Jesse Singal on inequality, inequity, structural racism, and the “pipeline problem”

August 19, 2022 • 9:15 am

Jesse Singal has a nice piece on racial disparities on his Substack site, and you can read it for free (do subscribe if you read often). I had to read it twice to grasp his point, for the title is a bit confusing. Now, however, not only do I see where he’s coming from, but in the main I agree with him. Our only disagreement seems to be semantic: about what “structural racism” means. But that semantic difference is important. I’ll get to that shortly.

I recommend reading it, which you can do by clicking on the screenshot below.

I’ll summarize what I think is his point. He sees structural racism not as present-day features of institutions that mandate or facilitate discrimination, but simply as racism that has persisted through American society since slavery (he counts “blacks” in his discussion as American descendants of slaves, not including immigrants from Nigeria or the Caribbean). “Structural racism,” though waning, persists because, due to racism as recently as his grandparents’ time, there’s been a persistent inequality of wealth and resources between whites and blacks. This leads to an inequality of resources available to blacks and whites—resources that help people get jobs and attain the diverse measures of success. This disparity of resources means that entry to prestigious or lucrative jobs is more limited for blacks than for whites, leading to the present “inequities” that are so visible—the subject of a lot of worry. In other words, blacks have a narrower entrance to the pipeline that leads to success.

In this way, the “structural racism”—racism beginning early in America and persisting up to our era—leads to unequal outcomes, and that’s through a restricted entry of blacks into the “pipeline” of opportunity. To Singal, it’s a matter of wealth, the lack of which limits opportunity. Ergo, if you accept “structural racism”, then you have to also accept “pipeline problems.”

If you see “structural racism” in this way, then I agree with him. My only disagreement with Singal—and it’s an important one—is that “structural racism” is usually construed as institutionalized forms of discrimination: laws, rules, or codified practices that discriminate against people of color. This construal is important (and Singal alludes to it) because it implies that present inequities reflect present-day racism, and leads to the view that we can fix inequities simply by either ferreting out the structural biases, or lowering the bar by lessening the degree of meritocracy. Singal sees this form of “structural racism” as different from his. But in the end, Singal’s solution would seem to be mine as well:  assure equal opportunity for everyone from birth.

The problem is that if “equal opportunity” reflects, as it surely does, inequality of wealth, then how do you assure it without making everyone equally wealthy, or at least wealthy enough get what you need to compete for good jo?  His solution to inequity, then, seems to be to drastically reduce income inequality. And that’s a tough row to hoe.

But a lot of what Singal says makes sense. I’ll give a few quotes:

First, his definition of a “pipeline problem”:

Before I unlocked this article, my copy editor pointed out that I failed to define pipeline problems, assuming readers would be familiar with the phrase. A pipeline problem is a situation where disparities in workplace or academic settings might partially reflect disparities in the pool of qualified applicantsfor these positions rather than discrimination in hiring. To take an extreme and hopefully uncontroversial example, imagine Company X lacks any Lithuanian American employees. It could be because the company’s hiring process is biased against Lithuanian Americans, but it could also be because it received few or no competitive applications from this relatively small group.

Fair enough. I think we all agree that such issues are the primary explanation for the absence of racial diversity, at least in academia.

And his construal of structural racism (or so I think):

But whatever you think of the precise way race continues to shape things today, and how much it can be fully separated from class, race has obviously shaped the transmission of wealth and opportunity across generations. Again, we’re talking just two generations ago. There is no wild conspiracy theorizing going on here. It’s just not credible to deny this. So the tl;dr version of all this can be boiled down to: “I am successful in part because my grandparents were able to accumulate wealth on an uneven playing field, and millions of other white people can say the same thing.” This is not a knock on the grandparents in question, who really did work hard. But, again, everyone knows that a lot of people work hard. People travel tens of thousands of miles, on foot, just for a chance at a slightly better backbreaking job. “Well, they worked hard!” is a cop-out that doesn’t really explain who gets what.

You’re telling me that this stuff doesn’t matter and that it can’t help explain things like the racial wealth gap?

If you think of “structural racism” as inequality of opportunity caused by racism that was pervasive as recently as our grandparents’ generation, then you plunge yourself into a convoluted argument that that (Singalian) structural racism is the main problem rather than entry into the pipeline. (Singal sees them as pretty much equivalent). His quote:

If you believe in structural racism but don’t believe that white people are better positioned than black people to produce competitive job applications, on average, think about what you’re saying:

1) White people have, over the generations and on average, been endowed with opportunities black people have been robbed of

2) This extends well past K–12 education and into the elite corners of higher education, which white people have much more realistic access to than black people, on average — and degrees from top-tier schools are much more advantageous than degrees from middling ones

3) White people are also, relative to black people, endowed with more of every conceivable sort of training, tutoring, career guidance, access to young professional networks, and other benefits associated with successful job-searching, on average

4) Despite all this, white people and black people produce about equally competitive job applications.

I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could believe this sequence of claims. To do so, you have to think that all the stuff you were (rightfully!) yelling about 30 seconds ago — the vastly unfair and discriminatory apportionment of wealth and opportunity in America over the generations — just doesn’t matter when it comes to job applications.

Ergo, if you believe in “structural racism”, you must believe in pipeline problems, for the former (again, construed as Singal does) causes the latter. And you can’t rectify the latter simply by making a few tweaks in the structure of corporations, universities, or, indeed, society. DEI initiatives won’t work: we need a fundamental shake-up of American society.

The reason that people prefer the “pipeline argument” to the “structural racism” argument is that the former absolves them not only of blame, but also pretends there is an easy fix to inequality. A couple of quotes:

And [the pipeline explanation] very beneficial to privileged people, because it draws attention away from that privilege, away from how much they have and how much other people lack, and toward the idea that whoops, some bias infected some people’s brains (coulda happened to anyone), and once we banish it, diversity will bloom within our selective institutions.

By “discrimination” below, I don’t think he means simple racism, but discrimination among those of unequal qualifications—i.e. a meritocratic approach to hiring:

. . . One more time: It is comforting to think that discrimination is what’s leading to the outcomes we don’t like. It suggests relatively easy, nearby fixes. No one wants to be discriminatory.

And this—the fact that we’re nowhere near equality of opportunity, which correlates with equality of income—is the reason why people think that weak or even virtue-flaunting solutions are going to do anything about unequal representation. Again, by “discrimination”, I think he means “discrimination based on qualifications”, not race:

What people do want — or what the sorts of people in a position to shape how companies look want, at least — is to win the meritocracy game. They want that for themselves and for their kids. That’s why the conversation will grind to a halt if you press people on the actual depth of their desire for racial and socioeconomic justice. As in, if the results you see around you aren’t generated by discrimination, but rather by a big, complicated machine, are you still going to be enthusiastic about trying to change things? What about when you reflect on the fact that this big, complicated machine has generated excellent outcomes for you and your family?

Below is his case for diversity, which I agree with. I suppose that, in the end, this is the reason I favor some forms of affirmative action (I go back and forth between the diversity-is-inherently good justification, which was the basis of the Bakke decision, and the diversity-as-a-form-of-reparations argument):

Forced to choose between the two, I do certainly prefer a meritocracy with diverse faces at the top than a meritocracy dominated by white people. I think that all else being equal, diversity is a very good thing. I know it sounds like I’m reciting a mantra, but I’m a city boy and Jewish and so much of the culture, food, and literature that has meant the most to me has been the result of different groups colliding, mixing, and creating new things. America was always built to be a diverse place — it really is in our DNA, to borrow a phrase — and we’re at our strongest when it’s a cacophonous throng of voices from different backgrounds. So I don’t want to paint too dire a picture for those simply seeking to hire more diverse workers.

But this puts him in a bind, for as I see it Singal still views the meritocracy as inevitable (I don’t know if he approves of it), and holding that view will automatically create inequities.

What is the solution? In the final section, called “The Good News (Sort Of)”: Singal has some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that things are getting better: inequalty and inequity are lessening as racism wanes. (Only someone who’s blind can deny that.)

The bad news is that not only is it nearly impossible to create a level playing field, but people don’t even want to talk about the needed fixes, much less the problem. Those fixes require too much work and too much money for those of us in a position to help, and to discuss the problem leads to accusations of racism:

What it comes down to is that if we can’t openly and honestly talk about what the problems are, they will be impossible to solve. And part of me thinks that’s the point. For a lot of powerful people, the system we have is working great for them and their kids, minus a pesky lack of diversity where they work or where their kids go to school. If they can just tweak that — and it’s certainly getting easier to do given the aforementioned burgeoning middle class of talented non-white Americans — then their world will look pretty good, pretty just. And they can get there without ever having to really question, let alone act contrary to, their own material self-interest.

Were I to grade the piece, I’d say that it’s about 40% too long. But it’s well worth reading anyway.


28 thoughts on “Jesse Singal on inequality, inequity, structural racism, and the “pipeline problem”

  1. If Singal is right, and thus the problem is about lack of opportunities owing to lower socioeconomic status (with this affecting some racial groups much more owing to past racism), then that is a justification for affirmative action based on socioeconomic status, rather than affirmative action based on race.

    (It is not a justification for giving preference to blacks from well-off backgrounds above whites from poorer backgrounds, which is what current affirmative action de facto mostly does.)

  2. It sounds like he makes some pretty good points, or at least the ones PCC(E) shares seem fair enough. I just wish people would stop pushing for the idea of, or even using the word “equity”. It’s a chimera, a pipe dream, a will-o-the-wisp, or any other such term one wants to use, to imagine that there will ever be anything like “equity” of outcomes, or even that such a thing would be desirable, as far I can see. Equality of opportunity, however, while perhaps unreachable in any pure form, nevertheless seems well worth working toward, on the level of things that are within our control. And certainly, equality under the law–in practice, not just in principle–is a target worth keeping in mind as well.

    1. You seem to define the word “equity” as a synonym for equal results. But, this is not necessarily so and is another example of how undefined words creates confusion and misunderstanding. The most common definition of “equity” that I have found is “the state or quality of being just and fair.” By this definition those that are calling for equity are not necessarily calling for equal outcomes; they may be urging simple fairness. So, whenever we see people calling for equity regarding an issue, we must look to what they mean before condemning them.

      1. In social-justice circles, equal outcomes is exactly what “equity” means. E.g. on googling the first definition was (added italics):

        “Equity, in its simplest terms as it relates to racial and social justice, means meeting communities where they are and allocating resources and opportunities as needed to create equal outcomes for all community members.”.

      2. You make good points, but of course, even the concepts of “just” and “fair” are not very well defined, and they certainly would imply different specific things to different people.

        Plus, just as a personal pet peeve, “equity” to me is something people build up as they pay off their mortgages. I know this isn’t the only possible use of the term, but I don’t understand why “equality” wasn’t a good enough term. Bringing a new term, a kind of jargon, into play allows obfuscation and misdirection.

  3. “The bad news is that not only is it nearly impossible to create a level playing field, but people don’t even want to talk about the needed fixes, much less the problem.”

    It’s not that I don’t want to talk about “needed fixes,” it’s that I’m not sure how those fixes would work.

    Story time!

    I was born in an Eastern European country and immigrated to Canada with my parents as a child. We were very poor to begin with, but I did well academically and went to college on a scholarship. My professors encouraged me to apply to Ph.D. programs in the U.S., so I did. Once in the U.S., I met my future husband and then became a U. S. citizen. Now my husband and I have academic positions and a young child.

    Two huge, enormous advantages I had that helped me get where I am today are a) academic ability (partly genetic) and b) parents who loved me, stayed married, and always encouraged me to read and study and excel academically.

    My son has the same advantages (he is seven years old now).

    What would you (Jerry or Jesse Singal or anyone else reading this) have me do about this? I can’t go around poor neighborhoods handing out “being born to married, supportive, academically-inclined parents” or “genes for academic ability.” Should I lower my son’s chances in order to make the playing field more level? Feed him lead paint chips? Refuse to ever read to him?

    I’m sorry if this post is too snarky, but seriously, what is the solution here?

    1. Not snarky, except in the penultimate paragraph, which is your ironic personal equivalent to the anti-talent policies increasingly popular in state education.

      Thomas Sowell, who has written several books extensively detailing how different cultures produce different outcomes, asks, given the unequal outcomes of siblings raised in similar environments, how can we expect different groups of people to have the same outcomes?

      Unfortunately, your final question tends to attract ambitious, dogmatic answers (rather than much more modest, evidence-based responses) from people who think sweeping external interventions are magic bullets.

      My few acquaintances and friends are mostly Chinese immigrants, mostly with tradesmen or professional qualifications, some unskilled: noticeable commonalities are willingness to work and their driving concern for their children’s success.

    2. Not terribly long ago, I read a couple of articles that claimed White people who read to their kids confer an unfair advantage to them.
      They did not propose the obvious solution, which was encouraging parents of other races to do likewise.
      It is a lot easier to give people opportunities than it is to force them to make good decisions. It probably also follows the law of diminishing returns.

      1. “It is a lot easier to give people opportunities than it is to force them to make good decisions.”

        Quoted for truth.

        Horse, water, etc.

  4. It’s a great article, if verbose, essentially exploring the class versus culture split for explanations. Though I’ll point out he doesn’t give much consideration to the idea that the pipeline can also be seriously affected by just a small amount of cultural racism but accumulating over time, like compound interest or corrosion. I think he feels the need to be so lengthy because “pipeline” as an argument is viewed in many quarters as meaning “don’t look at us, we can’t do anything, it all happened beforehand, shrug, whatdyagonnado”. While the latter might even be true, it’s also very easy to say.

    Fundamentally, yes, structural racism is a very hard problem. I certainly don’t know how to solve it.
    However, I’d suggest a very small start might be some more sympathy for the issues itself despite extreme cases of Woke excesses. For example, it’s absurd to deem all disagreement whatsoever as “White Fragility”. But to say there’s defensiveness in society over racism seems clearly true. Can one resolve this? Again, I sure can’t do it in a blog comment.

    1. If something is both true and very easy to say, why not say it more often?

      There is no solution to the problem of structural racism, partly because the problem is framed in a way that makes it insoluble except by putting the Black minority in charge and letting them re-order the wealth and power distribution more to their liking. A problem that has no majority-acceptable solution is therefore not a problem at all, just a fact of life. The covetous poor, unproductive, and dangerous have always been among us. We should welcome their efforts to change.

      I was interested to read that Canada by Singal’s definition has no Black people…and that former President Obama and VP Harris are not Black, either. So maybe I can’t know what I’m talking about.

  5. The way I’ve parsed “structural racism” is different. When folks say America is structurally racist, it’s left to the listener to infer that maybe it’s America’s institutions that are racist. I think that would be a hard case to make, unless one argues purely based on outcomes, which themselves have a large personal component. What I feel the speaker actually means is that America is a capitalist country, and that capitalism is inherently racist. (The critique of Western Culture is just a midway point in this argument.) As with the rest of the Progressive project, I think this is entirely a neo-Marxist viewpoint (with the traditional Fellow Travelers), and as worthwhile as you personally feel it is.

    1. I agree, but I don’t get his point 4. Certainly not in frequency, but he possibly meant something else.

      1. Very recently, for a particular Head of Department post here at my workplace in South Africa (a majority black country), there were 6 good, shortlisted people, but only one of them was black. He definitely was the best candidate, not just in my opinion, but unanimously in the opinion of the rest of the panel. (Sadly he declined, because he found a post elsewhere, more commensurate with his -indeed more modest- future plans). Maybe that is the type of thing that Singal was pointing at with his point 4?

      2. His point 4 was, it is a non sequitur to believe applicants on average will be as equally qualified when they are so hugely disadvantaged, anecdotes aside.

        1. But it makes perfect sense if you assert that B-W differences are caused by racism. From that follows
          1) blotting out racism would make these differences go away
          2) -> the differences therefore don’t really exist
          3) -> we could achieve racial equality very quickly if only racism was eliminated
          4) -> any failures to achieve this are the result of racism

          US education policy largely takes this view for granted.

          When affirmative action was introduced, it was explained that since worse B applicants were just disadvantaged before college, they would catch up later (point 2). We have since seen this argument again and again: fill the pipeline, and racism can be washed out. Black children aren’t doing worse, the racist teachers just refuse to put them in gifted programs. Their behavior is fine, school suspensions are just racist tools meant to keep them down. It is pointless to incarcerate POC to reduce crime, since its root cause won’t vanish that way, and it’s the same cause that makes people want to lock them up (guess which?).

          Schools aggressively pursue the elimination of the B-W test score gap, regardless of its extent or the failure to do much about it in past decades (point 3). This only makes sense if you believe.

          Now that success is somewhat elusive, racism turns out to much worse than previously assumed. Not just intentional, but institutional, structural, semiotic, unconscious etc. (point 4). A longer timescale does not affect the basic argument, but seems rather to reinforce it.

          1. Thanks, I think I get it now, I was bit slow in the attic yesterday evening.
            So yes, he makes good point.

  6. It just isn’t possible to have “equality” for all. We vary too much in ability, opportunity, health, background and even luck. One big problem in the Black community in particular, is that too many single women are struggling raising children without support from the fathers of those children. Everyone “knows” this, but you can get chastised for mentioning this. Oh, racism is real and created much of this mess. However, it will be WITHIN the Black communities themselves to foster the leadership and motivation to try to get Black children heading to a path that is more embracing of education and self- and community development. I know. I am terribly simplifying a complex problem, but I am expressing what many are thinking or wandering.

  7. An excellent discussion of structural racism. Much needed in a kendiesque world where assertions are made neither with definitions nor supporting references. Thank you Jerry.

  8. I have read, but alas don’t have the link, that wealth discrepancy between white and black people occurs largely at the 90the percentiles and above. At the 50th percentile, as example, that discrepancy begins to largely disappear. Does anyone have better data?

    What Singal talks about seems to me a “class” (wealth) issue, rather than a racial one.

    Also, keep in mind that Hispanics are about 19% of US population, Blacks around 12,2%. So there is something myopic about the continued white/black conversation again and again……………….

    1. The myopic conversation persists because Black people who vote vote >90% for the Democratic Party. A tail that big wags the dog even if the rest of the dog would like to talk about something else for a change. If their turnout was the same as the electorate at large, 90% of 12% would allow the Dems to win while getting 44% of everyone else.

  9. Simplistic, sticking my neck out sermon like, or not, but perhaps it’s not institutions, pipelines but an emphasis on a shared humanity that will unhinge racism, inequality, intolerance. From the bottom up, sideways and top down combined. If equality is not shared on the streets and driven by people where do we find it? those values that go beyond the family and tribe?
    By no fault of our own, our genetic endowment, environment, was not of our choosing and should not impact on the fact that we have a role and a place. Your security is as important as the next individual.
    Meritocracy can turn into an elite system like any other, power and privilege corrupt, who the hell doesn’t know that, it is not a guarantee of equality. Look at Singapore and how the Chinese use of meritocracy to harvest their talent, sharp minds running the country with elitism, watch out! Or the opposite, tRumpt (smirk) closer to home for you US citizens promoting only ‘them’ that bow and pander… his children, a real talented lot ‘them’.
    Education seems to be defeating us despite the fact it is the way out. Education, meritocracy plus our sense of humanity and the qualities inherent are to me a practical common sense way to go.
    As humans slowly civilized behaviours on the whole we need to find these people who show promise as leaders when they are young (we do it in sports) civil minded individuals who can use their talents to promote fundamental change, weed out bad thinking, perhaps it will be only by natural attrition those unwilling, then perhaps we can move on.

  10. Singal used specific the example of his family, so perhaps I can counter with mine. Both of my parent’s families were rural and poor, Dads family was exceptionally so, even compared to others in the 1930s to 50s US. My grandparents were unable to provide their surviving six children with such advantages as electric light to study by. The most important thing they could give their kids was a superior work ethic, and the desire to seek the education that my grandparents themselves never had. So, of the six shoeless sharecroppers kids, all earned at least a MS in engineering, except for the one that became a lawyer. Dad followed up his engineering degree with a PHD in history.
    My mother has always been embarrassed by the scars on her hands, which she got while picking cotton as a young child. At least they were able to keep most of the land.
    Like Singal, I had it pretty easy. Houses full of good books and lively discussion, and the opportunity to attend great schools.
    Unlike him, I only have to go back one generation to experience almost medieval serfdom.
    I grew up amidst many lectures and discussions about work ethic, opportunity, and barriers to success.
    Of course, a Black sharecropper’s child in the same era would have had to struggle mightily to achieve even a measure of my parent’s success. But that is not really the current topic of discussion.
    My view, which has obviously been influenced heavily by my parents, is that the barriers to success faced by the “under represented” today are significantly less than those encountered by my parents.

    I also remain skeptical of the argument that if we shuffled the deck and reallocated all of the wealth and property evenly, that the deck would stay shuffled. And the shuffling itself is bound to be pretty disruptive.

    As for diversity being a primary goal in itself, I just do not see the logic, as long as nobody is allowed to put up barriers. Lets say you assemble two teams and tell each to design a wing spar for a new aircraft. One team of 100 has 51 females, and is composed of 60 White, 14 Black, 19 Hispanic, 6 Asians and one Pacific Islander, and the other team is selected purely on engineering and design ability.
    I guess the diversity is our strength people will argue that the diverse team’s wing is going to have inherent advantages over the other one, but making such an argument is going to be a hard sell.

    When we were working in Africa, it was great to have coworkers that were raised there. They had some great insights into subtleties of negotiation and customs. If you had replaced them with Black people raised in Detroit or Atlanta, we would have been at a disadvantage. Race was not the relevant factor. A White person who grew up in Benin and who speaks Fon and Kwa would have been fine as well.

  11. One day, in graduate school, it suddenly struck me that I was the only one in my class of physics Ph.D. students that came from a broken family (divorced parents).

    Maybe family income is a proxy for a stable family, but I think that having a stable family is the sine qua non for success. Kids do better at school when they know there is no drama at home.

  12. Just a comment on “My only disagreement with Singal—and it’s an important one—is that “structural racism” is usually construed as institutionalized forms of discrimination: laws, rules, or codified practices that discriminate against people of color.”

    Probably this is what is meant by some when they speak of structural or institutional racism, but I doubt that this is most commonly what is meant, and I think there are good reasons to define it more broadly. Namely, every social or cultural institution, structure or system is certainly comprised of more than just its “laws, rules, or codified practices.” Institutions consist also of the people belonging to them, i.e. also the words, behaviors and practices of those people. Thus, if there are, e.g., no racist laws, rules or codes in a given police force, but (a significant number of) its police officers speak and behave in racist ways, then the institution must be seen as racist.

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