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American Privilege

AP Photo/J. David Ake

It is a cliché that “travel broadens,” presumably broadens the mind. It is one of the foundational assumptions of anthropology that cross-cultural research broadens our perspectives. International ethnographic research, studying people “on the ground” in their home communities, certainly provides a basis for understanding and appreciation, as well as comparison between and among different societies and cultures.

As a college student I studied for a year at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and traveled around Scotland, England, and Wales. As a professor of anthropology, supported by my university and taxpayer dollars, I had the opportunity to live and carry out research in parts of the world very different from North America. For several months each I lived and taught in universities in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in Catania, Sicily, Italy, and in Sydney, Australia. For several months, I lived and carried out research on livestock breeders in Surat, Gujarat and Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. I lived for more than two years in the desert of Iranian Baluchistan, studying the nomadic tribe that was my kind host, and for over two years in Sardinia, Italy, studying pastoralism and local culture in highland villages, one of which graciously hosted me and my family.

In my travels, I became aware of certain American privileges. One was the security provided by being a citizen of a powerful country, a country that was respected and/or feared. I was benefitting from the many millions who had built America, and the many who had successfully fought to defend her from enemies.

The second benefit was the use of English as a near universal language, which allowed me always to find someone with whom to converse in my native language. Of course, carrying out research in local communities it was necessary to learn local languages, even though national languages weren’t always local languages. Having learned rudimentary Persian in Iran, I then had to learn Baluchi, which was just different enough to be incomprehensible. In Sardinia, I learned Italian, which I used in most of my research, but elder villagers spoke Sardinian, with which I never made progress. I love Persian and Italian, both beautiful languages with admirable literatures and arts. But English allowed me to make my way relatively painlessly just about everywhere I went.

The third is the wealth of the United States, my home country, and Canada, my adopted country. Free school education, good quality colleges and universities, advanced degrees and research facilities, are possible only due to wealth. So too with research grants agencies supporting both practical and theoretical investigations in a wide range of fields. Many millions of people built these countries and provided the wealth to support these cultural refinements. Many millions more people built the countries from which immigrants to these countries came, and from which they brought the rich traditions that were borrowed, integrated, and reinvented into North American cultures.

My travels to other countries and engagement with other communities and their cultures were eased by these aforementioned benefits. All of us in North America might give thought to the privileges we have inherited and the benefits we have enjoyed. Generations have contributed to this patrimony, and we should be grateful.

There are of course many privileges and benefits from living in North America: constitutional democracies, representative government, independent judiciary, civil rights, civil liberties, and traditions of tolerance and order. While less than perfect, North American society and culture is more benevolent and less malevolent than most others, more welcoming and tolerant than most others, more pragmatic and less rigid than most others. Most Americans and Canadians most of the time are not under threat from their governments or fellow citizens. While we can do better, let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

The high material quality of life in North America is in good part the result of the wealth it produces. If we consider average income, out of seventy nine countries, the United States ranks ninth at $65,850, below several small and economically specialized and petroleum countries. Canada ranks twenty-first at $46,370, below Australia and Germany but above France, the UK, and Japan. What these levels of income mean at the familial level is clean and commodious housing, full food supplies, decent clothing, reliable electricity and water, private automobiles that work, and some leisure activities. In 2019, the U.S. poverty rate was 10.5%, the criterion for an individual being less than an income of $13,011 (an income level that would rank fortieth in the country list).

All Americans and Canadians benefit from living in wealthy countries. But it is fashionable today to look not at what all benefit from, but to divide people according to census categories of race and sex. The reification of the categories into allegedly real and significant social blocks, and the comparison of them to find disparities, reduces individuals to racial or sexual ciphers among tens or hundreds of millions. Objections to reductionism and essentialism, however vehemently they are declared when other cultures are described, are set aside in these cases.

The enthusiasm on the part of some to compare categories is the hope to find statistical disparities which allegedly provide justification for the neo-marxist division of society into victim and oppressor classes. Their idea is that statistical disparities are proof in themselves of discrimination against any class that does not do as well as some other class. One might wonder, given that some seventy percent of highly paid professional football and basketball players are black, is that disparity a result of discrimination against whites, Hispanics, and Asians?

Let us turn to comparison of income in racial classes. The highest average income was Asian at $98,174. Non-Hispanic whites followed with 76,057. Hispanics of all races followed with $56,113, and then blacks at $45,438. Current “social justice” claims are that the differences are a result of racial discrimination, although who was discriminating against whites in favor of Asians is not discussed. What is allegedly most important is that blacks earn less, as a result of, it is claimed, white supremacism, systemic racism, and racial discrimination.

Leaving aside for the moment arguments about causality, let us put these incomes in international perspective. If American blacks were a country with the average income that they receive in the U.S., they would rank twenty second out of seventy nine countries, right behind Canada, which outstrips them by only $932. Asian Americans would be in fourth place, behind the much more lucrative Monaco, Bermuda, and Liechtenstein, although ahead of Switzerland and Norway. It appears that all Americans, whatever their race, rank well internationally because all benefit from American privilege.

Not so fast, say the woke “social justice” warriors. The fact that American blacks have a higher material standard of living, reliable electricity, clean water, decent housing and clothes, reliable travel and transportation than most of the world does not mean that they have “social justice.” “Equity” is what is required for social justice, and equity means the same level of income as other racial/ethnic groups. The old equality of opportunity is, say the woke, a white nationalist and racist idea; only equality of outcome is just. Until blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Asians have exactly the same income, there will not be social justice. It is only racial discrimination, so the argument continues, that keeps blacks from having the same income as the others.

Could the lower income of blacks be due to discrimination? Is the higher income of Asians due to discrimination on their behalf? This argument, critical to social justice theory and critical race theory, is dubious at best. If we keep in mind that blacks have benefited from fifty years of racial discrimination on their behalf through government and institutional programs called “affirmative action” that favor blacks and Hispanics over whites and Asians, the anti-black discrimination argument seems doubtful.

What then could be the cause or causes of the lower income of blacks? Probably the largest factor is the educational achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups. Standardized test scores among these groups track income almost exactly; that is, the rank and size of gaps in income match rank and size of gaps in test scores. What is the cause of the educational achievement gap? The social characteristics of the racial/ethnic categories differ. Very important in achievement is family organization, particularly whether children grow up in single parent or two parent families. Over seventy percent of American black children grow up in one parent families. Most Asian children have two parent families. There are more two parent families among whites than Hispanics. So, the percentage of two parent families track tests scores with the same ranking and gaps. A further factor is crime. Blacks commit and suffer from a much higher level of crime, and Asians a much lower level than members of other categories. So crime too tracks with test scores. A cultural focus on education also varies among the categories, reflecting the same pattern of ranks the other factors.

Not only is America not a systemically racist and fundamentally evil country; racism is primarily a construction of race activists. Rather, America is a country that showers privilege and benefits on all of its citizens. America was built by immigrants, and each group of immigrants, if we are allowed this reification, had to find its own way and make its future. The same is true of Canada. These countries offer rich potential and colorblind opportunity, as amply demonstrated by the success of Asians. The future of each racial and ethnic group and category rests in its own hands.