J. Peder Zane

A false narrative on race and gender debunked

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, center, signs a measure at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on March 21 that seeks to reduce the wage gap between men and women and provide equal growth opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, center, signs a measure at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on March 21 that seeks to reduce the wage gap between men and women and provide equal growth opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace. AP

It’s long past time to reject the false, divisive narrative about race and gender we have been telling ourselves.

This story, rooted in the grim history of slavery and Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears and exclusionary immigration laws, holds that America remains an irredeemably racist nation that judges people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.

Sadly and dangerously, this outdated narrative has continued to gain traction in recent years even though almost all the evidence has debunked it. Even as we welcome ever more foreign-born people to our shores, we are told that something called white nationalism is on the rise. Even as minorities enjoy more rights and better living standards, we’re told that something called white supremacy is ascendant. Even as women account for about 60 percent of college graduates and much of the wage gap has been shown to result from social dynamics rather than discrimination, we’re told of a so-called war on women led by something called the patriarchy.

This false narrative about race and gender was discredited again last week by researchers at Stanford and Harvard. Using census data, IRS tax returns and other data, they examined how race affects economic mobility — defined as the ability to do better or worse than one’s parents; to rise or fall from where one started. By and large they found that race is not determinative.

The New York Times, which partnered with the researchers, reported that “the gap between Hispanics and whites is narrower, and their incomes will converge within a couple of generations if mobility stays the same. Asian-Americans earn more than whites raised at the same income level, or about the same when first-generation immigrants are excluded.”

What’s more, the study found that black women “earn slightly more than white women” from comparable families. Black women also have higher college attendance rates than white men who come from comparable families.

Thus, for Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and African-American women, skin color — which is the basis of racism — is not predictive of success.

Let that sink in.

These significant findings did not receive much attention in coverage of the study which focused on the one aspect that might support the false narrative of race: the stiff challenges faced by black men. The researchers found that “in 99 percent of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys who grow up in families with comparable income.”

The Times also reported “that black men raised in the top 1 percent — by millionaires — were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000.”

This has profound implications for black families, the researchers report: “The black-white income gap is entirely driven by differences in men’s, not women’s outcomes.”

The researchers do not say why black men experience such negative outcomes — as do American Indians, whose distinctive history and challenges are shamefully ignored in our national discourse. The answers are complex and almost certainly involve the legacy of racism and perceptions of black masculinity.

But this study, which dovetails with findings of a Brookings Institution study, suggests those are not the primary impediments to mobility. No doubt many black men are facing the same challenges encountered by most working class American men. The prevalence of single-parent families and the absence of fathers in black families — which has a far greater negative effect on boys than girls — is also important.

These problems start early. Echoing national statistics, the N&O reported that “last year, blacks made up 23.5 percent of Wake [County’s] 159,549 students, but they accounted for 61 percent of all suspensions in pre-K through fifth grade.”

Most of these suspensions were for “fighting or other physical aggression.”

It should also be stated that the vast majority of African-American students are not troublemakers. The challenge is not to paint all members of a group with a broad brush, but to identify and address those children with special needs — as the Wake school board wants to do by hiring more school psychologists, counselors and social workers.

There will be disparities. But this new study offers further evidence that race and gender matter less and less in modern America even though we talk about them more and more.

This reductionism — seeing complex challenges through the simple lens of identity politics — is false and divisive. We can do better.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.