Is the Racial Wage Gap Actually Racial?
Written by Gabriel Rench on July 7, 2017
In 2015, 28% of Americans said that they were concerned about race relations. One of the biggest points of contention within race relations is the wage gap between races. The common narrative is that racial factors can lower wages and job prospects for non-‘privileged’ minorities. But we fail to consider that there may be other factors, such as personal responsibility. This distinction is so important to make because the current race-based narrative is incapable of addressing cultural issues that stem from personal choice.
There is indeed a disparity in pay between white people and minorities in the US. This is observable, quantifiable, and hard to deny. But it’s crucial to remember here that correlation does not equal causation. The central question that we need to address is what causes socioeconomic stratification between races. Do white people make more than minorities because of institutional racism?
The general consensus is that whites make more than minorities because of white privilege. I’m not going to try and address whether or not white privilege exists at all, only whether or not it is the reason for the racial wage gap. The first thing to look at is whether it’s true that minorities make less than whites. In fact, in researching the top-earning demographics in the U.S. it becomes apparent that many of the most successful groups are non-white. The top-earning demographic is Indian-American. I disagree with the assertion that certain groups are wealthier than others because of their skin color or a systemic oppression of them, and find that the true reasons for this disparity in earnings is not racial: certain cultures place a greater emphasis on education and work. It is also necessary to understand that earnings have far less to do with one’s race, and more to do with their cultural background than the standard American narrative allows.
There are essentially two types of wealthy minority groups. First, there are those who are immigrants and were wealthy in their own country, and were therefore able to more easily immigrate to the US. In this group we could class people like Indian Americans who, for example, are frequently employed in the medical field (they make up the largest non-Caucasian demographic amongst American doctors). For our purposes we’ll mostly exclude these wealthy immigrant groups, because we need to focus on the second group: market-dominant minorities (Chua, 2004).
“Market-dominant” is the way that Amy Chua describes minority groups that tend to be top-earners in whatever country they find themselves. On this list are people groups like Jews and Chinese. Her more recent book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America helps put into perspective why certain groups prosper in the United States, while others are chronically impoverished. She traces these groups’ success to three main traits: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. Note that these are cultural traits, not racial ones. Each of these traits can be found across all market-dominant minorities, from the Chinese in the Philippines to the Jews and Indians in America.
Let’s briefly break them down. Chua says that the superiority complex is important because it gives a sense of pride and confidence to these groups. For example, Jews have a common superiority complex that was forged through a shared religious history, as well as their resilience through millennia of oppressions. These market-dominant groups also share a sentiment of insecurity, which makes them feel unsure of their future in a nation. This insecurity can be based on religious, ethnic, or economic tensions with their host country, and it drives them to forego simpler pleasures in favor of hard work and thriftiness; when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, you live more carefully. And this ties into the third trait, which is impulse control. Those cultures which inculcate impulse control and emphasize moderation tend to see more long-term prosperity.
Proceeding with this “triple package” framework in mind, we can apply it to modern American earnings by demographic. If white privilege in a predominantly white country determines how wealth is divvied up in America, we would expect to see non-whites habitually reaping the least from our economic system. But that is not what we see at all. As a matter of fact, we see that race alone plays a negligible role in lifetime earnings. For example, Nigerian-Americans make about twice as much as their African-American neighbors who are not Nigerian. A measure of this can be attributed to the fact that they are likely coming to America with already sizeable wealth. But part would surely be due to the fact that Nigerians are united by a superiority complex deriving from their entrepreneurial Igbo heritage.
Topping out the list of high-earners, nearly half-of those who make more than white Americans are minorities. White Americans come in somewhere around 60th, making around $57,000 per household annually.
As I mentioned earlier, many immigrant groups are wealthy because they come to the United States already affluent. But groups like Jews or Chinese (or for a domestic example, we can look at the Mormons, who also are classed as market-dominant minorities) tend to build generational wealth. That is because prosperity is at least partially a learnable trait.
This isn’t meant to be a diatribe against groups that say that they are disadvantaged; many groups in our country do start with significant disadvantages. But we should blame the right things. If a group is habitually impoverished (like African Americans or some Hispanic communities in the US), it’s easy to point the finger at a nebulous system and say “The Man is keeping them down.” It’s much harder to accept that certain cultures simply fail to inculcate the three traits that lead to prosperity. Some of these groups teach one or two of them, while failing to get the “triple package.”
As Christians (and postmillennial Christians at that!) we should want to see all people lead successful lives just as we want that for ourselves (Luke 6:31). Unfortunately, our narrative of wealth being distributed upon racial lines leaves us unable to address the real problems. If poor groups are to really improve their standing, they need to structure that the Gospel provides. This is not to say that the Gospel is aimed at producing wealth, but simply that sins like premarital sex, drug use, and wild fiscal irresponsibility lead to the generational poverty we see much more than workplace discrimination.
This sort of “triple package” framework gives us the ability to see at once that some groups do have it harder, and that it’s not necessarily the fault of “white privilege” or some other scapegoat. As Christ’s Kingdom advances, so will the personal responsibility that we all need to build a stable and prosperous lifestyle for generations to come.
Chua, Amy. 2004. World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. New York: Anchor Books.
Chua, Amy, and Jed Rubenfeld. 2015. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. New York, New York: Penguin Books.