As a 19-year-old, I am too young to be a millennial. I am a so-called Generation Z. Among my peers — and also among older generations — logical fallacies are commonplace, and it is easy to fall for them.
One of the most dangerous fallacies I have seen recently is that a statistical disparity between two groups must be the result of a single cause, usually discrimination. This fallacy makes frequent appearances on social media, especially when it comes to disparities among races or sexes, often leading to vilifying and misleading information inexorably circulating across the country.
A prevalent example of this today regards racial injustice in law enforcement. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a study showing that a Black man is 2.6 times more likely to be shot by a police officer than a white man. This disparity becomes even more egregious considering that white men take up 31% of the population while Black men only comprise 7%.
But this same study also says that Black Americans, while 32% of police shooting victims, are responsible for 36% of violent crime and 51% of homicides. Given that people are more likely to be shot while in the act of violent crime, the disparity does not seem to be as significant as it does on its surface.
This doesn’t mean that racism within law enforcement doesn’t exist, but clearly other factors need to be considered.
To demonstrate how frivolous the fallacy of disparity equaling discrimination is, consider this ridiculous example. The FBI states that women make up less than 20% of violent crime perpetrators and, for some violent crimes, less than 1%. Women make up 51% of the population. Using the same logic that is used to attribute racism to law enforcement, we would say that women are being under-policed. This logic is clearly flawed.
It is simply not true that all groups of people commit the same amounts of crime and therefore their share of crime should be commensurate to their population size. Nobody claims that sexism within law enforcement is the reason for the disparity; however, we frequently hear that racial disparity in crime is the result of racism.
A related issue where people might succumb to this fallacy concerns why Black Americans experience a higher rate of poverty than white Americans. Does this indicate institutional racism? Possibly. But again, there may be other factors in play.
According to the Census Bureau, children raised in fatherless homes are four times more likely to live in poverty. To what extent does the fact that nearly 70% of black children are raised in fatherless homes, versus 25% of white children, influence the disparity in racial poverty rates? What other factors beyond single parenting could be involved? Asking questions like these is paramount to avoid getting entangled in this fallacy.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that racism does not exist. And I’m not questioning the good intentions of people who fall for the logical fallacy that disparity equals discrimination. Even educated people can use fallacious reasoning.
But, as French novelist Anatole France said, “If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
The danger of remaining parochial to what causes racial disparity is that doing so will result in the inequality becoming exacerbated.
It is essential that we recognize this fallacy before falling for it, so that we can critically examine what factors most significantly contribute to inequality. An honest exploration of all root causes will pave the way for solutions to be identified and acted on.
Levi Hilton, Provo, is an economics student at Brigham Young University.