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Esther Cepeda: Busting our stereotypes

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Esther Cepeda
January 29, 2014

CHICAGO -- My favorite type of social science is the myth-busting kind. Guess what? Not all members of minority groups are impoverished. Far from it.

 A new study, “The Concentration of Wealth in New York City,” illuminates “an extraordinary, and growing, concentration of wealth [at the top end of the income scale] in the city at large and among each major race/ethnic group, as well as among the five largest Latino national subgroups.”

 The Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the City University of New York, which conducted the study, adds that 36 percent of Hispanic households have incomes between $60,000 and $199,999.

 Not too shabby.

 Oh, Latinos still are not doing as well as everyone else in the Big Apple—they lag behind New York City's major races/ethnic groups with median household incomes of $46,463 in 2010 compared to non-Hispanic whites ($84,000), Asians ($63,210) and non-Hispanic blacks ($52,500). But still, it's far better than the picture of the down-and-out Latinos that is a dominant stereotype.

 “Despite being the poorest of the city's race/ethnic groups, the structure of income distribution and wealth concentration was very similar to the patterns found among all races and ethnicities, although income concentration was most extreme among non-Hispanic whites,” the report notes.

 Despite having a ways to go in climbing the socio-economic ladder, the fact is that Hispanics are gaining a foothold in the middle class and beyond, just like every other immigrant group before them.

 This may come as a surprise to those who think of Hispanics as having low incomes, poor educations, few prospects in life and, as a result, a low potential return on societal investment.

 The silver lining is that time is on Hispanics' side—they've been here long enough to have established a track record that can be reliably compared to other populations.

 And this means that instead of making projections about how the fastest-growing ethnic group is impacting the country—or worse, relying on immigration and crime-related news to shape the perception of who Latinos really are—more and more hard data are telling their story.

 The same is also becoming true about African-Americans and Asians—better and more data are making it harder to rely on simplistic characterizations of them.

 Separately, those who have been paying attention to any number of studies on academic and economic achievement didn't need authors Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and Jed Rubenfeld to tell them that “certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.”

 As the two underscored in a New York Times essay this week—“What Drives Success?”—all sorts of minorities are doing better than we generally give them credit for. “Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners,” they wrote.

 This bit stood out: “There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups.” That's no surprise to those who give more than a passing thought to these groups, but no one ever talks about it. The reason? As Chua and Rubenfeld note, “Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others—as measured by income, test scores and so on—is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism.”

 Too often, the status quo gets upset whenever it feels challenged, and one very effective way to undermine success is to holler “racism.” Chua has already become a target of a cascade of race-based criticism over her essay and an upcoming book with Rubenfeld, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”

 The less cynical simply give the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that there will always be those in America who fear losing momentum, support or funding once the word gets out that things are getting better for women, minorities and others traditionally thought of as perpetually at-risk.

 There will always be risk, but it's increasingly being mitigated by what we know about progress: Despite high needs and scarce resources, it marches on. And the more we learn about how much progress is made, the likelier we'll be to help others make more of it.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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