Eighteen city firefighters, seventeen who were white and one who was Hispanic, brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after they had passed the test for promotions to management and the city had nevertheless declined to promote them.
Race All Ages 18-24
Total 38,118,386 100.0% 4,041,556 100.0%
White 14,925,450 39.2% 1,271,440 31.5%
Black 2,209,668 5.8% 256,254 6.3%
AmerInd 165,507 0.4% 17,520 0.4%
Asian 4,950,167 13.0% 461,438 11.4%
PacIsl. 135,847 0.4% 16,701 0.4%
Latino 14,739,555 38.7% 1,884,686 46.6%
Two/More 992,192 2.6% 133,517 3.3%
[T]he current cohort of black teens is still more than three times as likely as the cohort of white teens to have had lead levels of 25 mcg/dl as little kids. And exposure levels as low as 10 mcg/dl among children under the age of 6 are associated with an over 5 point decline in IQ among adults.
Needless to say, children under the age of 6 do not exercise a great deal of choice over where they live or what level of soil testing is done. Nor is it an accident that low-income parents are more likely to be inhabiting the kind of dwellings where their kids are likely to be exposed to toxic levels of lead. I think it takes a fairly perverse outlook on life to believe that a person deserves lifelong economic hardship as a consequence of his parents' having lived in an old house near a freeway when he was a toddler. But the name for that social system is "meritocracy." The non-poisoned infants really will grow up to be adults who really are smarter and really do have better impulse control and ability to do long time-horizon planning. They have more "merit" than the poisoned kids just like Dwight Howard is very genuinely taller and stronger than you or I.
Obviously the right response to lead and other atmospheric toxins is to clean them up. But the fact of the matter is that we're not going to eliminate lead from the build environment next year, and we're certainly not going to go back in time to the late 1960s and clean up the environment that today's 45 year-olds grew up in. And though lead is very important, it's also obviously not the only source of relative cognitive disadvantage out there (consider mercury or bad school lunches or just noise). The point, however, is that the unfairness that who your parents were and where they lived 30 or 40 years ago has a major impact on your income and opportunities today isn't a contrast to the idea that the American economic system in some sense rewards merit—this happens precisely because the system rewards merit and possession of "merit" is largely driven by factors that are themselves totally beyond a person's individual control.
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