Ladders of Opportunity: Why Some Groups Succeed Faster

Almost every American supports the proposition that no individual ought to be denied the right to a job, an education, to vote, or to any of the other privileges of citizenship because of his race, color, religion, or sex. Indeed, the civil rights laws of the 1960s were passed to bring the nation’s laws into overdue balance with the ideals embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

For most of our nation’s history, black Americans were denied the most minimal rights of citizenship. In the South most blacks were first slaves, then third-class citizens; those who lived in the North, though possessed of nominal freedom, were often denied the right to vote, the chance to secure a decent education, and otherwise relegated to the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy.

After the Reconstruction era, most of the southern states passed laws whose explicit purpose was to exclude blacks from public life and take away whatever economic power and social freedom remained in their hands. White primaries, poll taxes, and literacy tests effectively barred almost all blacks from voting in these states, while laws mandating segregation in public services and accommodations resulted in inferior or no services for blacks who needed medical care, police and fire protection, or who wanted to attend the same schools or travel across town. In addition, laws were passed severely restricting the right of blacks to own property and to secure credit to start a business, while deep-rooted prejudice prevented even the most educated and highly skilled blacks from being employed in anything other than menial and degrading jobs.

Most of these laws were upheld by a Supreme Court that was, along with the rest of the country, weary of racial and sectional conflict. One of the most notorious of these laws mandated segregation in transportation; it was upheld by the Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

These laws and customs, sanctioned by the courts and by public opinion, would remain the mainstay of southern political and social life for the next 68 years until Lyndon Johnson, ironically a southerner himself, presided over the passage of the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in our history.

Unlike the earlier, post-Reconstruction legislation in the states, these laws were comprehensive and gave the federal government unprecedented powers to interfere in the political and social lives of the states. They were also held to be constitutional. These laws slowly shattered the one-party white supremacist South and the institutions that undergirded it. The changes that took place were remarkable. Blacks began to vote and win office in unprecedented numbers.

All these changes were to the good. The early civil rights movement was noble and necessary; it forced the nation to redress deeply rooted injustices and bring black Americans into the mainstream of our national life. Yet during the past decade, many leaders who claim to speak for minority groups and women have been insisting that equality of opportunity is no longer enough to insure equity in allocating the goods of society.

These advocates claim that racism and sexism are so institutionally entrenched in our national life that the only way to prevent invidious discrimination is to make sure that all groups are represented in the institutions of society according to their exact proportion of the total population.

This proportional representation, simply put, would mean that if 12 percent of the population is black, for example, then 12 percent of the nation’s engineers should be black. Proponents of this scheme believe that traditional standards of judgment, such as standardized tests used in college admissions and job placement, are biased against minorities. In this view, statistical disparities between groups automatically prove, not disparity, but bias.

What About Tests?

Much controversy has surrounded the use of standardized tests. Some say that such tests are distorted in that they do not adequately measure the skills and abilities that are essential to success at work and in school. It is also true that some intelligent people simply do not do well on tests. Einstein is a perfect example of a supremely gifted individual whose gifts were not evident by the results of his tests. But for all their imperfections, tests do, to a surprisingly reasonable degree, measure important skills and knowledge.

The abilities to read, write, and reason are some of the most important skills for all citizens to acquire if they are going to be successful as wage earners and as citizens. Tests do a good job of measuring mastery of these skills when they are designed properly and administered fairly. As Thomas Sowell says, “Everyone needs to be competent in these areas, and instead of calling for the abolition of tests students should be forced to study harder and teachers and parents should be forced to help better prepare students to acquire the knowledge to pass such tests instead of shouting racism and discrimination.”

Similarly, the notion that minorities are victims of discrimination that can only be remedied by proportional representation flies in the face of what we know about the history of ethnic groups. The experience of Jews and Chinese is instructive in this regard. Both groups have experienced political and economic discrimination. Jews were driven from Spain, Russia, and Poland, among other nations they migrated to. They were often denied the right to own property and to practice many trades. Chinese were also subject to mistreatment in this country, as well as in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia.

Yet both groups became among the most successful in those nations, despite the barriers placed in their way. The Jews acted as money brokers and as small-scale merchants who peddled essential household goods, while the Chinese were often employed in small family enterprises such as fruit farming, tailoring, and domestic service.

There was nothing inevitable about the success of the Jews and Chinese. They succeeded because even in societies that discriminated, they possessed skills and provided services that were in great demand. They also succeeded because they cultivated the virtues of self-discipline and stable family life that enabled them to take advantage of the opportunities that were open to them.

Both groups placed a premium on education as the key to future mobility and saw the strength and resilience of strong families as a means of imposing discipline, obligation, and restraint on their children.

In America the same rules applied. Jews began to prosper within a generation after they arrived in the 1880s. The rise of the Jews to prominence was remarkable. They became conspicuous in education, manufacturing, law, medicine, and entertainment. Twenty-five percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jews, as are about a third of the faculty at our most prestigious universities. Would anyone seriously argue that this over-representation, which necessarily means other groups are under-represented, should be remedied by firing Jewish professors and refusing further Nobels to Jews? Yet what else can proportional representation mean?

As Sowell points out in Ethnic America, his excellent study of ethnic history, Jews also have the highest income level of all ethnic groups in America. Using 100 as the median income, Jews rank 172 on the scale, and they do so because they are heavily concentrated in professions that require high levels of education, many years of preparation in order to achieve superior competence, and also large financial investment to secure that training.

Moreover, the skills that these professions require are not possessed by many individuals, which puts a premium on the status and money that society is willing to bestow on those who do possess such skills.

Asian-Americans are also very successful. Although they make up about three percent of the total population, they received no less than 44 percent of the science degrees awarded by American colleges in the past decade. Asians make up nine percent of the population of California but account for over 30 percent of the students in that state’s most demanding universities. They are over-represented in engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as math, but far less so in the fields of education, social science, and the humanities. (Are they being discriminated against in those areas?) Their incomes are well above the national average, with a rank of 142. They also score highest on SAT tests at an average of 1250, compared to 950 for blacks, 1020 for Hispanics, and 1120 for whites.

All in all a superb performance for a group that was among the most despised and badly treated as late as a half-century ago, and a strong rebuttal to the belief that minorities cannot succeed in the American economy and polity.

Proportional Folly

The proponents of proportional representation are also wrong when they assume that disparities in income and occupational distribution are always the result of discrimination. Students of ethnic history insist that career choices are usually based on family background, environment, cultural values and, above all, conscious choices based on skills and interests.

Given the vagaries of human nature as well as the changing needs of the marketplace, ethnic groups simply will not distribute themselves equally in every field, even if they could do so. Moreover, if proportional representation schemes were enforced, they would deny educational and job opportunities to persons with superior qualifications in favor of lesser qualified individuals, all for the sake of “equalizing opportunity.”

For example, suppose a professional basketball team composed entirely of black players was subject to proportional representation. The manager of that team would have to forego the services of some of his skilled players in order to make way for poorer players selected merely on the basis of ethnicity. A team selected solely on that basis, without regard to athletic merit, would not likely be a winning team, nor would it be able to attract fan support or inspire confidence among the more skilled players for very long.

The same fate would befall a university that denied admission to highly qualified students in order to provide room and credentials for students who are less qualified but who happen to be members of a specific ethnic or racial group. Such standards of selection violate the norms of the marketplace and compel institutions to act against their own interests.

Skills and interests are not distributed equally among groups, or even within groups in society. The fact that Italian-Americans are more likely to be found in blue-collar work does not mean that they are discriminated against when they seek white-collar jobs. If we understand the history of Italians, we can understand why they are more prevalent in blue-collar than white-collar work.

Most Italians in America are descendants of people who came from the rural, desperately poor parts of Southern Italy. In that part of Italy, education was prized less than physical labor and family cohesion. Southern Italians were exploited by their northern brethren and avoided contact with the outside world. This isolation reinforced self-sufficiency in the skills needed for survival. Conditioned by their environment and experience, Italians came to America with the skills needed to prosper in an industrial society, but they were more interested in family stability and the preservation of their culture than they were in economic mobility.

Armed with a strong work ethic, Italians became and still are prominent in the skilled trades such as construction, plumbing, and carpentry, as well as public service jobs such as police and fire work, the sort of jobs that bind them closely to the community and reaffirm their traditions.

Italians hover slightly above the average income, 112 on the scale of 100, and while more Italians are going to college today than before, they are still under-represented there. They also remain under-represented in such high-paying occupations as law and medicine, though less so than earlier. More than for most ethnic groups, Italian life in America is still, to a great extent, centered around family life and tradition.

The Irish were compelled to learn self-government as a result of the treatment they suffered under British rule. Like the Italians, the Irish were a rural people who came from a poor nation with few resources. So thoroughly did they master self-government that they rapidly rose to dominance in some of the nation’s largest cities, constituting a majority of elected officials and public employees in such cities as New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh.

The Irish are an ironic rebuke to the idea of proportional representation because even in cities where they were moving from majority to minority status, they continued to dominate the cities’ politics. Their success was based on the skills they had for political life and belies the notion that minorities can never succeed without special dispensation. Conversely, majority status and mayoralties for blacks in cities like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta have not translated into dramatic improvements of the average black persons living there.

Today, the Irish are so Americanized that some claim they have lost their identity as a distinct ethnic group. They are firmly ensconced in the middle class, with an average income of 128 on the scale of 100. They are well-represented in many professions besides politics, most notably law, religious scholarship, and advertising.

The Germans, like the Irish, seem to have lost their ethnic identity as well. They came here as small-scale farmers and handicraftsmen (piano-makers and jewelers, especially). Their strong religious beliefs served them well, and they became prominent in science, business, and scholarship. They were also active in political reform movements, notably the abolition crusade.

Today, German-Americans have high incomes, ranking just below the Jews and Asians at 144 on the 100 scale. Many of the businesses they founded have been passed down to their descendants; for example, the Steinway Piano Company and the Miller Brewing firm.

Black Exceptionalism

Blacks leaders are among the most vocal proponents of proportional representation, notwithstanding the abundant evidence of the success of other groups who were once embattled minorities suffering discrimination and deprivation. Blacks have made great progress in many areas since the passage of civil rights legislation. There is a visible and successful black middle class that, according to Roy Brooks, makes up over a third of the black community. And Sowell has pointed out that two-parent black families make on average about 90 percent of their white counterparts—about $27,000 compared to $28,500.

There has been a rise in the number of black engineers, doctors, lawyers, and scholars in recent years. From less than one percent, black representation in these fields has increased to about three percent. This is impressive in light of the fact that blacks make up only 12 percent of the population.

Almost 37 percent of black families have incomes over $25,000, and that percentage is slowly rising. About 25 percent of this middle-class status comes from being well-represented in government service as administrators and bureaucrats. Indeed, as Sowell points out, “much of this progress took place before the enactment of race conscious remedies.” Like other groups before them, blacks merely took advantage of the opportunities available to them once the barriers of discrimination began to be dismantled.

Yet some black Americans continue to lag behind other groups in income and educational achievement. Much of this lag is probably due to cultural factors that are peculiar to the black community and not susceptible of improvement by proportional representation. For instance, a third of all black families are headed by single women with children. Many of these women lack the skills to acquire jobs that pay them more than the minimum wage. The high school drop-out rate for these single mothers is over 90 percent, despite efforts to encourage them to complete school. It is unlikely that many of them will return to school, which will surely limit their financial and social prospects as well as that of their children.

Since income is strongly correlated with educational and occupational status, these facts are sobering. Almost all of these women have incomes under $10,000 a year and receive almost no support from the fathers of their children. The problems of one-parent families as they relate to children are too well known to be repeated here, but the plight of one-parent families already skews the income distribution for blacks downward. Blacks average 25 percent less income than whites; on the national scale of 100 they average 88. And the problem of single mothers with low incomes is worsening.

Another problem is the plight of black males in college. Despite the enormous strides made by blacks, the drop-out rate for blacks is high, especially at prestigious colleges. Sowell and Dinesh D’Souza estimate that over 60 percent of all black students admitted under race-conscious programs at elite universities like Harvard and Berkeley drop out within their first year.

Many of these students lack the preparation to cope with the intellectual demands that are imposed on them at these colleges. Some of these students would probably do well at less demanding institutions, but it is surely a cruel hoax to believe that students who are poorly prepared at the high school level and who have SAT scores that average 800 can truly compete at institutions where their classmates have scores of 1200 or above.

Thrust into a situation for which they are woefully unequipped emotionally and academically, these black students often rapidly lose their self-esteem and become the object of bitterness and contempt on the part of those students admitted under traditional standards.

Yet even among the more qualified blacks who graduate from such institutions, discrepancies still exist between them and whites in employment and achievement in college. In a study of black professors, Sowell found that they tend to publish less often than white professors, have less distinguished academic records, are over-represented in black studies and social science departments, and are virtually absent from the hard sciences, which offer higher salaries and status. They are also less likely to have taught at different universities over a period of time, which allows for the experience and diversity that is essential to promotion and ultimately to tenure.

Sowell believes that these differences account for the lower salary levels and tenure opportunities that are available to black professors. He found the same discrepancies for black doctors and engineers. They tended to have degrees from less demanding institutions and have less professional experience than their white counterparts.

Minority Success Stories

A look at black immigrants from the West Indies disproves the idea that black progress is being stifled by institutional racism. The experiences of West Indians show that differences can exist within a racial and ethnic group. Although most have been here less than a generation and live mainly in troubled New York City, West Indians are a success story. They arrived in the 1960s from one of the poorest nations in the world but have already reached middle- and often upper-middle-class status. Many have incomes well above some white ethnic groups.

Sowell estimates that over 50 percent of West Indians make over $35,000 a year. Most West Indians are professionals in such fields as real estate, law, medicine, or are owners of small business. They are deeply religious and imbued with a strong work ethic. It is not unusual to see West Indian children working after school. Most West Indians own their own homes and live in some of the best neighborhoods in New York. They have a distaste for government programs and take care of their own in times of crisis. Like the Italians, they have strong families, and their lives are focused on family and community.

There is a working class among West Indians comprising about 30 percent of this group, about the same percentage as the black American working class. They fall into the income range of $15,000-25,000 a year, and like American blacks they are represented in the labor force as mechanics, cab drivers, cooks, plumbers, bootblacks, electricians, and in the service sector as clerks, waiters, and salesmen. In general, though, the success of West Indians serves as an inconvenient reminder to civil rights leaders that the failure of a segment of black America to move out of poverty and despair cannot always be blamed on discrimination.

The Hispanic community is also diverse, ranging from the prosperous Cubans of Florida, who are mainly white-collar professionals, to the Mexicans of Texas and California, who are more recent arrivals slowly climbing the economic ladder (they currently have incomes about 30 percent below the average $23,000 for a family of four).

Much of this discrepancy in income for Mexicans stems from language difficulties and the presence of large families that strain already limited resources. Many Mexican children have trouble finishing high school, and the drop-out rate often exceeds 40 percent. Relatively few go on to college, while it seems likely that many Cubans, especially from the second generation, do go to college. Much of the difference between Cubans and Mexicans is that the former have been here for two generations and have been assimilated into the social and economic main-stream, while the latter are still adapting to a new culture and language.

Mexicans are primarily represented in blue-collar service work such as auto repair, domestic service, day-labor on farms, and as service workers in restaurants, hotels, and department stores. They average between $11,000-$16,000 a year, as opposed to $26,000-$34,000 a year for Cubans.

Puerto Ricans are the other major Hispanic group and the poorest. They live mainly in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They have been here for over two generations and have some of the same problems that the black poor have, including high rates of dropping out of school, unmarried mothers, and family dysfunction.

Many Puerto Ricans seem to have been unable to adapt themselves to the demands of a competitive society. There is a distressing absence of a strong work ethic, as well as an indifference to mobility evident in the lack of a strong and stable middle class that can act as an exemplar of progress and hope.

There seems to be no satisfactory explanation for the failure of this group to achieve the mobility that the Cubans, who have been here about as long, have achieved and that Mexicans are slowly achieving. Puerto Ricans haven’t suffered the systemic discrimination that blacks have had to endure. Yet the drop-out rate from high school among Puerto Ricans approaches 50 percent, while their average income is about 30 percent below the national average and ranges from $12,000 to $15,000 a year.

Whether Puerto Ricans will improve their status is an open question. They are overwhelmingly represented in the workforce as blue-collar workers in such areas as cab drivers, janitorial and maintenance workers, bus drivers, cashiers, waiters, and clerks. Puerto Ricans also have a high unemployment rate of 18 percent. More than 75 percent of Puerto Ricans are in blue-collar work, compared to a fifth of Cubans and half of Mexicans. Such figures do not bode well for an eventual entrance into the middle class, and it remains to be seen if factors unique to this group’s experience and history are preventing it from living up to its true potential.

Claims of Sexism

Finally, we come to the special case of women. Feminists never tire of insisting that sexism is rampant in society and that it accounts for the lower salaries and barriers to advancement that women encounter in the workplace. But these claims do not necessarily reflect reality. It is true that women do tend to earn less than men. But women work less than men on the average, since most women combine work with family responsibilities. Even single mothers with children work fewer hours than men with families do. The average work week for men is about 45 hours a week; for women, it is less than 30.

Women also tend to take jobs that provide flexible hours and work conditions, and many of these jobs are concentrated in the service sector, where wages tend to be lower to begin with. Relatively few women with families have the time or energy to devote to the exigencies of a high-powered career in banking, law or medicine, which often require 60-hour weeks and little time for family commitments.

Even when women work in such difficult fields, many eventually leave to raise families; when they return, they find their skills and market value diminished by time and by changes in their professions. One survey of college professors found that even those women with Ph.D.s tended to make less than their male colleagues because they, too, took time off to raise families or to relocate when their husbands changed jobs. On the other hand, single women with the same levels of education as men who devote roughly the same number of hours per week to the job, make about 90 percent of what their male colleagues make. For a full-fledged professor with a Ph.D. this means about $33,500, compared to $35,450 for a man.

The discrimination that women face in the market is not entirely or even primarily based on gender, but reflects instead dedication and effort. Employers reward superior effort and commitment with better pay and chances for promotion, without regard to sex but with much regard for talent and work. Since many women still try hard to balance the competing demands of family and work, most are still over-represented in the lower paying service sector that is more flexible in terms of hours but offers less in the way of salary, achievement, and benefits. Simply put, waitresses and sales clerks are unlikely to make as much as lawyers or doctors, or to enjoy the same level of prestige, but the cause of this does not lie in gender.

Interestingly enough, white and black women make about the same salary because the distribution of women of all races in the various sectors of the job market runs more closely parallel than the distribution of men (though women in general are still concentrated on the lower rungs of the job ladder). Black women also graduate from college at higher rates than black men and have lower levels of unemployment and more work experience. Economist Walter Williams says this explains the more equitable distribution of income between women of all races. He also found that black and white female office workers and sales clerks tend to make about the same amount, with black women often making as much as 18 percent more because of the great demand for dedicated employees in low-paying jobs and because black women often have greater work experience and stay with a company longer than their white counterparts do.

Thus we see that the differences in pay and opportunities in the job market between the sexes are usually based on different career choices and family priorities, as well as on different levels of education.

The Merit Standard

It should be evident from this discussion that proportional representation as a way of redressing past inequities does not correspond to the realities of the choices people make when they choose a career or seek an education.

We also know that groups do not distribute themselves equally in the job market and that people have different skills and interests that are often based on their history and culture. Italians place great emphasis on community; Asians on mobility. American blacks do not have a thriving entrepreneurial tradition; West Indians do. Women place emphasis on family life, men on making money and establishing a career.

These differences are not conducive to social engineering, which is what proportional representation is. Proportional representation would also subvert the proper functioning of the marketplace because it would force people and institutions to act against their own interests by preventing them from making choices based on their needs.

Finally, proportional representation is dangerously divisive because it diminishes respect for the merit principle. In education, it erodes the value of a college degree in two ways: first, by lowering criteria in admissions standards; and second, by diluting the intellectual quality of the curriculum. Both actions generate resentment among those students admitted under regular criteria and exacerbate tensions among all groups at the expense of learning and civility. In the job market, this pattern repeats itself.

In the name of redressing past discrimination proportional representation forces us to engage in more discrimination. The nation has prided itself on being a beacon of equal opportunity for all groups, regardless of race and ethnic heritage, though our practice has always been less than perfect. For a brief period, we tried through civil rights laws to improve our practice; now that struggle to uphold our ideals is faltering again. The battles over multiculturalism and political correctness may yet lead us to a balkanized society that lacks a common culture and mutual trust.

Our nation’s institutions cannot stand divided against themselves. Proportional representation is hostile to the national spirit and incompatible with the national purpose because it finally denies the immutable and important ideal of liberty and justice for all, the essential cornerstone of our national life.


  • Fred Friedman

    At the time this article was written, Fred Friedman was a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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