There seems to be a lot of demand for me to blog some of my Harford-related regressions on black versus white returns to education. I’ll try to satisfy this demand early next week. For now, though, I want to complain about another problem with Harford’s chapter on “rational racism.”

Harford goes over some compelling evidence that black-on-black social sanctions for “acting white” are real. But then, he argues that what seems like pointless cruelty is not only “rational,” but also “turns out to emerge from Von-Neumann style mathematics as unavoidably as the poker bluffs of chapter two”:

If you’re on the left, the “acting white” slur is the response of a scarred psyche to a racist society. If you’re on the right you might prefer to speak of a victim complex. It takes an economist to realize that the ostracism inherent in “acting white,” while tragic, is perfectly rational.

Here’s why. To a typical white student, studying hard does not offer an escape route from the society that surrounds him. His parents, extended family, and peers are holding down the kinds of jobs that come from an education. But as long as African Americans remain disadvantaged and clustered together in ghettos, a black student who studies hard is acquiring the ability to escape from poverty, crime, and deprivation – and from those around him. That may not be popular. People don’t like to see their friends developing escape plans; even the option to escape makes us nervous.

Harford has an interesting analogy: If your boss finds about that you’re studying for a career change, he’s not going to give you a lot of responsibility. Who knows how long you’ll be around? Harford then explains that ostracism of people looking for an “out” is hardly unique to blacks:

Fryer points to analogues of “acting white” in communities as diverse as the British working class (that certainly matches my experience at school), Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and… Japan’s lowest caste.

This all sounds great, until you realize that there are plenty of cultures that don’t work this way! Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were part of the working class when they arrived. But almost all of the social pressure in Jewish culture was to do well in school and make a better life, not remain in the working class. The same goes for earlier waves of Asian immigration. Japanese-American gardeners of the sixties encouraged the next generation to do well in school and move up; that’s why I’ve haven’t heard anyone talk about a “Japanese gardener” for twenty years, even though they were ubiquitous when I was a kid.

You could say: “Jewish students who studied hard weren’t persecuted by their Jewish peers because they wanted to escape together.” But that just pushes the question back a step. Why do some groups plan common escapes, while others lash out at anyone who wants to leave?

In short, it looks like we have multiple equilibria. If members of your group plan on moving up, social sanctions encourage you to try, leading to progress; if members of your group don’t plan on moving up, social sanctions encourage you not to try, leading to stagnation. Giving kids the cold shoulder for acting white is one of many possible outcomes, not an “unavoidable” implication of game theory.

The interesting question is why the progressive equilibrium prevails in some cases but not others. And frankly, Schelling points aside, game theory has very little to say about this. When economists seriously try to explain the differences between e.g. Jewish and black culture, they quickly turn into cultural historians – and start having the left-right argument (“Racist society!” “No, victim complex!”) that Harford wants to bypass.

P.S. My favorite work by an economist on cultural differences remains Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America.