Some African immigrants and their children are doing very well in America. Measured by the usual metrics – high school graduation rates, test scores, income – immigrants from some African countries are not only doing significantly better than African Americans, they are doing better than native born whites. This has led to some complaints from African Americans that when an elite school wants to feature a minority student who has "beaten the odds," that star student is more likely to be a immigrant from Ghana or Nigeria than an American black. (One study found that although only 13% of black American 18-year-olds are immigrants or the children of immigrants, they make up 41% of the black students in Ivy League schools.) It also raises all sorts of questions about what racism is and how it works.
It is important to note that not all African immigrants are thriving. The immigrant blacks who get into Ivy League schools come overwhelmingly from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Caribbean; immigrants from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda are doing notably badly. This seems easy to explain. Immigrants from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda are mostly refugees who have been through terrible experiences, many from broken homes – like the "lost boys" of Sudan – whereas most immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria and Jamaica are from intact middle class families who choose to migrate in search of opportunity. Because of this difference you can't just look at numbers for "African immigrants" that lump all of these people together. The same patterns hold in Britain, where west Africans and many from the Caribbean are doing well, but refugees from war-torn nations are not.
I have been thinking about this issue because of what it says about race and racism in our world. These facts refute basic nineteenth-century tri-racialism, since it seems clear that west African immigrants are on average at least as smart and hard-working as whites. It is also hard on any sort of racial genetic model, since most African Americans are genetically a mix of west Africans and whites, with their white ancestors drawn disproportionately from the upper class. So what does explain the difference between African Americans and African immigrants?
Some African American activists have asserted that African immigrants simply don't face the racism that African Americans do. I am not aware of any good evidence for or against this proposition, but I still find it interesting. It suggests that modern American racism, at least in its harmful forms, is something quite specific: a response not to dark skin but to the particular mannerisms of African Americans. Immigrants and their children have different speech patterns and the like, so racist teachers do not respond to them in the same way. As I said, I am not aware of any good evidence on the question, but it bears thinking about.
Another way to think about the problem is by considering income rather than race. Much (but not all) of the differences in school performance and the like between African Americans and whites can be accounted for by income, that is, students from poor families always do worse in school than children from middle class families, and more African Americans are poor. Immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana have higher incomes than African Americans, so their children do better in school. But of course this is one of those explanations that just demands more explanations; why do west African immigrants have higher incomes?
I think using a broader notion of class, rather than simply income, explains even more. Many west African immigrants come from elite families; I have seen half a dozen stories over the years of people who are kings and queens in their Nigerian tribes but teachers or nurses in America. The Nigerian elite adopted the British attitude toward education, and they send their children to private schools and colleges on the British model. Nigerian immigrants to America maintain this tradition; in the 2010 census, 60.7% of Nigerian immigrants in the US held college degrees – that's more than twice the rate for whites – and 28% held graduate degrees.
Culture matters. People pass on to their children attitudes and expectations that have real weight. When it comes to education, Nigerian immigrants are more like Jews or Chinese than they are like African Americans, and this has a huge impact on how well people do economically and socially in the US.
The other thing I would say is that time matters. Cultures are after all hard things to change. I have seen a couple of studies lately showing that Europeans whose surnames were noble in the fifteenth century are still richer and better educated than people with peasant surnames. African Americans endured 150 years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow, and that left a legacy that can't easily be erased. Even if Nigerian immigrants face some of the same short-term problems as African Americans, the way they respond to them is conditioned by entirely different backgrounds.
It seems inevitable to me that over time the distinctiveness of west African immigrants will fade. (I only know one African immigrant well myself, a Nigerian I play basketball with, and he has an African American wife.) I wonder, will their presence help blur the hard lines between the races in America? Will their attitudes toward education and success spread? Or will their children and grand-children move toward the African American norm, as the descendants of white immigrants have moved toward the white norm?
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"So what does explain the difference between African Americans and African immigrants?"
-Occam's Razor: skilled African immigrants are heavily selected by virtue of their intelligence and work ethic and western immigration systems' preferences in favor of these; African refugees and African-Americans, being selected more or less at random from the native African population, are better representative of the native African population. Intelligence is mostly heritable, at least, within the First World.
There is no racism of any substantial effect in America. It's pure mythology. The idea of institutional racism had very little explanatory power in the twentieth century, and, after 1970, has no explanatory power whatsoever.
"Most (but not all) of the differences in school performance and the like between African Americans and whites can be accounted for by income, that is, students from poor families always do worse in school than children from middle class families, and more African Americans are poor."
-No, they can't. More bollocks. When adjusted for parents' SES (not just income!), most of the Black-White school performance gap visibly remains:
It's genes, man. Genes. That's the simplest, best, and most obvious explanation for all this.
"African Americans endured 150 years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow, and that left a legacy that can't easily be erased."
-It was erased in all but life expectancy and self-reported happiness by the last quartile of the twentieth century in the United States. Now, it's mostly genes.
"It seems inevitable to me that over time the distinctiveness of west African immigrants will fade."
-Yeah; probably. It depends on whom they have children with. Let's see how the Obama daughters are doing in a few years.
"But of course this is one of those explanations that just demands more explanations; why do west African immigrants have higher incomes?"
-At least you understand this.
"It is also hard on any sort of racial genetic model, since most African Americans are genetically a mix of west Africans and whites, with their white ancestors drawn disproportionately from the upper class."
-It's not 1860. It's not even 1960. Most Black-White interbreeding since then has not been disproportionately from the upper class; quite the contrary. The average White American is less than 1% Black. The average Black American is less than 30% White. I'm reasonably certain, due to greater tolerance of race-mixing in the past half-century than there ever was during the half-millennium before that, that most Black-White interbreeding in America has been after, not before, 1960.
"These facts refute basic nineteenth-century tri-racialism,"
-Nope. Dude, can you even Bell Curve? There are always some smart people within every race. But they cannot be expected to be representative of the population they originate from.
I really don't even know how to respond to Pithom at this point. Reality seems to bear no gravitas for him, so it's hard to bring myself to attempt to convey it in the face of such overwhelming bias and willful delusion.
And yet, I recently came across a quote by T. H. Huxley which impresses upon me to persist to some degree: "The obstinate reiteration of erroneous assertions can only be nullified by as persistent an appeal to facts."
But at the same time, I almost feel that such a statement doesn't quite apply universally - that it is true on a societal or historical scale, but that it doesn't always hold on an individual one. What use is appealing to facts when faced with a specific party that, either through malice or pathology, exhibits no significant response to such appeals?
At what point does the law of diminishing returns take effect, and to what degree? How much time, effort, and thought is it healthy or sane to devote to the cause of repeatedly refuting such erroneous assertions ad nauseum? At what point do the potential benefits cease to outweight the costs? How exactly should one go about performing what amounts to a sort of psychological triage? How does one develop the ability to properly judge which parties are worth spending resources on, and which ones you should simply cut your losses on?
And even after all that, if one writes off a given party as unlikely to benefit from any efforts you might spend on them, what then? Leave them to continue on spreading their erroneous assertions, to the detriment of others? Proactively go about refuting such assertions with facts, to innoculate others against them? Employ some form of quarantine?
The worst part is, I feel like this exact uncertainty is purposefully exploited by many individuals - that they know if they just shout down and ultimately exhaust and outlast proponents of the truth, then they can eventually spread their falsehoods in the place of facts and get away with it. In Huxley's time, such behavior had consequences - individuals would be ostracized and not taken seriously when others exposed them for their falsehoods. But today, such behavior can earn you a nomination to the highest office of government in the nation, propelled forward by the adoration of the unabashedly ignorant and self serving.
What is one to think, say, or do in response?
Pithom: no, most black-white racial mixing in the US was before 1860. Almost all of it, in fact.
You've pointed to no statement of mine that showed lack of backing in fact. No wonder: there is none.
"Reality seems to bear no gravitas for him"
-How do you think I came to my present views, Verloren? Not through ignoring reality, I can tell you that readily.
You didn't appeal to facts here, so I guess I automatically win this argument.
"How much time, effort, and thought is it healthy or sane to devote to the cause of repeatedly refuting such erroneous assertions ad nauseum?"
-One tenth of that necessary for you to have written your above screed would have sufficed. And not one of my assertions is, so far as I am aware, in the least bit erroneous.
Verloren, you seem like a person enamored with ideology and paragraphs. You do not seem, like I am, to be enamored by empirical evidence and cold, hard logic.
"But today, such behavior can earn you a nomination to the highest office of government in the nation, propelled forward by the adoration of the unabashedly ignorant and self serving."
-True! For both candidates!
"Pithom: no, most black-white racial mixing in the US was before 1860. Almost all of it, in fact."
-On what basis do you claim this?
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