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Study Assesses Impact of Economic Status for Racial and Ethnic Minorities in US

A new study with direct implications for the politics of immigration and minority groups in this election year finds that improved socioeconomic status among racial and ethnic minorities generally diminishes racial and ethnic group consciousness across a variety of public policies.

However, African Americans are more likely than Latinos and Asian Americans to retain their racial group consciousness regardless of improvements in their economic circumstances because they are more likely to face discrimination in their everyday lives.

The study, authored by Dennis Chong and Dukhong Kim (both of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois), is entitled "The Experiences and Effects of Economic Status Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities" and appears in the August 2006 issue of the American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA). It is available online at

Using data from a national survey conducted by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in 2001, the authors explored how changes in the standard of living of racial and ethnic minorities affected their support for group interests in public policy. They also assessed whether the impact of improvements in economic status on policy preferences depends on the extent to which higher status individuals perceive equal opportunity and experience discrimination.

They found that "vital differences between African Americans and other minority groups in their experiences of economic status affect their tendency to embrace a racial or ethnic identity and pursue group interests in public policy....African Americans place more emphasis on racial considerations than Latinos or Asian Americans," primarily because they face greater socioeconomic barriers than other minorities. Even when African Americans "achieve higher economic status, they continue to experience discrimination and to evaluate their life prospects in racial terms." Higher status Asian Americans and Latinos, by contrast, reduce their emphasis on race and ethnicity because are less likely to experience discrimination as their economic status improves.

The research findings also "suggest the general proposition that the effect of economic status on the group consciousness of all minorities depends on the experiences accompanying that status." Chong and Kim present evidence that "African Americans who have more positive experiences of middle class status give less attention to race and show less support for race-based public policies." The authors also show that, "in general, for all minority individuals who perceive equal opportunity and experience social acceptance, an improved standard of living tends to lead to a weaker focus on race and ethnicity." This pattern is reflected in minority attitudes toward public policies such as affirmative action in employment and education, as well as government programs to ensure equality in jobs, health care, schools, and the administration of the law. "On the other hand," the authors caution, "higher economic status fails to diminish the salience of race and ethnicity among those who encounter frequent discrimination."

The authors conclude by observing "An important lesson from this analysis is that support for racial or ethnic group interests is strengthened by the failure of society to provide equality of opportunity and weakened by favorable experiences of economic status... Structural barriers to individual advancement in the United States have reinforced the tendency of each generation of immigrants to build social and economic networks on the basis of their race and ethnicity in order to amass the collective resources needed to succeed economically and politically."

Although Chong and Kim found similar tendencies among all minorities, there remain hints in the data that support for group interests is more robust among African Americans. Compared to higher status Latinos and Asian Americans, economically secure African Americans were more likely to maintain support for government action to obtain racial equality in employment, education, health care, and law even when they evaluated socioeconomic conditions favorably. Racial consciousness among African Americans may be sustained, according to Chong and Kim, despite improvements in living standards because African American communities -- more so than Latino and Asian American communities -- assign greater utility to collective action and contain institutions such as churches and mass media that promote perceptions of a racial group interest.

The upshot is that people emphasize or downplay their racial and ethnic memberships partly depending on the utility of those identifications. When racial or ethnic discrimination restrict economic opportunities and social mobility, minorities are more likely to identify with the group and pursue collective means to improve their status. By contrast, those who feel less constrained by their minority status are more likely to downplay racial or ethnic considerations as their economic situation improves. Such individuals give greater weight to their own life circumstances as opposed to the group's condition, and are more inclined to evaluate government policies in terms of how those policies will impinge on themselves.

This research addresses key linkages between group identity and the policy preferences among three major minority groups in America today that surely will have implications for voting patterns in this election year cycle and beyond.

Bahram Rajaee | EurekAlert!
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