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Is Racism Holding Back African Americans?

Presently, cultural explanations for success are unfashionable, though deeper introspection reveals that culture cannot be discounted.”

African Americans have made substantial improvements over the past 50 years; however, one would never reach this conclusion based upon the gloomy picture often painted by the media. But progress is also a major part of the story, as was narrated by a 2018 report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, “50 years after the Kerner Commission,” by Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson. In the authors’ sober assessment, African Americans still endure hurdles, yet it remains an undeniable fact that their narrative is one of triumph. When it comes to education, the writers present a fairly positive picture: “Over the last five decades, African Americans have seen substantial gains in high school completion rates. In 1968, just over half (54.4 percent) of 25- to 29-year-old African Americans had a high school diploma. Today, more than nine out of 10 African Americans (92.3 percent) in the same age range had a high school diploma.” Results describing achievements at the tertiary level are equally remarkable: “African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968…More than 90 percent of younger African Americans (ages 25-29) have graduated from high school, compared with just over half in 1968 – which means that they’ve nearly closed the gap with white high school graduation rates. They are also more than twice as likely to have a college degree as in 1968.”

Moreover, contrary to the image of African Americans as economically disadvantaged, as a group they represent a major force in the economy. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of firms owned by African Americans grew by 60.5%, thereby creating 1.9 million African American owned businesses; employment at these firms also accelerated more rapidly than that of non-minority owned establishments. Furthermore, the  African American purchasing power, which was estimated at $1.2 trillion in 2016, will catapult to 1.5 trillion by 2021, thus making it the largest minority consumer market.

Clearly, African Americans are desirous of greater accomplishments, but to judge their success by comparing them to Caucasian Americans is counterproductive. Disparities among groups are the norm and can be explained by a wide variety of factors. Yet scholars at the Brookings Institution argue that gaps in wealth between African Americans and their white counterparts “reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception.” Such an outlook is exceptionally narrow. Asian Americans, for example, produce superior academic outcomes, when compared to all racial groups, irrespective of their socioeconomic backgrounds. Interestingly, intellectuals who purport that disparities between whites and blacks are suggestive of racism offer no explanation as to why Asian Americans are unaffected by this malady.  

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Unfortunately, political discourse positions African Americans as infants unable to chart their own course.

Another troubling observation is the view that white Americans represent the standard by which African Americans ought to be evaluated. In 2016, the median income of Asian Americans ($51,288), was higher than the median income of whites ($47,958) and substantially greater than that of blacks ($31,082). So, if Asians are doing exceptionally well relative to other racial groups in the United States, then they (and not whites) should be the gold standard. Similarly, researchers contend that Asians thrive in the United States due to the prevalence of “ethnic communities that offer newly arrived Asian immigrants access to…resources such as supplemental schooling, private tutoring, and college preparation.” We can plausibly attribute the success of Asian Americans to a litany of reasons, separate from their relation to white power structures. However, some insist that the successes and failures of African Americans must be inextricably linked to the influence of white people. Unfortunately, political discourse positions African Americans as infants unable to chart their own course.

As such, certain heterodox scholars are often condemned for suggesting that non-racial causes may explain the status of African Americans relative to other groups, especially whites. This worldview deprives African Americans of agency by indicating that they are helpless victims of white supremacy and can never challenge the system without the interference of whites. Despite tenuous evidence for white privilege, white liberals incorrectly assume that disparities impute racism and arrogantly believe that they are ordained to eliminate racism and ameliorate the conditions of blacks in the United States. It appears that to white liberals, autonomy is incongruous with being an African American. However, there are numerous cases of oppressed groups succeeding, notwithstanding obstacles. In The American Conservative, Graham Daseler describes the astounding progress of Jewish entrepreneurs in the 20th century despite antisemitism:

“Neal Gabler’s superb 1988 book, An Empire of Their Own, tells the story of Jewish entrepreneurship in the early days of Hollywood. Of  the eight major studios in the 1930s, six were headed by Jewish men…despite the fact that anti-Semitism was rampant in Southern California at the time. Louis B. Mayer had to send his daughters to public schools, because no private school in Los Angeles would allow them to enter. Yet…Jews in Hollywood thrived not in spite of anti-semitism but because of it. Mayer only got into the movie industry in the first place after elites in the theatre business made it clear that he wasn’t welcome.”

After rejection from lucrative opportunities, Jews sought to create their niche, and today films are more popular than plays. African Americans, on the other hand, are not expected by white liberals to envision their path because, apparently, they are trapped by their history of oppression and can only be liberated by white intellectuals, who allegedly have the power to eliminate all inequities.

Indeed, the rhetoric of white liberals is not helping African Americans. However, they can emerge as useful allies by exploring historical and cultural factors that may explain the progress or lack thereof of African Americans in the United States. For example, black Americans of West Indian descent are more likely to own property than native-born blacks. The roots of this disparity—according to legal scholar Eleanor Brown—stem from the nature of slavery in the British West Indies (BWI). To mitigate the impact of war on food supplies, planters in the BWI opted to provide slaves with provision grounds, thus reducing reliance on imports. The decision to allocate small plots to slaves would later result in West Indians having an advantage over African Americans in property ownership. Brown explicitly details how the contrasting systems of enslavement created extremely different outcomes for blacks:

Property acquisition during slavery (when there were no formal protections) turned out to be singularly important in determining who continued to remain in the employ of the plantation post Emancipation. The irony is that the extensive nature of the provisioning system (which acculturated slaves to a form of ‘property-and-contract-lite’) made it less likely that ex-slaves continued to remain in the employ of the planters once leaving became a viable choice. West Indian freedmen who already had a taste of property ownership were typically not enamored with long-term plantation employment.” 

On the contrary, the picture of American slavery depicted by Brown yields strikingly different outcomes: “In a system of sharecropping, a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on the land. This significantly reduces the strain that up-front labor costs place on a plantation’s cash-flow. Although now most widely associated in the popular American imagination with the U.S. South, sharecropping has a long historical heritage that pre-dates Southern plantation society. Sharecropping was attractive to the West Indian planter for the same reason that it was attractive to the Southern planter—primarily as a mechanism of tying slaves to the plantations while saving on labor costs.” As this scholar further explains, “both planters in the West Indies and the U.S. South sought to institutionalize sharecropping arrangements. But it is largely because of the provisioning system that West Indian planters failed in their efforts, while Southern planters succeeded. West Indian slaves opted instead in large numbers to use the money that they had accumulated from contracting at food markets during slavery to buy their own land and become de jure property owners.”

Of significance is also the fact that during slavery, West Indian slaves were major players in the internal marketing system. Because of their role as merchants, after emancipation, many blacks were able to purchase property. Additionally, West Indian migrants actively participated in informal financial institutions underpinned by the social capital that afforded them the option to acquire properties. Sociologist Roger Waldinger’s observation is quite insightful: “Raising capital through rotating credit associations they had imported with them from the islands, Caribbean immigrants engaged in considerable, property speculation with the result that real estate had emerged as a small, but still significant, Caribbean niche by the end of World War II.” Therefore, it is unsurprising that for generations, black Americans of West Indian descent have had a relative advantage over African Americans in terms of housing. Most people agree that slavery may explain racial gaps, and, in the case of African Americans, the type of slavery that their ancestors endured is a primary cause of the wealth gap between West Indian Americans and African Americans. Nevertheless, the origins of disparities among groups tend to be multidimensional.

Arguably solving the problems plaguing the African American community requires one to grasp an array of issues, transcending slavery.

In fact, there is an entrepreneurship gap among individuals of African descent in the United States. For instance, one study concludes that “Afro-Caribbean immigrants have the highest rates of business ownership due largely to their high levels of financial and social capital.” In addition, the study also opines that, “Black African immigrants have the lowest rates of business ownership, due to their low levels of financial and social capital.” Evidently in this scenario, a paucity of social capital in the community of African immigrants is responsible for lower rates of venture formation. This is because the absence of social capital prevents the formation of long-lasting networks that are required for success in business. Arguably, solving the problems plaguing the African American community requires one to grasp an array of issues, transcending slavery.

Invariably, the assumption that only the legacies of slavery or racism illustrate why African Americans often perform worse relative to other groups is inaccurate. Presently, cultural explanations for success are unfashionable, though deeper introspection reveals that culture cannot be discounted. Economic analysis indicates that affluent households invest aggressively in risky assets generating higher rates of return. Compared to whites, black Americans display a lower appetite for risks; this aversion to risk, research finds, elucidates why African Americans possess less wealth. Extensive research is therefore needed to demonstrate why African Americans have less tolerance for risk.  Likewise, some commentators promulgate that the materialistic culture of African Americans should be blamed for the lower levels of wealth in the African American community. Roussanov, Charles, and Hurst confirmed this speculation in their research but noted that this behavior is explained by economics. The researchers argue that blacks spend more of their income on visible products (and saved less) in order to project superior status in their neighborhoods. Their analysis denotes that poor people, regardless of race will engage in conspicuous consumption to impress their rivals, but such people residing in wealthier communities are unlikely to be spendthrifts because they cannot compete with their neighbors.

Stereotypes about the spending patterns of African Americans may be simplistic, but conspicuous consumption in poor black communities will reap negative consequences when individuals devote resources to frivolous spending when they are needed for more productive pursuits. Conversely, though undergirded by economics, for many in black inner cities communities, unnecessary spending can become a cultural trait. As a result, even if such individuals migrated to wealthier regions, they may still have a desire to engage in wanton spending. Therefore, it is unwise to downplay this habit as simply a product of economic interactions.

There are innumerable explanations for the wealth gap between blacks and whites that are far more nuanced than racism. Therefore, if white liberals are really interested in improving the conditions of African Americans, then they must target practical solutions. For example, they could sponsor mentorship programs for African American students aimed at boosting financial literacy. Liberal think tanks can also undertake more research to explore the dynamics of African American businesses so that bureaucrats will have adequate research to guide policies. These recommendations can make a difference in the lives of African Americans. When white liberals promote fables such as white privilege and systemic racism, they only divide the nation. If they truly care about African Americans, then they must start by asking the right questions.

Lipton Matthews is a Jamaican writer. He has recently also contributed to Mises Wire and The Federalist. He can be reached by email at lo_matthews@yahoo.com. 

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