White supremacy. Systemic racism. These concepts form the theme of the interim report from California’s Reparations Task Force. The choice to focus the report along these lines misses the factors that are far more important in understanding the struggles of Black Americans. And because of this, the report will fail at advancing the lives of those it was tasked to help.

As cruel and dehumanizing as the processes of bigotry and racism are, these are not the primary reasons why so many Black Americans are struggling. If White supremacy is the major factor, as alleged by the Task Force, then other non-White groups would be struggling similarly to Blacks. But they are not. The differences in socioeconomic outcomes between Black Americans and other non-Whites, including Black immigrants, are so large that they compel us to search elsewhere to understand and address these differences.

Sadly, California’s Reparations Task Force chose to ignore these differences. By focusing its report on “White supremacy” and “systemic racism,” terms that are now so overused as to have lost their meaning, the report will further divide us at a time when it is so important for us to come together to improve our institutions and policies so that opportunities to succeed are available to all.

This is not to say that non-Whites do not face significant bigotry and prejudice. Rather, it is to say that the socioeconomic differences between Black Americans and other non-Whites are so large that they indicate other factors are the primary drivers of depressed socioeconomic outcomes for Black Americans. But nearly all the discussion in policy circles, including the Task Force’s report, presumes that racism is virtually entirely responsible for Black Americans’ difficulties.

If the Task Force wishes to facilitate lasting socioeconomic gains for Black Americans, then they must look beyond race. Asian Americans have a median household income of $86,000 per year, nearly twice as high as the median household income of Black American households, which is $44,000.

Asian Americans also earn significantly higher incomes than the median non-Hispanic White household (about $77,000), which stands in sharp contrast to the White supremacy/systemic racism narrative of the Task Force’s report.  

Hispanics’ median household income is about $56,000, 27 percent higher than that of Black households, which is notable in that employment and earning opportunities are considerably limited for the 30 percent of Hispanics in the United States who are not fluent in English.

Median household income of Black immigrants is over 30 percent higher than that of Blacks born in the United States, despite the fact that Black immigrants are much less familiar with American culture, society, and institutions than those born here.

Asian American economic gains are particularly striking for the Hmong, refugees from Laos who emigrated to the United States primarily in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Hmong came to the US having little knowledge of America or Western culture, having lived much as their ancestors had a century before.

The Hmong faced enormous hardships as they settled in the United States, including facing significant racism. The poverty rate among the Hmong was off the charts at 64 percent in 1990, compared to 14 percent for all Americans at that time. But as the Hmong have assimilated and accumulated skills relevant for the American labor market, their poverty rate declined to 17 percent recently, compared to 11 percent for all Americans and 19.5 percent for Black Americans.

In roughly 30 years, the Hmong have made huge economic gains, including a median household income of $68,000, a 52 percent homeownership rate, and a 67 percent employment rate, all of which show signs of continued progress. These statistics are all considerably higher than comparable statistics for Black Americans, statistics that sadly do not show much sign of getting better.

The economic successes of other non-White groups, including those who are severely impoverished and disadvantaged, show we can hope and indeed expect that many more Black Americans can replicate these success stories.

But the fact that they aren’t doing so means we must move beyond monocausal race-based explanations of Black American struggles. And doing so identifies several factors that policies can positively affect, with schooling on the top of the list.

Black Americans tend to have less formal education than other non-White groups, particularly Asian Americans, who attend college at a high rate (58 percent) and who also complete college at a high rate (74 percent of those attending), including those from very low-income households or whose parents did not attend college. Black Americans attend college at a much lower rate (36 percent), and only about 40 percent of those attending finish college.

Addressing this disparity would be a game changer. But it requires increasing the number of Black students who are prepared to attend and succeed at college. One step in achieving this goal is improving school quality, as Black students are often stuck in terribly performing schools which leave them unprepared to attend college.

Improving schools means expanding charter school options so families have some choice, hiring better teachers and administrators, and raising learning expectations at deficient schools, where many students fail to come close to achieving proficiency in mathematics, science, or English.

Another step is providing Black families with the tools to enhance their own children’s educations within the home, including access to high-speed internet and other learning resources, while at the same time increasing their own expectations of their children’s learning outcomes. Yet another is expanding after-school and summer programs so that learning and socialization can continue outside of the days and hours that school is in session.

But making progress on several of these fronts is next to impossible, given the existing K–12 public schoolteacher union–Democratic party nexus, a deliberately opaque morass involving hundreds of billions of tax dollars for schools, millions of dollars in political donations for friendly politicians, and a fierce protection of the overall status quo befitting such a largesse.

The Task Force’s report also recommends educational changes. But by focusing on White supremacy and racism, the Task Force reaches a remarkably different set of proposals, including the requirement of culturally relevant pedagogy, mandatory teacher anti-bias training, the elimination of racial bias in curriculum and in standardized tests ranging from the SAT to the LSAT (law school admissions) and the MCAT (medical school admissions), the creation of Black identity courses, hiring more Black teachers, and providing Blacks with free in-state college.

None of these recommendations addresses the issue of increasing the number of college-ready Black students, and I am unaware of any evidence suggesting that these changes would have any indirect benefits toward achieving this goal.

This is just one example of why the committee fails at what it has been tasked to do. The leaders of the state’s one-party system are responsible for the status quo that hurts the most vulnerable while protecting themselves and other political elites. Perhaps it is then not so surprising that the party created a Task Force that would deliver such a politically expedient narrative and set of recommendations rather than advancing ideas that would upset the state’s political apple cart—but that could do so much more for Black Americans.  

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