Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap – A Rebuttal

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Written by: Manuel Galvan

The following is a rebuttal to a recently published article by Coleman Hughes. While reading, I found substantial flaws in the essay and thought, given the importance of this issue and the amount of attention the article received on Twitter, it would be instructive for myself and others to begin a conversation about where Hughes went wrong. So, while I don’t intend this blog to be used exclusively for responding to the writing of others, I will be quoting his article and responding as needed. Others have already begun responding in a way that addresses Coleman’s historical inaccuracies in depth. In contrast, this article will address the errors in reasoning in Coleman’s essay, and introduce relevant critiques given the available psychology and sociology literature I am familiar with.

A recent wave of scholarship—including Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations”—has converged on the interpretation that the wealth gap is caused by two factors: slavery and racist New Deal policies.

This amounts to a misrepresentation of the position most people have on the issue of racial inequality. There are plenty of other explanations that are widely acknowledged, such as current discrimination that is ongoing in hiring practices, housing, medicine, politics, education, and policing (most of these citations just scratching the surface of the extant literature). Furthermore, there were Jim Crow policies, current growing economic inequality disproportionately affecting black families, and the list goes on. These inequalities continue to exacerbate the wealth gap, and they are addressed at length by many authors. He’s starting off the article in essence saying, “I have truly nuanced views on race, while those on the political left do not, they blame racial inequality on just two things.”

Furthermore, introducing a common theme in this rebuttal, even if we grant that there are cultural difference that account for racial disparities, we don’t know what accounts for those cultural differences. We don’t know that if, given a different history, those difference would exist.

But slavery is hardly the root cause of America’s prosperity. If it were, then we would expect American states that practiced slavery to be richer than those that did not. Yet we see precisely the opposite.

This is a non sequitur, or a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the premise. Economics, history, and indeed the world is more complicated than, “look, the south had slavery and they aren’t richer than the North, therefore slavery isn’t the root of America’s prosperity.” Clearly wealth has moved around since the time of slavery. There is no reason to think it would have stayed in the south, particularly given the intervening events, such as northern manufacturing and industrialization, and the non-trivial act of losing the civil war and undergoing reconstruction.

Coates’s mistaken view about the origin of American prosperity is part of a larger fallacy about national wealth in general: the assumption that if a nation is wealthy, it must have stolen that wealth from somebody else.

Here, Coleman is presuming that Coates is stating this is a general rule. However, again, this is a misrepresentation. Coates does not (to my knowledge) apply his analysis to any other country than the US in the context of slavery. The rest of the paragraph written by Coleman is essentially a red-herring.

The second factor offered as an explanation for the wealth gap is the exclusion of blacks from a set of New Deal policies designed to promote homeownership, income growth, and wealth accrual.

But this story, though based in truth, has been massaged to give the false impression that benevolence from the state is a prerequisite for wealth accrual.

So of course, the issue here is that, again, Coates is not trying to propose a general rule that all wealth accrual is contingent on benevolence from the state. At least, that doesn’t seem clear based on what he has written. But let’s investigate Coleman’s following points:

Rothstein, for instance, falsely claims that “African American incomes didn’t take off until the 1960s,”7 and that “black workers did not share in the income gains that [white] blue collar workers realized” in the mid-twentieth century.8 Although it is true that the median income of white men more than tripled between 1939 and 1960 (rising from 1,112 dollars to 5,137 dollars), the median income of black men more than quintupled (rising from 460 dollars to 3,075 dollars).9 Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women over the same timespan.10 Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.”11 But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.12

So, because Black median incomes increased faster than whites from 1939-1960, we are to be disabused of the notion that African American didn’t share in the income gains that white workers did? Yet again, this isn’t compelling. Black incomes rose by a higher percentage of their starting value, because their incomes were so low to begin with. Is it really far-fetched to say that black workers didn’t share in the income gains when in 1960 they earned just a bit more than half of the wages earned by white workers? Coleman proposes it’s not just far-fetch, it shows that Rothstein makes “false claims” and Baradaran “makes the same mistakes”. Sure, they gained at a higher rate, but they were still very far behind and were likely not celebrating their work being valued at half that of whites.

Baradaran, for instance, criticizes the “pervasive myth that immigrant success was based purely on individual work ethic.” To the contrary, she claims, “most immigrants’ bootstraps had been provided to them by the government.”

If wealth differences were largely explained by America’s history of favoring certain groups over others, then it would be hard to explain why Asian-Americans, who were never favored, are on track to become wealthier than whites.

You may be noticing a pattern here. Again, this is an inappropriate comparison. Why? Well, primarily because African American’s are largely not a group that immigrated to the US, while Asian American’s have an opposite history. African American’s as a group are largely comprised of the descendants of enslaved people who endured generations of oppression. The Asian American and Asian immigrant story is consistent with what we know about immigrants generally, that they tend to be wealthier and more well educated than multi-generational Americans (see table 3).

Coleman continues down this same path by comparing blacks of American ancestry to those with Caribbean ancestry. Again, he’s making the same mistake. Immigrant groups tend to perform better on most metrics because of the stringent criteria required to immigrate. Regulations favor educated professionals as immigrants, creating a selection bias in the sample when comparing the sample to the general population.

 Similar disparities emerge when people are grouped by religion.

I would highly advise reading Clash! to understand these dynamics more. Needless to say we should be skeptical of this comparison, given the differing roles religion and race play in people’s lives.

It’s not looking good for the progressive narrative about the racial wealth gap. Still, there is a kernel of truth to it. Researchers at Brandeis followed a nationally representative set of 1,700 families from 1984 to 2009 and measured their wealth gains over that period. They concluded that inherited wealth and length of homeownership accounted for 5 percent and 27 percent, respectively, of the racial disparity in wealth gains. But even if that combined 32 percent could be automatically ascribed to historical racism (which it cannot), that would still leave 68 percent of the gap to be explained by other factors. In short, many commentators have zoomed in on the fraction of the story that can be told without discomfort but have ignored the rest.

This is a truly discouraging section in Coleman’s essay, given the time the researchers spent making nearly the opposite case. They reference many governmental policies and systemic problems and point out that a cultural institution like marriage doesn’t have a statistically significant impact for displacing the racial wage gap.

Conspicuous by its absence in the progressive account of the racial wealth gap is any active role for blacks themselves.

This is the beginning of a line of reasoning that reduces to, “Liberals blame systemic reasons for racial inequality, therefore they don’t think black people have anything to do to help themselves.” This is somewhat giving Coleman the benefit of the doubt, given we were originally introduced to the liberal position as a strawman with only 2 reasons (slavery and exclusion from new deal policies) for the racial wage gap. But the vast majority of people understand that decision-making on the part of black people plays a role in their success. Where some might disagree with Coleman, is that they don’t think that decision-making is made in a vacuum, free from all psychological and sociological cycles that emerge from previous and ongoing oppression.

No element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns.

Importantly, this isn’t an aspect of “black culture”, it’s an aspect of struggling with poverty. Psychologists have studied conspicuous consumption for years and have described how it acts as a “positional treadmill” and “always comes at the account of the consumption of basic needs.” It’s prevalence in black communities is largely understood as being due to prevalence of poverty in the black community not the other way around.  People don’t often drive themselves into poverty through conspicuous consumption, they use conspicuous consumption to “keep up with the Jones” or compensate (however unsuccessfully) for their declining social status. This is an example of what is known as a poverty trap and it is a widely researched and discussed problem.

I bring all this up to make a larger point: these things are not taboo in the social sciences. Since psychology researchers can’t change social policies, they often focus on changing perceptions relevant to decision-making to close racial equality gaps.

Many find it hard to confront such data.

I think it may be how the data is present and contextualized that will help people determine if you are blaming an oppressed group, or if you are engaged in an honest attempt at learning about their experiences and struggles.

Children from one culture may routinely hear phrases like “asset diversification,” “mutual fund,” and “inflation rate” on the lips of their parents, whereas children from another culture may not hear such phrases until adulthood, if they ever hear them at all.

This clearly has more to do with what income bracket you happened to be born into.

…those who believe they are helping black Americans—or any demographic group—succeed by encouraging them to blame society are mistaken. Talking honestly about harmful behavioral patterns is the only way to reliably correct them.

This is a strawman within a false-dichotomy. The strawman is claiming an honest conversation about the historical and present antecedents to racial wealth inequality is the equivalent of “blaming society”. The false-dichotomy is that we must choose between that conversation and talking about harmful behavioral patterns. Again, most people just want to understand the etiology of such behaviors and how they emerge from a larger history, they have no problem investigating the behaviors themselves.

Likewise, Coates maintains that, “as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same. But the entity responsible for a harm cannot always redress it. This truth is illustrated by ‘The Parable of the Pedestrian,’ from legal scholar Amy Wax…

Please refer to Coleman’s essay to understand the Parable conceived by recently reprimanded Penn professor Amy Wax.

Needless to say the “parable” is wholly inadequate a metaphor to teach us anything about racial inequality. A better metaphor would be: many victims were run over countless times for generation by a multitude of drivers seeking to run them down with impunity. Though in the last generation these incidents have become less intentional, they still happen “accidentally” in large numbers. Would you really blame people if their first point of order here would be to stop the continued disproportionate number of accidents causing injury? Would you deride those who pointed out that the generations of injured and out of work parents couldn’t be reasonably expected to be able to provide the background in wealth creation and management to the children? Furthermore, would you then tell those who struggle to afford the medical bills that it’s all on them?

Coleman argues there is no sense in understanding the source of injury:

But what do such “acknowledgements” achieve, other than to imbue those doing the acknowledging with a sense of virtue? Acknowledging historical racism is no more of an “essential first step” to closing the wealth gap than acknowledging the driver’s culpability is an essential first step to healing the injured pedestrian.

Coleman continues to misrepresent his opponents here. The task isn’t to merely acknowledge historical racism, but to understand it’s effects and how it’s effects inform us about what is going on now and how to fix it. We all know the adage “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and I’m sure Wax and Coleman haven’t forgotten it either.

If the problem were simply a lack of cash, then the government would be the ideal candidate.

Again, this is a misrepresentation to say that most people on the political left are arguing for reparations. Even those arguing for reparations are–the vast majority of the time–not arguing for just giving cash to black people. I am deeply skeptical that you would find any scholar on this topic who would agree that “the problem is simply a lack of cash”.

Consider another one of Coleman’s comparisons.

Whether measured by rates of alcoholism, high school graduation, or income, Irish-Americans used to lag far behind other American ethnic groups.23 As one point of reference, the incarceration rate for Irish-Americans was five times higher than for German-Americans in 1904. The response? While some Irish leaders blamed society, others, notably those in the Catholic Church, launched an inward-looking campaign to change behavioral patterns within the Irish community.

Obviously the criticism about comparisons to immigrant groups apply here (e.g immigration is different than enslavement). But besides that, Irish people did not endure the years of Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, and discrimination from 1904 onward. I suppose I’m saying, sure, the Catholic church helped the Irish community, but let’s not pretend that being white wasn’t a factor in the differential success of Irish immigrants and black Americans.

By contrast, I do not know of a single instance in which an underachieving ethnic minority rose to economic prominence by asking the government for cash transfers, preferential policies in education and employment, or apologies for past injustices.

This amounts to an argument from incredulity or argument from ignorance akin to, “I can’t conceive of this and I don’t know if this has ever happened so it can’t be possible.”

Given how skewed the historical scorecard is, it’s strange that the burden of argument is so often placed on advocates of self-help to prove that our strategy is the realistic one. Common sense would place the burden of argument on the advocates of programs which have never worked anywhere to prove that, for whatever reason, this time is different.

Except the scorecard isn’t skewed with failures. In fact there have been at least two major instances where reparations to an ethnic group were followed by their rise in prominence. Specifically the Jewish people were paid reparations after WW2 and the Japanese communities in the US and Canada were paid reparations after the use of interment camps during the same war.

In summary

In the end, Coleman’s Quillette piece is one that largely argues against strawman positions that are held by a vanishingly small amount of people (certainly not any of the authors he cited). It also does so ineffectually with consistent non sequiturs, inappropriate comparisons, and faulty metaphors. Yet, I take his more general point (with a grain of salt given the clear bias), we need to be able to have an open conversation about the ways that decision-making can perpetuate poverty and inequality. Indeed, this comprises a large area of research in the fields of psychology, economics, and sociology. These things do need to enter in the public consciousness more and that can be helped along with targeted interventions and adding education about psychology and decision-making to the curriculum in the US.

What’s most jarring about Coleman’s article is either the shallowness of the reasoning of the lack of transparency about what he thinks the problem is. I see that he believes decision-making is the prime factor in racial inequality, he also thinks that black culture is responsible for those problematic decisions. But where does he think this culture comes from? Does he think black culture is somehow an intrinsic properties of the black population? Does he conceive of it as somehow unaffected by generations of oppression? I don’t know.

But he makes it clear that that doesn’t matter, because understanding why decisions are made is irrelevant when you just want to tell people to stop making those decisions. And I get it, if you as a teacher want to know how to help an individual student of color, there is little benefit from telling them about the sordid history that leads to differences in decision-making at the population level. It’s best just to guide that person towards better choices for him or herself. But part of being a clearheaded person is working through the cognitive dissonance and holding two competing thoughts in your head at once. Yes, we should recognize the role of individual decisions in wealth disparities, while investigating the origins of these tendencies. Yes, we should consider, evaluate, and implement policies that deal with systematic problems that give rise to these decisions and many other conditions that perpetuate inequality.

Finally, I appreciate Coleman’s engagement with the public on these subjects and accept his claim that he is doing so for the benefit of the black community. I just don’t think he wrote an article that dealt legitimately with the work of other scholars working on the same problems. But he has a long career ahead, so I wish him the best of luck.


One thought on “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap – A Rebuttal

  1. Regarding the points you are making about immigrants not having the same struggles as African-americans, It seems to me that the argument is all about skin color, not immigration history, and I think that is the point Hughes is making.

    What would you say about someone like Ijeoma Oluo who is a 1st generation American (father from Nigeria, mom is white) who says it is ALL about race, i.e. she is black and puts herself into to the group of people saying they have suffered 400 years of white oppression? if you did not read her bio, you would think she grew up in some inner-city project, but she is actually a techy raised near Seattle.


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