Robert Cherry
Author: The State of the Black Family

Intragroup Disparities Complicate Affirmative Action Initiatives

In the last two years, there have been claims of racial insensitivity among the royal staff made by Megan Markle and Ngozi Fulani. Whether or not these claims are completely valid, they have galvanized sections of the British public to redouble anti-racist efforts. The most recent example was the new National Health Insurance hiring requirements in parts of London for all positions:

If a white candidate is chosen, the panel chairman must write a report explaining why they were “more suitable” for the role. It does not apply the other way around. They must also provide “justification” as to why any ethnic minority candidate was not chosen and provide detailed “scoring notes” as evidence. Alongside this, they are required to suggest how the failed applicants can “develop their experience, skills, or aptitude” for a better chance next time.

It is likely, however, that the hiring results will do little to change key disparities given the dramatic differences among British black and central Asian immigrant groups; and this points to similar problems with US affirmative action programs.

Throughout England and Wales, in 2021, blacks were about 4.0% of the entire population: 2.4 million out of 60 million. However, they comprised almost 1.2 million or 13 percent of the 8.6 million Londoners. Blacks also comprise more than 10 percent of the populations in Manchester and Birmingham. Thus, while the black share of the overall population is quite small, it is magnified by its concentration in the largest cities, particularly London.

Of note, the dramatic black growth over the last few decades has been overwhelming among African immigrants. Today, there are twice as many British blacks who have African ancestry as those that have Caribbean ancestry. Thus, the continued emphasis on Caribbeans may have made sense a generation ago but not today.

African immigrants have poorer background, on average, than those of Caribbean descent. In 2009, the average black Caribbean household had about £76,000 in assets, compared to £15,000 in black African households. Furthermore, at the time, 45 per cent of black Africans were living in relative poverty compared to 30 per cent of black Caribbean individuals.

As a result of their small shares in national data, the government does not tabulate separate earnings breakdowns for Caribbean and African immigrants but it does indicate that average black weekly income (£408) in 2018 was only 80 percent of the average white weekly income (£518).

Government statistics do, however, give some educational measures. In 2018, the share of 14 to 16 year old students of African descent scoring Grade 5 or better on both reading and math was 50 percent greater than those of Caribbean descent and slightly higher than the white score.

Similar disparities exist within the Asian population whose population share throughout Wales and England is 9.3% or about 5.5 million. They, too, are concentrated in the largest cities: 21%, 20.9%, and 31.0%, respectively, in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Interestingly, the vision that this primarily reflects Indian descent – think the BBC TV series, “The Indian Doctor” – is highly inaccurate. Throughout Wales and England, those of either Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent are more numerous than those of Indian descent.

The Indian population in the UK is very similar to the Asian population in the US. Both have educational attainment and incomes well above the national average and even their white populations. In England and Wales, the average Indian weekly income (£538) is slightly higher than the white weekly income (£518) and a larger share of Indian immigrants are in the highest earning quintile than British whites.

National data indicate that the efforts at the London hospitals to increase the minority representation among its employees cannot be scaled to the nation because outside of the major cities there are too few nonwhite, particularly black, candidates. Just as important, the efforts will disproportionately favor Indian and African candidates, probably increasing intragroup disparities. It is also the case that US affirmative action policies do not make distinctions within the black population. As a result, descendants of twentieth-century black immigrants are the major beneficiaries of affirmative action at the most elite universities, comprising over 40 percent of the Ivy League black student population even though they are only 10 percent of the US black population.

In a 2021 interview, a descendant of slavery, Mariah Norman, discussed how children of immigrants dominate the black student environment at Harvard. She pointed to the Nigerian Students Association that claims 200 members, suggesting that one-third of Harvard’s black student body is in the club. And while the Black Students Association encompasses all, there wasn’t an organization solely for black students like Norman until students got together in 2021 and formed one.

These findings suggest that affirmative action should exclude members of advantaged groups within its Asian and black immigrant populations. In the UK, those of Indian and maybe those of African descent should no longer be considered among the underrepresented communities. In the US this has been adapted to exclude those descended from Chinese immigration but probably should be extended to exclude those of recent African descent. At least then these policies would be directed to the most struggling groups.

About the Author
Robert Cherry is a recently retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College. Author of Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021); and The State of the Black Family: The State of the Black Family: Sixty Years of Tragedies and Failures—and New Initiatives Offering Hope (Bombardier 2023).
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