The West Indian Success Myth


People who argue against a genetic explanation of black failure never tire of pointing to the West Indians.  They’re especially useful for conservatives who tell us it’s all culture.  The thinking goes “Come on, American blacks, they can do it, why can’t you?”  For example, Dinesh D’Souza has written “[The civil rights agenda being corrupted by multiculturalism] is especially tragic for African-Americans and other minorities who fall prey to the enervating bitterness that feeds ideas like reparations, even while recent non-white immigrants like Haitians and West Indians are taking advantage of educational and entrepreneurial opportunities to climb the American ladder of success.”   David “the best thing about America is that it will soon be nonwhite” Horowitz likewise points to the supposed accomplishments of this model minority.  


The problem with this often parroted line is that it’s not true, or only true if you have very low standards of what constitutes a success story.  Thomas Sowell did in 1978 find that West Indians earned only 6 percent below the national average.  A 1993 paper estimated that they made 19 percent less than native born whites.  Whatever study you look at, there’s a consensus that people who emigrate to America from the West Indies do worse than whites but better than native blacks.  Most conservatives probably suspect that, like most children of immigrants, the second generation improves on what their parents accomplished. 


In the June 2001 issue of Social Forces, Min Zhou reviews the book Black Identities: West Immigrant Dreams and American Reality.  By the second generation the “culture of opposition” sets in.  


The story of the second generation is disheartening (chapters 6-8). Waters goes to great lengths to describe what is like to be black living in the inner city. Unlike the parents who are equipped with a dual frame of reference and a foreign accent that distinguishes them from African Americans, the children of immigrants use only the U.S. standard as their benchmark and are likely to regard themselves and are regarded as Americans. They are thus subject to the same structural racism -substandard schools, racially segregated, disinvested, and crime-stricken neighborhoods, and labor market discrimination — and interpersonal racism experienced by African Americans and yet lack immigrant cultures and multilayered identities to fall back on. Waters shows, through the words of the children and their teachers, that the role of racial inequality in American society continues to affect all aspects of children’s lives. The children’s daily encounters of attacks based on race, the discrepancy between rising expectations and economic marginality, and a lack of any avenues of institutional support for individual mobility leads to a culture of opposition. This culture of opposition, as Waters argues, does not simply emerge from the process of assimilation (to African American culture) but from the children’s own experiences and understanding of American realities. Waters concludes that “declining city services, a materialistic U.S. culture, failing inner-city schools, an economy that offers little hope to the least educated, and a society where black skin still closes doors and awakens hatred can destroy the chances of people who have sacrificed a great deal for a better life” Despite the limitations of a nonrandom, small sample, Waters closes the book with a sad truth: “As we enter the twenty-first century, the tragedy is that America has sold West Indians a bill of goods-a universal ideology of inclusion that in reality is based on defining blacks as ‘other, the people who can never really be Americans.”


Translation: They start to resemble American blacks and it’s the fault of whites.  


While the book mentioned above doesn’t seem big on statistics, a study out of UC Irvine shows that the story of American born West Indians does little to support culturalism.  


Irvine, Calif., Oct. 4, 2006 — While the vast majority of young adult children of immigrants experience upward economic and social mobility, a new study finds that a significant minority are suffering from lower levels of education, lower incomes, higher birth rates and higher levels of incarceration. Furthermore, it is the U.S.-born children of Mexican, Haitian and West Indian immigrants who experience these problems in the largest proportions…


The researchers found that children of Laotian and Cambodian Americans as well as Haitian Americans had the lowest median annual household income at just over $25,000. They were followed closely by Mexican American families, which had a median annual household income of about $30,000. On the other end of the spectrum, children of upper-middle-class Cuban exiles in Southern Florida reported a household income of more than $70,000, and Filipino Americans in Southern California had more than $64,000, followed by Chinese immigrants.

Furthermore, the study found that the most educationally and economically disadvantaged children of immigrants were most likely to have children of their own at a young age, compounding their difficulties at pursuing higher education. When surveyed at the average age of 24, none of the Chinese Americans had children, while in contrast 25 percent of Haitians, West Indians, Laotians and Cambodians did, as did 41 percent of Mexican American young adults.

Differences in arrest and incarceration rates are also noteworthy, particularly among second-generation, U.S.-born, males. While only 10 percent of second-generation immigrant males in the survey had been incarcerated, that figure jumped to 20 percent among West Indian and Mexican American youths.

HBD wins again.  

Nobody would argue that native born blacks couldn’t do better with a less self-destructive culture.  But the myth that even a highly selected group of people of sub-Saharan African descent can ever approach the American mainstream needs to be put to rest.  


  1. rec1man :

    Dec 16, 2009 5:04 pm |

    In the Princeton 2003 long term study,
    which looked at IQ of immigrant children

    Children of highly selected Africans had an IQ of 89
    ( regression to the mean )

  2. jack :

    Dec 16, 2009 7:15 pm |

    Not to mention the elephant in the room – Affirmative Action. African immigrants get all the benefits intended for supposedly “disadvantaged” native-born blacks and they still can’t compete with whites in the endgame.

  3. ksm :

    Dec 16, 2009 7:32 pm |

    Filipinos are doing better than the Chinese in southern California? Weird, isn’t it? As for Caribbean blacks, here in the New York area they seem to be roughly as numerous as traditional US blacks. They’re doing better than traditional blacks, but worse than every white or Asian ethnic group I can think of. A few weeks ago I saw an ad for Chris Rock’s movie about “black hair”. The ad featured an interview with a previously unknown to me actress named Nia Long. She didn’t have any identifiable accent, but she seemed more articulate and put-together than the average black celebrity. I got curious, so I looked her up in the Wikipedia. Yep, both parents from Trinidad.

    Since Jamaica’s IQ is in the 70s, a selection effect must be going on here. The populations of Trinidad and Guyana are composed of blacks and low caste Indians. The result is predictable – Indians are more economically successful than blacks.

    Speaking of black female celebrities, I have never seen any proof that Alicia Keys has any African ancestry at all. Judging by her face, she could be a white girl with a tan. Keep in mind that in the music industry being black is a bit of a plus.

  4. Garnet :

    Dec 16, 2009 8:16 pm |

    Did that last study you cite say how many of the west indians composed the “significant majority”? The fact that mexican americans was lumped in obviously isn’t going to be due to much of anything in the way of “regression to the mean”, considering how most of them, well… you know how they get over here.

    I’ve found it interesting how most of the blacks I’ve seen who seriously debate nature-nurture issues online are of carribean descent. Many of you might be familiar with the rather pathetic David Alexander, who’s of Haitian descent, on Half Sigma.

  5. Garnet :

    Dec 16, 2009 8:43 pm |

    Wait, maybe I’m misreading- are you arguing for a regression to the mean effect? If so, not much of what you’ve detailed says so. How much did the second generation resemble the first generation?

  6. Bernie :

    Dec 17, 2009 11:37 am |

    I must admit that this argument by D’Souza made me question the link between IQ and race at one time. After all, the Caribbean and African immigrants I have known were pleasant, hard working and friendly to a man. Almost the complete opposite of thier African American cousins.

    But thier kids – and certainly grandkids – will be indistinguishable from American blacks. So culture does account for something, but genetics still plays a major role.

    One question. Why do you suppose African Americans are not taking to the seemingly more successful culture of Caribbean immigrants? Instead of Jamaican kids listening to rap and speaking ebonics, why don’t black kids listen to dancehall and affect a patois?

  7. McNeil :

    Dec 17, 2009 4:10 pm |

    I think something that people often forget is that these are measurements of median household incomes. Not all household sizes are the same for all ethnic groups, nor do all households have the same number of working adults.

  8. McNeil :

    Dec 17, 2009 5:08 pm |

    By the way, you can find this type of data first hand from the Census Bureau.

    This is demographic data available from a wide array of ethnic and country of origins from 2006-2008, you can draw your own conclusions from it. The way it is laid out also lets you isolate immigrants from U.S. born populations and build a demographic profile for that particular ethnic group in America. For example, did you know two thirds of Japan born American residents are women? Or that Male Netherlands born American residents mean individual incomes are twice as much as their female counterparts (much greater than the national average)? 21% of China born immigrants have less than a high school education and that 60.7% do not speak English very well. India born American residents have probably the most warped socio-economic profile relative to their home populations with 40.7% of them possessing graduate degrees.

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