We must talk about why some minorities lag behind
August 22, 2006
It is hard for this old civil rights attorney to be called a “racist,” but some recent comments of mine on minority underperformance kicked up a firestorm of criticism. This hurt, but there are important issues involved, and America needs to talk frankly about its problems. It is unfortunate that political correctness, a liberal orthodoxy, prevents us from openly discussing what’s important.Partly out of the fear of offending Hispanics, for example, the environmental community has avoided tackling the issue of immigration. The Census Bureau projects, under current immigration rates, a billion Americans by the end of this century. I suggest that there is no happy scenario for America’s environment without addressing the mass immigration that is now the chief cause of America’s population growth. Ironically, polls show a majority of Hispanics oppose illegal immigration, so this timidity is unnecessary.A similar issue on which political correctness retards debate is minority underperformance. The growing percentage that African-Americans and Hispanics make up of our population demands that this discussion not be put off. America is not producing the skills, talents and educational achievement in its young people to keep us competitive in a global world. Meanwhile, we are fast growing a Hispanic underclass, not having fully solved the problems of the first underclass.Let me suggest, respectfully and sympathetically, that much of the future progress of African-Americans and Hispanics lies within their own efforts and control. We must unblinkingly look at the total problem of why we are losing so many of these kids. As controversial as it is, that includes looking at the emerging issue of culture, defined by scholars as the combination of values, attitudes, beliefs and assumptions prevalent in a society or a subgroup of that society. Just as individual traits partly determine the success of an individual, so also do the collective traits of a country or subgroup partly determine the success of that group. All cultures are entitled to understanding and respect, but all cultures do not produce equal results. Culture is the opposite of race, for it looks at all the non-genetic reasons that people act as they do.It is easier to talk about culture when we define characteristics that lead to overachievement. The highest family incomes in America are all minorities who have been discriminated against. Japanese-Americans, Jews, Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans all out-earn white Americans. None of these groups had it easy here, and all faced discrimination and racism. Discrimination and racism are social cancers and can never be justified, but it is enlightening that, for these groups, they were a hurdle but not a barrier to success.The Italians, the Irish, the people from the Balkans – America has viewed all these groups and many more with hostility and suspicion – yet all have integrated and succeeded. Hispanic organizations excuse their failure rates solely in terms of discrimination by white America, and they objected vociferously when former Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos (himself a Hispanic) observed that Hispanic parents “don’t take enough interest in education.” But Cuban-Americans have come to America and succeeded brilliantly. Do we discriminate against Hispanics from Mexico but not Hispanics from Cuba?Most of our Spanish-speaking immigrants come from failing countries and failing economies. With the possible exception of Chile, there is not an economically sound nor socially mobile country south of our border. Spain and Portugal failed to leave successful institutions or cultures in their colonialist wake, and the “cultural capital” of these societies has not produced successful countries. It is not surprising that immigrants from these places bring some of those negative cultural traits with them.Elsewhere in the world, a dialogue has begun that goes beyond blaming others. Yet in our own country, white America is often intimidated from voicing an opinion on the subject of minority underperformance. At some point in our recent past, this reluctance made white Americans co-dependants to minority failure. There is a “soft racism of lowered expectations,” where a majority of Americans too often have come to excuse and even to expect lower performances from minority America.Racism was a valid excuse in my youth, because no matter their talents, minorities were discriminated against and excluded from participating in American society. But the vestiges of racism left in our society are now more of a hurdle than a barrier. Today, the emphasis on “minorities as victims” is self-defeating. It allows minorities themselves to excuse low performance even when discrimination is not the cause. We must now broaden the dialogue, because the unmentionable has become unavoidable.Richard D. Lamm is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a public policy professor at the University of Denver and a former Democratic governor of Colorado.