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Race Generally Less Important for Minorities Faring Well Economically

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October 17, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Racial minorities who experience equal opportunities and relatively higher economic status tend to place less emphasis on racial group concerns in their evaluations of public policies, according to a new Northwestern University study.

But despite the growth of the black middle class in the post-civil rights era, that is not necessarily the case for African Americans, according to the study.

“Because African Americans continue to experience higher rates of discrimination, even when they do well economically, they are more likely than Latinos and Asian Americans to identify with their racial group,” said Dennis Chong, professor of political science.

“The Experiences and Effects of Economic Status Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” by Chong and co-author Dukhong Kim, appeared in the American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association.

Chong and Kim based their study on data from a national survey conducted in 2001 by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The survey over-sampled African American, Latino and Asian American respondents to permit a detailed comparison of the effects of economic status across groups.

“For individuals in all three groups, the effect of socioeconomic status depends on the experiences accompanying that status,” Chong said.

African Americans report suffering the indignities of prejudice and discrimination to a greater degree than do other minorities and are more likely to regard their interests in racial terms and to evaluate public policies from the perspective of their effect on group interests.

Still, once experiences with discrimination are taken into account, all three minority groups respond similarly to changes in economic status. Improvements in economic status tend to diminish racial consciousness among those who experience little discrimination in their daily lives. But better off individuals in all three groups who frequently encounter discrimination continue to call for greater attention to race in public affairs. 

Nonetheless, compared to Latinos and Asian Americans, economically secure African Americans were more likely to support government efforts to achieve racial equality in education, employment, health care and the administration of the law even when they had a favorable assessment of their opportunities in society. These remaining differences across racial and ethnic groups may be attributable in part to the positive legacy of collective action among African Americans and to the presence of institutions such as the media and churches in the African American community that continue to promote the importance of support for racial group interests. 

“African Americans have a great legacy of collective action,” Chong said. “Their awareness of achievements of the civil rights movement reminds them of the benefits of group solidarity.”

The study highlights that the successful incorporation of a minority group into American society is contingent not only on the actions of group members but also the reception accorded that group by the majority population. When society provides equal social and economic opportunities to individuals, minorities have less incentive to feel their individual prospects are bound up in the status of the group as a whole. 

Scholars have noted that the most recent immigrants to the United States from Latin America and Asia may face more formidable barriers to social acceptance than did previous generations of European immigrants. The question is: Will racial identities among Latinos and Asian Americans become less important as their economic status improves or will they develop a stronger racial consciousness -- similar to African Americans -- in response to discrimination and restrictions on their social mobility?

“The incorporation of immigrant groups in American society depends greatly on the behavior of other people toward them,” Chong said. “It is the barriers to economic advancement that play a major role in sustaining racial and ethnic group consciousness.”