What Obama gets wrong about race

Minority Americans are doing better than ever.

Wilfred Reilly

Wilfred Reilly

Topics Identity Politics Politics USA

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Former president Barack Obama no longer believes that non-white Americans can be successful in the US.

I am being a bit glib, but only a bit. During a podcast interview last week with former Democratic Party apparatchik David Axelrod, Obama criticised Tim Scott, black Republican senator for South Carolina and 2024 presidential candidate. Scott is well-known for his optimism and belief in the American Dream, previously stating that ‘I know America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression’. Taking a clear swipe at Scott, Obama said: ‘I think there’s a long history of African American or other minority candidates within the Republican Party who will validate America and say, “Everything’s great, and we can make it”.’

According to Obama, that belief is untrue. Noting several elements of America’s racist past, Obama declared: ‘We can’t just ignore all that and pretend as if everything’s equal and fair. We actually have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.’ Before signing off from the show, he went on to describe black and other ethnic minorities as ‘rightly sceptical’ of positive racial messages like those of Senator Scott.

Beyond the sheer bizarreness of a former national leader describing his own country as a racist hole, Obama is just plain wrong. Evidence shows that it is simply not true that non-white Americans can’t make it in the US.

This claim is quickly disproven by a look at the Census Bureau’s lists of household income by ethnicity. The wealthiest population group in the US is not white Americans, but rather Indian Americans. This group brings in a median household income of $142,000 annually, in comparison to just under $75,000 for Caucasians. The second-richest group is Taiwanese Americans, who pull down $119,000 per year for each household. In fact, most of the top 10 highest-earning groups (and all of those consistently averaging six figures per year) are racial minorities – Indians, the Taiwanese, Filipinos ($101,000), Pakistanis ($102,000), Sri Lankans ($97,000), Iranians ($96,000) and Chinese Americans ($93,000).

In contrast, one of the poorer groups listed is white Appalachian Americans, at $50,000 per home per year. On the other hand, black immigrants tend to do fairly well, with the Guyanese, Ghanaians, Barbadians, Trinidadians and Nigerians all coming in at above the $70,000 per year mark. Jamaicans ($66,000) and other West Indians ($64,000) also come close. Nigerian immigrants are one of the best-educated groups in the US, ahead of both Asian and white Americans.

African Americans do quite a bit worse. However, the median black household income as of 2021 – an Appalachia-like $47,000 – still ranks higher than the median household incomes for the UK, Austria and Italy. In any case, the high earnings of African and Caribbean immigrants demonstrate that African Americans’ low performance cannot be due to racism. Rather, it is largely down to the fact that black households tend to have fewer people in them.

The black single-motherhood / father-absence rate, at least at the time of birth, currently sits at a staggering 77 per cent. Simply put, a family consisting of a single mother and infant will earn less lucre than one that includes a husband, wife and employed teenagers. While this situation is far from ideal, there are still many individual black Americans, whether they come from stable families or not, who are extremely successful by any global or historical standard. Tim Scott was himself born into a poor, single-parent household and yet nonetheless managed to rise to the position of senator.

Obama’s ‘cannot succeed’ claim is strange given the reality of modern America, and given his own background and path through life. Simply put, Obama is not a descendant of American slaves. His mother was an upper-middle-class white woman from Kansas and his father was a prominent Kenyan economist. Obama grew up primarily in well-off enclaves, such as in upscale districts of Hawaii’s Honolulu and Indonesia’s Jakarta. Young Obama was surrounded by other wealthy non-white groups and expats. While this might be a little politically incorrect to say out loud, watching him try to explain the US black experience to Scott, a scion of the Carolina cotton country, borders on the surreal.

Interestingly, attitudes like Obama’s (although he didn’t always talk like this) seem to be getting more common among first- and second-generation minority immigrants to the US. This is despite the fact that most of these people have never had a ‘back of the bus’ experience in their lives. To give one typical example, writer and race activist Saira Rao started a fracas on Twitter last week by saying:

‘White people love to say “not everything is about race”. This from the people who committed genocide of Indigenous people, genocide and enslavement of African people. Those behind the Chinese Exclusion Act, Operation Wetback and the Muslim ban. You made everything about racism.’

The remarkable thing about this claim is that even those events on Rao’s list that did happen (US black genocide and a national ‘Muslim ban’ are simply made up) will not have impacted her in any way. Rao is a second-generation Indian American. Only the Exclusion Act might have been potentially relevant to a legal immigrant from Asia. And even then, the act was passed in 1882 and formally repealed 80 years ago. Attitudes like Rao’s are part of a broader trend of post-1965 migrants making embarrassing attempts to link themselves to historical slavery or Jim Crow.

However silly they may sound, the beliefs held by the likes of Obama and Rao can have serious negative impacts. Imagine being told for almost all your life that you are unlikely to succeed. That every social interaction is rigged against you. That the people who seem like your closest football and lunchroom buddies are likely liars and secret racists. How might this affect you?

Hard data give a clear answer. A 2021 study found that these demoralising takes have a real, measurable impact on people. Simply reading a typical despairing passage about ‘systemic racism’ from woke authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates resulted ‘in a significant, 15-point drop in black respondents’ belief that they have control over their lives’. Worse still, we now teach precisely these ideas in schools, colleges and workplaces across the US, often in mandatory classes or training.

At the heart of this discussion is what Thomas Sowell once called ‘a conflict of visions’. The US faces a choice about what to tell new and aspiring citizens about our society. Are we a flawed but ultimately good country, where people of all colours and persuasions can thrive? Or is the US a genocidal racial-caste state, which should be constantly trying to atone for its historical sins?

Let us sincerely hope that we choose to embrace the first vision over the second.

Wilfred Reilly is a spiked columnist and the author of Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, published by Regnery. Follow him on Twitter: @wil_da_beast630

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics Politics USA


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