Throughout American history, immigrants and minorities have had two primary pathways to success.
By JOEL KOTKIN / Staff columnist
Opinion, The Orange County Register, January 10, 2016 — In presidential election years, it is natural to see our political leaders also as the brokers of our economic salvation. Some, such as columnist Harold Meyerson, long have embraced politics as a primary lever of upward mobility for minorities. He has positively contrasted the rise of Latino politicians in California, and particularly Los Angeles, with the relative dearth of top Latino office-holders in heavily Hispanic Texas. In Los Angeles, he notes, political activism represents the “biggest game in town” while, in Houston, he laments, politics takes second place to business interests and economic growth.
In examining the economic and social mobility of ethnic groups across the country, however, the politics-first strategy has shown limited effectiveness. Latinos, for example, have dramatically increased their elected representatives nationally since the 1990s, particularly in California. But both Latinos and African Americans continue to move to, and appear to do better in, the more free-market, politically conservative states, largely in the South.
Two Paths to Success
Throughout American history, immigrants and minorities have had two primary pathways to success. One, by using the political system, seeks to redirect resources to a particular group and also to protect it from majoritarian discrimination, something particularly necessary in the case of the formerly enslaved African Americans.
The other approach, generally less well-covered, has defined social uplift through such things as education, hard work and familial values. This path was embraced by early African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Today, the most successful ethnic groups – Koreans, Middle Easterners, Jews, Greeks and Russians – demonstrate the validity of this method through high levels of both entrepreneurial and educational achievement.
How today’s racial minorities achieve upward mobility has never been more important. Today, Latinos, together with African Americans and Asians, constitute 43 percent of the combined population in the country’s 52 largest metropolitan areas, up from 35 percent in 2000. By 2050, ethnic minorities are expected to constitute close to a majority of the country’s population. As minorities become majorities, too much reliance on racial redress and wealth redistribution will put enormous stress on the economic system and social order.
Temptations of Politics
Conditions vary, and, for some groups, particularly the larger ones, temptation remains to turn growing numbers into political power. African Americans have employed their numbers and political solidarity to achieve considerable electoral success, particularly at the municipal level. The election of Barack Obama as president stands as the supreme achievement of the African American political community.
But has triumph at the top of the political pyramid translated into true gains at the grass-roots level? From 2007-13, African Americans have experienced a 9 percent drop in incomes, far worse than the 6 percent decline for the rest of the population. In 2013, African American unemployment remained twice that of whites, and, according to the Urban League, the black middle class has conceded many of the gains made over the past 30 years. Concentrated urban poverty – on the decline in the booming 1990s – now appears to be growing.
This contradicts the idea that politically achieved generous welfare and subsidy regimes hold the key to ethnic uplift. African Americans, in fact, often do worse in many of the cities – Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago – that have been exemplars of black political power and redistributionist politics.
Conditions are not much better in the generally more prosperous coastal glamour towns, where progressive racial politics remain sacrosanct. Black households in New York have incomes of roughly $43,000, about the same as much as much less-costly Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and major Texas cities.
One possible explanation lies in economic transitions – accelerated by tough regulations – that have seen the demise of higher-paying blue-collar jobs that provided opportunities in the past. The rapid shift to an economy centered around high-end business services and tech enterprises has left many behind. Silicon Valley’s African Americans and Hispanics make up roughly one-third of the population but are barely 5 percent of employees in top Silicon Valley firms.
The biggest beneficiaries of political success has not been working families but members of President Obama’s heavily African American inner circle, as well as politically adept cliques at the state and local level. Bourgeois African Americans in politics, the arts and media enjoy more influence than ever at the top, but the grass-roots level confronts street level crime, rising levels of black dissatisfaction and white resentment.
Where are things better?
In a recent study for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org), demographer Wendell Cox and I tried to identify the U.S. locales with the best economic conditions for African Americans and other racial minorities. The surprising answer: the old Confederacy. In ranking our top 15 areas for African Americans – based on incomes, homeownership, migration patterns and entrepreneurial activity – 13 were in the South, while the others, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are in historic border areas.
In the Great Migration, from 1910-70, 6 million African Americans moved from the South to the North, notably to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, as well as to California. Now the migration pattern has changed dramatically. From 2000-13, the African American populations of Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Orlando, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Raleigh, N.C., Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and San Antonio grew by close to or above 40 percent, or higher, versus an average of 27 percent for the 52 metropolitan areas.
In contrast, the African American population actually dropped in five critically important large metros that once were beacons for black progress: San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.
Latinos at a crossroad
Like African Americans, Latinos also are moving to places with lower costs and greater opportunities. For Latinos, now the nation’s largest ethnic minority, nine of the top 13 places are cities wholly or partially within the old Confederacy. The majority of newcomers to the South, notes a recent Pew study, are classic first-wave immigrants: young, 57 percent foreign born and not well-educated. “You go where the opportunities are,” explains Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.
The contrast is revealing between the two leading Latino megastates: hyperprogressive California and right-leaning Texas. The Lone Star state’s Latino population continues to grow rapidly, expanding since 2000 by 68 percent in Houston, 70 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth and 83 percent in Austin. In contrast, Los Angeles saw a relatively meager 15 percent Latino expansion.
The one place in California that has seen rapid Latino growth combined with the best economic performance is the most Texas-like region in the state: Riverside-San Bernardino, where the Latino population has expanded by 74 percent since 2000.
These migration figures reflect diverging realities. Start with a Latino poverty rate that, adjusted for cost of living, reaches more than 33 percent in California versus 22.7 percent in Texas. Using a host of key social indicators – marriage rate, church attendance and welfare dependency – Latinos also seem to do much better in the Lone Star State than here.
Surprisingly, the educational performance gap between Latino students and whites is much larger in California than in the nation, while significantly lower in Texas, which spends considerably less per pupil.
But perhaps the greatest distinction is found in housing. In cities like Houston, a majority of Latinos and some 40 percent of African Americans own their homes. Those rates are, on average, 25 percent to 30 percent lower in Los Angeles, as well as in deep-blue cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston.
Homeownership, like education, long has been critical to upward mobility. As a recent report by the liberal think tank Demos indicates, much of the “ethnic wealth gap” – white households with wealth more than 10 times their Latino or African American counterparts – comes from differing home ownership rates.
Lesson for minorities?
It may be tempting for minorities in California and other blue regions to continue demanding their “rights” and investing their hopes in transfer payments, housing subsidies, energy credits and affirmative action to improve their day-to-day lives. But this reliance likely won’t turn them into a new upwardly mobile middle class. To rise up, minorities need to demand economic and housing policies that don’t simply alleviate poverty but put more people on the road to overcoming it.
Staff opinion columnist Joel Kotkin is R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University. He is executive editor of www.newgeography.com and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.