If white racism counts as the primary cause for the painful problems of people of color then why do white people themselves lag behind some other racial groups in every measure of success and health?
Census figures show that “non-Hispanic whites” still comprise a big majority of the American population – some 63% according to the latest numbers. But there’s no statistical indication that this numerical advantage has resulted in a corresponding edge in achievement or well-being.
Take, for instance, the most fundamental measure of them all: life expectancy at birth. Census numbers from 2010 show that whites can expect to live 78.9 years. But Latinos enjoy much longer lives – with a life expectancy of 82.8. Asian Americans live longest of all – an impressive 86.5 years. Yes, African-Americans lag, with average longevity of 74.6%. But their disadvantage compared to whites (4.3 years) is far less significant than the white disadvantage compared to Asians (7.6 years), and similar to the white disadvantage compared to Latinos (3.9 years). If lower life expectancy for blacks results from anti-black racism, then does that mean that the much lower life expectancy for whites (relative to Asians and Latinos) stems from discrimination against whites?
There’s also a big difference between Asians and whites when it comes to earning power. 2013 figures from the Census Bureau show that median income for Asian-American households reached $68,636. White households earned $57,009, a difference of $11,627 – indicating a typical Asian family earned nearly $1,000 more every month than a typical white family. Could any serious observer explain this dramatic differential as reflecting racial favoritism for Asians or racial discrimination against whites?
One more dramatic indicator of once-dominant whites losing ground to both Latinos and Asians came from the figures for admission to the prestigious University of California system, the most selective and acclaimed collection of public institutions of higher learning in the country. This autumn, the Los Angeles Times reported that the percentage of Latinos topped the percentage of whites for the first time (28.8% to 26.8%). Asians bested all other groups, with 36.2% of all those admitted to UC campuses. According to 2011 Census Bureau estimates, non-Hispanic whites still made up 39.7% of the overall state population so they were strikingly under-represented when it came to admission to the state’s elite universities. These numbers give a particularly persuasive picture of over-all academic performance because the UC system is prohibited by law (Proposition 209, which passed overwhelmingly in 1996) from considering race or ethnicity in university admissions. The Latinos and Asians who won coveted slots in place of whites did so because of better qualifications in grades and test scores, rather than through any form of favoritism in the name of “affirmative action.”
Finally, there’s the latest report on out-of-wedlock birth, which may help to explain other discrepancies in well-being and achievement. The challenges facing fatherless black kids are already well-known, and with an estimated 72.2% of black children born outside of marriage in 2013, those problems may only intensify. Hispanics also saw a majority (53.5%) born out-of-wedlock while the figure for whites sky-rocketed alarmingly (to 29.4%), with disastrous educational and economic results very likely to follow. America’s rapidly-growing Asian population, on the other hand, registered much better numbers, with only 17.1% of births occurring to unmarried women – just a bit more than half the white rate, and less than one-fourth the black rate.
If family breakdown springs primarily from a legacy of discrimination and bigotry, why would whites under-perform Asians – who faced blocks to citizenship, property ownership, university admissions and professional certification – not to mention internment of Japanese-Americans – as recently as two generations ago?
To cite these statistics and to raise such uncomfortable questions is not to deny the impact of racism, particularly against African-Americans. The descendants of slaves have faced bigotry that counts as more vicious, more debilitating, and more persistent than any other form of irrational animus in our history.
But if prejudice and discrimination alone account for the dramatic differences among various racial groups, then why do whites perform worse than Asians by every measure and worse than Hispanics by several of them? Only a fool or a paranoid would say that these unflattering results for the American majority stem from some previously un-discerned bigotry against white people.
The unavoidable truth remains that culture, values and family structure impact outcomes far more powerfully than racial animus of any kind. Dysfunctional behavior isn’t determined by one’s skin color, or by reactions from others toward that pigmentation. Most Americans instinctively understand that success or failure for an individual comes from attitudes as well as abilities, and those cultural differences mandate different results for ethnic groups as well as individuals.
In the midst of the media-driven frenzy over a purported “crisis in race relations” connected to the grand jury outcome in Ferguson, all people of good will can hope that lingering traces of racism will recede, and that police departments will strive to avoid any instances of bias or brutality.
But the best hope for African-American progress and for closing racial gaps will come from sweeping changes within the black community rather than governmental initiatives or attitudinal alterations among the 87% of Americans who aren’t black. The experience of Asian-Americans in the last two generations should give reason for optimism: they changed their status from despised, distrusted and persecuted aliens into elite performers in the education system and the economy. This transformation came through hard work, strong families, and a wholesome confidence that in America each individual determines his or her own destiny far more powerfully than even the most hostile or dismissive reactions of others.