On Race and Class
By Herb Engstrom
17 May 2012
There is a substantial correlation between race and class. The average income in the U.S. of Caucasians and South and East Asians is considerably higher than that of African-Americans and Latinos.
There is also great correlation between poverty and crime for reasons that are obvious: poor people need food and shelter as do the non-poor, and when the poor lack the resources to obtain these necessities, many turn to crime in desperation. Consequently, Blacks and Latinos are greatly over-represented in California’s prison population.
Many observers blame this disparity on racial discrimination, but overt racism is not the whole story or even most of the reason for the perpetual poverty of those groups. Many immigrant groups suffered outright discrimination: the gold rush Chinese; Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics; and Eastern European Jews. Yet all of these, despite differences from mainstream America in race or religion, have pretty much overcome discrimination. What, then, accounts for hundreds of years of the disparity in economic success between those groups on one hand and Blacks and Latinos on the other?
The answer is, unfortunately, bound to create controversy and even denial. But if we are to solve the problem of the relative poverty of Blacks and Latinos we need to muster the courage to face the problem honestly.
Lawrence E. Harrison was an official of the Agency for International Development in Latin America from 1962 to 1982, beginning his tenure at the time of John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which was created to foster economic development in Latin America. At that time there were two explanations commonly offered for the relative underdevelopment of this region. They were neglect by the United States and exploitation by the United States. After working in the area for so long, Harrison came to the conclusion that the “neglect” explanation “was both naïve and arrogant,” and that neither could “exploitation” adequately account for Latin America’s backwardness. In 1999 Harrison organized a symposium to address this problem. The outcome was a collection of scholarly papers coedited by Samuel Huntington and published under the title Culture Matters. Harrison followed this in 2006 with another book expanding on the same theme: The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change A Culture and Save It From Itself.
There you have it. A major, perhaps primary, factor responsible for the success of certain ethnic groups in America are cultures that are more successful in fostering education, diligence, trust, and other values that promote progress. Evidence abounds. Consider what has been called the Confucian culture, which originated in China and spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. As early as the 2nd century B.C.E. the Chinese government was requiring written examinations for candidates to fill government positions. Entering government was the best way for Chinese to escape the bonds of rural poverty. The scholar became the most respected position in Chinese culture, and that conviction continues among many Chinese to this day. Many Asian parents insist that their children excel in school and that those children are well prepared and study diligently.
In the West religion also has had a major and positive cultural influence. Jewish children have in the past entered Hebrew school as early as at age three. Learning to read, to study, to understand was highly important in Jewish communities. A similar phenomenon followed the Protestant reformation in Europe. Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into the vernacular, and his example was followed by the Calvinists. Reading the Bible for oneself became a central tenet of both branches of Protestantism, and reading and an appreciation of Protestant theology required education and study. The culture of northern Europe changed, and it is there that we find the most successful indicators of progress in Europe.
It is difficult for many people to critically examine their own culture and find it wanting in some respects. Hence, there are many among the Black and Latino populations that attribute their plight to racial discrimination. This is not to deny that such discrimination exists, but other ethnic groups such as South and East Asians seem not to be subject to the same prejudice. Here in the U.S. and within the memories of people living today there were cases of discrimination against white Anglo-Saxon Protestants where neither race nor religion played a role. We even had a disparaging epithet for them. They were called “Okies.” That’s right, the dust bowl refugees from the agricultural south, people who were driven from one migrant labor camp to another. Long time residents of California didn’t want anything to do with them.
So what did these victims of discrimination – the Okies, the early Asian, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants and today’s Blacks and Latinos – have in common? Certainly not their race or their religion or their language. In a word, it was their poverty.
Because of the correlation between poverty, race, and crime, many people are suspicious of Blacks and Latinos simply because of their race. That fear is painful to minorities, but it is not entirely unwarranted. The very successful civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Sr. once told the story about how he was walking alone down a street at night when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around and was relieved to see that the person approaching was a white man.
Consider some Blacks who have become enormously successful–people like Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods. Does anyone think that if people such as these wanted to buy an apartment in the upper East Side of Manhattan or a mansion in Malibu they’d be red-lined?
The evidence suggests, therefore, that it is not racism that results in the poverty of these minority groups. Rather, it is the reverse: poverty leads to discrimination.
It follows that if we really want to end the racial/economic discrimination in the U.S., we must greatly reduce the poverty in the Black, Latino, and other minority communities. There will be several steps involved, and these will require time and initially entail a large expenditure of taxpayer dollars. However, there will be enormous savings when we turn our prison populations and petty criminals and the unemployed, white as well as black and brown, into productive, tax paying (rather than tax consuming) citizens.
One critical part of the solution is education. This does not mean better schools with better teachers. That has been proposed many times but has never succeeded, and the reason for this failure is that by the time a Black or Latino kid from an impoverished family reaches kindergarten, he or she is often already a couple of years behind their Asian and Caucasian counterparts. Desperately poor parents themselves do not have the time, education, and other resources to read to their kids, to teach them the alphabet, their numbers, their colors, etc. When those kids reach school and are already so far behind, they are often shuttled into special education classes or they become so discouraged by their competition that they give up and retreat into the comfort zone of familiar culture.
Education must start with pre-school preferably at a very young age, even at one year. Such pre-schools must be all-day affairs to provide the opportunities and education that more advantaged children typically receive at home and to allow their parents the freedom to work at full time jobs.
This sounds simple, but it clearly raises another serious problem in addition to the expense involved: Although we might find the physical facilities for such pre-schools, where will we find the trained teachers and aides for what must be many relatively small classes? Clearly the training of pre-school teachers will first be required. This we can and must do even though we may have to start small given existing resources. And these schools and teachers should be carefully monitored and mentored.
Where will we find the students for these teacher training classes? That’s easy. With a current 8% official unemployment rate, and a much higher actual rate, there are plenty of people available for such training. We will need, however, to pay them to attend. Let us end any unemployment compensation or welfare assistance that they might now be receiving, but pay them a living wage as they enter into training for a real career. This will be a worthwhile investment.
This plan raises yet another problem. Even when jobs or schooling are available many people, particularly women with young children, cannot accept them because of a lack of two things: child care and transportation. Child care becomes an easy problem. Bring the kids to the teacher training class! The kids can provide the real, live guinea pigs for the training. As for transportation, We should place new training centers and pre-schools in low income neighborhoods. If that is not suitable, we could hire more of the unemployed to provide private taxi service for the trainees.
Even with the availability of universal, free pre-school education and more investment in K-12 and higher education the problems of poverty and discrimination will remain if jobs are lacking. It is notable that estimates of the cost of keeping one person in a California state prison are as high as $50,000 per year. A person working full time at California’s minimum wage of $8.00 per hour could earn only about $16,000 per year. That wage would often not include health and retirement benefits, things that come with incarceration. Obviously, the state could save much taxpayer money by providing jobs at a living wage – perhaps even as much as $15.00 per hour – while eliminating the temptation of turning to crime and ending up in prison. There would be plenty of jobs in education and infrastructure renovation.
Government as an employer of last resort or to subsidize private employers when hiring the disadvantaged is yet another solution to consider.
These plans clearly will require money and years of effort, but the consequences of not implementing such plans will ultimately be far more expensive and will continue forever.