The world is imperfect, human beings are imperfect, and racial prejudice is still a feature of American life in 2021. These are hard truths. But so are these: Our country legally banned de jure segregation in 1954, made virtually all discrimination formally illegal in 1964, and has practiced pro-minority affirmative action since 1967. Simply put, these efforts to address the results of racial animus have worked, to a degree that is, for complex reasons, rarely discussed. But facts are facts. In 2021 America, it is not, objectively speaking, extraordinarily hard for a person of any skin tone to “make it.”
Seven of the wealthiest eight ethnic groups in the U.S. today are populations of color, even as affirmative action broadly defined serves as a counterbalance to much of the residual bigotry within society (though it is the cause of other kinds of social conflicts). In the real world, simply adjusting mathematically for mundane characteristics such as median age and study time closes almost all of the large racial—and gender—performance gaps glibly attributed to bigotry or genetics. Even where there’s some remaining effect of prejudice relating to a belief that racial minorities perform less well than whites, it is very often smaller than the impact of class, sex, region, or a half-dozen other characteristics. In the real world, the biggest threat to racial comity today may well be not actual bigotry or conflict but rather the false promotion of narratives about racial conflict that verge on conspiracy theory.
Obviously, racism does exist in the 21st-century United States, and no-nonsense folks on the right and in the center need to state this openly. This is not a matter of speculation: Multiple skilled researchers have documented the extent of contemporary bias, and a cynic might note that academic fields such as qualitative sociology often seem to do little else. In 2003, for example, the respected sociologist Devah Pager found interview and hiring bias in the Midwestern U.S. job market, uncovering the fact that Wisconsin employers would offer qualified white applicants without a criminal record a final callback for a job roughly 30 percent of the time but only 14 percent of the time for similar black applicants. White applicants with a single criminal count on their record were more likely to be offered callbacks than black applicants without one. A well-received study out of Memphis published a few years before Pager’s found that black rental applicants were not offered an apartment in 8 to 9 percent of situations whereas essentially identical white counterparts were. Polls and audit studies of this kind not infrequently find prejudice in the political arena: Per 2015 Gallup data, 8 percent of Americans would not vote for a qualified black candidate for president running on their party’s ticket.
I have experienced racism at this level myself. As a college man, I worked as a lower-level boss (a “field manager”) for a street-canvassing organization, and I noticed that substantial donors to causes such as Environment America and the Human Rights Campaign were visibly more reluctant to give cash or checks to “urban”-looking, especially black, canvassers. Several years later, in the nightlife business, I and others working for a small night-club promotions brand were quite frankly told by several venue owners—white, black, and Hispanic—that they simply would not pay us to bring in males of a race other than their primary demographic. As most Chicago clubs target an upper-middle-class white clientele, this clearly disadvantaged people of color. When this happened, I was moderately offended, generally opted not to work with the venue in question, and went on with my life.
YES, RACISM EXISTS. However, there are significant caveats that merit discussion. First, many of the studies used to demonstrate the prevalence of contemporary bias are limited in scope. Devah Pager and her team looked only at hiring for non-affirmative-action entry-level jobs in the private sector, primarily with white-owned employers, in Milwaukee near the turn of the past century. While Pager, who died in 2018, was a skilled and ethical scholar, it would be hard for a critic from the right not to notice that this is probably the only sector of the modern job market in which a qualified upper-middle-class minority job applicant might find himself at a hiring disadvantage. It would be fascinating to see this study replicated in the context of public-sector jobs, or desirable experience-based union jobs, or diversity-forward positions. For that matter, fully 36 percent of U.S. businesses today are minority- or woman-owned. What does “racial hiring bias” look like for applicants to that sector?
Entering trickier ground, we may (discreetly) note that discrimination does not always reflect blind irrational bias. While I would still opt not to work with a business that had such a rule in place, common sense compels us to admit that there might be reasons other than “hatred” for a bar owner’s reluctance to usher a group of 100 male Hispanic soldiers into an entirely black or white night club packed full of drunks. At a more serious level, several scholars have speculated that reaction to stereotypically black names on resumés is as likely to reflect perceived affirmative-action effects or class bias as it is racism—and, indeed, one significant study finds no negative effect for middle-class black names. It is only a bit glib to say that, while “Sharkeshia Freeman” may well face discrimination in the professional job market, “Marcus Freeman” probably will not.
Finally, bias against a whole range of groups seems to be as prevalent as bias against “blacks” or “persons of color,” on those occasions when this is actually measured. The same Gallup polling project that turned up the 8 percent anti-black statistic also found that 7 percent of Americans would never vote for a Catholic candidate, 8 percent would never vote for a woman of any race, 9 percent would never vote for a Hispanic or a Jew, and fully 19 percent would never vote for a practicing Mormon.
These caveats aside, probably the best and broadest response to the fact that some racism exists in present-day America is this simple statement: “To be sure, but we’ve spent an incredible amount of blood and treasure to counteract it.” Although this is almost never said openly these days, the Civil War and the civil-rights movement are over, and the good guys won both. Back in 1954, the Brown v. Board decision brought an end to at least legal de jure segregation, with the government’s writ being enforced, often by armed might. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act made most forms of discrimination civilly if not criminally illegal. Pro-minority affirmative action has been the law of the land since the Philadelphia Plan in 1967. Such diversity-forward programs recently turned 53 years old—and it is rather remarkable how rarely this empirical fact is used as a rebuttal to claims of widespread “white privilege.”
Blacks and other minorities in the U.S. may indeed face the sort of 5-to-10-percent disadvantages detailed above, but it is also true that an ambitious young man or woman of color applying to virtually any selective college or university—to say nothing of government or Fortune 500 jobs—enjoys a substantial advantage over an equally qualified white peer. In Mismatch, their 2012 critique of institutional diversity programs, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor peg this affirmative-action edge as being equivalent to 200–300 SAT points in the academic context, and as a university professor, I concur.
Largely as a result of these historical changes to the structure of our society, people of color are successful in modern America to an almost surprising degree, which is rarely discussed—for different reasons—by either the “social-justice” left or the contemporary hard right. As of 2019, seven of the top 10 American ethnic groups in income terms—Indian, Taiwanese, Filipino, Indonesian, Persian, and Arab Lebanese Americans—were “people of color” as this term is generally conceptualized, while an eighth group (South Africans) is composed of both black and white individuals. First-place Indian Americans have almost double the median white household income, earning roughly $127,000 vs. $65,902 on average for legacy whites. Chinese and Japanese Americans are not far behind, while Nigerians brought in a tidy salary as well ($68,658) and also ranked as the most educated group in the United States.
Many black immigrant groups besides Nigerians have also done well, with Ghanaians and the Guyanese coming in well above the white median income. All West Indians combined ($65,258) are just a few dollars behind whites. This fact may say more than any other about the effect of specifically anti-black racism in modern America. West Indian English-speakers and second-generation Ghanaian Americans look and sound almost exactly like black Americans: Bigots are unlikely to put their prejudices aside when they meet one. But that simply no longer matters as it once would have. The relevant question for scholars and public intellectuals today is not whether racism remains real (yes), but how large its effect actually is in a 39 percent minority society where 92 percent of white people appear not to be serious bigots. The honest answer appears to be: “not huge.”
These unchallenged data about the success of Nigerian and East Indian and West Indian businesspeople pose an existential challenge to the idea of systemic racism, at least in the formulation proposed by thinkers such as Ibram X. Kendi. The thesis of the “systemic racism” school is that what seem to be facially neutral systems within society (corrections, academic testing) must be laced through with real if sometimes hard-to-find prejudice (implicit bias, microaggressions, white privilege) because there is no other way to explain the large gaps between groups in performance that these processes often produce. However, the core claim of this theory—that minorities are treated worse by “systems” than are similar or equivalent whites—often simply collapses when we look at the impact on group performance of important variables other than race.
For example, the widely cited income gap between American blacks and whites (the average African-American income is $43,862) largely vanishes given simple adjustments for variables such as aptitude, test scores, median age (the most common age for an African American is 27, vs. 58 for whites), region of residence, and years of education. Similarly, gaps in rates of police shooting and even police encounter by race close almost completely given a single adjustment for the black rate of victim-reported violent crime, which is unfortunately 2.4 higher than the white rate. This same phenomenon occurs almost universally when serious people look at serious questions: Variables such as prior record (and presumably quality of counsel in the courtroom) play a far greater role even during criminal sentencing than does race alone. While some small race and gender gaps in performance or treatment might certainly still exist with everything else adjusted for, claims that blacks or women “earn 59 cents on the dollar” versus whites or men doing the same work almost inevitably collapse.
Not only is the percentage of racial performance differences due to racism almost never what it is presented as being, but the actual impact of racism on individual lives seems very similar to that of other forms of bias and of several variables unrelated to bias. I already noted that, in the political arena, measured levels of open prejudice against Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, and women are very similar to those of prejudice against blacks.
On another front, I have administered a popular scale purporting to measure “privilege” to several hundred students and volunteers.1 Race did have an effect on “privilege”—about two points with all else held constant—but this paled in comparison to the effects of sex, sexual orientation, religious-minority status, and particularly family income. The results of this one test suggest that roughly 70 percent of “privilege” appears to be pure social class.
I suspect that even the advantages of being born rich pale in comparison to the (quite empirically measurable) effects of making good logical choices in life. As the conservative pundit Dennis Prager has pointed out, in a widely cited National Review piece, simply waiting until marriage to have children is a positive predictor of multiple “success variables,” including income. When Prager wrote in 2016, the poverty rate was nearly 25 percent for white children born into single-mother families, but only 7 percent for black children born into two-parent families. This is a 314 percent advantage in favor of blacks—and there is evidence to suggest that other individual behaviors, such as studying hard and remaining physically fit and attractive, similarly predict success. There turns out to be a great deal of truth to the old and boring adage, beloved of high-school men’s coaches, priests, and rabbis, that one need only do four things in life to avoid poverty: graduate high school, take any job and work, never be convicted of a felony, and avoid having children until married.
In the real world where such dull facts can be empirically verified, the biggest threat to white–minority relations in 2021 is probably not actual ethnic conflict. As I once noted for Commentary, actual interracial crime involving blacks and whites is only about 5 percent of serious crime—and more than 80 percent black-on-white, at that.2
Instead, today’s biggest threat may well be the ceaseless promotion, by activists and media figures, of a false narrative of constant conflict. As I pointed out in my book Taboo, members and allies of movements like Black Lives Matter frequently make dramatic, exaggerated claims about racial violence—with BLM’s Cherno Biko famously saying on Fox News primetime that an innocent black man is “murdered” every day or so, while the attorney Benjamin Crump published a recent bestseller titled Open Season: the Legalized Genocide of Colored People. The mainstream media as a whole tend to report on stories like these in a deadpan, narrative-confirming fashion. I note in Taboo, that the 70-plus percent majority of police-shooting cases involving whites and Hispanics seems to receive less than 20 percent of the national mass-media coverage of this topic, and a more recent quick search for “well-known police shooting” on my personal computer turned up two Hispanic cases, three white cases, and 36 black cases among those articles at all relevant.
Almost certainly as a result of coverage like this, many Americans believe very unusual and dangerous things about the current state of race relations. A recent report by the heterodox but respected Skeptic Research Center found that 31 percent of individuals who identify politically as very liberal believe that “about 1,000” unarmed black men were killed by police just during 2019, and another 14 percent believe that “about 10,000” such men were killed. Conservatives did a bit better, but, among ordinary mainstream liberals, the equivalent figures were 27 percent and almost 7 percent.
To put these astonishing (if hypothetical) figures in context, the total number of specifically unarmed, specifically black citizens killed by American police during the year in question was 13, as per the Washington Post. Similar extreme confusion surrounded perceptions of the percentage of police-shooting victims who happen to be black: This number was estimated at 60 percent by leftists and extreme liberals, 56 percent by liberals, 46 percent by moderates, and 38 percent even by conservatives. In fact, the actual figure, taking into account the full data set of racially identified and non-identified cases compiled by the Post, seems to be about 25 percent. When our fellow citizens riot and burn whole cities, or left and right fight viciously in the streets, the passions driving this regrettable violence are literally more likely to stem from fiction and fantasy than fact.
That perfectly sums up the dualistic nature of race relations in America today. The real picture itself is quite favorable, if we can just manage to clean all the thrown muck off the canvas long enough to get a good look at it and appreciate it.
1 I used standard linear regression to measure the effect of different factor variables on the 100-point dependent variable. I have not yet fully written up this experiment.
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