Have African Americans Been Given Rich Opportunities?

Interestingly virtually all conservative white Americans belive America is the land of lavish welfare programs. As a European, and especially as a Scandinavian this is hard to listen to without rolling your eyes.

We are all very familiar with the stingy American welfare system. In our home countries it usually features as a bogeyman for what people don’t want. “American conditions,” is not something anybody wants.

But I know you are not going to take my word for it, so let us go through some details.

Unequal Access to Quality Schools

Many American conservatives keep insisting that everybody has equal access to quality school in the US. That the funding is the same. I don’t know why this myth is so prevalent. It simply isn’t true. This has been documented in many articles. Here is one from the Atlantic:

While students in higher-income towns such as Greenwich and Darien have easy access to guidance counselors, school psychologists, personal laptops, and up-to-date textbooks, those in high-poverty areas like Bridgeport and New Britain don’t. Such districts tend to have more students in need of extra help, and yet they have fewer guidance counselors, tutors, and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts, according to an ongoing lawsuit. Greenwich spends $6,000 more per pupil per year than Bridgeport does, according to the State Department of Education.

Here is a report from Washington Post about the same problem.

ASCD details the problem in this article:

Nearly half of the funding for public schools in the United States, however, is provided through local taxes, generating large differences in funding between wealthy and impoverished communities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000a). Efforts to reduce these disparities have provoked controversy and resistance.

In my native Norway it is in fact the direct opposite. Schools in impoverished areas receive extra funding to tackle their extra problems. In fact that does not just apply to schools. Better hospitals will be built in poorer areas where people have more health problems since the need is higher. The US is also opposite-land in this regard. The best hospitals are built where people are healthiest, most affluent and least in need of health care.

I have seen this first hand myself having lived in one of the richest areas in Oslo with my family, as well as living in one of the poorer today. We noticed that e.g. pre-school in the poorer area we moved to had higher standard, more facilities and extra resources, such as more specialists to deal with things such as language development problems. Mind you none of the pre-schools where bad.

But the problem does not stop with the property taxes. I know from my American wife that another major contributor to inequality is the American tradition of charity and fundraising. Schools in rich neighborhoods will have fund raisers where rich parents will contribute large amounts of money or facilities benefitting the school.

Such activity is strongly discouraged in Norway as it undermines the quality of the public schools. Pressure to fund public schools would quickly evaporate if all the affluent could get their schools funded directly. If parents are not happy with the quality of schools or the funding, then in Norway they will have to campaign for higher public funding and if the public cannot afford it, then they will have to push for higher taxes.

The Importance of Zip Code

Various research such as this one from Harvard shows that what neighbourhood you grow up in has profound impact in how your life turns out. How well you do in school. How much you end up earning and where you yourself will live as a grownup.

We find that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents. The treatment effects are substantial: children whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31%) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties.

Conservatives will claim there is equal opportunity and lavish spending on programs, but first of all there isn’t lavish spending and even if it was it cannot makeup for the profound disadvantage of living in a poor neighbohood, with a poor family. Here are some of the examples of the challenges minorities face from a New York Times article.

And I have kids who have the academic potential to do incredible things, but they have to work 40 hours a week to help support their family.

Or what makes it possible to focus on school work under these conditions:

that they hear gunshots every night; that they have a parent in jail or ICE detention; that they don’t have food at home.

Programs Don’t Work

Conservatives love to tell me that programs don’t work. Tons of money is spent on programs and little comes out of it. First of all that it is not entirely true, and it confuses programs with a proper functioning welfare state. Programs are typically stop-gap measures. It is what you do when everything has gone wrong.

This is like emergency care vs preventative medicine. What works best? Making sure people get healthy eating habits early in life or doing surgery due to obesity late in life? Preventative care is cheaper and more effective.

Life is the same. You cannot wait until people have become alcoholics, drug addicts and have been in and out of prison several times before you decide to put them on a program to get their lives on the right track. That is too late.

Why do Nordic countries have so much fewer social problems and poverty problems? Is it because the programs get more funding? Well, that is part of it, but the primary difference is that problems are caught far earlier.

If you go to a quality child care centre and a good school from the beginning in life, you may never end up walking down the wrong path towards say drug addiction. If your parents are given a livable wage, they may be able to give you better food, better assistance, a better neighbourhood to grow up in. And perhaps more importantly they may be able to afford to spend more time with you rather than working 3 jobs and letting the TV be your babysitter.

The Nordic model is built on universal rights. Poverty is not dealt with through means tested programs. Rather it is primarily dealt with through universal public goods used by all citizens regardless of income.

There is a very important reason for this. Means tested programs tend to quickly fall in quality and funding, because those program only benefit people with the least political and economic influence. Universal programs also used by higher socio-economic classes will get extra push from those people able to exert most political pressure. That will make sure the quality of the programs and funding remains in place.

Another problem which means testing seems to frequently create in the US is a poverty trap. Because there are some cutoff point to receive benefits many poor families cannot get a better job because they can loose benefits. They then get stuck, and cannot advance.

It is important to note here that while the American Republican party typically oppose spending any money on programs the Democratic party is also a big part of the problem. The Democratic party generally favors means testing over universal programs. It is not surprising. Liberals in my native Norway also also like that. That is also a reason they are considered centre-right. Universal programs is associated with more socialist inspired parties such as the social democrats, but the US has no large social democratic party, and hence a moderate-right-wing party such as the Democrats becomes the American left.

I could go on but I think I have made the point that African-Americans have not been given much of a chance, regardless of what conservatives like to think.

“Other Immigrant Groups Have Moved Up!”

You can always count on conservatives to play groups out against each other. This was a well honed strategy in colonial times. The way you control the plebs is by identifying different groups, and if they don’t exist, create them. Then make them hate each other. Apartheid in South Africa e.g. exploited this viscously to keep control.

And so the success of hard working Asian immigrants is usually a God sent excuse for conservatives. The ace they can pull out of their sleeve to silence the critics. That African-Americans live in run down neighborhoods with violence and shooting can suddenly be ignored because Asian-American immigrants managed to claw themselves through all the hardship.

This is a lot to unpack. “Race realists,” will claim this is all down to genetics. The Asian immigrants have superior genes and hence outperform “inferior blacks”, they claim.

But why jump on a genetic explanation when there are a multitude of equally plausible explanation based on culture?

Outliers: The Culture of Rice Farming

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers. It is a book about success both for individuals but also for whole groups of people. It is one of the cases where the somewhat dumbed down 10,000 principle was famously discussed

Farming rice paddies is extremely labour intensive and complex. “Outliers” explores how this historical reality bred a culture of strong work ethic.

In this book Gladwell compares farming in Europe and China. He notes how Rice paddies require a lot more work. But there is an important relationship with farming rice paddies which did not exist in European farming. And that is that putting in extra effort almost always paid off. European farming in contrast often relied on not working to land to get nutrients to come back. Often extra effort made no difference and so peasants in some parts of Europe would practice doing as little work as possible to conserve energy and thus not need to eat as much food.

The idea of Gladwell’s book is that over time this cause entirely different cultures around work to to develop. Chinese developed an exceptionally strong work ethic. This only applies to areas of asia where rice was grown in a complicated and intensive manner. Asians from areas with a different form of rice growing do not exhibit the same kind of work ethic.

Why do I find this explanation more plausible than genetic predisposition to superior intelligence?

  1. One of the most noticable trait among Chinese and Japanese is the strong work ethich rather than an obvious higher intelligence. They get better results because they put in more effort.
  2. A classic example of this is the railroad building in the US. The Chinese outdid Europeans, despite Europeans generally being bigger and stronger. The difference was superior work ethic.

Building a railroad is not an academic excercise. The Chinese win because of superior effort. Effort is not intelligence. You can be lazy and intelligent. These are two separate things. Why should academic exellence be any different? You can also excel academically by putting in more effort.

Slavery Isn’t Over

Inherent in the idea that slavery no longer plays a role for African-Americans is the idea that we are all somehow born as blank slates with equal opportunities. This is of course nonsense. Your success in life is profoundly affected by the education, skill, culture and income of your parents.

The experience of your forefathers carries through generations. E.g. children with highly educated parents are more likely to be highly educated themselves. How far back you say? Almost 1000 years ago the Normans under William the Conqueror, conquered Britain. Ever since then British historical records show that people with Norman last names are wealthier than those with Anglo-Saxon last names.

The Richest families in Florence, Italy in 1427 are still the richest families in Florence today.

Here are some interesting historical facts for conservatives who deny that slavery can have any impact today. It is long since Germany was united. Communism lasted much shorter than slavery and was less brutal. Yet despite East Germans genetically being the same as West Germans, despite looking the same they feel treated as second class citizens. In fact the divide between East and West Germany is growing not shrinking. It demonstrates the profound impact of history on current generations.

East Germans are under represented in politics, are paid less, and feel like a marginalized group. If they where black and communism had been slavery, then the “race realists” would have claimed these East Germans are doing worse than the West Germans because of genetics. Society has nothing to do with it. They got so much aid after unification. They have no excuses. The only plausible explanation for their backwardness is inferior genes.

Except here the conservative “race realists” get a big problem. There is no genetic difference. We humans are profoundly shaped by history. The way we act and live today is determined by events happening hundreds of years ago.

Europeans don’t have significant genetic difference. Yet strong differences exist between all European countries at every level. Not just economy, but also trust level, crime etc. I have lived in the Netherlands for 3 years. When I read British accounts of Dutch society in the 1600s, the difference between the Dutch and the English is very easily reckognizable. The difference between Dutch and British society today is very similar to those that existed 400 years ago.

You don’t have to go to Europe to see how the past influence the present, and how culture matters. One can look at Appalachia. Why is Appalachia so poor? It is populated by white people. The “race realists” claim poverty is all about genetics. Why are not people in Appalachia moving up?

If Appalachians are “allowed” to be poor due to their cultural and historical heritage, then why are not descendents of slaves allowed to be poor due to their cultural heritage? Why must the explanation for their poverty absolutely have to be poverty?

We can use the favorite conservative trick, used against blacks against the white Appalachian’s. Why have they not succeeded when Chinese immigrants have succeeded? By “race realist” logic white people must be profoundly inferior to Asians. These people where born into the country already knowing the language and the culture and yet they get outcompeted by poorer foreigners.

How Culture Propagates through Generations

Even when you grow up in an entirely different country, a minority can propagate their culture and values for generation. The best example is perhaps the Jews. Despite having left Israel over a thousand years ago, they carry with them their unique culture to every place they go.

Malcolm Gladwell also talks in “Outliers” about the specific cultural circumstances leading to success for Jews. You can read about some of it here. But just as a culture can be a benefit you can also get a culture imposed on you which drags you down. This was the reality for the Irish and why they faced extreme discrimination on the British isles as well as in America.

The English colonized Ireland and owned all their land. And Irish farmer was not farming for his own benefit but for a British lord. There was no benefit to hard work, because the beneficiary was the English. Secondly potato farming simply did not require as much effort as other farming. This created a poor work ethic among the Irish relative to many other European farmers. Basically the opposite of what happened to the Chinese.

Thus in the 1800s the Irish in America was stereotyped as lazy drunkards. Out right slavery is even worse. Economist Adam Smith write extensively about slavery in his book Wealth of Nations. He remarks that in Roman times areas with a lot of slavery saw economic decline. Agricultural output dropped. Adam Smith makes many of the same observations about slavery in the New World. To Smith the reasons are obvious. A slave has no vested interest in hard work. Quite the contrary. The interest is to work as little as possible and consume as much as possible. E.g. if you worked hard one day as a slave and had a good output, then the master would punish you the next day if you did not have the same output. Thus putting in extra effort one day, was something you would want to avoid at any cost.

This bred a culture of poor work ethic among African-American slaves. It was not because they where black. It was because poor work ethic naturally develops for all slaves regardless of race. The same was true in the Roman empire.

How does this work? Your parents instill values in you in how they raise you. So does your immediate friends and people around you. Being a good parent is a skill like any other. If you are bad at it, then your children will not turn out great. Your children having had a bad parents are likely to be bad parents to their children, and so the problem propagates. How do you break this cycle? Usually people can have other role models in their immediate community. This is where segregation and ghettos play a profound role.

If people of white European descent has developed better parenting skills, are better educated etc, then they could have passed on some of those skills to other struggling minorities if they shared environment. However blacks where forced into neighborhood with other blacks. All people with the same troubled cultural legacy of slavery. Crime, poverty and gangs provided more prevalent in black ghettos provided poor role models for any African-American child who wanted to pull themselves up.

We see the exact same problem in prisons. People tend to end up worse coming out of prison than they did going in. Why is that? Because suddenly they are placed around a high concentration of bad role models. The people that influence you are far more likely to be bad people than the ones around you in the rest of society.

Freakconomics e.g. has a story about how a program to help disadvantaged kids to the horror of those running the program made them worse. It included a lot of positive mentoring. In principle giving positive role models. Yet results where quite bad. Why was that? It turns out that it was the summer camps these kids participated in which made the difference:

WELSH: Joan demonstrated that those boys who participated in more than one summer camp they had a heightened level of criminal offending even relative to those who participated in just one year. This is where we saw that dose-response relationship.

At summer camp, juvenile delinquents got to spend a lot of time hanging out with other juvenile delinquents. This is what made them worse of. That is why zip codes matter as I talked about earlier. The people you are around affect how you turn out.

Convict Leasing System: Slavery Only Ended in Name

It is popular for conservatives to belittle the effect of slavery by pointing out that it ended as far back as 1865. Yet it did not actually end then.

To retain slavery what the Southern States did after the emancipation of slaves was to devise a string of laws that basically criminalized being black. Through this approach blacks could be brought back into slavery by simply relabling slavery as forced labor by convincts. This was the convict leasing system.

Ironically this system was significantly more brutal than slavery itself. A slave owner had an economic interest in keeping their slaves alive. After all a slave was property they had to buy, and which they could sell. Leased convincts in contrast since they where not owned could be worked to death. It was of no cost to the slaver as they only leased them. If a convict died, they could simply fetch another one from prison.

The time period it lasted varied, but in e.g. Alabama the system lasted until 1928. Meaning slavery ended a lot later than people imagine. This was not a small program. To get a sense of the scale consider these facts:

Alabama began convict leasing in 1846 and the practice lasted until 1928. The revenues derived from convict leasing were substantial, accounting for roughly 10 percent of total state revenues in 1883.[18] This percentage surged to nearly 73 percent by 1898

The economic benefit of exploiting African American for prison labour created a surge in demand causing ever more African Americans to be imprisoned.

This lucrative practice created incentives for states and counties to convict African Americans, and helped raise the prison population in the South to become predominately African-American following the Civil War.In Tennessee, African Americans represented 33 percent of the population at the main prison in Nashville as of October 1, 1865, but by November 29, 1867, their percentage had increased to 58.3. By 1869, it had increased to 64 percent, and it reached an all-time high of 67 percent between 1877 and 1879.

I advice you to read the wiki article on this system. It was basically a Nazi style slavery system which lasted until 1933 in some states. The Nazis as we know also actively used prisoner for slave labour. In many ways it was the equivalent of the Gulag system in the Soviet Union. Interestingly the Gulags are widely known, but the similar American system is swept under the rug.

Final Remarks

Very many white American conservatives simply don’t grasp the struggle African-Americans are going through. They cannot comprehend what a simple statement such as “black lives matter’ means. I tried giving various examples of similar statements such as “I am proud to be gay,” to demonstrate how context matters.

Much of the rest of the article was focused on trying to get conservatives who struggle with understand how slavery happening so long time ago can still influence African Americans today.

Yes, nobody today directly experience slavery. But their upbringing and their communities are an outcome of slavery and discrimination over hundreds of years.

There are dominos going back hundreds of years. Historical events cause ripple effects that carries to the future and influence current society. I showed examples of this, in how e.g. the rich families in Florence back in the 1400s are still rich today. Or how East Germans who never even lived through communism are worse off than their West German counterparts today.

Does this explain all the problems with crime, poverty and poor outcomes for African-Americans? We don’t know. But my point is that is a profoundly biased to assume genetics is the only explanation for a group of people being behind others, when one has simply not considered historical, cultural and environmental factors as well.

There is a misconception among conservatives that African-Americans have gotten a lot of help by the US government. They haven’t. As we covered the funding for their schools are below average.

At the core of the problem is that African-Americans are disproportionately poor, and America simply does not help poor people in general very well. This affects poor whites as well, but since more African-Americans are poor, it affect them more.

Americans fancy themselves as the land of opportunity where immigrants come and move to the top. Yet this is simply not the case. Contrary to popular beliefs, social mobility in the US is among the lowest among developed countries. The US ranks 27 on social mobility. Even stuffy old Britain with its famous class society ranks better at 21.

Research shows that immigrants to America catch up to natives quite slowly.

The jump in relative wages between the first and second generations is somewhere between 5 and 10 percentage points.

One has to consider that when Europeans migrated to America, America was an anomaly. European countries where deep class hierarchies often with aristocrats and lots of class privilege. Europe was overpopulated with limited resources. America in contrast was very thinly populated and people could get vast tracts of land for free.

If there ever was a big government handout to the poor, then this must have been the biggest handout in the world in relative terms. The US was basically giving newly arrived immigrants massive amounts of wealth for free in the form of land. No wonder people arriving could move up quickly. No wonder America got the label “the land of opportunity.”

But that world is long gone. There are no more massive governement handouts. The beneficaries of this handout was the white Europeans. Today many of them like to point fingers at especially African-Americans and saying “why are you failing to be as successful as us, when we give you so much help?” Reality is that instead of being given lots of free land to work, African Americans where given the whip. When they became “free” they had no skills, and no money. Anyone who had dared to try to learn to read would have been beaten to within an inch of their lives.

There was talk of giving freed slaves a descent start in life by giving them some land. Yet that never happened. They got nothing. Instead they got massive incarceration. Usually their “crime” was not having a job. Which they could not easily get due to no skills, no education and discrimination.

It feels weird sitting on the other side of the Atlantic in Norway far away from slavery to sit and write about this. To you white American conservatives: Why do I have to educate you on this? Whenever I discuss racism with you, I learn every time that almost none of you are aware of any of the history I describe here.

It is your country, you share it with African-Americans not me. Before judging your fellow citizens you have an obligation to know their history. Sadly from my own experience of living in the midwest among conservatives, most of the people I was around seemed to have little interest in history or other cultures for that matter.

You may wonder why am I interested in African-American history. Why did I start reading about this in the first place? It was never a natural fit for me. I have tended to care more about medieval times, Romans and Greeks. However I have long had an interest in economics. I greately enjoyed Freakonomics which mentioned the organization and economics of street gangs. It exposed me to sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who wrote a book called Gang Leader for a Day, which was about his experience being embedded with a black street gang in Chicago. Perhaps because I had seen the amazing HBO series the Wire, dealing with drug gangs in Baltimore the topic got me interested. This was an eye opener. It showed how the police was actually more of a source of problems than solutions for many poor African American communities.

That is my advice to you “race realists.” Before jumping on conclusions about genetic inferiority. Spend some time understanding the social dynamic, culture and history of the people you are so eager to judge. It may open your eyes.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.