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The American Scheme, part II

In last week’s column I critiqued the master narrative of American immigrant success as an elaborate process of elite translocation, whitening and self-selection. Immigrant groups achieve educational and professional success in this country through three primary mechanisms (with examples given in parentheses):

  1. Education, skills, or wealth gleaned from the country of origin (Africans, East/South Asians, Jews, Muslims);

  2. Assimilation into the grand construction of whiteness (Europeans, Jews, “White” Asians, “White” Latinos, “White” Muslims); and

  3. Selectivity of relocation—even among the poor, discriminated, or exiled (Africans, Caribbeans, Filipinos, Hmongs, Irish, Italians, Jews, Latinos, Muslims, Poles)—that varies proportionally with the barriers to entry.

It comes as no surprise that richer, more educated, whiter immigrants generally fare better than poor, unskilled, black ones in the United States. But the master narrative would have us believe that all of American history is the immigrant rags-to-riches story —at least for those who worked hard, deferred gratification, and never stopped to question The Dream.

These overarching trends in American immigration begin to explain some of higher education’s most persistent stereotypes: why are Asian and Jewish students overrepresented? Why are the parents of so many Black kids from Africa and the Caribbean? Why do “White” Latinos (elite Cubans, Argentineans, Costa Ricans) outperform poor Mexicans and Puerto Ricans?

Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that it has nothing to do with some mystical group ethos or inclination toward education and success. These are the arguments of the bygone Bell Curve era where genetic bases for ethnic outcomes have been replaced largely, but not entirely, on cultural grounds. Rather, the explanation lies in some combination of the above factors—a product of historical resource disparity, racial injustice, and varying levels of individual empowerment.

The master narrative not only obscures important differences among immigrant groups but also entirely excludes African and Native Americans from the picture. Of course, it makes perfect sense that the two groups who suffered mass genocide at the hands of the Founding Fathers would be erased as quickly as possible from our collective memory.

Otherwise, how could we promulgate the “self-evident” rhetoric that “all men are created equal”? Otherwise, how could we possibly believe that the playing field was ever level? Otherwise, how could we continue capitalism as usual?

In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot. The kink in the master narrative, the anomaly that seems to defy explanation, is the African-American experience. (The Native-American experience would surely qualify, if only we had not been so ruthless in our extermination.) Immigrant groups have consistently catapulted over African Americans in the social strata: White Europeans, East/South Asians, Africans, Caribbeans and Latinos. Now, even poor second-generation Mexicans (give them time to learn English) score higher in many areas on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Some have been quick to point the finger of cultural dysfunction at the poorer segments of the African-American community, including the likes of Bill Cosby, who made his career portraying the father of an elite Black family and drew sharp criticism recently for suggesting the following: “The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids—$500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics. I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit…. People with their hats on backward, pants down around the crack, isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up?”

But Cosby’s elitist views betray a severely oversimplified understanding of Black America. While the Black middle class has made significant headway in capturing its piece of America’s economic pie, comparisons in educational achievement between these students and their non-Black, middle-class peers do not seem heartening. The Black students consistently under-perform.

There are myriad explanations for this phenomenon: stereotype threat, racial isolation or insensitive teachers. But they are all rooted in the legacy of Slavery (capital “S”) in American life. The United States has been entirely different for the descendants of those brought in chains.

William Darity, Jr., a so-called “stratification economist” at Duke, writes poignantly about the plight of Black America: “Until emancipation, 90 percent of African Americans were enslaved; therefore, they were a source of wealth for others but generally deprived of the capacity to acquire wealth themselves. Emancipation brought the promise of the allocation of 45 million acres of land to the ex-slaves under the terms of General Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, the first Freedman’s Bureau Act, and the Southern Homestead Act. But that promise went unfulfilled as President Andrew Johnson and his allies abrogated the policy of radical racial land redistribution.

“Subsequently, African Americans—by dint of extraordinary effort and perseverance—did manage to acquire 15 million acres of land, primarily in the U.S. South, by the start of the 20th century. However, from 1920 on there has been a progressive diminution of Black-owned land due to outright seizure by white terrorists, fraud, theft, and the manipulative use of partition sales tactics by whites seeking to appropriate the property. Thus, the foundation of wealth in the Black community literally was destroyed over the course of the 20th century.

“The net effect has been to prevent the intergenerational transmission of wealth that occurs at much higher rates among other ethnic/racial groups in the USA. Blacks transfer less because they have a much smaller stock of wealth to bestow upon their offspring. Blacks have a much smaller stock of wealth because of a sustained historical pattern of deprivation of the capacity to accumulate property, particularly land.”

Slavery lies at the core of these disparities. Further subjected to post-emancipation Jim Crow laws, white terrorism (lynching) and ongoing discrimination in all facets of daily existence, many African-American communities are crippled in the present day. And yet we continue to pre-empt proposals like those of Representative Tony Hall, D-Ohio, whose resolution calling for a Congressional apology for Slavery was shot down in both 1997 and 2000. It is about time that America owns up to its own holocaust, at least by capitalizing the “S”.

African Americans own limited, if any, connections to resources abroad, receive the worst of America’s poisonous brand of racism, and were forcibly torn from their homeland, in order to build a nation that has thrived on denigrating Black people. For the descendants of slaves in the U.S., America has never been a land of opportunity. It is—and will always be—the land of hypocrisy.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears Mondays.

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