Bryan Caplan  

Just Plain Good: From Black Power to Black Studies by Fabio Rojas

Me Versus the Economic Consens... Expressing Economic Ideas...

I never would have expected to enjoy a book about black studies, especially one that refrains from pointed criticism of the field. But things don't always work out as I expect. Yes, I've got a confession to make: I really enjoyed Fabio Rojas' From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline.

EconLog readers may remember Fabio Rojas as the guy who won the contest to name my book; he's also a regular blogger at But all the while, he was plugging away on a well-written, thoughtful history/sociology of black studies. Rojas explains how the field got started, where it ended up, and why.

The quick version: Universities initially set up black studies to placate angry - and often violent - black student protestors. Early black studies departments had a strong nationalist, even separatist, bent, and embraced a broad mission of community outreach. Over time, however, black studies took the path of least resistance - with encouragement from charities like the Ford Foundation - and became fairly ordinary academic departments. Black nationalism and community outreach have been replaced by traditional academic in-reach.

So is Rojas just telling yet another story about how "the Establishment" co-opted a radical movement? No; Rojas tells a story of "coevolution" rather than co-optation:

Black studies and the academy have changed together, responding to each other's demands. Although the academy rejected demands for black-only education and community control, it did accept black studies. This allowed black studies to further influence academia and made possible future developments such as Afrocentrism, black studies Ph.D. programs, and a stronger acceptance of the African American community as a topic worthy of academia attention.

My favorite part of the book: Rojas' observations about the effect of non-profit incentives:

A new policy or work unit that has been created as a result of movement actions might be protected by rules guaranteeing publicity or money... [W]hen the black studies programs examined in this book atrophied in the 1980s, they were still listed in course catalogs and still commandeered minimal resources. A for-profit firm might have quietly eliminated such a unit, but by publicizing the unit in course catalogs and other publications, the university improved the program's chance of survival. As long as a black studies program had office space, at least one or two faculty members, and official standing in the university's publications, future professors could have a chance at rehabilitating the program.
Rojas goes on:
The university is one of the most difficult institutions to change in modern society. Unlike privately held firms, where power is concentrated in the owner's hands, universities are governed by their workers (the professors and staff) and by external supervising boards... As black studies advocates found out, even friendly administrators may need years to push proposals through a university's internal decision-making process. The black studies movement chose an unusually stubborn target.
Needless to say, this isn't the book I would have written about black studies. The one mention of Thomas Sowell I could find is on page 202, where we learn (big surprise!) that virtually no black studies professors think highly of Ethnic America. Rojas didn't bother asking them their opinion of The Bell Curve, much less Race, Evolution, and Behavior. He didn't ask black studies professors to explain why they doubt that market forces eliminate taste-based discrimination; nor did his press them on the question of stereotype accuracy.

No matter; despite all these omissions, Rojas' book is just plain good. Read it!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
General Specific writes:

Why would they want to comment on "market forces eliminate taste-based discrimination?" I looked it over. It seems to be a compilation of hypotheticals with little evidence to ground its conclusion (that a libertarian world is the path to nirvana).

For example, real research has demonstrated that one with an African American sounding name, or one with dark skin, is very less likely to get an interview or job offer irrespective of qualifications. This fact is not ameliorated by the hypothetical idea that market forces would create an employer that would hire these rejected qualified candidates.

Shakespeare's Fool writes:


Please correct me if I misunderstand the
way the theory says "market forces eliminate
taste-based discrimination."

What I thought the proponents were arguing
was not that all firms would hire on merit,
but that enough firms would hire on merit
so, excepting the frictions that apply to
verything in the market, everyone would
be hired at market rates.

I suspect this might allow the studies to
show discrimination (because people at some
firms will discriminate) but miss the over-all result.


General Specific writes:

Shakespeare's Fool: The Caplan argument sounds good on paper, in theory. But there's no proof of it in practice. And the discussion referenced by Caplan does not provide evidence. It's just a bunch of speculation that points out the possible upside to his free market bias. He doesn't prove it with evidence, so there's no reason to believe it. He's not doing science. He's just speculating and supposing.

Fly Fisher writes:

First, one comment and one question regarding a previous post . . .

I too looked at Bryan's lecture notes. I didn't see the conclusion that "a libertarian world is the path to nirvana"; instead, I saw a conclusion that "Labor income differs between groups because - on average - groups differ in education, intelligence, family role, etc.", and that conclusion was supported by evidence presented in a series of comparison tables.

What are some good references for the claim that "real research has demonstrated that one with an African American sounding name, or one with dark skin, is very less likely to get an interview or job offer irrespective of qualifications", and what about the research makes it "real"?

Next, some general comments . . .

It seems to me that Bryan is not making the point that discrimination for unsavory reasons doesn't exist. Instead, he is supporting the view that competitive markets will not reward people for doing so, and, because of that, organizations that discriminate in this manner will fail over time. As an extreme example, imagine a modern NBA team that is run by white racists who refuse to hire any players who have "African American sounding names", or "dark skin". Of course, the key is to avoid anti-market factors that lead to situations in which the entire industry is willing to sacrifice quality for racial preferences, but, as long as even a few teams are willing (and allowed) to succumb to market forces and hire the best possible basketball players, the racial discriminators will be on a short path to ruin. (This is a very different issue than the one addressed in a recent study that suggested own-race bias by NBA referees.)

Finally, Bryan's reference to his lecture notes was in regard to his concern that the role of market forces in discrimination was not addressed in the book. I guess it could be another example of a situation in which the enlightened ones have declared that the "debate is over".

General Specific writes:

Here's the paper on names. And another paper with actual interviews.

There are more but that's a start.

What I mean by real: Caplan doesn't have data that supports his hypothesis. His conclusion that the market will deal with discrimination is theoretical.

By libertarian nirvana, I simply mean that Caplan wants people to believe that issues they don't like, e.g. discrimination, will he handled by the market. When in fact I think discrimination is sometimes handled by the threat of lawsuits, regulations, and non-violent protest. Caplan ignores an entire world of political action--describing it as harmful if anything--in order to support his free market bias.

Yet he has no data to support it.

Fly Fisher writes:

Interesting paper. Evidently Emily and Greg are more employable than Lakisha and Jamal. But Latonya and Leroy are more employable than Emily and Greg. And Kristen and Carrie seem to be more employable than Brett and Neil.

I need to read the paper in more detail to find the answer to a couple questions. One in particular bothers me. Why not use names for which mother education was roughly the same across races? The statistical analysis in the paper is used to argue away the connection between perceived social background and callback rate; however, they didn't need to rely on statistical-correlation analysis for this inference. They could have used some white names for which the average mother education is in the 60% range. This would have directly addressed the question of perceptions about social background.

If I read Table 8 correctly, the lowest mother education rate for a white female name was 80.7%, whereas the highest for an African American female was 77.2%. With a difference this compelling, I much prefer to see direct data measurement instead of a statistical correlation analysis. (As an aside, I am always concerned when I see a correlation 'measured' to 1/1,000 or 1/10,000 accuracy.)

Finally, are those numbers in the tables in Bryan's lecture based on real data, or are they just made up numbers that he is using to support his theoretical conclusion? I'm a bit confused.

James writes:


All arguments are theoretical. Absent some theory, there would be no way to know whether or not the conclusion actually follows from the premises, data, etc. Caplan's approach is only unique in that he actually articulates the theorectical structure that he draws on.

Your comments would be more interesting and helpful to people who share Bryan's views (like me) if you would do the same: E.g. what theoretical structure are you drawing on to conclude that market forces aren't adequate in and of themselves to deal with racist discrimination? Your observation that we live in a world where both market and non-market forces determine labor market outcomes is undoubtedly correct and I don't doubt the empirical content of the papers you mention, but you haven't shown how your conclusion follows from any of this. Tell me: What theoretical structure do I need to accept in order to get your conclusion from the data you've mentioned?

Also, if Bryan's argument about labor markets is really as incorrect as you claim, the resort to pejoratives such as "libertarian nirvana" is entirely superfluous.

ed writes:

The paper General cited is quite interesting...check it out. They found that black names were about 1/3 less likely to get a callback, on average. It appears to be strong evidence that significant discrimination exists in the labor market.

However, the discrimination they found might well be all or partially statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination. Bryan's theory does not claim that that statistical discrimination will disappear, only taste-based discrimination.

Also, the paper does not rule out the possibility that there are lots of employers who do not discriminate.

floccina writes:

General specific couldn't the section on Statistical Discrimination explain the name discrimination? Too me the biggest obstacle to overcoming discrimination is that it often benefits to discrimination. Let’s say you are hiring for a short term job it may not pay to do real research.

G writes:


Empirical evidence abounds. Every day, investment occurs where labor is cheap and property rights are secure. Why do so many people invest in China and India? Do American businessmen prefer Chinese and Hindus over African Americans? No, American businessmen prefer to make money over loosing it. They invest in foreign countries because those countries can make products more cheaply than they can be made at home. The feelings of businessmen towards those races are rarely relevant. Unless I am greatly mistaken, there are few places in Africa where property rights are secure, and so there is less foreign investment. No one wants to invest in some place where their investment is in jeopardy from political or criminal forces.

Every culture which voluntarily immigrated to the United States during its Laissez-faire period was successful. The Chinese, Irish and others were greatly discriminated against, but nevertheless managed to succeed. Government during this time did nothing to help them, although it did continue to discriminate against blacks.

In truth, empirical evidence is not necissary. Any business which buys labor at a higher price than is necissary will suffer losses, and competitors with more profit-oriented hiring practices will replace them.

In my opinion, businesses are less likely to interview a black applicant because on average, blacks are less well educated than other racial groups in America. Employers cannot afford to get to know every possible applicant and judge them on their individual merits. They must take blanket indicators of the applicant's skills, such as education and race.

Needless to say, employers who are able to make the best estimations of employee merit at lower costs are more likely to succeed. It is unfortunate that superficial indicators such as race are used to weed out unlikely candidates, but racial discrimination is no more unjust than discrimination based on other superficial criteria. In our culture it just receives more attention.

Perhaps an answer lies with the Information Age. You could start a business which specializes in gathering the information necissary to accurately gauge the merit of a person's skills. If such a thing could be done well enough, superficial, blanket indicators would be discarded. Prediction market contracts on future salaries of individuals would be an interesting approach, but I don't think our culture is ready for such things.

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