We are frequently told by commentators and theorists on the progressive and liberal Left that we live in a systemically racist and patriarchal society. The belief that Western societies privilege white men and oppress people of color, women, and LGBT citizens is especially popular within academic institutions, legacy media, the entertainment industry, and even sports. However, newly released statistics from the US Department of Labor for the third quarter of 2020 undermine this narrative. Asian women have now surpassed white men in weekly earnings. That trend has been consistent throughout this past year—an unprecedented outcome. Full-time working Asian women earned $1,224 in median weekly earnings in the third quarter of this year compared to $1,122 earned by their white male counterparts. Furthermore, the income gap between both black and Latino men and Asian women is wider than it has ever been. The income gap between white and black women, meanwhile, is much narrower than the gap between their male counterparts.
These outcomes cannot exist in a society suffused with misogyny and racism. As confounding to conventional progressive wisdom as these new figures appear to be, copious research finds that ethnic minorities and women frequently eclipse their white and male counterparts, even when these identities intersect. Several ethnic minority groups consistently out-perform whites in a variety of categories—higher test scores, lower incarceration rates, and longer life expectancies. According to the latest data from the US Census Bureau, over the 12 months covered by the survey, the median household incomes of Syrian Americans ($74,047), Korean Americans ($76,674), Indonesian Americans ($93,501), Taiwanese Americans ($102,405), and Filipino Americans ($100,273) are all significantly higher than that of whites ($69,823). The report also finds substantial economic gains among minority groups. Valerie Wilson at the Economic Policy Institute reports that from 2018 to 2019, Asian and black households had the highest rate of median income growth (10.6 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively) of all main racial groups (although she cautions that overall disparities remain “largely unchanged”). On a longitudinal scale, Hispanics, not whites, had the highest income growth in 2019 relative to the start of the Great Recession in 2007 (although many of these gains have been reversed by the pandemic).
Rapidly rising female economic success is partly a product of higher academic representation. 2019 was the 11th consecutive year in which women earned the majority of doctoral degrees. Women accounted for 57 percent of all students across American colleges in 2018 according to the latest US Department of Education figures and earned the majority of associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. According to University of Michigan economist Mark J. Perry, “By overall enrollment in higher education men have been an under-represented minority for the last 40 years.” Sex differences in cognition can help to explain differential performance along gender lines—although men typically perform better on quantitative and visuospatial tasks, several studies have found that on average women perform better in verbal and memory tasks and on reading and writing tests. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development:
At the primary level, boys and girls do equally well in mathematics and science but girls have a clear advantage in reading (OECD, 2012a). At the secondary level while girls maintain their advantage in reading a gap in favour of boys emerges in mathematics… [T]he gender gap in reading is much larger than the gap in mathematics. On average, the reading gap was equal to 38 points in PISA 2012, which roughly equals one year of schooling. The gap in mathematics was nine points on average.
These disparities can be explained by several factors. Studies have found that girls are more self-disciplined and better at listening, whereas boys tend to be more rebellious, more aggressive and, contrary to popular wisdom, more socially exclusionary in school. Research has also found that girls mature in certain cognitive and emotional areas faster than boys, with girls’ brains developing up to two years earlier during puberty which can give them an academic performance advantage in school.
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The specious concept of intersectionality underpins the oppression narratives advanced by contemporary progressive activists. Its advocates hold that class, race, sexual orientation, age, gender, and disability can compound an individual’s oppression or privilege. For example, an ethnic woman not only faces racism and sexism, but also a third intersecting prejudice (known as “misogynoir” in the case of black women) that ethnic men and white women do not experience. So, ethnic women are more oppressed and that oppression is central to their identity and delimits their success in our society.
Apart from the most obvious theoretical flaw of intersectionality—that it flattens the diverse complexity of human experience into a few arbitrary characteristics—its validity falls apart under empirical scrutiny. For example, despite the greater oppression black women supposedly face compared to white women, a much-publicized 2018 study featured in the New York Times found that black women had slightly higher incomes than white women raised in families with comparable earnings. The earnings of black men, on the other hand, were found to be consistently much lower than those of white men from similar economic backgrounds. Controlling for parental earnings, black women were found to have higher college attendance rates than white men.
A study from the University of Michigan compared the earnings trajectories of African immigrant women and men to their US-born counterparts. The (very left-leaning) researchers went into the study with an intersectional analytic framework, stating: “The double disadvantage would predict that black African women would be disadvantaged by the interaction of their race and gender.” But having analyzed the data, the authors concluded: “However, these are not the patterns that we found.” While African-born black men had lower earnings than US-born white men, African-born black women had higher earnings than US-born white women. Interestingly, the researchers found that the income growth rate of female African immigrants has outpaced that of both US-born men and women. Black female immigrants from Africa saw a 130 percent rise in their income between 1990 and 2010, eclipsing the earnings of both white and black American women. No variance of the oversimplified “institutionalized racism” or intersectionality framework can adequately explain these complex socioeconomic outcomes, even when the researchers are biased in that direction.
Intersectionality is such a misconceived lens through which to understand the world that often white men fare worse than some of the most “oppressed” victim groups in our society. For example, the latest Census data indicate that the median earnings for full-time, year-round female Palestinian American workers ($52,061), female Iranian American workers ($64,220), and female Turkish American workers ($67,759) were all higher than those of white women ($45,581). Turkish and Iranian women also out-earned white men ($57,003). The vast majority of these women have not two but three “oppression variables” because of their gender, ethnicity, and religion (Islam).
Perceived discrimination is necessarily subjective and a kind of minority bias can skew perception of racial bias. Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that many women of color face discrimination on account of their gender, ethnicity, or religion, or all three. According to a 2017 Pew survey, 83 percent of US Muslim women said there was a lot of discrimination against Muslims and more than half of US Muslim women said they had experienced anti-Muslim discrimination in the past 12 months at the time of the survey. However, if economic outcomes are to be taken seriously, the power of “intersecting” sexism, Islamophobia, and racism does not appear to be a barrier to success or sufficient to suppress human potential. To the contrary, intersectional theory broadly exaggerates the magnitude and impact of prejudice in our society, and gives the illusory impression of a zero-sum societal competition between groups. As Jordan Peterson has argued, intersectionality “devolve[s] people back into tribal antagonism.”
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Asian success in the West has long been disputed as an example of the “model minority myth” that critics say is used to downplay the impact of societal racism. Asian immigrants, they argue, come from the highly educated upper echelons of their home countries, which gives them an advantage over native-born citizens. But this claim is self-refuting—it admits that “human capital” (familial values, vocational skills, work ethic, conducive cultural patterns) supersedes perceived discrimination and the impact of any systemic or institutional racism. Immigrants who arrive in a new land to which they are not acculturated, but whose intelligence and cultural habits allow them to outperform native whites over time, repudiate a progressive narrative that insists race and not merit determines success.
While immigration selectivity does factor into relative Asian success, it only accounts for part of the reason certain Asian groups have excelled in the West—immigrant groups are not uniformly educated or economically well-off. For example, about 50 percent of Chinese, Pakistani, Indonesian, Korean, and Filipino immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But the same is true of only a quarter of Vietnamese immigrants—fewer than white Americans (35 percent in 2016). Syrian immigrants have roughly the same level of education as white Americans, yet Syrian Americans and the rest of these aforementioned groups out-earn whites according to the latest data. This is despite the fact that language barriers disadvantage immigrants relative to native-born Americans. Only 34 percent of Vietnamese immigrants and 51 percent of Japanese immigrants (to take two examples) are proficient in English (compared with virtually all of white Americans), yet they still have higher household median incomes than whites by about $2,000 and $15,000, respectively. The idea that all—or most—immigrants are preconditioned for success is a myth. Selectivity is only one part of the puzzle.
Some immigrant groups with high rates of poverty defy the odds and flourish in the US. For example, the children of immigrants from Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos routinely attain high levels of academic achievement despite their low socioeconomic status compared to whites. In their paper, “Culture and Asian-White Achievement Difference,” University of Michigan sociologists Airan Liu and Yu Xie offer a meta-analysis of the available literature on Asian academic achievement. They find that:
Qualitative research indicates that even Asian American children from disadvantaged family backgrounds enjoy the Asian premium in academic achievement (e.g., Lee and Zhou, 2014), which suggests that access to more and better home resources is not the key to their success.
Several studies that control for self-selecting factors still find that several Asian groups out-perform whites in the economic domain. The most pronounced disparities are among women. In a comprehensive 2019 study conducted in Canada, researchers controlled for age, marital status, education level, and native language to compare yearly incomes between second generation ethnic groups with white Canadians. Interestingly, no second generation male ethnic group out-earned third-plus generation whites (without controlling for the aforementioned variables, South Asian, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese men out-earned third-plus generation whites). The outcomes among women, however, were very different. South Asian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Korean immigrant women all out-earned third-plus generation white women. The intersectional claim of overlapping oppression again fails because ethnic women perform relatively better than ethnic men compared to their gendered counterparts.
Asian women’s extraordinarily high earnings can be explained by several recorded cultural patterns. They have the highest education levels of all major groups. They are also most likely to major in the most high-paying fields in college (primarily STEM) compared to other female groups. Asian women’s familial choices also strongly correlate with their success in the labour market. According to the CDC (table 11), Asian mothers are least likely to have children out of wedlock. Only 11.7 percent of Asian children are born out of wedlock, compared to 28.2 percent of whites, 51.8 percent of Hispanics, and 69.4 percent of blacks (it is worth noting, incidentally, that the black illegitimacy rate in 1940 was lower than the white illegitimacy rate today). Moreover, the average age of an Asian mother at the time she gives birth to her first child is just over 30. Comparatively, the average age is 28 for whites and 25 for Hispanics and blacks. Asians also have lower birth rates than blacks and Hispanics (but not whites) and the lowest divorce rate. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese women specifically have lower birth rates than all major racial groups [figure 2 in the linked paper]. And as sociologists Arthur Sakamoto and Sharron Xuanren Wang point out in their new paper, Asian children benefit from familial support:
In addition to being more likely to have their own two biological parents, Asian American children beneﬁt from being more likely to have the supplementary adult supervision of grandparents in their home (Raley et al., 2019), who help to provide quality childcare as well as to instill more traditional Asian values (Tam and Detzner, 1998).
Stating these facts has become controversial due to fears of stereotyping and stigmatizing members of under-performing groups. But regardless of one’s personal views on illegitimacy, marriage, and parenthood, Asian women’s cultural habits on average—majoring in more high-paying fields, rarely having kids out of wedlock, and having fewer kids and more familial support raising them—do correlate with better outcomes: more stable families, financial security, and time devoted to pursuing a career.
But this has become a taboo realm of analysis in a culture preoccupied with society’s structural dynamics because it implicates personal choices and cultural norms in the determination of life outcomes. As Malcolm Gladwell advises in his book Outliers, behavioral traits common in Asian cultures shouldn’t be dismissed—we should learn from them. On average, Asians spend the most amount of time doing homework and the least amount of time watching television compared to other racial groups. Asians are more likely to believe in the idea of self-made success than other major racial groups—a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Asian Americans, compared with 58 percent of the general public, think that “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard.” In their paper, “Explaining Asian Americans’ Academic Advantage over Whites,” researchers from the University of Michigan and the City University of New York examine Asian Americans’ superior academic achievement. They find that Asian Americans are more likely to believe that self-effort, rather than natural ability, is the main determinant of academic achievement:
These differences matter because students who consider effort important demonstrate greater intrinsic interest in academic tasks and are more likely to interpret challenges as cues to increase effort. The belief that achievement is not predestined but is the result of hard work may motivate Asian-American parents to set high educational expectations for their children.
Their study also finds that “socio-demographic differences explain almost none of the overall Asia-white gap in academic effort,” which means that factors such as household income, marital status, employment, and location have little-to-no bearing on the amount of effort Asian students invest in their education. Interestingly, their study finds South Asian parents have the highest expectations relative to whites (Indian Americans are the highest-earning group in America while Pakistani Americans are fifth). The researchers conclude: “Asian American youth’s advantage in education can be attributed mainly to their work ethic, whether real or perceived, rather than to advantages in cognitive skills or socioeconomic status.”
The cultural phenomenon of Asian overachievement isn’t conditional on genes, intelligence or socioeconomic status. In a study entitled “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: an Intergenerational Perspective” led by Raj Chetty from Harvard, the authors found that over 26 percent of Asian children born to parents in the lowest income quintile earn incomes in the highest income quintile compared to 11 percent of whites, seven percent of Hispanics, and three percent of blacks.
It’s no surprise that Asians have the highest economic mobility in America given their shrewd financial sensibilities on average. As Coleman Hughes has pointed out, Asians scored highest in a financial health scorecard (measuring “whether a family is making sound, everyday-financial decisions”) developed by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2015. Eliminating the confounds of age and education level, their paper finds middle-aged Asian family heads with advanced degrees scored substantially higher on financial health relative to their comparable Hispanic, black, and white counterparts. As such, the authors conclude that “differences in the age composition and in the level of educational attainment across groups explain relatively little of the gaps.” It is culture—at least in significant part—that differentiates why some groups out-perform others.
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The claim that America remains a deeply patriarchal society largely rests on remaining gender disparities. The existence of a “gender wage gap,” for instance, is supposedly supported by the claim that “women make $0.77 for every dollar men make.” But women do not make 77 cents to the dollar of what a man makes doing the same work. Women (on average) earn 77 percent of what men earn in different careers, working fewer hours with less overtime. When one accounts for the disparity in the number of hours worked, the level of occupation, career choices, seniority, length of time in the workplace, and various other factors, the “gender wage gap” all but vanishes.
Female under-representation in STEM fields, for instance, is commonly accepted as evidence of sexism by feminist activists, yet those same activists turn a blind eye to male under-representation in the Arts and the Humanities. Likewise, black under-representation in STEM is offered as unequivocal evidence of systemic bias. This summer, the disparity prompted the #shutdownSTEM hashtag in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. However, as I wrote in City Journal recently, black over-representation in the music industry, professional sports, and even law enforcement are excluded from the conversation, disfiguring the overall picture.
One frequently hears that economic inequality between whites and blacks is ipso facto evidence of systemic racism. According to the 2019 Census figures, the black-white income gap is indeed large: the median household income of black Americans ($43,862) is only 63 percent that of whites ($69,823). This wide disparity can be demoralizing and provoke denunciation of the systems which would allow this level of inequality to pass. However, these same systems permit all kinds of other inequality as well. The same Census data finds that white Americans earn only 55 cents for every Indian American dollar (median household income $126,705). Yet, one will struggle to find think-pieces about “Indian supremacy” or “anti-white oppression” in Vox.com or Slate.
Full-time, year-round white male workers, specifically, earn 73 cents for every dollar ($57,003) an equivalent Taiwanese American woman makes ($78,153). A cursory glance at the data reveals disparities of this magnitude across the board, some of which are even more significant. When discrimination is (roughly) held constant, disparities persist. For example, the median household income of Iraqi Americans in 2019 ($49,315) was only 66 percent that of Syrian Americans ($74,047), but it would be difficult to argue that Syrians face less prejudice in the United States than Iraqis do. It is more likely that inter-group cultural and behavioral differences account for this disparity as opposed to external, systemic factors.
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Needless to say, biases against women and people of color persist. Multiple studies find that people more readily associate men with high levels of intelligence than women. Even though minority applicants benefit from affirmative action programs implemented in top universities, law firms, tech companies, and banks, some level of racial discrimination in the labour market is still a reality. During the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asians of all origins spiked across the West (in Canada, the UK, and the US). I can attest to the degrading impact of racism, xenophobia, and religious persecution in my childhood as I’ve written previously here and here. And on a structural level, underfunded and mismanaged schools in the inner-city, sky-rocketing homicide rates, and the consequential economic divestment all limit the human potential in minority communities.
But the cascading complexity of racial disparities in America undermines the simplistic progressive conviction that America is a systemically racist and patriarchal society—a notion that has become a kind of religious dogma. Instead of striving for true inclusivity, a Manichean divide has now been contrived between whites and “people of color,” women and men, heterosexuals and the LGBTQ community. No amount of empirical evidence can alter the unfalsifiable hypothesis of endemic Western racism and misogyny.
If Western societies are compared to a theoretical equalitarian utopia in which prejudice doesn’t exist, then, yes, they remain racist and misogynistic. But compared to the rest of the planet, Western societies are the freest and most inclusive today. According to a study featured in the Washington Post, Western countries such as the US, Australia, and Canada are the most racially tolerant and inclusive. A 2019 ranking from US News & World Report found that countries such as Canada, the US, and the UK ranked in the top 20 most safe, equitable, and free societies for women.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Egypt, Rwanda, India, and Egypt, on the other hand, were found to be among the most racially intolerant. Today, slavery continues to exist in countries like China, Uzebekistan, and Bangladesh. According to the Global Slavery Index, there are over 45 million slaves in the world today. A report released by The Center for Global Policy this week found over half a million Uyghurs are forced to pick cotton.
Mainstream narratives portray white racism as the primary driver of brutality, prejudice, and corruption. But injustices on a far more egregious scale exist throughout the world in the absence of racial diversity (and therefore racial prejudice). For its many flaws, American policing pales in comparison to the scandalous police forces in countries such as Somalia, Honduras, Kenya, and Mexico. Human rights abuses perpetrated by Nigeria’s SARS prompted nationwide protests this fall—though Nigeria is of course a racially (not ethnically) homogenous society.
None of this should be misunderstood as a warrant for complacency—Western societies can and should strive to improve race relations and reduce inequity wherever possible. But nor should we make the perfect the enemy of the good, or mistake progressive free societies for sinister regimes defined by patriarchal oppression and racial bigotry.
Rav Arora is an independent writer and criminology student based in Vancouver, Canada. His writings have appeared in the New York Post, the Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy magazine, the Grammy Awards, and City Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @Ravarora1.
Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash