Examining the Affluence Gap
The economic news for black people in America has been pretty bleak in recent weeks. Data released by the US Labor Department last week show that while average earnings for all Americans adjusted for inflation rose 5.3% since the depths of the Great Recession in 2007, average earnings for blacks rose only 1.6%. Average wages for Hispanics rose the most (11.8%) but they still trail blacks even though the gap has closed substantially.
Black unemployment has fallen to record lows under the Trump administration but at 6.8% it is still much higher than the national average of 3.9% and double the 3.4% unemployment for whites. A different article reported that black home ownership has fallen 8.6% since its peak in 2004.
All this doom and gloom during a period of economic expansion bodes ill for the blacks during the next downturn which must come eventually. My concern about the economic condition of the black community was initiated by a Wall Street Journal article about two black economists, William Darity, Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, whose ideas have been adopted by many of the Democratic presidential aspirants, especially those on the progressive left.
These economists have developed theories around a concept called “stratification Economics” that focuses on the gaps in economic outcomes between blacks and whites. They point out that black family wealth is much less than that of whites, even when adjusted for factors such as education or income. They claim that this wealth gap is the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Abraham Lincoln promised former slaves “40 acres and a mule” after the end of Civil War hostilities, but Lincoln’s successor reneged on the deal. Drs. Darity and Hamilton think the government of the United States needs to finally honor that commitment.
But this lack of economic progress for blacks is distressing and blaming it on continued racism and discrimination is confusing. Although I was born in Chicago, my family was from the segregated South and when my Dad died, my Mom and I moved back to the segregated South. I remember the separate water fountains for white and colored people (as we used to call them). I remember the colored sections in the movie theater my cousin and I went to where we watched The Killer Shrews and then had to ride our bikes home in the dark.
But that was before the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum (at least in our sleepy little town). Blacks (or African-Americans – they didn’t like being called colored people for a while, but the name seems to be coming back) have made great progress since then. But not enough. The economic consequences are clear. The health consequences are also clear – black men live about three and a half years less than white men (although this gap is closing).
But the big problem has been the continued prevalence of racism – or at least the perception of racism. I learned from Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave (and you have too if you have been reading my commentaries) that the Us-vs-Them reaction lies deep in the instinctive parts of the human brain and that the instinct to divide the world into Us and Them is very hard to eradicate. It is clear that Americans still divide blacks and whites into Uses and Thems.
But the nature of the Us-vs-Them relationship between blacks and whites is very different in the twenty-first century than it was in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. A hundred and fifty years ago many whites thought blacks were subhuman objects of hate and whites felt the need to keep their women and children away from them.
While blacks and whites are still divided into Us and Them, the nature of the differences have changed. Although virulent racists and white supremacists still exist their numbers are far smaller than previously. The vast majority of whites would not want to lynch a black man for flirting with a white woman and they also support harsh punishment for hate crimes. I can’t speak for all white people but I think the majority of them wish blacks well and want them to be successful and to achieve the American Dream. They want America to be a win/win game not a zero-sum (I win you lose) game. This attitude obviously does not apply to President Trump who views everything as a zero-sum game. But racial problems have plagued America long before Donald Trump arrived on the scene and race relations will continue long after he is gone (although time will seem to move very slowly until he is gone).
But there was something else I learned from Dr. Sapolsky’s book (I had thought I was done reviewing his book but so many of the points he discussed are relevant to many of the problems we face). The Theory of Mind is the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, to think what they are thinking, and feel empathy. We are not born with this ability. Young children don’t have it and must learn how to apply it as they mature. And this ability varies among people and some (perhaps many) people interpret the minds of others through the lens of their own culture and beliefs.
In reviewing surveys taken by Pew Research it became apparent that whites and blacks have very different concepts about race and racism. Whites basically think it is not a big problem and that things are getting better over time, while blacks believe it is a big problem and that it is not getting better.
This puzzled me. I thought that if you laid all the facts out on the table everyone would come to the same conclusion. But that is not the case. Everyone one sees the world and the people in it through the filter on their own perspective of how the world works. Because race is such an important part of the black identity, they see race as a motivating factor for all sorts of behaviors. And while overt racism and discrimination do exist, I believe that many black people interpret rude behavior, poor treatment and insensitivity as due to racism when they are not. Some people are just rude, insensitive and give lousy service to everyone.
I believe that the following aphorism explains a lot about society:
"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
I would like to propose a corollary to that aphorism as follows:
“Never attribute to racism that which is adequately explained by rudeness and insensitivity.”
Everyone runs into inattentive clerks, rude waiters and bored or distracted service people. When that occurs to white people they just think that the clerk is rude, but a black person thinks that the clerk is doing it because of the color of their skin.
An article published yesterday (July 22, 2019) in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution proves my point about the differing perspectives of blacks and whites. The article reported on an altercation between a black woman (who is also a Georgia state representative) and a white man. The woman was in the express line at the Publix grocery store with too many items. The white man called her a foul name for being “selfish.” The woman claims that the man said she should go back to the country she came from. He denies that. The black woman claims the incident is racist, the white man claims it wasn’t. Barring the ubiquitous cell phone video, it is unlikely we will ever know the truth of the incident. But truth doesn’t matter. It is the perception that matters. Now the woman is using the incident to raise campaign funds and the man says he is suing. But one thing is clear, they each see the confrontation from two very different perspectives.
It will take time for blacks and whites in America to overcome the Us-versus-Them divide and become just Us. But one thing I am sure of is that overcoming this problem will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely, as long as blacks are faced with so many economic hurdles that impair their ability to earn a decent income and build wealth. But I am pretty sure that the remedies recommended by Drs. Darity and Hamilton won’t help.
The good doctors assume that the principal cause of black economic misfortune is racism and have proposed remedies that transfer wealth from the currently wealthy people (predominantly white people) to poor blacks in the form of reparations for slavery and just about everybody in the form of a Universal Basic Income or even Corey Booker’s “baby bonds” (an idea of Dr. Hamilton). But what if racism is not the principal reason for the relative poverty of black people?
Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley (who also happens to be black) stated in a recent editorial that, “evidence of racial bias in the past or the present is not proof that racism is responsible for current social disparities.” He cites Kay Hymowitz’ essay on research by John Iceland that shows, “differences in family structure are the most significant variable in explaining the black-white affluence gap. In fact, its importance has grown over time relative to other explanations, including discrimination. Unable to pool earnings with a spouse, to take advantage of economies of scale, and to share child care, black single parents have a tougher time than their married counterparts building a nest egg.”
Add to that the substandard education provided by big city school districts where many black children live (and which are dominated by left leaning teachers unions) and you have a web of progressive policies that appear intended to keep blacks poor and dependent on politicians instead of themselves. Professor Thomas Sowell is well known for observing that blacks made more progress prior to the “War on Poverty” than since.
Sometimes I believe I am endlessly repeating myself, using similar arguments to debunk crazy progressive ideas. But progressives keep coming up with ever crazier ideas that need debunking. Without addressing the underlying causes of poverty (which affects whites as well as blacks as Dr. Charles Murray has pointed out), poor people are hard pressed to climb the economic ladder. Those problems are cultural and educational and as long as progressive policies support union-controlled schools, single-parenthood and children without fathers, poverty is likely to remain a problem and the trillions of dollars that progressives are proposing to spend to end poverty will evaporate.