Nowadays, the presence of white Americans is generally good for African-Americans

By Lorenzo

If the key problem for African Americans was white racism, then they should do better the less contact they have with whites. But the reverse is true — African-Americans tend to do better the more they have contact with whites.

They do better in education — lots of research indicates that minority students do better in integrated schools. Having a white mother largely eliminates (pdf) the disadvantages of being African-American, likely partly because the sons of white mothers get more access to white networks. At the most global and most dramatic indicator, applying US census data (pdf) to World Bank rankings African-Americans are the second richest sub-Saharan African so-descended population in the world — apart from Bermudans. With much higher average incomes than West Africans. [The difference between African-American high school graduation rates and overall graduation rates by US State is strongly (-0.73) negatively correlated with the African-American share of the population — that is, the more embedded the local African-American population is in the local white population, the higher its high school graduation rates.]

So, whatever costs contemporary white racism imposes on African-Americans (white racism that is a pale shadow of its former self), its effects are swamped by the positive effects for African-Americans of interacting with white Americans. Yet African-Americans have lower average incomes, lower levels of completing high schoolentering and completing college and much higher rates of homicide and other crime than white Americans and Asian Americans.*

Interacting factors

A lot of these factors are interactive: if you are less likely to complete high school, you are less likely to enter college. If, on top of both of these, you are also less likely to complete college, then the combined effect will be lower average incomes. Especially as you will participate in various professions at a disproportionately low rate. [An effect exacerbated by the higher the level of education the more group differentiated incomes are.]

Higher rates of homicide and other crimes interfere with every stage in the above process. Whether due to increased risk of violent death or injury, increased risk of incarceration, or undermining social networks due to reduced social trust.

Given African-Americans have much the same homicide rate as a weighted average of Afro-Caribbean jurisdictions and West African jurisdictions, the elevated homicide rate of African-Americans is likely to do with their African-ness, not their American-ness. Given that African-Americans have a considerable and variable rate of non-African genes, genetic explanations are not likely to get us far.

Nevertheless, African populations do have lower levels of patience, which is not good for institution building, long-term networking, or human capital development but does encourage more impulsive (including more criminal and violent) behaviour. African-Americans have lower average IQ (pdf) than other Americans, and lower IQ tends to lead to lower incomes, lower levels of social cooperation and higher levels of criminal activity.

Honour cultures

Changes over time and large variations in, for example, homicide rates between Afro-Caribbean and West African states means that we should not despair that any particular pattern is pre-determined. But it does mean that we have to look at the right places to make things better. White racism is not the right place.

Discount factors measure how you value the future.

The effect of honour cultures on violence is one much better place, especially as we know from European history that shifting from an honour culture to a dignity culture makes a serious downward difference (pdf) to homicide rates. That shift seems to be connected to moving out of being medieval societies, where the state simply has a dominance of organised violence, to post-medieval societies, where the state has an effective monopoly of organised violence. In the US case, that is more the shift to a post-frontier society; as on the frontier the American state very much did not have a monopoly of organised violence.

The point of honour cultures is a willingness to (if necessary) violently defend one’s personal autonomy — both physical space and reputation. (A nice summary of honour cultures, dignity or guilt cultures and face or shame cultures is here.) Honour cultures typically operate if the state is effectively absent, does not have a monopoly of organised violence, is seriously mistrusted or some combination thereof. In different ways, all three factors tend to operate within African-American communities — the police are more distrusted and the “war on drugs” create a range of assets which are not state-protected and income flows which are state-threatened.

So, getting rid of the “War on Drugs” coupled with more accountable (and much less militarised and revenue-seeking) police forces with better local outreach (a model for which is provided in the successful efforts to suppress gang warfare in LA) would very likely help African-American communities transition away from a destructive honour culture amongst young African-American males.

If the protective dimension of a dignity culture is an accountable state which handles protection of life, person and property tolerably well, the income dimension is commerce. The lower the level of human capital, social capital, income and wealth among a community, the more burdensome is intrusive regulation on their commercial opportunities. So, premiums on bureaucratic approval (from occupational licensing, land use regulations, etc), compliance costs, etc need to be significantly lowered.

The third dimension of the dignity culture is a culture of personal responsibility. If you can always blame everything on “the man” then there is no path of learning, there is no path of doing better and better in relations to others and yourself.

Shrieking “racism” by those whose moral certainty exceeds their social understanding** as the catch-all explanation of different social outcomes between African-Americans and other Americans is simply empirically wrong and socially destructive. Because it not only blocks searching for other (much more important) causes but it actively gets in the way of necessary changes if things are to improve.

But that is the difference between signalling how Virtuous you are and actually being serious about improving the circumstances of those whose social outcomes make them such splendid moral mascots or sacred victims.


* The much higher rates of homicide in particular generates a major disadvantage for other Americans from the presence of African-Americans; which, even without historical legacies, would be enough in itself to generate residential segregation.

** Given how swamped we are with information and complexity, it is possible that moral certainty is acting as a substitute for, and a pretence of, social understanding.


ADDENDA The effect of the War on Drugs on African-American homicide rates in particular is worse than I thought

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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