I believe that racism is a real problem in the United States today. It seems clear to me that people have different outcomes in life depending on race; black people in particular have a lower standard of living than white people (though the "black" and "white" labels make me uncomfortable).
Why do I believe this?
Well, because I have heard it repeated many, many times. Also, it is clear that racism was an institutionalized reality in the past: Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution records that for purposes of democracy, ten black people counted as much as six white people.
Neither of these are good reasons to believe that racism affects outcomes today. Popularity of an idea does not make it true, and there has been change in law and custom reflecting the more enlightened values of our time.
It makes me uncomfortable to think that I don't have good evidence for my beliefs, so I request some help to ground my ideas more firmly with evidence. Hubski is a place where I can ask "What's so bad about slavery?" and get a thoughtful response, though b_b identified and then avoided the central question needed to settle that issue.
I found myself enjoying the way a new Hubski user talked about banking. Seemed like a sensible person. Then b_b linked to a comment in which the user questioned whether racism effectively hurts minorities, now that racism is widely shunned. This sentiment alone was enough for me to completely give up on that user as a credible source.
A friend suggested that I may have lost faith too soon; that "for all practical purposes" racism in this country has been beaten. I was rather taken aback, and mentioned that I felt I had an embarassingly large number of convincing arguments to the contrary, and that "sentencing disparity would make the point as clearly and indisputably as any."
My friend said "Judges are highly educated and cosmopolitan; they are unlikely to be racially biased."
This struck me as the purest naiveté. Judges are human beings. I read Kahneman. People ooze with bias, and the most pernicious discrimination can happen while the biased person is unaware. I offered vaguely-remembered research conclusions that judges give harsher sentences before lunch than after, on Mondays rather than Fridays. Who knows, maybe the defendant's smell affects judgements; everyone knows you had better dress sharp when you appear in court.
My friend characterized my laundry list of biases as "a little bit of an own goal for you." If we accept that judges are affected by these biases, and that they are all unreasonable and unjustified, "in order to prove racial bias you must control for all of these other biases." My friend added prior offenses, apparent contrition at trial, whether or not victim impact statements were given, the state where the offense occurred, whether mandatory sentencing guidelines were in place at the time of the offense, et multa cetera as additional factors that require control in any study that concludes racial bias affected judgements.
One more factor: income, which enables a defendant to get better representation which can lead to a lighter sentence. This seems like one that would be easy to measure.
I believe that being black in the United States is correlated to having lower income. If we find that black people are given harsher sentences for the same crimes, we can't be sure it was race or income that led to that outcome without examining evidence. I did a little research, but I couldn't find any studies of sentencing disparity that controlled for income.
There are many other arguments to demonstrate the reality of racism. I would like to come to a conclusion about this one specific question before considering others. It was clear in the GMO story that people were reluctant to examine evidence contrary to their beliefs, preferring to change the subject. "So the scientists found that GM corn didn't clearly cause cancer." "But what about all the pesticides?" "Well, the GM crop requires less pesticide, because it is already resistant to the parasite. That's why they modified it." "But the seeds are sterile!" "They're not, in fact." "But it's not natural!"
If we find that low income, rather than race, is the more important factor in explaining sentencing disparity, that does not mean there is no problem, of course. It does mean that we could direct efforts at reform more effectively, by trying to help low-income defendents of all races.
So here is my question: If you believe that race is an important factor in sentencing, can you find evidence that excludes other explanations, especially low income?
If you do not believe that race is an important factor in sentencing, what other area would you suggest investigating to find evidence of racism?