Friday, November 13, 2015

Black immigrants are upwardly mobile

The other day, I noticed something disturbing in a graph from a Brookings report on immigrant mobility:

Embedded image permalink

We see that Hispanics are strongly upwardly mobile from the first to the second generation. Asians are slightly upwardly mobile, but from a pretty high base. Those are both good news. But black immigrants, on average, appear to show downward mobility.

Why would black immigrants be downwardly mobile? I posed the question on Twitter. A smart person called Abraham Bloodshack immediately tweeted this to me:
generational effects? i.e., recent increase in African migration could mean second gen are all quite early in careers
That was smart. We'll follow up on that later. But first, let's review some possible explanations for the mobility disparity:

1. Household size decrease. 1st gen. African immigrant families are probably really big, since Africa is a super-high-fertility place in general, while 2nd gen. families probably have drastically lower fertility.

2. Cohort effect. Recent changes in immigration composition might account for the effect. The average age difference that Abraham Bloodshack mentioned is also a kind of cohort effect. Age differences would affect the black immigrant average much more than the Hispanic or Asian immigrant average if African immigrant families, like the typical African family, are extremely large.

3. Downward assimilation. With many immigrant groups we see the 2nd generation picking up a lot of "bad" behaviors - or at least "bad" for earning power - from their decadent rich-world peers. These include things like not getting married, sponging off parents, and getting involved in the underground economy. 2nd-generation black Americans might be especially susceptible to this sort of thing. (And yes, I know "downward" might be a loaded word; if you want to sponge off your parents and play League of Legends, more power to you.*)

4. Racism. Negative attitudes toward African-Americans might not apply to people with African or Carribean accents, but might be applied toward their more American-sounding kids. (Update: See this excellent comment for more.)

I did a bit of digging on the ol' internet, and turned up this Tyler Cowen post on the subject, from two years ago. Cowen links to two papers (paper 1, paper 2) by Alison Rauh, a Chicago econ PhD, now a research associate at Cornerstone. 

The papers look at personal income, so we don't have to worry about the household size issue. They find broadly the same average income decrease as the Brookings graph, though to a lesser extent. Rauh's first paper attributes the difference to "idleness", her word for "being out of the labor force". Conditional on having a job, 2nd-generation black Americans earn a lot more than 1st-generation - for men, 29 percent more. That's roughly comparable to the average Hispanic increase from the Brookings graph, but from a much higher base. But so many 2nd-generation black Americans are out of the labor force that the overall average income goes down!

That would seem to point to the "downward assimilation" story, perhaps with some racism mixed in. Tyler goes for downward assimilation:
I take this to be a “peer effects are really really important” paper, namely that many of the virtues of immigrant culture are swallowed as the second generation assimilates.  
But this isn't the whole story. In her second paper, Rauh looks at what happens when the generations are adjusted for age, as Abraham Bloodshack might have suggested doing. Here is what she finds:
Note, however, that the average second generation black is more than 8 years younger than the first generation immigrant. Since earnings increase steeply until the mid forties, column 5 uses inverse probability weighting to equalize the age distribution of the first and second generation. Now sons of black immigrants earn $3000 or 8% more than the average first generation black immigrant. The fraction of second generation blacks with a college degree is 35% and therefore 4 percentage point higher than those of the first generation...For women both of these trends seem to be even more pronounced (Panel B). The second generation, once adjusted to have the same age distribution as the first generation, has an earnings premium of $8,600 over native blacks, $6,700 over first generation, and $3,600 over whites. (emphasis mine)
Lesson: Always read through the papers, don't just skim the Abstract/Intro/Conclusion! 

So if we adjust for age, we see that black immigrants are upwardly mobile, in terms of both income and education. And that upward mobility is from a decently high base for income and a very high base for education. 

In other words, the Brookings graph tells us the wrong story! A lot of those 2nd generation black Americans are either in college, or just starting at the bottom of the career ladder. They will eventually make a lot more money. This is great news.

But although black immigrants are upwardly mobile, they are not as upwardly mobile as they should be. Rauh observes that high incarceration rates play a large part in the fraction of 2nd-generation black Americans not in the labor force. Marriage rates are also much lower. 2nd-generation men are also much less upwardly mobile than 2nd-generation women.

These facts all point to a cultural effect - societal racism and/or downward assimilation, in some combination. Black immigrants are thriving in our society overall, but it's in spite of some headwinds.

Anyway, let this be a lesson: Before you go looking for theories to explain a fact, make sure you've gotten the fact right in the first place!

* Haha, I'm kidding of course. League of Legends sucks.


  1. I don't get it. How's that pattern explained in any way by racism? Is the first generation not black?

    1. 1st generation has foreign accents.

    2. Also 1st generation arrives when older, so less susceptible to racist cops targeting young men.

    3. OK. Still, don't get it. How's a foreign accent protecting against the color of your skin? What kind of sophisticated racism is that?

    4. I think it's pretty well-established that there's a lot more discrimination against people with African-American accents than people with Caribbean accents, in phone call experiments and such.

    5. Sure, but what's that have to with racism? People discriminating in favor of Caribbean accents probably can tell what their color is. In other words, the discrimination against native blacks has nothing to do with their skin color.

    6. Joe T.10:15 PM

      I remember reading a response by some Geneticist that was quoted by Shockley in his first book. The responder (Shockley called him Mr. Gene or something like that), said that he was flattered by Shockley attributing him, but that Shockley had misunderstood. The responder had originally said that blacks suffered lower IQs because of *reflective* heredity. Meaning that the color of their skin subjected them to racism, and its effects led to stigma, lack of confidence, lower familial opportunities, etc., which produced lower IQs in such societies.

      I think that jibes with what the other responses here are saying, that the fathers came over when they were older, and thus were subjected to less of the effects of the reflective heredity of being dark skinned.

    7. Krzys makes a good point, which Prof. Smith doesn't seem to understand. We may be dealing with some sort of prejudice, but "racism" seems like a poor term for this prejudice, since it doesn't apparently doesn't apply to all black people.

      There's also the problem of why racism doesn't seem to hold back Asians or Hispanics to the same extent. In fact, Prof. Smith's university, like most, discriminates against Asians, and in favor of blacks, yet the Asians fare better economically overall. So discrimination is poor predictor of outcomes.

    8. @y81 "In fact, Prof. Smith's university, like most, discriminates against Asians, and in favor of blacks, yet the Asians fare better economically overall. So discrimination is poor predictor of outcomes."

      you're cutting corners with your flawed logic. you would need to address the impact of such discrimination on access to higher education for Asians first: I suspect it doesn't prevent Asians from getting admission to good colleges, and it doesn't prevent them from getting their degrees.
      People who are not white are discriminated against, but how? racial discrimination is not a standardized one size fits-all-races package. it obviously differs from one race to another. You can't just say: 'Hispanics are discriminated against, Asians too, and Blacks too: they are all discriminated against, but Asians and Hispanics are doing better. Why are Blacks doing relatively poor? it must not be because of discrimination!'. ---> wow, talk about jumping to conclusions.

      One last thing, the majority of Asians in this country chose to immigrate here, came in, created businesses, went to university etc... Their heritage is clearly not the same when compared to Black descendants of slaves.

    9. Krzys: I think racism is often about language, not just skin color.

    10. @LionelYelibi: I thought we were talking about immigrants. What do the (native-born) descendants of slaves have to do with this discussion? (I assure you, Prof. Smith's university discriminates against second-generation Asians, and in favor of second-generation blacks: they don't limit their preference to the descendants of slaves.)

    11. @Noah Smith: as a native speaker, you are entitled to make a word mean whatever you want, but "racism" is a strange word for linguistic prejudice. I think you want a moral high ground to which the facts you yourself assert do not entitle you.

  2. What about selection? Are the more highly skilled more likely to immigrate? Is this different across the ethnic groups due to other reasons for immigration? I'm thinking greater selection, greater reversion to the mean in the second generation.

    1. What about selection?

      Indeed. Immigrants self select for ambition and willingness to take risks - both of which are likely to correlate with success. The children will tend to revert to the mean on those attributes.

  3. Shirtsleeves-to-shirtsleeve in three generations. All of these immigrants will revert to the mean given enough time...and the 'mean' in the USA is just mediocre racist trash with no culture (by and large).

    OT: N. Smith moderates comments apparently, as a prolix comment of mine was mysteriously deleted... it's OK, it's his blog.

  4. I am one of those Black Africans and here is my take on this:
    We grow up outside the US systems which I find has a very negative opinion of black people in general: the stereotypes are worse than Hispanics (i.e. not here legally?), and Asians (extremely smart?), blacks are lazy, dumb, criminals. when we get here, these days, it's generally to go to university for ugrad and/or grad degrees. We essentially bypass all the struggle Black Americans have to deal with because they were born and raised in this country. We have the immigrant mentality, we want to be part of this country but at the same time we know that may or may not be possible so our focus is on getting the job done: getting the degree, and staying below of the radar. It may sound provocative but I want to say that we expect to be discriminated against and thus we build mental protections beforehand. I'm tempted to say that many Black Americans have those same protections in place but the effects are perverse: how can you reconcile the fact that inside your own country, your own land you are supposed to behave like an outsider? natives don't want that kind of insecurity that immigrants embrace.
    Some of us even go as far as avoiding any association with black Americans because we know due to their environment many are vulnerable to the kind of stuff you see in the media: It's self preservation.

    I have been here for 8 years, and when I think about I'm not sure I want to raise children in such environment. It's not surprising to me that 2nd generations immigrants revert to the mean since they are raised inside the system which has told them they are underachievers, and criminals for centuries.

    1. Anonymous2:33 PM

      You are absolutely right. The US has a light caste system in place where blacks occupy the place of the Dhalits. The level of social segregation, exclusion, and specifically anti-black racism is much more pronounced than in western Europe, where racism is a more evenly spread, and less suffocating.
      For African immigrants, bringing skills acquired here back to take opportunity of current growth in Africa should be seriously considered.
      I also believe that the UK, maybe even France, are probably psychologically healthier places.

    2. Very interesting. Thanks, Lionel.

    3. But notice that once you control for age, 2nd-generation black Americans are not "reverting to the mean" - they are actually overtaking white Americans. They're just not doing quite as well as they *should* be, given their advantages.

    4. Lionel the problem with your story is that, I heard it told the opposite way. I.E. we knew they did not like us and so we worked all the harder and became their bosses.
      Also if it is racism how can African American achieve so well in the stuff we USAers really care about and want to grow up to be, basketball and football players, entertainers, innovators in music.
      I think it is different values. In some ways blacks have some more sensible values. They are great USAers. They invented all the best music, jazz, blues, rock&roll, rap, hiphop.

    5. If you were right separation would be a reasonable path to take. At what age does one start to believe that white people think what you said?

    6. One more thing if cross section of white USAers were to emigrate to South Korea, the Koreans might be consider them lazy, dumb and criminal, but I disagree, I think that they study too much and work too hard.

    7. The problem is exclusion and self exclusion. Being stomped on for a very long time leads to cultural adaptations. The problem with the adaptations is that some of them are very destructive. You can try to adapt by over-compensating by becoming superwhite, like Asians or immigrant blacks. Or you can reject the whole system as illegitimate. African americans have to realize that their mother neither loves them nor gives a shit about them. No point in crying for all,eternity.

  5. Oh (though this is off-topic to Noah's point about age of the second generation), the second Rauch paper says this "This paper explores the extent native blacks differ from immigrant blacks. Additionally it determines in how far increased selective immigration masks an even greater deterioration in the economic condition of native blacks. In 2011, excluding black immigrants increases the white-black wage gap by 4% for men and 9% for women. It increases the employment gap by 13% and 19% for men and women respectively."

    The negative effects of growing up black in our society are understated by our official statistics?

  6. You should research and write about this more. Chandy Chisala was using similar data to argue that regression to the mean (as expected by hereditarians) is not happening, therefore hereditarians are wrong.

    I'm quite surprised that no one here mentioned hereditarians' until now.