On Tuesday, The New York Times published an in-depth article on a study from researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau. The Times headline gives their take: “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.” According to the Times, young black men lag behind young white men not because of behavioral differences, but because of widespread American racism:
Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children. White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.
The study also finds, according to the Times, that “Gaps persisted even when black and white boys grew up in families with the same income, similar family structures, similar education levels and even similar levels of accumulated wealth.”
Thus, the Times concludes, all other differences should be attributed to broad-based discrimination:
If this inequality can’t be explained by individual or household traits, much of what matters probably lies outside the home — in surrounding neighborhoods, in the economy and in a society that views black boys differently from white boys, and even from black girls.
First, a few notes. The study openly acknowledges that this racism doesn’t extend to black women, somehow – “No such income gap exists between black and white women raised in similar households.” In fact, the study itself says that “black women earn slightly more than white women conditional on parent income … there is little or no gap in wage rates or hours of work between black and white women.” And “Black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, conditional on parental income.”
So this should immediately call into question whether race is deciding figure here – black women, after all, are still black. And it should call into question the intersectional assumption that black women are doubly-victimized.
Furthermore, the study finds that income gaps between whites and Hispanics are converging; Asian-Americans actually earn more than whites “raised at the same income level.” Presumably that distinction isn’t based on discrimination, even though the study suggests that white/black differences are.
It’s also worth noting that one of the chief arguments in favor of the notion that blacks suffer under a regime of “white privilege” is that blacks have less historic wealth than whites – which is inarguably true. But the study demonstrates that family wealth is not an indicator of continued life success for black men, and can therefore be removed as a chief determinant of individual behavior based on historic discrimination.
And herein lies the greater question: are black men failing in a way black women are not because of discrimination, or because of differences in behavior?
For example, the study discusses criminal behavior among high-income young black men – but does not investigate the possible causal link between criminal behavior and drop in income. The study states that “Black men raised in the top 1 percent – by millionaires – were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000.” Is that the fault of white racism? Actually, no: the study finds that the relationship between racism in a given area and “incarceration rates is not statistically significant.”
As a sidebar, high black crime rates have horrible externalities for innocent black men. If young black men have statistically higher crime rates (which they do) and if employers are barred from reviewing criminal backgrounds in hiring, discrimination on the basis of group data is far more likely – and far more likely to impact innocent young black men, as studies show. Similarly, if affirmative action programs are designated based on race rather than income, high-income young black men may end up paying a price in the workplace – employers may not hire qualified black applicants out of concern that they're actually hiring less-qualified black applicants.
Sticking around for your children is a personal choice, not a race-based one, too. The study also investigates the impact of neighborhood on young black men – and the study finds that young black men do best in neighborhoods with low levels of racism (as measured by Google searches) and high levels of fatherhood in the community at large. This makes sense – more social fabric certainly helps raise boys better, even when fathers aren’t in the home. These communities are also rare, as the study notes – single motherhood remains prevalent in the black community. The study admits, “the fraction of low-income black fathers present is most predictive of smaller intergenerational gaps…black boys who grow up in areas with high father presence are also significantly less likely to be incarcerated, which could explain part of the association with higher employment rates.”
Finally, the study looks at the racism of the area in which black men live. What they find is that racial animus is correlative with low income for everyone, including among low-income black women and white men – meaning that it’s not clear that racism drives poverty rather than the other way around.
So, what are we to take from this study? Are we to take that disparities between black men and white men in America are truly a result of the “punishing reach of racism”?
It’s hard to see how. The study’s take on racism is perhaps the weakest methodologically (it uses the discredited implicit association test, for example). The study itself states that closing the gap between whites and blacks is largely driven by “high rates of father presence among low-income blacks.” The study even dismisses “policies focused on improving the economic outcomes of a single generation – such as cash transfer programs or minimum wage increases,” which are “less likely to have persistent effects unless they also affect intergenerational mobility.” And forced integration in schools and housing won’t do anything either: they “would also likely leave much of the gap in place, since the gap persists even among low-income children raised on the same block.”
In the end, the study suggests some mentoring programs and efforts to reduce racial bias, but not much more than that. Perhaps that’s because the study did not tackle one significant possibility: the possibility that income level is not predictive of cultural attitudes.
In the 1980s, black anthropologist John Ogbu theorized that black children were often penalized socially for “acting white” – meaning engaging in education. In 2004, one Barack Obama stated, “Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” He reiterated ten years later, “there’s an element of truth [in the accusation that too many black parents denigrate education], where, OK, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly?” Black children spend significantly less time on homework than any other race of children; Asian children spend significantly more time on homework. Harvard’s Roland Fryer formalized “a particular peer effect, ‘acting white,’ which potentially contributes to the ongoing puzzle of black underachievement.”
Perhaps that theory is wrong; there are those who argue it is, certainly. But the study The New York Times overreported as final evidence of deep and abiding American racism simply doesn’t show what the Times says it does.