Are empirical generalizations really bias?
By Walter E. Block - July 12, 2023

According to the New York Times, Karith Foster, a black woman, addressed a leadership summit meeting of the very woke Woodward company specializing in aerospace. She was brought in so as to change this firm’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program, which wasn’t working satisfactorily, to something called “Belonging.” In the course of her remarks, she challenged her audience as follows:

“Had they ever locked the car when a Black man walked by? Had they thought, yes, Jewish people really are good with money?” Had they questioned the intelligence of someone with a thick Southern accent?”

Pretty much everyone in the audience, including the speaker herself, acknowledged remorse by raising their hands to indicate they were guilty of these offenses. She then claimed that acting in this manner, holding these beliefs, was an instance of bias, which must be eradicated if we are to attain a just society.

Let us consider each of these three challenges.

My friend of many years, the late Walter E. Williams, is a black man well over six feet tall. He once told me that often, when he walked into an elevator, the white men already on board exhibited concern, and the white women held their purses closer to their bodies. He said he well understood this behavior, and did not resent it. It was due to the fact that the black crime rate was much higher than that of any other demographic group.

He knew full well that he wasn’t going to mug anyone on the elevator (he was a distinguished economics professor at George Mason University; the only people he mugged, intellectually, were socialists and interventionists), but appreciated that the other occupants of the elevator were merely judging him on the basis of limited information; on what they could see of him: a tall powerful looking black man. Were these white people biased? Of course not: they were merely and justifiably basing their assessments, and their behavior, on empirical generalizations.

A similar situation applies to Jews who have a reputation for being good with money. Is this a stereotype? Of course it is. But from whence does it spring? Of course, from the truth of the matter. Isn’t it interesting that Jews are also reputed to be great scholars, but not car jackers or drunkards? Again, these are empirical generalizations. One way to establish the accuracy of stereotypes is to articulate them inaccurately. Then, you can see the truth on which they are based. For example:

  • Orientals are stupid obnoxious drunkards.
  • Whites have springs in their legs and can outjump all other groups.
  • Blacks are studious nerds who never take their eyes out of a book; they are very unathletic and hate jazz and rap music.

Ditto for persons with thick southern accents having lower intelligence. Reading in between the lines, one may be forgiven for thinking that this author really meant blacks, but substituted this group for them. After all, believers in DEI also maintain that all whites, southerners certainly included, are guilty of “systemic racism” which accounts almost solely for the plight of the black community.

What is an empirical generalization? It stems from observation. People note, for example, that men are on average taller than women. Does this mean that all men have greater height than all women? Of course not. Milton Friedman stood at about five feet, while Brittney Griner, a WNBA All-Star recently released from Russia, is 6’9”.

Of course, not all black people are both stupid and criminals. The overwhelming number of them are the very opposite. Walter Williams is a splendid example thereof. Are all Jews excellent money managers? Certainly not. But, many of them are; proportionately more than many other ethnic groups.

It is not bias, to be eradicated, to be aware of empirical generalizations.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. Visit his substack here.