Commentary Magazine


Myths about Minorities

Will Rogers once said that it’s not ignorance that is so bad, but all the things we know “that ain’t so.” Much of what we “know” about racial and ethnic minorities in America is unsubstantiated and just plain wrong.

We “know,” for example, that there is in this country a majority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Wasps) surrounded by a fringe of minorities, who have lower incomes, occupations, and IQ’s, and higher fertility rates and crime rates. We “know” that non-whites invariably earn less than whites, and that blacks, who suffer broken homes as a legacy of slavery, are the worst off of all in economic terms. Yet none of those common beliefs is literally true, and some are very wide of the mark.

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“Minorities”

The very notion of a Wasp majority and small minorities is wrong. Census Bureau surveys show that about half of the American population cannot identify their ethnicity at all, presumably because of intermixtures over the generations. While Anglo-Saxons are the largest single identifiable group, they are only 14 per cent of the population—not much more than such “minorities” as German-Americans (13 per cent) or blacks (11 per cent). There is thus no ethnic majority to be contrasted with minorities, but a mosaic of many groups, and a large number of people who are mixtures of various groups.

Even the racial distinction between black and white is not as sharp in reality as it is in rhetoric. Very few blacks are of unmixed African ancestry. Most have at least one white ancestor, and in addition, whole tribes of Indians have been absorbed into the black population. By the same token, a leading social historian has estimated that tens of millions of white Americans have at least one black ancestor. The old Southern racial doctrine—that “one drop of Negro blood” made you black, legally and socially—was never carried out in practice; to avoid embarrassing some of the “best” white Southern families, state laws required some specified fraction of Negro ancestry.

Americans are far from having blended into one indistinguishable mass, but we are just as far from being a majority-minority society, or a society in which racial and ethnic labels can be taken literally. Paradoxically, the melting-pot concept enjoyed its greatest popularity at a time when intermarriage was still rare across religious or ethnic lines, and rarer yet across racial lines. It is now dismissed by intellectuals at a time when it is closer to reality than ever before. Thus, most marriages of American men of Irish ancestry are to women who are not of Irish ancestry. Most men of German or Polish ancestry do not marry within their respective ethnic groups. Nor is this trend limited to whites. About 40 per cent of Japanese-American men marry women who are not Japanese-American. In short, both the acceptance and the rejection of the “melting-pot” concept by intellectuals was a matter of changing fashions rather than hard evidence.

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Incomes and Occupations

Anglo-Saxons are not pace setters in income, occupations, or education. Americans of Jewish, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, or Italian ancestry make more money. While the image of the Wasp is one of old families in elite enclaves, the reality also includes desperately poor people scattered along hundreds of miles of the Appalachians, and others scattered throughout the whole range of American incomes and occupations.

The idea of a “national average” is as misleading as the idea of a Wasp majority. Most people are not average. Variations in income from one group to another are common, and income variations among age brackets, or among cities, are even larger than income variations among ethnic groups. The national average is nothing more than a statistical amalgamation of all these wide-ranging diversities. The idea that it is a norm or a standard—that any statistical deviation from it is both unusual and suspicious, and that we would all be the same except for the sins of “society”—is arbitrary political rhetoric.

The incomes of so-called ethnic minorities do not line up below the mythical national norm but range on both sides of the statistical average. For example, the following American ethnic groups earned the following percentages of the national average in family income, at the time of the most recent census:

Ethnicity Income
Jewish 170 per cent
Japanese 132 per cent
Polish 115 per cent
Italian 112 per cent
Chinese 112 per cent
German 107 per cent
Anglo-Saxon 107 per cent
Irish 103 per cent
National Average 100 per cent
Filipino 99 per cent
West Indian 94 per cent
Mexican 76 per cent
Puerto Rican 63 per cent
Black 62 per cent
Indian 60 per cent
(Source: Essays and Data on American Ethnic Groups, Urban Institute, 1978.)

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These income patterns show more of a continuum than a majority-minority dichotomy. Moreover, two of the five highest income groups—Chinese and Japanese—are non-white. The great majority of Puerto Ricans are white, but their incomes are only about half the incomes of these two Oriental groups, and virtually the same as the incomes of blacks. West Indians are black, but their incomes differ little from the national average. The supposedly overwhelming effect of color on economic well-being is less apparent in census data than it is in media rhetoric.

Black West Indians are sometimes said to be treated preferentially by employers, who pick them out from other blacks by their accent, or by their place of birth or schooling. But if this were the reason why West Indians earn far higher incomes than other blacks, it would apply much less to second-generation West Indians who have less of an accent (or no accent) and are born and educated in the United States. This whole line of reasoning collapses like a house of cards under the weight of census data for second-generation West Indians—who have higher incomes than Anglo-Saxons, and higher representation in professional occupations.

The facts about occupation are just as far from popular (or media) beliefs as the facts about income. About 14 per cent of employed Americans are in the professions, or in comparable technical and similar fields. Despite the reiterated theme of color barriers or exclusions in the professions, at least four non-white groups have higher than average representation in these high-level occupations: black West Indians (15 per cent); Japanese (18 per cent); Filipinos (23 per cent); and Chinese (25 per cent). Black Americans have below-average representation (8 per cent), but white Puerto Ricans have even lower representation (5 per cent). There are many reasons why various groups have differing representations in the professions, but the supposedly decisive effect of color as depicted by the media is, again, simply not reflected in the census data.

Somewhere down the road, we will have to come to grips with the hard fact that color is not as all-determining as we once thought—or as civil-rights activists still insist—and that cultural factors will have to be dealt with much more seriously.

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Social Pathology

The problems that minorities have are so much a cliché that ethnic groups without special problems are often not even regarded as minorities. Some of the most commonly cited problems are broken homes, poor educational performances, high crime rates, and very large families. This preoccupation with pathology—and with the responsibility of “society” for supposedly causing it—often overlooks strengths and successes within the self-same ethnic groups. Those who have written about the economic advancement of blacks (such as Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard Scammon) have found themselves the targets of abuse. So have those (like myself) who have written about high-performance black schools.

One might think there would be great interest in what does and does not work, especially in an area where so much fails. But the hostile reception accorded to any good news about black progress suggests a large vested interest in social pathology—as a source of accusations and demands on society, and as a reason for giving money, power, and patronage to the accusers and denouncers. Although much social pathology is all too real, the question is what is its source, and what will make things better or worse. The politically preferred explanation may be the sins of others, but it is not enough just to document the existence of such sins. Nothing is easier to prove than sin among human beings. The real issue remains this: do the economic and other problems of ethnic groups actually vary with the frequency or severity of the sins against them?

Groups may be subject to very similar treatment by society at large and yet differ enormously in their economic achievements and social problems. Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans, for example, came to the United States in large numbers at about the same time (the early 1900′s), settled in the same region (the Southwest), and faced discrimination in schools and on the job. Yet today Japanese-American incomes are almost double the incomes of Mexican-Americans, and their crime rates and broken homes are only a fraction of the figures for Mexican-Americans. As for how they were treated by “society,” the Japanese suffered more—being legally denied citizenship and land ownership for many years, and being interned with great loss of property during World War II. They were also much easier targets of racism, being physically different, whereas many Mexican-Americans are physically indistinguishable from other white people. (The Japanese language is also further from English than the Spanish language is.)

Why one group does better economically than another is a complex question. But the presence of Jews and Japanese at the top of the income ladder among American ethnic groups is strong evidence that prejudice or discrimination alone is hardly a sufficient explanation.

If there is one thing that separates the high-income groups from the low-income groups, far more decisively than color or discrimination, it is family patterns. More than half of all Mexican-American children are in families of six or more children. Half of all Japanese-American children are in families of three or fewer. A relatively prosperous black group like the West Indians has fewer children per family than a relatively poor white group like the Puerto Ricans. Where there is only a mother, but no father, to take care of a large family, the problems are obviously even greater.

Those who look for sins are quick to call broken homes and female-headed families among blacks a “legacy from slavery.” In reality, however, this is a relatively recent phenomenon—and one equally common among Puerto Ricans, who were not enslaved. (It was also common earlier in the century among the Irish, when they lived under conditions similar to those of blacks and Puerto Ricans today.) Historically, the great bulk of black children grew up in male-headed, two-parent households, under both slavery and freedom, well into the early decades of the 20th century. The current large and rising numbers of female-headed families among blacks is a modern phenomenon stemming from the era of the welfare state—when the government began to subsidize desertion and teenage pregnancy.

An even more emotion-laden issue is the racial difference in IQ test scores. People on both sides of the controversy proceed as if there must be something unique about blacks—either a unique genetic makeup or a unique environment. This is another example of the danger of comparing statistics from a single isolated group with the national average—even when those statistics form a continuum, with other groups close by on either side. Historically, IQ scores in the 80′s have been commonplace among American ethnic groups—including some groups now scoring at or above the national average, such as Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans. Such IQ’s have also been commonplace abroad, as among Catholics in Northern Ireland, canal-boat children in Britain, indigenous Israelis of non-European stock, or other groups living outside the mainstream of Western culture. Moreover, IQ scores are not fixed, but fluctuate even from one decade to the next, as in the following results from a large, nationwide study:

Ethnicity IQ
  1970′s 1960′s
Polish 109 107
Chinese 108 107
German 105 106
Irish 105 107
Italian 100 103
Mexican 87 82
Black 82 88
Puerto Rican 80 84
(Source: Essays and Data on American Ethnic Groups, Urban Institute, 1978.)

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High crime rates among blacks are likewise regarded as unique, and often glibly attributed to such “root causes” as racism and discrimination. Historically, however, there is nothing unique to blacks about crime and violence. Police vans are still called “Paddy wagons” today because they were so often full of Irishmen in 19th-century America. The Irish killed more people in one riot in New York in 1863 than blacks killed in all the ghetto riots across the country in the 1960′s. Nor were the Irish themselves unique. In fact, they were often the victims of riots, as other groups invaded their neighborhoods to commit violence, arson, or murder. Nineteenth-century “race riots” were much bloodier than their present-day counterparts, even though the “races” involved were usually all white.

As for “white racism” as the root cause of black crime, it has produced no such effect on other non-whites, such as West Indians or Japanese-Americans. Studies have shown both groups to have lower crime rates than whites. This is not to deny that crime in general, and high crime rates among blacks in particular, are serious problems. They are, indeed, much too serious to be dealt with through easy assumptions and ideology.

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Ignored Variables

If ideological predispositions tend to lead people toward giving explanations without evidence, they also tend to make people ignore factors that preclude an assessment of blame, or quick political solutions.

Thus, one of the most obvious reasons for differences in income among ethnic groups is routinely overlooked: some groups work more than others. About one-fifth of Chinese-American families have three or more people working. Among Puerto Ricans the proportion is less than half that. When it comes to families with no one working, it is the Puerto Ricans who are first and the Chinese who are last. Most ethnic groups fall somewhere between these extremes, with the four lowest income groups having the fewest people per family working regularly.

Experience is another obvious factor in income differences—and one that is just as routinely ignored. This is a country where income differences among age brackets are even greater than income differences among races and ethnic groups. For this reason, differences in age (experience) among ethnic groups will obviously affect income. These age differences are vast: the four lowest income groups are all at least a decade younger than the four highest, and at least two decades younger than the top group, the Jews.

Ethnicity Age
Jewish 46
Polish 40
Irish 37
German 36
Italian 36
Anglo-Saxon 34
Japanese 32
Total U.S. 28
Chinese 27
Black 22
American Indian 20
Mexican 18
Puerto Rican 18
(Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census.)

Age differences of this magnitude turn gross comparisons among ethnic groups into comparisons of apples and oranges.

Educational differences compound the effect of age differences. Jews, in addition to being more than a quarter of a century older than Puerto Ricans, average 70 per cent more education. In the face of compounded differences of this magnitude, high-level occupations which typically require both experience and education cannot be filled on the basis of proportional representation from the various ethnic groups. Yet the government’s affirmative-action policies constantly compare job percentages with population percentages—ignoring the fact that population statistics include not only the inexperienced and less educated, but also children and infants.

Something as apparently innocuous as location has a great impact on income. Regional differences in incomes are very substantial, especially as between the South and other regions. The average difference in income between California and Arkansas is greater than that between blacks and whites. Between Alaska and Mississippi, the income difference is greater still. The apparent paradox that Puerto Ricans earn a shade more than blacks nationally, while at any given location blacks tend to earn more than Puerto Ricans, is easily explained by the fact that half the black population of the United States is located in the low-income South. Even the more substantial income advantage of Mexican-Americans over blacks disappears if one considers only blacks outside the South. In Los Angeles, the two groups’ incomes are virtually identical.

Virtually every American ethnic group has its own peculiar pattern of geographical distribution, reflecting historical happenstance and cultural preference. Each group’s average national income reflects regional variations which may have nothing to do with ethnicity. Even an ideal society, with zero discrimination, would not produce equal incomes for its various ethnic groups as long as they were distributed geographically in different ways—this, quite apart from all the other huge differences in age, education, and other factors.

One of the more intangible—but very important—differences among groups has to do with culture, tradition, values, and work skills. Many of these differences go back to the time before the various groups ever set foot on American soil. The overrepresentation of Jews in the garment industry in America reflects a previous overrepresentation in clothing production in Eastern Europe. The overrepresentation of Germans in the American beer industry, or of Irish in politics, likewise has historical roots in their respective countries of origin.

Not only skills but attitudes were brought over from Europe or other places of origin. The Irish in Boston at the turn of the century had more education than Jews in the same city at that same time, but more Jewish children than Irish children went on to college. American society had given the Irish (who arrived earlier) more education than it had the Jews, but centuries of tradition in Europe had produced very different attitudes toward education in the two groups. “Society” in the United States is not the cause of all American social phenomena.

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Some Implications

Nothing is easier to find in American history than ethnic or racial discrimination—in jobs, schooling, housing, and many other basic areas of life. It is tempting to find here the explanation of all intergroup differences. But the presence of other large differences—in age, geographical distribution, and cultural orientation—means that discrimination cannot automatically be presumed to be the only factor, or necessarily even the major factor.

How far have we come in reducing or eliminating discriminatory pay differences among individuals with the same qualifications and different racial or ethnic backgrounds? Among the younger generation, we have come just about all the way. By the late 1960′s, young blacks and whites from families with similar reading (or non-reading) habits, and with the same individual levels of education, had the same income. This was a milestone in the fight against discrimination, but the fact that large racial and ethnic differences in income still remain indicates that the fight against discrimination is only one of many battles that need to be fought. Reading habits, for example, vary significantly among ethnic groups, as do family size, the number of one-parent households, and many other characteristics that affect the opportunity for young people to enter the economy with equal qualifications. That many of today’s racial or ethnic handicaps existed before young people ever reached the employer’s door is no consolation, but only an indication of where needed efforts might be directed.

Unfortunately, many of these environmental factors are much more difficult to deal with than employer discrimination. Civil-rights organizations with years of specialization in fighting employer discrimination cannot change direction overnight, or take on a whole new range of social problems that no one knows how to cope with very effectively. Such a drastic reorientation is hardly feasible. What is possible is for thinking people, and especially, decision-makers, to require hard evidence before advocating public policies based on time-worn clichés, especially when they are held by organizations or self-styled spokesmen doing business-as-usual.

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