Pata Pata Time

It is likely that the apparent size of white-black educational and economic gaps will shrink over the next few decades, simply because the percentage of black Americans who are immigrants and children of immigrants has increased in recent decades, and these groups perform better than the children of native born black Americans on a number of economic and educational measures. Whether this represents a real amelioration of racial inequality or simply an obscuring of it is, I think, not an easy question to answer. My belief is that the changes in the composition of the black population, away from the descendants of slaves kept in America and towards West Indians, recent African immigrants and multi-racial individuals, are going ultimately to render the system of affirmative action preferences in selective colleges totally untenable, but that the colleges themselves will delay that reconciliation as long as possible, for self-serving reasons.

To start with: at least some groups of recent African and West Indian immigrants have above median (and above median-white) household incomes:


Among black adults with wages in the top quarter, the percent of foreign born individuals has more than doubled in the last two decades:


Among black children in households with an earner in the top quartile, the percent with foreign-born parents has also roughly doubled:

From CEPR Current Population Survey March Extracts

Among the young adults in the National Longitudinal Survey: 1997 who attended high school in the United States, the percent of foreign born blacks with a BA or higher is more than twice the percent of native born blacks:


For this same large group of older Millennials (born between 1982 and 1986), this difference in educational proficiency was already apparent by the time they took a standardized math and reading test in 1998; higher-scorers were disproportionately not native born:


At a county level, the average grade 3-8 performance of black students in school districts with more foreign born black students is significantly higher:

2009-2015 Scores from SEDA

Among current college-aged college students who were in 9th grade in 2009, the top 10% in GPA and math scores are almost 3 times as likely to be an immigrant or child of immigrants for boys and almost 4 times as likely for girls, relative to the mean of all black students:

High School Longitudinal Study: 2009 Cohort

Even conditioning on high school GPA and test scores, girls who are immigrants or the daughters of immigrants are more likely to be currently (as of 2016) enrolled in a selective college:


The causes of these educational and economic gaps between immigrant and non-immigrant black families are multiple and hard to disentangle. Marriage is probably one of them; foreign-born black mothers of teenagers are somewhat over twice as likely to be married (CPS 2017). The selectivity of emigration (and the relative difficulty African and West Indian immigrants have in coming here, relative to Latin American immigrants) probably partially also explains it. Lastly, it is likely that differential fertility patterns, in which poorer and lower scoring black native born women had more children than richer and higher  scoring black women, starting at least among the cohort born in the 1960s, made racial gaps among native born adults larger.



These patterns of differential fertility appear to be recapitulated among more recent cohorts (as well as among recent cohorts of native born whites), which might not make racial gaps themselves still larger but would tend to depress the performance of the children of native born Americans overall relative to newer immigrants.



In 2004, Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier pointed out that only about a third of black Harvard undergraduates had four grandparents who were the descendants of American slaves. My guess is that, given these overall trends towards foreign born black students (along with trends towards greater intermarriage) that percentage has only diminished since then. Whether or not this will serve the ostensible purposes of affirmative action is an open question, but not one I would trust Harvard to answer.

Update: the graphs above show the probability of being an immigrant/child of immigrants conditional on a certain level of high school performance, for black students who were in 9th grade in 2009. Here are average weighted GPA and test scores for this same group, conditional on being an immigrant/child of immigrants (vs US born teens with US born parents):



10 thoughts on “Pata Pata Time

  1. I would trust Harvard to answer “Yes.”

    Incidentally, the population of Guyana is of about 40% Indian descent, 30% African, 20% mixed, and 10% other (including white, Chinese, and Native American). No idea what the ratio is among Guyanese-Americans, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “ultimately to render the system of affirmative action preferences in selective colleges totally untenable”

    No, it won’t. The reason for affirmative action is officially “diversity” now, not reparations for past mistreatment. Then, of course, you have the unspoken motive of power and influence, which isn’t going to decline as numbers increase. West Indians benefiting from affirmative action is no sillier than Hispanics doing so, or Asians benefiting from preferential treatment in government business loans and contracts. Both of these things have gone on for decades with minimal resistance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am interested in the male / female divide. My top-of-the-head guess would have been that immigrant black males do relatively better than native black males than immigrant black females vs. native black females. But your graph says the opposite.

    My impression was that native black females do okay, while native black males do badly. (See Raj Chetty’s latest.)

    Admittedly, I find these kind of difference of a difference questions challenging to think straight about, so maybe I’m just being confused.


    1. For example, there’s the amusing story of the Notre Dame punt returner extraordinaire Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. He was raised believing his parents were immigrants from a very conservative Muslim African culture. But, in reality, his parents were just regular black Americans who made up a story to justify to their sons why they were being raised different from the other boys in the hood.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So, there’s probably another graph I should do which shows “probability of doing well conditional on being/not being an immigrant” while my graph shows “probability of being an immigrant conditional on doing well.” There aren’t that many boys period who do in the top 10 percent of weighted GPA/test scores.


  4. Mr. Toad, here’s an example from the news that fits well with your story. Claudine Gay a professor of political science and African-American studies was appointed dean of Harvard FAS.

    “Gay grew up the child of Haitian immigrants to the United States, spending much of her childhood first in New York, then in Saudi Arabia where her father worked for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.[3] Her mother was a registered nurse.[3] She attended Phillips Exeter Academy,[7]”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Claudine is the cousin of writer Roxane Gay. Roxane’s father was a civil engineer and the family moved around the US a lot, settling in Omaha. Roxane also attended Phillips Exeter. Roxane was raped at the age of 12 so her life and career path wasn’t as smooth as Claudine’s, but Roxane still managed to become successful.

      Until February, Roxane’s brother Joel was CEO of a publicly traded company called Energy Recovery. He abruptly resigned to spend more time with his family — leading me to wonder if he was involved in sexual impropriety. It would be interesting to know considering that his sister is a feminist.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s