Race Trumping Class for Black Males: Known-Knowns and Unacknowleged-Knowledge in Social Science Discovery Moments
Written by Serie McDougal
Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter (2018) investigated an age-old social science notion, the notion of racial disparities. What could possibly be revealed about it that is not already known? Social science might be described as a process of systematically discovering, explaining, and understanding that which is already known and experienced in other ways. European social science and political mantra have included the axiom that the primary obstacle to social advancement is class and not race. Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter (2018) decided to test this western conventional wisdom by asking the question: do Black children have lower incomes than white children conditional on parental income, and if so, how can we reduce these intergenerational gaps? To answer this question, they examined data from the 2000 and 2010 decennial Censuses linked to data from federal income tax returns and the 2005-2015 American Community Surveys to obtain information on income, race, parental characteristics, and other variables. Their sample included 20 million children, approximately 94% of the total number of children in the birth cohorts we study. They looked at children’s incomes as their mean household income in 2014-15, when they are in their mid-thirties and parents’ income as mean household income between 1994 and 2000, when their children are between the ages of 11 and 22.
They found that intergenerational mobility and persistence varied significantly by race. Latinx Americans and Asian Americans were found to move up in income across generations. Even Black people born into high income families are more likely to experience downward mobility compared to Whites. However, when the researchers accounted for gender differences, they found that although the Back-White income gap was the largest in their analysis, it was entirely driven by the gap between Black and White men. The researchers explain:
Put diﬀerently, when we compare the outcomes of Black and White men who all grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth, and education, we continue to ﬁnd that the Black men still have signiﬁcantly lower incomes in adulthood. The last family-level explanation we consider is the controversial hypothesis that diﬀerences in cognitive ability explain racial gaps. Although we do not have measures of ability in our data, three pieces of evidence suggest that diﬀerences in ability do not explain the persistence of Black-White gaps for men.
First, the prior literature (e.g., Rushton and Jensen 2005) suggests no biological reason that racial diﬀerences in cognitive ability would vary by gender. Therefore, the ability hypothesis does not explain the diﬀerences in Black-White income gaps by gender. Second, Black-White gaps in test scores – which have been the basis for most prior arguments for ability diﬀerences – are substantial for both men and women. The fact that Black women have incomes and wage rates comparable to White women conditional on parental income despite having much lower test scores suggests that tests do not accurately measure diﬀerences in ability (as relevant for earnings) by race, perhaps because of stereotype threat or racial biases in tests (Steele and Aronson 1995; Jencks and Phillips 1998). Third, we show below that environmental conditions during childhood have causal eﬀects on racial disparities by studying the outcomes of boys who move between neighborhoods, rejecting the hypothesis that the gap is driven by diﬀerences in innate ability. (Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter, 2018, p. 5)
Black boys who grow up in high-income families and low poverty neighborhood are more likely than White boys to have lower incomes in adulthood. But what factors lead to stability or improved mobility? Among Black males in low poverty neighborhoods who did experience better outcomes across generations, the two factors associated with smaller Black-White gaps were: low levels of racial bias among Whites and high rates of father presence among Blacks. The researchers found that low-income neighborhood father presence (deﬁned as being claimed as a child dependent by a male on tax forms) was associated with better outcomes among Black boys, but uncorrelated with the outcomes of Black girls and White boys. This relationship was found at the neighborhood level regardless of whether or not the father was a child’s biological fathers. The presence of fathers (biologically related or not) was found to be associated with better outcomes for Black boys. They also found that Black boys who move to better neighborhoods also experience higher incomes and less incarceration than those who don’t. Overall their research suggests that Black boys who move to neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, White with levels of racial bias, and high rates of father presence among Black residents tend to experience better outcomes. The problem: less than 5% of Black boys grow up in such places.
The research is said to have debunked the notion that the primary challenge African Americans face is class and not race. As Ibram X. Kendi states, “One of the most popular liberal post-racial ideas is the idea that the fundamental problem is class and not race, and clearly this study explodes that idea, but for whatever reason, we’re unwilling to stare racism in the face” (Riley, 2018). According to Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter (2018), solving this problem will require policies “whose impacts cross neighborhood and class lines and increase upward mobility speciﬁcally for black men” (p.7). Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter (2018) suggest policies that cannot be expected to solve these intergenerational problems alone are those that include cash transfers, increases in minimum wage, policies that reduce residential segregation and produce school integration. Instead, what is needed are targeted programs for Black boys specifically and policies that improve conditions within specific schools and neighborhoods (Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter, 2018, p. 5). Although it is unsurprisingly left unstated, the data seem to provide a rationale for increased effort and resources behind single gender Afrocentric independent and charter schools targeted toward Black male student populations. Although the report suggests programs to reduce racial bias among Whites, looking at the situation through the lens of the colonial paradigm, Black populations would be ill-advised to embrace this as a strategy for advancement given that racial bias among Whites is a commodity from which white identified populations receive power and privilege. Waiting for White people to make the choice to abandon that which provides them power and privilege would not serve the interests of Black boys or Black communities. Nevertheless, the ability of race to trump class for Black people in general and Black males specifically remains a lived reality awaiting its Christopher Columbus like discovery by the research community. Moreover, as significant as this new research is, it remains one in a long train of social science discovery moments as the humanity of people of African descent come in and out of visibility to the research community. Before this realization fades from memory and visibility it is critical the people of African descent build programs to specifically address in the needs of Black boys with culture grounding and targeted focus.
Badger, E., Miller, C. C., Pearce, A., & Quealy, K. (2018). Rich White boys stay rich. Black boys don't. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Jones, M.R., & Porter, S.R. (2018). Race and economic opportunity in the United States: An intergenerational perspective. Retrieved from http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/race_paper.pdf
Riley, P. (2018, March 20). Report: Wealthy Black boys have a greater chance of living in poverty than middle class White boys. Retrieved March 23, 2018, from