By: William Darity
I frequently hear the following canard used to support the claim that black Americans are their own worst enemy: Other ethnic groups come to America and within one or two generations have climbed solidly into the American middle class – and they do it on their own. So, if they can do it, then black Americans should be able to do so as well. If black Americans don’t do so, then it must be because of lack of motivation, insufficient unity, and the embrace of self-defeating behaviors.
But the narrative of immigrant upward mobility is misleading at best and false at worst.
First, all immigrant groups do not achieve economic success in the United States. The back-handed compliment of “model minority” status is not applied to all folk who migrate here. For example, the Dominican experience in the USA is not characterized by exceptional material success; indeed, author Junot Diaz’s works, including his remarkable Pulitzer prize winning novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, explore that community’s struggles with poverty, stigmatization, and discrimination after reaching the American Promised Land. A number of other immigrant communities including the Hmong, the Vietnamese, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans tend to remain at the lower end of the American income and wealth distribution.
Second, those immigrant communities that are doing well display more evidence of lateral mobility than upward mobility in the United States. Lateral mobility involves regaining the relative status position that the group possessed in their country of origin. Because incomes generally are higher in the United States, by acquiring a similar class position to the one they held in their home country they have a greater capacity to provide a life of affluence for themselves and support relatives in the home country.
At base, the “successful” or “model minority” immigrant groups in the US enter the country with more financial resources and more education than the average American. East Indian immigrants, whose numbers include many who have a prominent place in Silicon Valley, typically come from the upper classes (and castes) of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and already hold advanced educational credentials upon arrival. Economist Timothy Bates once estimated that, on average, the highly educated immigrants from Korea entered the US with more than $150,000. Recent immigrants from the African continent also are among the most highly educated groups in the US; close to 50 percent hold college degrees. Nevertheless, they do not get an economic payoff comparable to that of white immigrants with similar levels of education because of racial discrimination, although they typically obtain higher incomes here than they would in their countries of origin.
The affluence of Japanese Americans, the first group to be labeled a “model minority”, can be attributed to three tiers of selectivity in their immigrant history. Sociologist Kiyoshi Ikeda and economist Masao Suzuki have shown that (1) the initial wave of immigrants in the early 20th the Japanese government and consisted disproportionately of former farm owners (rather than farm laborers) and were comparatively literate, (2) that the least economically successful immigrants were the most likely to return to Japan, and (3) that the most economically successful male immigrants were the best positioned to import brides from Japan and start families that gave the first generation born in the USA relatively affluent beginnings.
Third, some of the groups that constitute immigrant “success” stories also are beneficiaries of special assistance from the US government in addition to bringing high levels of human and/or financial capital with them to this country. Sociologist Tamara Nopper has highlighted the special support given to Cubans when the fled their country in the aftermath of the 1959 Revolution and the special credit arrangements subsidized by the Small Business Administration on behalf of Korean immigrants.
The narrative of immigrant upward mobility is a myth that needs to be discarded. A better understanding of the conditions that lead to greater economic affluence for some immigrant communities and less economic affluence for others will give us a richer picture of how the US economy sorts people between rich and poor. Hopefully, that, in turn, will help us identify better ways to address American inequality.