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OPINION | DAVID BROOKS: Overcoming barriers to opportunity

by DAVID BROOKS BY THE NEW YORK TIMES | July 25, 2021 at 1:54 a.m.

How racist is this land? Everybody knows about the oppression of Native Americans, slavery and Jim Crow. But does that mean that America is a white supremacist nation, that whiteness is a cancer that leads to oppression for other groups? Or is racism mostly a part of America's past, something we've largely overcome?

There are many ways to answer these questions. The most important is by having honest conversations with the people directly affected. But another is by asking: How high are the barriers to opportunity for different groups?

The income gap separating white and Black families was as big in 2016 as it was in 1968. The wealth gap separating white and Black households grew even bigger between those years. Black adults are more than 16 times more likely to be in families with three generations of poverty than white adults.

When, in 2004, researchers sent equally qualified white and Black applicants to job interviews in New York City, dressed them similarly and gave them similar things to say, Black applicants got half as many callbacks or job offers as whites.

The legacies of slavery and segregation and the effects of racism are everywhere. The phrase "systemic racism" aptly fits the reality you see--a set of structures, like redlining, that have a devastating effect on Black wealth and opportunities. Racism is not something we are gently moving past; it's pervasive. It seems obvious that this reality should be taught in every school.

Does this mean that America is white supremacist, a shameful nation, that the American dream is just white privilege? Take a look at the data for different immigrant groups. When you turn your gaze here, the barriers don't seem as high. For example, as Bloomberg's Noah Smith pointed out recently on his Substack page, Hispanic American incomes rose faster in recent years than those of any other major group in America. Forty-five percent of Hispanics who grew up in poverty made it to the middle class or higher, comparable to the mobility rate for whites.

The Hispanic experience in America is beginning to look similar to the experience of Irish Americans or Italian Americans or other past immigrant groups--a period of struggle followed by integration into the middle class.

A study by scholars from Princeton, Stanford and the University of California-Davis found that today's children of immigrants are no slower to move up to the middle class than the children of immigrants 100 years ago. It almost doesn't matter whether their parents came from countries from which immigrants are mainly fleeing misery and poverty or from countries from which immigrants often arrive with marketable skills; children of poor immigrants have higher rates of upward mobility than the children of the native-born.

This economic success obviously does not mean immigrant groups do not face hardship, bias and exploitation. It just means that education and mobility can help overcome some of the effects of this bias.

Economic progress is one thing. What about cultural integration?

A landmark 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that the lives of immigrants and their children are converging with those of their native-born neighbors, in good ways and bad. This pattern applies to how well educated they are, where they live, what language they speak, how their health is and how they organize their families.

Rising intermarriage rates are one product of this integration. Blending identities is another.

Humans are quick to adopt multiple and shifting racial identities. Researchers Richard Alba, Morris Levy and Dowell Myers suggest 52 percent of the people who self-categorize as nonwhite in the Census Bureau's projections for America's 2060 racial makeup will also think of themselves as white. Forty percent of those who self-categorized as white will also claim minority racial identity.

Writing in GQ, Damon Young argues that the term "people of color" has become a linguistic gesture, "shorthand for white people uncomfortable with just saying 'Black.'" In The New Yorker, E. Tammy Kim argues, "'People of color,' by grouping all nonwhites in the United States, if not the world, fails to capture the disproportionate per capita harm to Blacks at the hands of the state."

It's certainly time to dump the replacement theory that has been so popular with Tucker Carlson and the far right: the idea that all these foreigners are coming to take over the country. In truth, immigrants blend with the current inhabitants, keeping parts of their earlier identities and adopting parts of their new identities.

My reading of the historical record suggests groups do well by mingling with everybody else while keeping some of their own distinct identities and cultures. "Integration without assimilation" is how Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks put it.

Over the last several years, Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights find that, indeed, Black Americans and Native Americans have much lower rates of mobility because of historic discrimination.

But Chetty's team emphasizes that these gaps are not immutable. If you use housing vouchers and other grants to help people move to high-opportunity neighborhoods with low poverty rates, low racial bias and more fathers in the neighborhoods, you can help people of all races lead lives with higher incomes and lower rates of incarceration as adults.

Last week I saw a young Black woman wearing a T-shirt that read, "I am my ancestors' wildest dreams." I took her message as a statement of defiance, pride, determination and hope. If you can keep discordant emotions like that in your head, you can get a feel for this discordant land.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Print Headline: Overcoming barriers to opportunity

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