Freakonomics

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The white child and the black child Symbol Analysis

The white child and the black child Symbol Icon

At several points in the book, Dubner and Levitt bring up a “hypothetical” situation concerning two children, one white, the other black. The white child is raised in a nice part of Chicago, has two loving parents, and does well in school. The black child grows up in an impoverished part of Florida, has an abusive father, and faces lots of adversity. However, the two children defy all expectations: the white child grows up to be a terrorist, while the black child grows up to be a Harvard economist. At this point, it’s revealed that the two children aren’t hypothetical at all: the white child is Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), and the black child is Roland Fryer (an economist, cited several times in the book). Ultimately, the white child / black child scenario symbolizes the inability of economic models to predict human behavior with complete accuracy. No matter how many factors economists study (income, parenting, education) in the context of a large group of people, it’s still a mystery how individual humans will respond to this set of influences.

The white child and the black child Quotes in Freakonomics

The Freakonomics quotes below all refer to the symbol of The white child and the black child. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Incentives Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of Freakonomics published in 2009.
Epilogue Quotes

The second child, now twenty-eight years old, is Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist studying black underachievement.
The white child also made it to Harvard. But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski.

Related Characters: Roland Fryer , Ted Kaczynski
Related Symbols: The white child and the black child
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

The book concludes with a description of the two “hypothetical” children discussed in the earlier chapters. As it turns out, these children weren’t hypothetical at all: the black child was Roland Fryer, while the white child was Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, one of the deadliest terrorists in American history.

On paper, Kaczynski had every conceivable advantage in life: whiteness, maleness, a brilliant mind, loving parents, an affluent background, etc. By contrast, Fryer had tremendous disadvantages: an abusive father, a poor neighborhood, racial oppression, etc. But where Kaczynski squandered his advantages and ended up becoming a dangerous murderer, Fryer overcame obstacles and became a great success at Harvard University. In all, the examples of Kazcynski and Fryer illustrate some of the limitations of economics. Economics is good at describing how, on average, a large group of people will behave. But when dealing with a small “sample size”—in this case, only two people—economics can’t predict what people will do. Kaczynski cannot be “explained” in terms of his background, his IQ, or other metrics. There is a limit, in short, to how much economics as a whole can tell us about people, and on the individual level there is always a level of randomness and other unknown factors that cannot be measured.

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The white child and the black child Symbol Timeline in Freakonomics

The timeline below shows where the symbol The white child and the black child appears in Freakonomics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5: What Makes a Perfect Parent?
Irrational Behavior, Experts, and “Conventional Wisdom” Theme Icon
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Theme Icon
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
The authors ask us to consider two hypothetical children , one white, the other black. The white child is raised in Chicago by parents... (full context)
Epilogue: Two Paths to Harvard
Incentives Theme Icon
Irrational Behavior, Experts, and “Conventional Wisdom” Theme Icon
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Theme Icon
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Crime Theme Icon
...individual people are going to behave with complete accuracy. The authors now return to the two hypothetical children they discussed in Chapter Five. One was black, and grew up with an abusive father... (full context)