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The view that racism is the main explanation for differences in education and economic outcomes is not supported by the facts

Mark MilkeEconomist Thomas Sowell, born in the American South and raised in Harlem, and the expert on race, income and culture, once gave an example of why the notion that racism is the dominant or even only factor in explaining economic or other outcomes is flawed.

He observed that historically, the Italians dominated fishing fleets around the world, unlike the Swiss. Was “systemic” racism against the Swiss the reason? Or is the explanation that Switzerland has no coastline, while Italy is almost entirely coastline? Italians thus grew up with a natural advantage in fishing, and enough of them made it their career to dominate the industry globally.

Sowell, now 93 years old, has 60 years of research and 58 books to his credit, many analyzing the effect of race and racism on incomes. He is someone the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and its staff should read. That would help them understand the errors in a “teaching resource” the Board recently sent to its staff.

The 40-page document is entitled “Facilitating Critical Conversations: A Teaching Resource for Challenging Oppression in Toronto District School Board Classrooms.” Written by one teacher (with a specialization in hip-hop), two school principals, and an education consultant – but no economists or statisticians – the “oppression” guide makes these bold claims:

racism economic outcomes

Photo by Markus Spiske

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  • “Schooling in North America is inherently designed for the benefit of the dominant culture (i.e., white, middle-upper class, male, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.).”
  • “Race matters – it is a visible and dominant identity factor in determining peoples’ social, political, economic, and cultural experiences.”
  • “Education is a colonial structure that centres whiteness and Eurocentricity and therefore it must be actively decolonized.”
  • “White Supremacy is a structural reality that impacts all students and must be discussed and dismantled in classrooms, schools, and communities.”

Late last month, the TDSB document was withdrawn – for now – on the order of Ontario’s Ministry of Education. But the ideas it promotes will show up again. They are pervasive in universities and education bureaucracies.

And they are wrong. Assuming differences in education or economic outcomes are due mainly to racism is one-dimensional and mistaken. It omits the effect of education levels, geography (rural citizens earn less than those in urban locations), culture, family dynamics, the length of time a new cohort has lived in a country and many other “inputs” into incomes and other outcomes.

The Hoover Institution has summarized Thomas Sowell’s findings on “racism-explains-all-or-much” this way: “(Sowell) argues that discrimination has significantly less of a role to play in inequality than contemporary politicians give it credit for, and that something as incontrovertible as birth order of children has a more significant and statistically higher impact on success than discrimination.”

Sowell’s own research has often found that family structure – whether a child has one or two parents, for instance – matters more than race. That only stands to reason: it’s easier to help your child with homework and much else if two parents are around. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama pointed to the critical importance of family in a speech on Father’s Day 2008: “Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.”

If they prefer their analysis Canadian, TDSB staff should also read what Toronto writer and Financial Post contributor Matthew Lau found when he examined whether Canada is systemically racist in a study last year for the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. Lau examined the earnings, education levels, occupations and public school test scores of various ethnic cohorts. He found that, far from painting Canada as a systemically racist place akin to 19th-century Alabama, the data show that many minorities are thriving.

In terms of education, for instance, the ethnic groups with the greatest proportion of bachelor’s degrees or higher were Canadians of Korean and Chinese ancestry, with 60.5 percent and 56.4 percent, respectively, compared with just 32.9 percent for the population as a whole.

Regarding incomes, the highest average weekly earnings of people born in Canada were among those of Japanese ancestry for men ($1,750) and Korean ancestry for women ($1,450). As for success in different occupations, Canadians of South Asian ancestry constitute 7.3 percent of Canada’s working-age population but account for 12.4 percent of engineers, 12.5 percent of doctors and 19 percent of computing professionals.

Lau’s summary finding was that: “Contrary to claims that racial minorities in Canada suffer widespread systemic disadvantages, Statistics Canada data show that Canadian-born individuals of many visible minority groups are succeeding relative to the rest of the population.”

Facts matter – or they should, including to the Toronto District School Board. Any further writing on race they distribute to their staff should be by Thomas Sowell and Matthew Lau.

In fact, the Aristotle Foundation would be happy to provide as many copies of Lau’s study on race as they need.

Mark Milke is founder and president of the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and editor of its first book, The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should Be Cherished – Not Cancelled.

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