The rising tide of political correctness has thwarted honest discussion about the centrality of culture in shaping life outcomes. That cultures vary widely in their prioritization of education, family, and vocation has become an unspeakable proposition on the left. The reaction to a recent John McWhorter column in the New York Times that argued against abolishing social-work licensing tests on grounds of racially disparate results is a case in point. The commentary drew accusations of racism from author Ibram X. Kendi, who interpreted McWhorter’s recognition of cultural differences across race as his arguing that “there’s something wrong and inferior about Black culture.”

The taboo against acknowledging that cultural variations affect individual outcomes was not always so strong on the left. In 2013, for example, CNN news anchor Don Lemon did a whole segment identifying behavioral pathologies in black inner-city communities. “Finish school . . . Stop telling kids they’re acting white,” Lemon said. Barack Obama made a similar point at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.

Award-winning Harvard economist and Manhattan Institute fellow Roland Fryer investigated this phenomenon in his 2006 research paper “Acting White: The Social Price Paid by the Best and the Brightest Minority Students.” He found the stigma of “acting white” potentially accounts, respectively, for 32 percent and 36 percent of the black-white and Hispanic-white test score gap among high-achieving students. “My analysis confirms that acting white is a vexing reality within a subset of American schools,” Fryer wrote. Several studies reinforce Fryer’s findings. An NYU study found that high-IQ blacks described their childhoods as “extremely unhappy” significantly more often than other blacks.

But as Fryer has pointed out, culture has to come from somewhere. Complex cultural findings such as “acting white” are entangled in societal forces. In The Atlantic, McWhorter argues that the “acting white” phenomenon is a product of historical racism. In the 1950s and 1960s, black kids were integrated into white-majority classrooms, where many white teachers and students alike viewed them as inferior and incapable of academic success. Black students consequently began to disdain high achievement and “white” education standards, such as speaking standard grammatical English. Though racist attitudes toward black kids in schools appear to be in long-term retreat, the cultural phenomenon of “acting white” has persisted.

In the 1990s, UC–Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu examined the causal underpinnings of black academic underachievement in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. He concluded that culture, not economic inequality, accounted for most of the black-white education gap. Central to his findings were the stark disparities in achievement between whites and blacks of similar financial backgrounds. “No matter how you reform schools, it’s not going to solve the problem,” Ogbu told the New York Times in a 2002 interview. “There are two parts of the problem, society and schools on one hand and the black community on the other hand.”

Ogbu’s critics argued that racially disparate treatment of students could explain these disparities. Perhaps black students were disproportionately mistreated and whites were favored. This assumption doesn’t explain why the children of black immigrants significantly outperform third-generation (or later) black students. According to a 2012 study by Jesse J. Tauriac and Joan H. Liem that examined disparate academic outcomes of U.S.-origin and immigrant-origin black undergraduate students, only 42 percent of U.S.-origin blacks interviewed in 1998 had pursued college as of 2002, compared with 68 percent of immigrant-origin blacks. A 1999 study found that black immigrants entering college made up 27 percent of black freshmen, an over-representation of more than double their share in the black population (13 percent). A 2007 study found that 41 percent of black first-year students at Ivy League universities were immigrants or the children of immigrants. These disparities persist today, with Nigerian-Americans, for example, attaining disproportionately high educational outcomes.

Several variables likely contribute to the greater success of black immigrants relative to native-born African-Americans. About half of black immigrant adults (48 percent) are married, a rate virtually identical to that of the U.S. population as a whole (50 percent); only 28 percent of U.S.-born black adults are married. Marital status strongly correlates with economic success. Immigration selection factors also play a role in these disparities. For instance, the level of post-secondary education among black immigrants is 7 percent higher than among U.S.-born blacks. But when researchers Charles A. Gallagher, Camille Z. Charles, and others controlled for black students’ social origins, academic backgrounds, and pre-collegiate experiences, they still found large disparities. Second-generation African and Caribbean black students were twice as likely as U.S.-origin black students to attend the most elite universities.

A compelling illustration of culture’s role in determining outcomes occurred in 1987, when prominent black philanthropist George Weiss offered 112 sixth-graders from West Philadelphia a fully funded post-secondary education if they did not use drugs, commit crimes, or have children out of wedlock. Weiss invested a host of resources in these inner-city kids, including after-school programs, tutors, and counselors. But his venture produced only 20 university graduates—along with 20 felons. Forty-five of the 112 children in the program didn’t graduate high school, and more than half the female participants had kids by the age of 18, producing 63 children. Cultural norms and behaviors outweighed the economic incentives Weiss provided. External motivations can do only so much to address fundamental problems—even if those problems are historically rooted in external factors like past or present racial oppression.

The high rate of fatherlessness in black communities is another increasingly taboo discussion. Over 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, far higher than in any other racial group. The social science correlating fatherlessness with criminal behavior is overwhelming. A famous study conducted on juvenile delinquency in 2002 at UC–Santa Barbara concluded that “the most critical factor affecting the prospect that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of his father in the home.”

Sadly, the single-parent-family rate among black Americans has hovered at about 65 percent for the past decade. Non-Hispanic whites have a rate of 24 percent, and Asian-Americans have the lowest rate, at 15 percent. It’s notable that single-parent households and illegitimacy weren’t always so common in the black community. The percentage of births to unmarried black women rose from 35 percent in 1970 to 54 percent in 2014, which tracks with the expansion of the black-white wealth gap, suggesting possible correlative significance.

For people of any race, fatherlessness strongly correlates with a multitude of adverse outcomes: drug abuse, suicide, early sexual activity, and teen pregnancy. In fact, 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes, and 71 percent of all high school dropouts grow up without a father. Children raised without a father are four times more likely to be impoverished than children with a father. When it comes to crime, fatherlessness and criminal behavior go hand in hand. In their longitudinal study “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan found that “controlling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.” Eighty-five percent of young men in prison came from fatherless households. As Rob Henderson has observed, “every one percent increase in fatherlessness in a neighborhood predicts a 3 percent increase in adolescent violence.”

Progressives commonly point to the high incarceration and violent-crime commission rates in the black community as evidence of “systemic racism” or the “effects of slavery and Jim Crow.” Systemic racial oppression, the argument runs, has helped to lock the black community into a vicious circle of poverty and criminality. But many data points don’t fit this narrative. Incarceration rates didn’t start ballooning until the 1970s. Between 1975 and 1979, the imprisonment risk for black men was 26.8 percent, sharply higher than the rate between 1945 and 1949, when it was only 10.4 percent. Put another way, the black incarceration rate rose from 1,313 per 100,000 in 1960 to 4,347 per 100,000 in 2010 (though incarceration rates have declined since the late 1990s). The systemic-racism theory would make more sense had black crime rates peaked—or at least been very high—during the height of racial oppression. But, as criminologist Barry Latzer notes, that isn’t the case:

Black homicide rates were about the same as white homicide rates during slavery. They frequently were higher in the North than in the more oppressive South throughout the 20th century. And they hit new peaks in the late 1960s, a time when whites supported the most sweeping civil-rights legislation in American history.

Unless the effects of slavery and Jim Crow disappeared for a few generations and arbitrarily resurfaced during a decade marked by massive civil rights gains, the link between anti-black racism and crime is tenuous. One way to test the impact of “systemic racism” concerning incarceration rates is to compare incarceration rates between two socioeconomically similar black groups. In an interview with The Atlantic, Latzer said:

The cultural explanation for violence is superior to explanations that rest [on] poverty or racism, however, because it can account for the differentials in the violent crime rates of groups with comparable adversities. My favorite illustration of this is the Haitian situation in 1980s Miami. Here was a group of black people coming to the US illegally in makeshift boats. They had a brutal history of slavery, and were illiterate in English, impoverished, and unwelcome. Yet their violent crime rates were much lower than those of African Americans living in the same city in the same time period. If cultural differences don’t explain this, then what does?

The speculated causes of the disproportionate crime rates in the black community come back to issues such as the rising number of single-parent households in the 1960s (encouraged by the massive expansion of welfare to single mothers). Thomas Sowell has also theorized that Southern blacks adopted the honor culture of Southern whites and then carried it into the North during the Great Migration, along with illiteracy and unemployment. Northern states were populated by a more sophisticated set of English migrants, whereas the South was populated by Englishman from more antisocial cultures. This is perhaps why, in early twentieth-century Pennsylvania, the Southern black crime rate was five times higher than that among Northern-born blacks.

Despite the correlative findings of fatherlessness, “acting white,” and other cultural norms, there is much hope. The “success sequence,” popularized by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill’s famous study at the Brookings Institution, illustrates the universality of positive cultural norms. The researchers found that a person is virtually guaranteed to avoid poverty if they follow three basic rules: graduate from high school, work full-time, and do not have children outside of marriage (in that order). Ninety-eight percent of those who follow this rule escape poverty; 76 percent of those who do not are poor. Seventy-five percent of those who adhere to these rules attain middle-class status. The authors draw an astonishing conclusion: “the poverty rate among families with children could be lowered by 71 percent if the poor completed high school, worked full-time, married, and had no more than two children.” These data show the importance of personal responsibility, irrespective of race, gender, class, and even nationality. In Canada (where I live), a study conducted by the Fraser Institute found that over 99 percent of Canadians who adopted the success sequence did not live in poverty.

To say that culture matters is not to say that history, lingering racism, funding disparities, lack of school choice, broad inequities, or high-crime environments do not. Nevertheless, the findings I have canvassed here suggest that culture is a bigger factor than we think, and that existing structural or individual barriers that black Americans confront are not insurmountable. History shows us that black Americans can overcome deep-rooted problems, whether internal or external. In 1910 and 1930, black unemployment was lower than that of whites; from 1890 through 1930, yearly labor-force participation rates for blacks were higher or roughly equal to those of whites. In 1960, less than a century after slavery was abolished in the United States, 78 percent of black children were raised in two-parent families—a rate much higher than the current American average (68 percent) and even slightly higher than the percentage of white children being raised in two-parent families today (77 percent).

Further, every year from 1890 to 1940, black marriage rates were higher than those of whites. Blacks were overrepresented in prisons in 1920, but less so than today, (Blacks were 9.2 percent of the male population in 1920 and 35.2 percent of prisoners; in 2010, blacks were 10.4 percent of the U.S. male population and 53.6 percent of male prisoners.) The homicide rate for black men declined by 18 percent in the 1940s and another 22 percent in the following decade. Over the same period, the black poverty rate fell by 40 percent, and black incomes grew at faster rates than white incomes. These relatively positive outcomes occurred despite the individual and systematic racial oppression that then prevailed—a testament to black resiliency.

Whether from the left or the right, we tend to hear only bad news when it comes to the black community. But this distorts the reality. As Coleman Hughes has noted, black Americans have innovated new musical forms: blues, jazz, hip-hop, and spoken word are all genres that black artists have pioneered and in which they continue to thrive today. And the most successful musicians since the 1990s have been disproportionately black. According to Billboard analyst Alvin Booker, a successful musician from the 2010s was about twice as likely to be black as the average American (25 percent and 13.2 percent, respectively). The most popular music genre in 2018 and 2019 was hip-hop. In 2018, Kendrick Lamar, a black rapper, became the first non-classical and non-jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. Lamar is well-known for creating epic narrative albums re-telling classic biblical stories in the context of his own life dodging bullets and surviving the crime-infested ghettos of Compton, California.

Simplistic definitions of “white privilege” or “racial oppression” do not explain why those who have attained peak success in music happen to be black, and why Asians or Jews, for example, have not. But many apply this logic in reverse: the fact that blacks are under-represented in STEM (and Asians are overrepresented) is supposedly evidence of systemic racism in the sciences that warrants #ShutDownStem efforts.

Culture is also a plausible explanation, at least in part, for why female African immigrants’ income growth rate has eclipsed that of U.S.-born men and women, according to a University of Michigan study. The study also found that black female immigrants from Africa saw a 130 percent rise in earnings between 1990 and 2010. Such statistics challenge the “intersectional” assumption that black immigrant women suffer from at least three oppression variables.

The fluctuation of racial disparities and cultural norms over time is complex. As critical measures such as income, graduation rates, and test scores have stagnated in the black community over the past few decades, we must consider other factors besides racism. White racism cannot entirely explain a whole litany of modern-day problems facing the black community, such as academic underachievement, teen pregnancies, disproportionate homicide rates, and chronic fatherlessness. The overwhelming success of black immigrants, black women specifically, and blacks as a whole in the music industry, professional sports, and even policing suggests that black potential is not eternally doomed or reliant on rescue.

If conservatives downplay racial inequality, progressives today neglect personal responsibility and culture in shaping racial disparities. Virtually all of the topics that Lemon mentioned in his commentary are now off-limits in public discussion because of fear of “blaming the victim” and pathologizing a whole group of people. Understandable as these concerns may be, it is counterproductive and crude to chalk everything up to “the system” and “structural dynamics of racism.” Misdiagnosing a problem or narrowing analysis so that findings confirm ideological biases does nothing to remedy inequality.

Photo: exopixel/iStock


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next