Has there been any improvements in the relative economic conditions of American blacks?

A few years ago, I was teaching at HEC Montréal and I explained that putting people in prison – by statistical definition – did reduce unemployment. My students were shocked that I would say that. I told them that it was important to know definitions like that because you can then analyze the BS that politicians and pundits can spew.

And the case of Black-Americans is the best example, especially with regards to the wage gap. In recent years, I have seen pundits (left and right) use the slightly increasing ratio of black-to-white wages as a tool to promote their favored political narrative (i.e. the BS that I am referring to).

But, at the same time, the incarceration rates of Blacks has increased dramatically. Tell me, do you think that the socio-economic features of blacks in jail are distributed the same way as the socio-economic features of blacks not in jail? Of course not, criminals tend to be clustered disproportionately at the bottom of the income ladder. However, when its time to collect the wage statistics for blacks and whites, you are basically considering only the wages of blacks not in jail (i.e. blacks who are in the top centiles of the wage distribution). So, you’re basically committing a sin of statistical composition.

Some bloggers have caught on to that – the wage ratio is going up at the same pace as the incarceration rate for blacks. But they caught on after the work of scholars like Becky Pettit and Bruce Western came along (here and here and see graph below that illustrates the effect of correcting for incarceration on the employment rate of blacks).


When I look at this evidence, I understand why some people are pissed off at the conditions of Black Americans. It throws in doubt the contention that there has been racial convergence in America. At the same time, I wonder if the lack of recognition given to this statistical issue is a form of cognitive dissonance. If you claim that the convergence is mostly an artifice of composition fallacies, then what does it say about the policies of the last 30-40 years?

When Black Unemployment Rates Were Equal to White Unemployment Rates…

In a twitter-debate with Tariq Nasheed, I pointed out that the wages rates did converge between the 1940s and 1990s. Recently, Robert Margo of the University of Chicago extended this to per capita incomes since 1870. It is fascinating to see that there was convergence between 1870 and 1940 in spite of Jim Crow laws (it tells you how much more blacks could have achieved had the laws not existed – see notably the work of Bob Higgs on this).


Each time I see this evidence, I am bemused. You see, I often debate colleagues on particular features of social policy in order to assess policy reforms or the effects of past reforms. But, its always good to take a step back and look at the long-view of history. It puts things in perspective. The Margo graph does just that. It tells me the story of what could have been. And just for the sake of remembering properly (infer whatever conclusions you like), it is worth showing racial differences in unemployment rates since 1890. What strikes me is how similar the rates are until the 1950s. What happened at that point? When you ask yourself this question, you’re forced to put everything in perspective. And it becomes harder to have “generic” answers in the lazy-form of “its racism”. Why would racism explain the difference after 1950, but not before?

Maybe, just maybe, people like Tariq Nasheed should stop proving that H.L. Mencken was right in saying that “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is simple, clear and plainly wrong”.