Why Culture Matters for Racial Disparities
1986 Boston Celtics Larry Bird (left) and LA Lakers Magic Johnson at the Boston Gardens / Ala

Why Culture Matters for Racial Disparities

Jonathan Church
Jonathan Church

In the 1980s, the National Basketball Association (NBA) experienced a revival in fan interest sparked by a hyped team rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the personal rivalry between their two respective superstars, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Bird is white, Johnson is black, so their rivalry was “racialized” in a sport in which the majority of players are black, and it was widely assumed that the best white players could not match the best black players in the game. Bird’s former teammate Cedric Maxwell recalls his skepticism when Bird first set foot on the court in the Celtics camp, echoing what he deems a “racist” sentiment among many black players who “did not think you could find a white guy who could play better than any black guy,” only to watch Bird hit jump shot after jump shot and realize “this white guy can play.”

Ever since Earl Lloyd became the first black man to play an NBA game, the proportion of black players has steadily and inexorably increased. While there are still gains to be made in the front office, it is a different story on the court. A 2016 report on the paucity of white American players notes that “[a]ccording to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NBA was 74.3 percent black during the 2015–16 season and 81.7 percent were people of color.” As former Orlando Magic center Rony Seikaly is said to have remarked, “If 80 percent of the league is black, that means that black players are better than white players ... the black players are superior. No doubt.” If Ibram X. Kendi is right when he says, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism,” then it follows that, on the court, basketball is a racist sport, and the NBA is a racist organization. Doesn’t it?

Explaining racial disparities

In recent years, there has been much controversy among the commentariat about how to explain racial disparities in America and what is sorting different racial groups into higher and lower strata within society. This dispute concerns not only basketball, but also innumerable categories of social and economic status—income, wealth, residence, employment, incarceration, education, and so on—with black Americans disadvantaged in most areas. Perhaps the most heated front in this debate about the causes of black disadvantage is between hereditarians, who argue that the unequal distribution of natural traits and abilities across racial groups have a non-trivial effect on outcomes, and environmentalists, who argue that racial disparities are entirely the product of nurture.

However, a further debate is occurring about the nature of environmental factors, between “culturalists,” who argue that cultural differences between groups play an important role in explaining black-white disparities, and “structuralists,” who hold that racism and its systemic legacy are the primary (and perhaps only) explanation for black disadvantage in America. Unfortunately, this debate has been framed in such a way that many feel compelled to choose one side or the other. In fact, these explanations may not be mutually exclusive—often, it is not one thing (in this case, one class of factors), but several things (several classes of factors) that have bearing on what is happening in the world.

Moreover, these “several things” not only have their own isolated impact on outcomes, they also often interact with each other and with the outcomes they purportedly influence. So, the “culturalist” position does not necessarily assume that structural factors are unimportant. Economist Glenn Loury argues that the quarrel comes down to the relative importance we assign to a “bias narrative” (structural factors) and a “development narrative” (cultural factors). In other words, we not only have to account for the historical, economic, sociological, and institutional forces that underpin the “system” in place, but we also must account for how people living within this system react to the system.

In her book Intelligent Virtue, British philosopher Julia Annas draws an important distinction between living one’s life and the circumstances in which that life is lived:

The circumstances of your life are the factors whose existence in your life are not under your control. You are a particular age, with a particular genetic disposition, gender, height, etc.; you have a particular nationality, culture, and language, have received a particular upbringing and education, have a particular family, employment, and so on. It’s not that you can’t do anything about these factors, but it’s not up to you that they are there in your life … The living of your life is the way you deal with the circumstances of your life.

In an essay for City Journal, Loury applied this frame to the question of racial inequality as follows:

If we restrict ourselves to the labor market and just talk about wages, then the structural racism narrative would be all about the demand side of the labor market. It would be about: what do employers do? What kind of information do they have? What contracts are they willing to enter into? What are the training opportunities being offered inside of organizations for employees to move ahead?

The implication is that the solutions are to be found in anti-discrimination enforcement, a change of hearts and minds, implicit-bias training, and so on. But this demand-side perspective, or bias narrative, in which “racial inequality is due to racial discrimination,” underweights, and even denies outright, agency on the part of victims of structural racism. The bias narrative, as Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter like to point out, “infantilizes” black people. Loury also notes that it begs the question at issue. “I want to know exactly what structures, what dynamic processes … [and] exactly how race figures into that story.”

History, I would argue, is complicated. So, racial disparities must have multiple, interwoven, interacting causes that range from culture, politics, and economic incentives to historical accident, environmental factors and, yes, the nefarious doings of individuals who may be racists, as well as systems of law and policy that are disadvantaging to some racial groups without having so been intended. So, I am often left wanting to know just what they are talking about when they say, “structural racism.”

When the Obama administration’s Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts in the US warning them that school departments should take steps to close the racial gap in the rate of school suspensions, it assumed that this disparity, in Loury’s words, fundamentally “reflected the differential behavior of the school districts—principals, teachers, and security officers—in how they treated disruptive behavior, such that the same behavior by a white student would be met with a less punitive response.” If this were the case, he continues, “then that would, indeed, be alarming and would warrant the attention of the authorities to do something about it.”

Alternatively, he argues, it may be the case “that disruptive behavior occurs more frequently among black students for reasons that lie outside the school,” a point examined in rich detail by Philadelphia public school teacher Christopher Paslay in his book, Exploring White Fragility: Debating the Effects of Whiteness Studies on America’s Schools. Loury observes that “three in four black kids, 70 percent, something like that, are today born to women without husbands,” and “common sense suggests that this reality can’t be unrelated to some of the outcomes, like disruptive behavior, that concern us.” It may not be “the main factor, but it would be an important part of the picture when talking about persistent racial inequality.” In short, “family organization matters,” and “there is a big racial disparity in family organization,” so “part of the story that you need to tell to account for persisting racial inequality involves family organization.”

This question of supply and demand relates to other disparities besides the rate of school suspensions. Research by Raj Chetty et al. concludes that “conditional on parent income, the black-white income gap is driven by differences in wages and employment rates between black and white men; there are no such differences between black and white women.” Moreover, “the black-white intergenerational [income] gap is significantly smaller for boys who grow up in certain neighborhoods—those with low poverty rates, low levels of racial bias among whites, and high rates of father presence among low-income blacks.” [Emphasis mine.] So, the intergenerational racial income gap is really a gender gap that primarily affects boys, and evidence suggests that a father’s presence, among other factors, matters.

The 1965 Moynihan Report made a similar case, arguing that “the programs of the Federal government … [should] be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.” This is a supply-side analysis but it doesn’t ignore the role of historical injustice. The Moynihan Report explicitly acknowledged that “the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us,” and that “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people.” But as Loury points out, the supply-side approach attempts to “address the disparity by attempting to enhance the opportunities or the experiences of the affected young people, which shape their behavior patterns, so as to make those students less subject to disciplinary measures.”

Citing Immanuel Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Loury astutely invokes Kant’s view that “we are all embedded within the flux and the flow of history and under the influence of forces that are beyond our control of environment, psychology, and such … nevertheless, the theorist must assume the capacity of individuals to make free-will choices about their moral life, lest there be no possibility for any theory of morals whatsoever.”

The problem of endogeneity

It has become virtually axiomatic among progressives that any factor invoked to explain racial disparities which is not “structural” reflects a racist belief. As Ibram X. Kendi wrote in his book How To Be an Antiracist, “To say something is wrong about a racial group is to say that something is inferior about that racial group.” There are two problems with this view. First, noticing that a racial group’s cultural proclivities may be counterproductive to advancement does not in any way imply inferiority. Kendi and other anti-racists are fond of arguing that white people are complicit in a system of white supremacy by virtue of their socialization into a society that reinforces habits, norms, beliefs, and attitudes that uphold white privilege. This certainly implies that there is something wrong with white people, but Kendi does not maintain—at least explicitly—that white people are therefore inferior. Kendi argues that white people are capable of improving their awareness, just as culturalists argue that blacks must work at forming stable families.

The second problem with Kendi’s analysis is that it overlooks endogeneity bias, a perennial concern of social science research. Endogeneity bias refers to the challenge of correctly identifying cause and effect. There are, broadly, three kinds of endogeneity:

  • Omitted variable bias.
  • Simultaneity, otherwise known as reverse causation (X can cause Y, but Y can also cause X).
  • Selection bias, otherwise known as non-randomization in the collection of data on explanatory variables (the data collected for the X variable in a regression are not representative of the population from which it is drawn).

Omitted variable bias is what it sounds like. If you build a model that explains Y in terms of X, but Y is really explained by both X and Z, then your model is almost certain to produce inaccurate results, because it overestimates the effect of X on Y by ignoring the effect of Z. The research by Chetty et al. suggests that a father’s presence matters for boys, but it does not follow that the income gap will necessarily disappear with more fathers in the home, as “the black-white intergenerational [income] gap is significantly smaller for boys who grow up in certain neighborhoods”—not only those with “high rates of father presence among low-income blacks,” but also “low poverty rates … [and] low levels of racial bias among whites.” Reducing poverty and anti-black bias presumably would also be helpful.

Returning to basketball, a 2003 study by Ogden and Hilt identifies three “facilitators” that “enable or promote the formation of leisure preferences and … encourage or enhance participation”:

  1. Individual traits and beliefs that incline someone toward one activity rather than another (intrapersonal).
  2. Peer influence (interpersonal)
  3. Institutions and beliefs that promote participation in one activity over another (structural).

A review of the relevant literature, he writes:

…shows that facilitators are operating within and through the following factors: the encouragement and compulsion of Black youths to pursue basketball as a sport and leisure activity; the predominance of Black role models in basketball; Black youths’ use of basketball for self-expression and empowerment; and, Blacks’ views of basketball as a vehicle for social mobility.

All three factors matter. If you insist it’s all about structural factors, you leave out the intrapersonal and interpersonal factors that also matter.

So, what about simultaneity and self-selection? Basketball was not always the most popular sport among black Americans. Ogden and Hilt note that, in the first half of the 20th century, baseball was the preeminent sport for black Americans. It was only after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues eventually came to an end that interest in baseball among black Americans declined.

This could mean that integration helps to explain the cultural shift away from baseball to basketball among black Americans (perhaps because blacks did not feel comfortable attending games with large white crowds, or for various other “structural” reasons). Alternatively, it could mean that with the emergence of Earl Lloyd (as well as Chuck Cooper and Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton) and eventually Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and other black superstars, “the elegance and power of black athleticism captur[ed] the respect and admiration of the world.” With the “increase in the number of players from urban environments” who “played what some call street basketball,” blacks increasingly laid claim to a game “that is distinctly urban, relentlessly innovative, and always stylistic.”

While this history claims the “structural” factor of segregation forced black players “to develop a unique game,” it was black players themselves who developed these unique contributions to the sport. Ogden and Hilt wonder if the lack of racial diversity in baseball also reflects the expense of joining “select” baseball leagues, and a lack of public investment in baseball fields in black communities, as “public support for inner city facilities began a rapid decline in the 1970s.” These “structural” conditions, however, may lag rather than precede the cultural shift among black Americans from baseball to basketball, especially as basketball became, with the emergence of black superstars, a primary marker of collective identity among black Americans (not unlike how “jazz and blues music represented black culture in the American past”). Even so, it’s hard to imagine that, if the interest were there, kids wouldn’t find a way to play baseball. In the heyday of black interest in baseball, sandlot clubs abounded. More generally, if my own experience is any indication, you only need a glove, ball, bat, and an empty parking lot to play catch or hit grounders and fly balls.

The point is that causality does not invariably run in one direction, and when structure influences culture and vice versa, we have simultaneity. Structural forces can influence cultural developments, but cultural factors can influence structural developments. This is the nature of dynamic analysis which studies how things change over time. Moreover, if basketball is a powerful means of collective identity for black Americans and becomes a central aspect of black culture, then perhaps more black Americans than white Americans simply grow up taking the game seriously. The disproportionate representation of black players in the NBA may just be an indication of selection bias.

As Ogden and Hilt argue, the policy implications are less clear than they may seem given simultaneity and self-selection:

To reduce the relationship between basketball and African Americans to an equation of facilitators and constraints may be oversimplification. But such an equation does beg the question about whether basketball as a leisure choice among Blacks is one of self-selection, one which stems from racial discrimination in other sporting venues, or a combination. If Black youths simply don’t have an interest in baseball, to what degree is the dwindling numbers of Blacks in college and professional baseball a social concern? If it is a concern or if there is racial bias in the system through which young players work their way up to the higher levels of competition, what measures should be taken to ensure equal exposure? How can African American youths be provided the same opportunities to play high caliber baseball, like that played on suburban-based youth traveling teams? What are the roles of parents, youth coaches and community support organizations in providing such opportunities?

What is culture?

Our discussion so far assumes that we know what we mean when we talk about culture. But Loury’s point about the ambiguity of “structural” factors applies equally, if not more so, to “culture.” What is culture? What makes some aspects of society’s culture “white” and other aspects “black”? The difficulties involved in defining evolving cultures complicate attempts to analyze them as an independent variable. This does not mean that culture is not real, only that we need to be careful and precise about what we mean by the term and its relationship to social outcomes.

For example, “soul food” is an integral part of black culture, but a “soul food” diet is relatively unhealthy. Does this mean that this aspect of black culture contributes to racial health disparities? Well, African Americans have higher rates of hypertension than white Americans, which seem to reflect higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Why is this? A 2018 study found that the “Southern dietary pattern” was “the largest statistical mediator of the difference in hypertension incidence between black and white participants” in the data, “accounting for 51.6 percent of the excess risk among black men and 29.2 percent of the excess risk among black women.” This “Southern dietary pattern” in black culture is pegged as a contributor to racial health disparities (though a 1962 essay by Amiri Baraka makes a case for distinguishing between soul food and southern cooking).

An honor’s thesis by Kalah Elantra Vance at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga makes a similar point. Vance argues that “poor education, less employment opportunities, low income, segregated housing, and food culture” explain why “African Americans face a higher prevalence of obesity, cancer, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes in comparison to their White counterparts,” and a “number of these diseases, specifically obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, could be positively affected by an improved diet.” This analysis highlights how outcomes can have multiple causes, and how causes and effects can interact.

First, Vance’s thesis identifies poor education, fewer employment opportunities, low income, segregated housing, and food culture as causes of the disparity. Second, it nevertheless suggests that a “number of these diseases, specifically obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, could be positively affected by an improved diet.” On the one hand, there is the demand-side perspective which draws our attention to structural conditions such as segregated housing and fewer job prospects. On the other, there is the supply-side perspective which highlights dietary choices.

In both cases, the problem is set within the historical context of slavery and its legacy. But this context is dynamic, not static. It involves not only how institutions evolve, but also how people within this institutional context adapt to evolving institutions. Vance writes that rationing meant food was usually “scarce” for slaves. Soul food arose from improvisational attempts by slaves to take what they could get and make something their own. While living under the constraints of a system that denied them things like the personal use of utensils lest they be used in revolts, slaves relied on their knowledge of recipes and food preparation from West Africa.

One result was the practice of “sopping up,” or “soaking up or scooping the residue of a meal” with cornbread or another bread source. Contemporary unhealthy diets of African Americans who gather for family soul food dinners after church on Sunday and during other social occasions can therefore be traced to diets developed from the improvisations of their ancestors. However, this account is not exactly right. As Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman established in their 1974 classic, Time on the Cross, “The average daily diet of slaves [in 1860] was quite substantial,” exceeding the energy value of the diet of free men “by more than 10 percent” in 1879.

According to Fogel and Engerman, “Careful reading of plantation documents shows that the slave diet included many foods in addition to corn and pork.” These foods included “beef, mutton, chickens, milk, turnips, peas, squashes, sweet potatoes, apples, plums, oranges, pumpkins, and peaches.” Moreover, plantations often purchased for slaves such items as salt, sugar, and molasses, and less frequently but not uncommonly, fish, coffee, and whiskey. Both Fogel and Engerman, as well as Vance’s thesis, point out that slaves could supplement their diets by hunting and by growing vegetables in their own gardens.

Nevertheless, even if the diet of slaves was more ample and varied than some accounts suggest, it was in the context of slavery that, Vance writes, “the adaptations made to food practices during slavery decreased the nutritional value of the previously healthy West African dishes.” It seems plausible that racial health disparities can be traced to slavery and the way slaves adapted a West African cuisine to create “soul food” that was simultaneously creative and unhealthy, consisting, for example, of “fried foods and lots of fatty meats prepared with rich gravies.” As a legacy of slavery, many black Americans continue to embrace soul food because it “signifies the history of African-Americans in America and is seen as an integral part of Black culture.” But is it all about slavery? Encyclopedia.com reports that “in 1965, African Americans were more than twice as likely as whites to eat a diet that met the recommended guidelines for fat, fiber, and fruit and vegetable intakes. By 1996, however, 28 percent of African Americans were reported to have a poor-quality diet, compared to 16 percent of whites, and 14 percent of other racial groups.”

So, we have another case of simultaneity. Soul food arose from conditions under slavery, became associated with black culture, and is now embraced pervasively enough to explain at least some of current racial health disparities. Moreover, the diet of African Americans may have become less healthy in the last half century. In short, structure (slavery) influenced culture (Southern diet), and culture (soul food) continues to influence structure (health disparities). It is for this reason that an effort to encourage the adoption of healthier versions of soul food, thereby preserving culture while reducing racial health disparities over time, would be beneficial.


A short tweet thread posted by Mansa Keita (a pseudonym) articulates a concern of many skeptics of the culturalist hypothesis:

I've yet to see a good defense of the "culturalist" position on racial disparities … I just have yet to see a version that I find coherent on major issues.
I saw John McWhorter present a version of this, but with the assumption that the “broken culture” was created by past racism, and just naturally persists[.]
But that to me seems in no way different than standard racism critiques, but places the onus on the affected.
If the argument is that the African-American community was broken by past systemic action, and that continues to reverberate today, it would seem logical that it would require systemic action to fix for tomorrow[.]
Or, we can just ask people to be exceptional in their circumstances[.]

But what Keita sees as a flaw is, in fact, central to the “culturalist” position, with two important qualifiers. First, it does not necessarily follow that the “onus” falls exclusively on “the affected”; and second, structural factors may “cause” cultural factors that then, as sociologist Rod Graham points out, serve as a “proximal explanation” for ongoing racial disparities. But structural outcomes may also be “caused” by cultural forces as structural and cultural factors interact dynamically over time.

On the latter point, another way of saying this is that cultural factors are themselves structural factors because they are an integral part of the structure of society. As basketball became more popular in black culture, and more players entered the NBA, the supply of black players increased. As the cultural backdrop of black America’s steadily increasing embrace of basketball became entrenched, incentives realigned as black youths, as well as parents and coaches, took the game more seriously than their white counterparts. It was not so much that the NBA, NCAA, and other societal institutions increased demand for black players, but that basketball became such an integral part of black culture that the supply of black players dramatically increased.

The same analytical perspective applies in general to the analysis of black culture. When Saturday Night Live (SNL) ran a series of Black Jeopardy! skits, it was grappling with similar questions about black culture and the precise nature of its relationship to social outcomes. These skits suggest there is no monolithic black culture, as characters like Drake, who plays a black Canadian, and Chadwick Boseman, who plays a person from Wakanda, have difficulties finding the right questions to answers about what appears to be American black culture. Hard as it is to define culture, however, the enthusiasm with which these skits are received strongly suggests that “black culture,” reflected in the habits and beliefs of black Americans, is real, and has real consequences.

In one skit, a contestant named Keeley begins by choosing the category, “You Better” for $200. After successfully ringing in on the first answer about packet draws, she sticks with “You Better” for $400. The answer: “Your job wants to take $40 a month out of your check for a 401k.” Another contestant named Shanice rings in and answers, “What is, you better gimme that money so I can buy me some scratch offs?” Darnell Hayes affirms her answer: “You’re damn right. You’re damn right. I mean, why do I need a retirement plan when I got Monopoly Millionaires Club?” The implication is that blacks would sooner gamble away their wealth than invest it. Now, I have no idea if this is true, but the point being made is that spending patterns among black Americans are not always optimal.

This was explored by Coleman Hughes in his analysis of black American culture and the racial wealth gap. Hughes chides “the progressive account of the racial gap” for ignoring “any active role for blacks themselves,” and argues that “there are certain elements of black American culture that, if changed, would allow blacks to amass wealth to a degree that no government policy would be likely to match.” Hughes then invokes a slew of studies suggesting that “[n]o element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns.” Citing research from Nielsen, economists at the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Hughes concludes that there is evidence to suggest that suboptimal spending patterns and financial decision-making in black America are at least partly responsible for the racial gap.

If we are to understand ongoing racial inequality, it’s a mistake to dismiss cultural analyses. Culture is not the whole story, but it is an important part of it. Where it fits involves complicated methodological questions about how we define it, how it interacts with other factors, and how it dynamically interacts with structural outcomes which are likely a cause, and effect, of black cultural developments. Those who refuse to acknowledge its importance are only seeing part of the problem they are trying to solve.


Jonathan Church

Jonathan Church is an economist and writer.