Learn Less, Earn Less

The Star Tribune ran a sobering and important story on Tuesday (March 20) with the headline “Black-White Gap Persists, Even in Affluent America.” It dealt with a new study by four leading researchers, including Raj Chetty, a high-profile Stanford economist who has been writing prolifically about inequality and its causes. Here’s how the article, written by Tracy Jan of the Washington Post, opens.

Virtually nowhere in America do black boys grow up to earn incomes equivalent to white boys raised in the same neighborhoods by parents with comparable wealth and education levels, according to a study released Monday that followed millions of children now in their late 30s or turning 40.

And immediately afterwards,

The disparity holds true even for black boys raised in the wealthiest families, who grew up on the same block in the same affluent community and attended the same school as their white counterparts. The findings show that race – not just parental income or neighborhood opportunities – factors into the yawning wealth gap between blacks and whites in America.

Yes, without question, “race” factors in gulfs of income and wealth and any number of other things, in various ways, and I would never suggest otherwise. Centuries of racism have tentacles. But another key study, two decades old now, that examined black-white academic disparities in the affluent community of Shaker Height, Ohio sheds acute insight on why current findings by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and their colleagues are what they are.

The late John Ogbu, a superb anthropologist at Berkeley, originally from Nigeria, was the author of that earlier study, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Student Disengagement. He had been invited by black parents in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, to spend extended time there investigating exactly why their children were performing less well than their white classmates. His central finding is made clear in the subtitle of the eventual book he wrote: black students in Shaker Heights, in the aggregate and comparatively, were disengaged academically. Ogbu rightly argued that centuries of American racism were partially implicated in nuanced, psychological ways. But he nonetheless said things like the following in a New York Times interview at the time.

“What amazed me,” Ogbu said, “is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents: they don’t know how their parents made it. They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children.”

He also said (in the words of the reporter), “[W]hile black students talked in detail about what efforts were needed to get an A and about their desire to achieve, too many nonetheless failed to put forth that effort.”

Unsurprisingly, his arguments were not without strong critics, perhaps especially since he was the first major scholar to write about how black students often didn’t work hard out of fear of being slurred as “acting white” by their peers.

Ogbu’s conclusions are about two decades old. Meaning, that many of the students he studied would now be in “their late 30s and turning 40,” the same age cohort Chetty and his colleagues are studying nationally. Might there be a connection?

Simply, starkly, and sadly put, groups (in this instance black males) tend to earn less than other groups (in this instance white males) when they learn less years earlier.