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May 5, 2014
Bruce Maiman: Complex racial disparities raise troubling questions for us all

MCC_CLOVIS_EAST_school_graduation.JPG(May 5 - By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

Data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education trumpet a first-time accomplishment: Eighty percent of America's high school students are graduating in four years. California's 2012-13 graduation rate also inched above 80 percent. But something is amiss. Look demographically at California's dropout rates:

African American: 19.9 percent

Latino: 14.1

White: 7.6

Asian: 4.7

Why are dropout rates highest among Latinos and African Americans? Minorities subjected to rampant racism? Asians are a minority, historically having endured abysmal treatment in America - from railroad slave labor to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to Japanese internment camps, followed by national resentment over Japan's industrial encroachment in America. Any child of the '60s will remember when "Made in Japan" was a pox.

California academics of yesteryear, such as David Starr Jordan and politicians like James Phelan, a former San Francisco mayor who ran for U.S. senator on the platform of keeping California white, were firm believers in the "yellow peril," the term long used to identify Asians by color.

There are many similar examples, yet somehow, though discriminated against by public policy and social mores until only recently, Asian Americans have been able to academically exceed Latinos, African Americans and even Caucasian Americans, while conversely, Latinos and African Americans continue to lag behind.

Why?

"Comparing minorities is always a problem," Stanford University sociology professor Hazel Markus tells me. "Yes, minority groups are alike in that they're not mainstream, but they are very different in the conditions under which they've lived, under which they came to America, why they came to America, the kind of reception they've received, how long they've received it, and what's happening to their reception now."

Every social historian with whom I spoke gave some version of that answer: What's past is prologue.

"Conditions prior to immigration are critical," said David Hollinger, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's history department and author of "Post-Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism."

"Yes, there are low-skilled Asians in some particular groups, but by and large, immigrant subsets such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Asian Indians have very high skill sets to begin with - engineers, doctors, computers, English fluency," Hollinger said. "People coming here from Mexico don't have those kinds of skills."

That's not a reflection of a nation's populace, just that those coming from points south are from some of the economically poorest communities in Central America. It stands to reason they'd come here and continually aspire to do so. Those who've achieved success at home don't need to and rarely do.

Most scholars know that, Hollinger stresses, "but that's felt to be too complicated, so what's the ultimate reality: One race is good, another race is bad. That's just nonsense."

If you look at just the Latino population that's been here for 50 years or so, Hollinger says, you then see significant upward social mobility.

Then explain African Americans, whose ancestors go back centuries. "You're talking about a group with a multicentury legacy of slavery and institutionalized debasement," Hollinger argues. "The majority of the black population lives in the ex-Confederacy where they were getting little education and no voting rights until 50 or 60 years ago. It takes a long time for such population groups to change."

Markus, a pioneering figure in how cultural and psychological contexts shape our society, adds that "500 years of persistent, negative views" often manifest themselves in our inner-city schools.

Compared to Palo Alto, she notes, schools in adjacent East Palo Alto are "run down. Without the same sort of supplies, funded by a drastically different tax base. In some schools, there's $18,000 per kid a year compared to $5,000."

That disparity is hard to ignore.

Those living in, say, Marin or El Dorado Hills may view these explanations with skepticism. But when we ask questions like, "How can it take so long? Why isn't it working?" are we really saying, "It didn't take me that long. It worked for me," and are we asking those questions in a vacuum? Caucasians didn't grow up under any legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow system.

"You can't bring everyone around," Hollinger said, "but some people gradually do get it. The civil rights movement happened partly because a lot of white people realized that something needed to be done. At that time, it was 100 years since the abolition of slavery."

I'm betwixt and between. That I've never been burdened by the weight of history accompanying other demographic groups tempers my skepticism. Change can happen quickly with individual families, but history is a gradual process when it comes to mass population, and we're an impatient society. And just when I think we're making progress, someone like Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling comes along to remind us we still have a ways to go.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.