How Would You Test for Racism?

The other night the Ex-GF took some time off and watched a documentary on the Tuskeegee Airmen produced by PBS which we got from Netflix. It was pretty good, and I would recommend it to anyone that wants to see it.

The Tuskeegee program was started in part to test whether it was true that “the Negro” simply didn’t have the aptitude, intelligence, courage, physical characteristics and who knows what else to become a combat pilot. Viewed from today, that’s a proposition that is beyond ludicrous. Because of all the racism they faced, those trainees the survived the program to become Tuskeegee Airmen were better than the average pilot, and their unit became highly regarded.

Now, consider a similar situation… throughout the 1940s (and beyond), there was a lot of discrimination against Jews as well. In higher education in the US, for instance, there were quotas limiting the numbers of Jews that could enter a university. As a result, in some fields, competition for those few slots became extremely fierce, and the end result was the extremely high proportion of Jews at the top ranks of many professions. I believe over 20% of all Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews, despite the fact that the even the Nobel committee itself discriminated against Jews (for a well-known example, see here) and Jews make up only about a quarter of a percent of the world population.

So one theory one might take from this is that one can identify groups by that are suffering discrimination simply by looking at which groups are outperforming. But that doesn’t work. Because “the Negro” was also being discriminated against when it came to education, but there weren’t a disproportionate number of Black people winning Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry. In fact, one sign that Black people were being discriminated against in education might well be that a disproportionately small number of them were succeeding at the top levels of fields like physics and chemistry.

So… even for more or less the same ethnic group facing more or less the same challenges, disproportionate success (Tuskeegee airmen) and disproportionate lack of numbers (Black people at the top levels of fields like physics and chemistry) are both signs of discrimination.

Now, I like to test things empirically, and clearly, the paragraph above doesn’t lead to an easy testable hypothesis. So… what’s missing? How do we know when racism is evidenced by disproportionately large or disproportionately small numbers? When is one likely to happen, and when is the other?


Regular readers know I sometimes write posts on sensitive topics – religion, gender, etc. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to treat such topics with the sensitivity they deserve, I fail to do so. Please recognize that no offense was intended by anything written above, and I ask that readers in comment try to do the same.