NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 20, 2008

If Barack Obama wins the keys to the White House next month, what will his victory mean for African-Americans in particular?  Should we expect his administration to play a major role in black group advancement, asks the Wall Street Journal?

The economist Thomas Sowell has spent decades researching racial and ethnic groups in the United States and abroad. His findings show that political activity generally has not been a factor in the rise of groups from poverty to prosperity:

  • Many Germans came to the United States as indentured servants during colonial times, and while working to pay off the cost of the voyage they studiously avoided participation in politics; only after they'd risen economically did Germans begin seeking public office.
  • A similar pattern can be found among Chinese populations in southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the United States.
  • In Argentina, where English minorities have done well financially and played a major role in the development of the economy, they've played almost no role in Argentine politics.
  • And so it goes with Italians in the United States and Jews in Britain: In both places economic gains have generally preceded political gains.

"Empirically, political activity and political success have been neither necessary nor sufficient for economic advancement," writes Sowell.  "Nor has eager political participation or outstanding success in politics translated into faster group achievement."

Black Americans might keep in mind that in those rare instances where the political success of a minority group has come first, it has often resulted in slower socioeconomic progress:

  • The Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-19th century hailed from a country where 80 percent of the population was rural.
  • Yet they settled in industrial centers like New York, Philadelphia and Boston and took low-skill jobs.
  • Their rise from poverty was especially slow -- as late as 1920, 80 percent of all Irish women working in America were domestic servants -- despite the fact that Irish-run political organizations dominated many big-city governments.

"The Irish were fiercely loyal to each other, electing, appointing and promoting their own kind," writes Sowell.  "This had little effect on the average Irish American, who began to reach economic prosperity in the 20th century at about the same time when the Irish political machines began to decline."

Source: Jason L. Riley, "What Obama Can't Change: The Lives of Blacks," Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2008.

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