your final example points out), not all choices are gendered choices (Buddhism vs. Wall St.). However, some jobs *are* quite impacted by gender, not open to women as much as they are to men. In your example (Buddhism vs. Wall St.) you’re comparing apples and apples, man with x job, man with y job; one can, possibly, in that comparison speak of “choice of different set of values” without having to take into account gender factors. But: now let’s introduce gender into the equation: big-money Wall Street jobs are attained by men and (fewer) women for many reasons, some having to do with personal “choice,” and some due to greater or lesser ability to negotiate Wall St. practices and values (re: Wall St. values, you may want to look for Karen Ho’s fascinating chapter (chapter 23) in the book “A Companion to Moral Anthropology”– it’s not what you’d think!!). But an extra degree of challenge is presented to the women who try making their way in the testosterone- and raw ambition-fueled “fight club” milieu of Wall St. Note: I’m not saying that women are being discriminated against! It’s just that in a Wall St. culture that respects big dogs and requires the perception that one is able to run with the pack, women can face challenges deriving from shifting– and often conflicting– cultural notions of men’s and women’s roles and desires.

            1. “But an extra degree of challenge is presented to the women who try making their way in the testosterone- and raw ambition-fueled “fight club” milieu of Wall St.”

              Sure. Every group, every club, every job, every … everything has some idea of who is in the group and who is out. When the first men applied for nurse training the women vigorously resisted it — they protected their in group. There are no end of places where men have resisted in the incursion of women, the converse is also true. Try to get a job as a kindergarten teacher if you’re a man. But the ‘equity’ people seem to think that *everything* is Oppression and Oppression is everything. It just ain’t so. Women make different choices than men do. Throwing vast amounts of money and social capital at Equity issues is mostly a gross waste. The very few remaining *real* systemic discriminations will fade away in time and what we should hopefully have is choice — including the choice not to go into STEM because doctrine says you should. Choice to marry a man richer than yourself. Choice to leave the big dog pits of Wall St. to men — or to get in and play the game as it is played, not demand that it become feminized. Equality of opportunity is a very good thing. Socially engineered equality of outcome is not such a good idea.

              1. This was a really thoughtful comment. I like your optimism and the way you read through the “everything is oppression” BS. I agree that if one doesn’t raise one’s daughters to be victims and doesn’t raise one’s sons to be cruel overlords, one can change the world substantially from the ground up.

                1. Yup. You know it seems to me that we are cursed with this cabal of professional troublemakers. How many men do you actually know who are Privileged Oppressors? And how many actual women who are Victims of the Patriarchy? Don’t 99% of both sexes just want to get along? Don’t most of the men you know work till they drop to support their families? Yeah, there are exceptions.

                  1. There are women who work til they drop to support their families too– single mothers, families where both parents have to work, etc. But you are right. So much has to do with the perceptions we bring to any given situation. If we are determined to read everything as a case of oppression (and that’s across the political/ideological spectrum, right to left), then that’s all we’ll think we’re experiencing or that others must have experienced in the past.

    2. Child rearing is the most toughest and important job in the world. This job needs a lot of intelligence and passion, I know. But nobody can take this job from a woman – that’s the problem. We found a compromise in marriage – a man should work more outside the home, a woman in the home. May be it’s not the best but do you know other way?
      No, of course the government can take money from men and give money to women but who the woman should trust more? A smart politician in Washington knows nothing about her or her husband, she may be sure, hears her?

      1. There are all kinds of families. Thousands of kids in foster care are there because of any number of family misfortunes, including their mothers being unfit parents. We have social ideals to which we aspire (for example, the ideal family being one with a stay at home mom); but the messy business of life sometimes gets in the way of a family’s being able to resemble that ideal. And so foster parents, or adoptive parents, or extended family, or orphanage personnel, or social workers, etc. etc. end up stepping in to get those children surviving and raised somehow. For whatever reasons, women might face tough choices or make terrible decisions and end up taking the job of rearing their children away from themselves. In these cases, effectively, the job has been taken from a woman.

        1. I’m sorry, I said about the norm, your argument is about deviations. It’s some kind of apex fallacy. Should we say “all men are rapists” just because rapists are men mainly?

          1. You’ll forgive me, but that is not a response indicating a desire to dialogue. Your question really has nothing to do with what I said at the end of my comment. I was making no such logical error. You had said “nobody can take this job from a woman,” and I simply wanted to point out that in fact, while principle might hold that “nobody can replace the mother in childrearing,” in real life, real humans provide plenty of examples of deviations from policy, precept, Scripture.

  3. There is a place for polemical style pieces, but sometimes there is a place for articles which offer a perfectly balanced view so that those who are skeptical of the source cannot argue with the bona fides of the author. In these cases, some readers who may be carrying biases can see that they aren’t being screamed at but are being given an opportunity to consider both sides of an argument, which they may not have otherwise done. This is one of those such articles and it is very well done.

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  4. When you lack the courage to go where you need to go, you end up with articles that contain a whole lot of nothing. Like this one.

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  5. This essay spends an inordinate amount of paragraphs on things everybody knows and ends in its way of stirring the pot with no solutions. Waste of time to read.

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  6. I understand how the writers of this article don’t want to lose their jobs or come under attack on social media, but there was a more plausible and honest explanation for racial inequality in the US in that long comment by New Radical Centrist under the “Is Science Racist?” article that appeared in Areo back on January 18. It’s an explanation which the writers of this article made the decision to ignore, although given the personal risk to them I can hardly blame them.

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