Disparities Do Not Mean Discrimination

Most South Africans are very familiar with phrases like “such and such group is disproportionally represented”, or “this demographic is over/underrepresented in this particular sports team or industry”. Political correctness hawks have to a certain extent succeeded in making many of us believe that every...

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Most South Africans are very familiar with phrases like “such and such group is disproportionally represented”, or “this demographic is over/underrepresented in this particular sports team or industry”. Political correctness hawks have to a certain extent succeeded in making many of us believe that every possible group or organisation should be demographically reflective of the population, even though this only happens in TV advertisements. The pointing out of every case of perceived injustice or discrimination is the bread and butter of the typical South African politician or social justice enthusiast. The premise is that statistical disparities would not exist, were it not for unequal treatment

The reality, however, is that disparities in the way certain groups are represented in certain fields is the norm – not the exception.

The list below is compiled from two of Professor Thomas Sowell’s books: The Vision of the Anointed (1993) and The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999):

International studies have repeatedly shown gross intergroup disparities to be commonplace all over the world, whether in alcohol consumption, fertility rates, educational performance, or innumerable other variables. A reasonably comprehensive list of such disparities would be at least as large as a dictionary. However, a manageably selective list can be made of disparities in which it is virtually impossible to claim that the statistical differences in question are due to discrimination:

  1. American men are struck by lightning six times as often as American women.
  2. During the days of the Soviet Union, per capita consumption of cognac in Estonia was more than seven times what it was in Uzbekistan.
  3. For the entire decade of the 1960s, members of the Chinese minority in Malaysia received more university degrees than did members of the Malay majority – including more than 400 degrees in engineering, compared to 4 for Malays.
  4. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, when non-Muslims were explicitly second-class under the law, there were whole industries and sectors of the economy predominantly owned and operated by Christian minorities, notably Greeks and Armenians.
  5. When Nigeria became an independent nation in 1960, most of its riflemen came from the northern regions while most of its officers came from southern regions. As late as 1965, half the officers were members of the Igbo tribe – a southern group historically disadvantaged.
  6. In Bombay, capital of India’s state of Maharashtra, most of the business executives are non-Maharashtrian, and in the state of Assam, most of the businessmen, construction workers, artisans, and members of various professions were non-Assamese.
  7. Within the white community of South Africa, as late as 1946, the Afrikaners earned less than half the income of the British, even though the Afrikaners were politically predominant.
  8. As of 1921, members of the Tamil minority in Ceylon outnumbered members of the Sinhalese majority in both the medical and the legal professions.
  9. A 1985 study in the United States showed that the proportion of Asian American students who scored over 700 on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was more than double the proportion among whites.
  10. In Fiji, people whose ancestors immigrated from India – usually to become plantation labourers – received several times as many university degrees as the indigenous Fijians, who still own most of the land.
  11. Although Germans were only about one percent of the population of czarist Russia, they were 40% of the Russian army’s high command, more than half of all officials in the foreign ministry, and a large majority of the members of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.
  12. In Brazil’s state of São Paulo, more than two-thirds of the potatoes and more than 90 percent of the tomatoes have been grown by people of Japanese ancestry.
  13. As early as 1887, more than twice as many Italian immigrants as Argentines had bank accounts in the Banco de Buenos Aires, even though most Italians arrived destitute in Argentina and began work in the lowest, hardest and most “menial” jobs.
  14. In mid-nineteenth-century Melbourne, more than half the clothing stores were owned by Jews, who have never been as much as one percent of Australia’s population.
  15. Even after the middle of the twentieth century in Chile, most of the industrial enterprises in Santiago were controlled by either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
  16. More than four-fifths of the doughnut shops in California are owned by people of Cambodian ancestry.
  17. In the early twentieth century, four-fifths of the world’s sugar processing machinery was made in Scotland.
  18. As of 1909, Italians in Buenos Aires owned more than twice as many food and drinking establishments as the native Argentines, more than three times as many shoe stores, and more than ten times as many barbershops.
  19. During the decade of the 1960s, the Chinese minority in Malaysia supplied between 80 and 90 percent of all university students in medicine, science and engineering.
  20. In the early 20th century, all the firms in all the industries producing the following products in Brazil’s state of Rio Grande do Sul were owned by people of German ancestry: trunks, stoves, paper, hats, neckties, leather, soap, glass, watches, beer, confections, and carriages.
  21. In eighteenth-century Russia, 209 out of 240 cloth factories in the province of Astrakhan were owned by Armenians.
  22. Of the 16 000 workers who built the East Africa Railway line from the port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria, 15 000 were from India.
  23. As of 1937, 91 percent of all greengrocers’ licences in Vancouver, Canada were held by people of Japanese ancestry.
  24. Although less than 5 percent of Indonesia’s population, ethnic Chinese have at one time run three-quarters of its 200 largest businesses.
  25. In the early 1920s, Jews were only 6 percent and 11 percent of the population of Hungary and Poland, respectively, but they were more than half of all the doctors in both countries.

Why are different groups so disproportionally represented in so many times and places? Perhaps the simplest answer is that there was no reason to have expected them to be statistically similar in the first place. Geographical, historical, demographic, cultural, and other variables make the vision of an even or random distribution of groups one without foundation.

We find that virtually nowhere on earth are people represented in alignment with any sort of population demographic deemed relevant by those who are dogmatic about equality. This is of course not to say that unfair discrimination does not exist. But we have to differentiate between fair and unfair discrimination. Every choice we make in life (the act of choosing between two or more possibilities) requires us to discriminate. Chicken or beef? Whiskey or rum? Blonds or brunettes?



An example of fair discrimination would be where a school rugby coach chooses the fit, technically proficient, 110kg guy for his team instead of the unsuitable 65kg guy.

An example of unfair discrimination would be where a school rugby coach chooses a player for his team based on a personal characteristic which is of arbitrary relevance to rugby (for example skin colour, or hair colour).

The idea that people should at all times be equally represented is a deeply collectivistic and relativistic view. It is collectivistic because it assumes that all people of a particular group are generic, without individual characteristics. It is also relativistic in the sense that it assumes that there should be no absolute standards by which any behaviour or achievements be judged, and that a person’s value in a particular area should be seen in the context of their culture or background instead.

Moving away from the only rightful criteria by which people should discriminate, merit, creates an attitude of entitlement for the groups to whom the preferential treatment is given. This leads to inferior standards for all.

To conclude with a paragraph about affirmative action out of Professor Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice:

Those pursuing the quest for cosmic justice have tended to assume that the consequences would be what they intended – which is to say, that people subject to government policies would be like pieces on a chessboard, who could be moved here and there to carry out a grand design, without concern for their own responses. But both the intended beneficiaries and those on whom the costs of those benefits would fall have often reacted in ways unexpected by those who have sought cosmic justice.

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  1. Tian Alberts Reply

    Baie dankie vir hierdie stuk!

  2. uLindokuhle Reply

    This article is so useless. If you think that the discrepancies themselves are the problem then you don’t understand the problem. If you think that these facts are evidence of anything then you don’t understand statistics or economics (perhaps, more specifically, econometrics). If anything, they are merely descriptive stats and not useful for understanding society or relationships. It’s like saying the pass rate is 50% – what does that tell us about the why? Nothing. What does it tell us about the cause? Nothing.

    Another example. There are more female 80 year olds then male 80 year olds in basically every population. I’m guessing at this point you’d be saying “Hey look, here is a discrepancy in demography that has nothing to do with discrimination or sociology!” Okay cool now WHY? 1) females are biologically more resistant to heart disease etc. so it’s not surprising that they outlive males but 2) men tend to engage in more violent or risky behaviour than women (particularly in young adulthood) therefore more men than women die young from non-natural causes. Hmmm…the second one sounds like it might also just be a natural effect but maybe the availability of guns or hyper-masculinity might help us understand more (Perls, T., Fretts, R. (1998). Why Women Live Longer than Men. Scientific American). You see what I did there, you stopped at simply describing the situation while I went to find out what causes the situation. Simple.

    Since you are trying to be academic about this; where is the evidence for this “attitude of entitlement” you are suggesting? Surely you can’t use academic articles to support some of your claims and not others and then think you are making a balanced argument. Just to give you a jump start; Crosby, F., Iyer, A., Sirinda, S. (2006). Understanding Affirmative Action. Annual Review of Psychology. 57(1): 585-611.

    Also, fair versus justice. Yeah the rugby couch example would be fair if we were talking about a group of people who had the same access to nutrition, exercise, sports grounds etc. but we aren’t. At this point I am tired of doing basic preliminary research for you, go do some reading yourself.

    I hope you get my drift – this article is misleading and irresponsible. Please stop abusing statistics to forward your agenda.

    1. Damon Reply

      Just had to marvel how you’ve totally missed the aim and points of this article. And amazingly ironic is how you actually are making this author’s points without even realizing it.

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