William Darity (Duke) destroys the "Myth of Black Inferiority" in Stratification Economics: Context versus Culture...

William "Sandy" Darity (Duke)

William "Sandy" Darity (Duke)

In one of the more important works on race, economics and law, William Darity debunks five myths of black inferiority: (1) Latino versus U.S. treatment of race; (2) the American immigrant narrative; (3) racial wealth inequality (here is where we will find a “scientific” basis for the roots of contemporary black inequality in slavery); (4) racial/ethnic disparities in self-employment rates; and (5) the burden of “acting white.”  Darity crunches economic data to show how poverty within the black community is best explained by the sociopolitical context rather than by reference to a supposed pathologic black culture.

“It is customary for the relatively high incidence of poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and lower economic and social well-being among blacks to be viewed as culturally driven. Black Americans frequently are characterized as disproportionately engaging in a set of collectively dysfunctional behaviors. These arguments enter the public discourse in multiple guises. They include comedian Bill Cosby's focus on “internal problems” in the black community, the perspectives advanced by such mavens of the Manhattan Institute as John McWhorter and June O'Neill, in former President Bill Clinton's 1993 speech to a group of black ministers, and in then-presidential candidate Barack Obama's numerous perorations on black Americans' need to overcome the “psychology of victimization,” to take “personal responsibility,” and to transcend an obsession with racial particularism. Economists as wide-ranging ideologically as George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton, Glenn Loury, David Austen-Smith and Roland Fryer, Tom Sowell, Walter Williams, and Barry Chiswick also have embraced variants of cultural determinism to explain racial inequality in the United States. In short, black-white disparities are due to human capital disparities, and black cultural practices are the source of the human capital gap.”

In response, Darity and others have developed the field of Stratification Economics, to explain how group competition is responsible for creating, maintaining and exacerbating the racial wealth gap:

“Stratification economics is a new subfield in economics that integrates the emphasis on the salience of the group position and status from sociology and the drive for action motivated primarily out of material self-interest from economics.39 Thus, the stratification economist sees a world of self-interested “tribes” engaged in a persistent dance of negotiation and conflict, where conflict often includes acts of dehumanization and repression by the dominant group.

As James Stewart observes:

Within stratification economics, special attention is directed to the role of racial and caste distinctions and similar group affiliations in producing and perpetuating income and wealth inequality. Group identities are treated as produced forms of individual and collective property with both income and wealth-generating characteristics and whose supply and demand are responsive to changes in production costs and budget constraints. Cooperative economic and noneconomic behaviors are treated as normal outcomes of individuals' propensity to engage in own-group altruism and other-group antagonism.

Race prejudice or racism is functional. It is not a mere deadweight loss for all members of a community. It promotes a set of structured, cumulative advantages for certain socially marked groups and structured, cumulative disadvantages for others. It is a cornerstone of group-based inequality--not “biology,” not “culture,” and not “nature.””

First, Darity addresses the notion that race matters much less in latin America:  “The difficulty with this formulation is the evidence that genotype matters in Latin America and phenotype matters in the United States in the construction of racial distinctions. Ethnographic research demonstrates that white-looking Latinos will hide evidence that they have dark-skinned relatives.57 If only their own appearance mattered, then they would feel no need to do so. Moreover, the extent of white identification among Latinos who are darker-skinned is startling. Even on surveys where responses can be given to an open-ended race question, a significant portion of darker-skinned Latinos will report their race as white, often forgoing black or a host of intermediate categories between black and white.58 Genotype matters, and blackness is penalized in Latin America.”

Next, Darity addresses the idea that immigrants fare better than home-grown black folks.  He finds that dark skinned immigrants suffer racism hardly different than American blacks:  “There is strong evidence of employment discrimination both in terms of job access and wages for darker-skinned black men, and compelling evidence is emerging of marital discrimination against darker-skinned black women. Joni Hersch's study using the New Immigrant Survey finds that shorter and darker-skinned immigrants are subjected to greater levels of discrimination in the labor market. Catherine Eckel's laboratory experiments demonstrate that darker-skinned individuals generally are perceived as less trustworthy when judged independently of any additional information other than how they look. And Jennifer Eberhardt and her research team have demonstrated that blacker-looking men convicted of a capital crime are more likely to receive the death penalty than less-black-looking men convicted of the same type of crime. Phenotype matters, and blackness is penalized in the United States.

Darity finds that immigrants are not more upwardly mobile than American black folks, once one examines the sociopolitical context from which immigrants are coming.  It turns out they are usually not increasing their lot, but reproducing their circumstances here.: 

“Consider the classic immigrant narrative of upward mobility: new immigrants arrive in the United States and climb the urban escalator from poverty to middle-class status. Ostensibly this happens over and over again, even if the immigrants are black West Indians or recent black immigrants from the African continent. Why, then, do some groups not display the same degree of economic success, e.g., native black Americans? Don't the differences in outcomes have to be explained by different cultural orientations toward work, education, and achievement?... The stratification economist would look to the effects of selectivity and recognize from the outset that immigrant populations, particularly voluntary immigrant populations, are intrinsically different from populations of non-movers.

[T]he first generation of Japanese children born in the United States was likely to come disproportionately from middle class families… Suzanne Model's new book on West Indian immigrants to the United States tells roughly the same story of immigrant selectivity coupled with some evidence of white favoritism toward West Indian over native black Americans… the best available evidence indicates that, overall, immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa do not have superior labor-market outcomes to those of native black Americans, but they do not enter the United States with markedly superior resources than black Americans… The net conclusion provides support for a lateral mobility proposition--the reproduction of their relative status in their country of origin by immigrants in the United States--rather than upward mobility.”

Most directly, Darity attacks the myth that black poverty is a matter of culture, rather than a product of historical economic deprivation and subjugation: 

The problem with the black profligacy and black stupidity claims is their inconsistency with the evidence that, after controlling for income, there are neither significant differences in black and white savings rates nor significant differences in rates of return earned on portfolios…The stratification economist would turn instead to patterns of intergenerational transmission of wealth to understand the disparities in net worth. The combination of inheritances and in vivo transfers would be the critical objects of attention for the stratification economist, not the savings and portfolio management practices of the group that is wealth-poor.

Most wealth acquisition today takes place via shifts in assets from the older generation to the younger generation. Indeed, the intergenerational transfer of wealth is perhaps the most blatant example of the transfer of resources on a non-merit basis… Groups that have less wealth to bestow upon their offspring yield a next generation with less wealth.

Why have blacks collectively had less wealth to transfer to subsequent generations? Gordon Nembhard and Chiteji observe:

For African Americans, enslavement restricted owning one's self and any other property; racial land reform never took place as promised after the Civil War; during Jim Crow, Black-owned land was seized violently and records destroyed; and up through the twentieth century Black land loss continued with urbanization, discriminatory public policy and credit policies, and the intestate status of many parcels.

Racial differences in the capacity to shift these resources from old to young are directly--scientifically--linked to the history of slavery and the failure to provide ex-slaves with forty acres and a mule.”

Last, Darity finds no merit in the idea that black people subordinate other black people who achieve:

“The final topic to be treated here is the burden of acting white, where context will prove decisive once again. A wildly popular explanation for the racial achievement gap--it made its way routinely into Barack Obama's stump speeches--is the idea that black students engage in academic self-sabotage because they fear that school success will lead their black peers to charge them with “acting white.” High academic achievement will be met with being labeled a race traitor. Hence, culturally based opposition toward doing well in school lies at the root of black students' comparatively poor school performance…

When Tyson, Darity, and Castellino undertook a comparative ethnographic study of the phenomenon in North Carolina schools, they found little evidence of this form of racialized harassment by black students toward other black students. They did find forms of harassment of “good” students, regardless of race, that were commonplace, particularly if the “good” students displayed an air of superiority toward their fellows. These types of harassment in part took the form of labeling the “good” students “geeks,” “nerds,” or “braniacs.”  On the few occasions where high achieving black students were called “Oreos,” it was most likely to take place in schools where black students were grossly underrepresented in the most challenging classes. ….. Thus, it is the school context produced by policies of racialized tracking that creates the burden of acting white rather than the burden arising as a cultural import from a generally held opposition to academic achievement across the black community or even among black youth alone.”

William Darity successfully trounces the myth of black inferiority, which is perhaps the most pernicious method for maintaining the racial wealth gap, by deflecting attention from and neutering progressive attempts to fix market imperfections that perpetuate racial subordination, and by discouraging black folks themselves from participating vigorously in national and international marketplaces.   The economic impact and redistributive effect of the myth of black inferiority can be described in terms of asymmetrically imperfect market information about and available to black folks.  To the extent it is internalized, the myth of black inferiority represents the asymmetrical commitment to profit maximization.  The lack of social capital due to mistaken distrust of other black people due to the myth of black inferiority fits within the concept of asymmetrical market competition, in that black folks have less financial, political, human and social capital to compete. - DreSmith