In the United States, a nation described as the “land of opportunity”, it is often proclaimed that all people can achieve success through hard work and sacrifice. A recent study, however, suggest that this is not true for all Americans. The findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, suggest that white American men who earn more money experience less discrimination, while Black American men experience high discrimination regardless of their incomes.
The benefits that come along with high socioeconomic status (SES) have been well documented throughout the literature. For example, high SES appears to act as a shield against poor physical and mental health. This shield, however, seems to offer much weaker protection for Black people. Researcher Shervin Assari explains this phenomenon using the Minorities’ Diminishing Returns theory, postulating that Black Americans reap far fewer benefits from a higher income and education compared to white Americans.
Assari and his fellow researchers conducted a study to examine whether this effect might have something to do with the persistent discrimination experienced by Black people in America. Previous studies have suggested that while white people experience less discrimination with higher SES, Black individuals actually experience more discrimination with higher SES. This phenomenon might explain why Black people do not see the same gains with higher income as white people do.
The study authors analyzed survey data from a large nationally representative survey called the National Survey of American Life (NSAL-Adults), focusing their analysis on male respondents who identified as non-Hispanic white or African American. The surveys involved interviews that included an assessment of perceived discrimination — the men were shown a list of discriminatory experiences and asked to indicate how often in the past year they had experienced each event (e.g., being followed around a store, receiving poorer service than others in a restaurant).
Across the overall sample, having a lower income was associated with greater perceived discrimination. However, when the researchers explored the data by race, differences emerged. White men who had higher incomes reported experiencing less discrimination. But among Black men, higher income was unrelated to the level of discrimination they perceived.
Assari and his team say that these findings correspond to the backdrop of research that suggests that the advantages afforded by high socioeconomic status are diminished among Black Americans. “For African American individuals,” the study authors write, “various types of stress are not reduced as a result of occupying a higher status in society. Instead, race/ethnicity appears to serve as a steady magnet for discrimination regardless of social position.”
The finding that Black men tend to experience high discrimination whatever their social status suggests that the unfair treatment they receive is largely determined by their race. Among white men, discrimination likely has more to do with poverty and social position in terms of material resources. It may be that income on its own does not give rise to power and privilege, but that the combination of class, race, and gender grants money its power.
The study was limited because it did not differentiate between different types of discrimination (e.g., discrimination due to race, gender, age) and was missing data on Americans with very high incomes. Still, the results suggest a reality that runs counter to the notion that anyone who works hard can achieve the American dream, no matter their race, class, or gender. The findings demonstrate that despite achieving high levels of education and high earnings, African American men are unfairly disadvantaged in the United States.
The study, “Money Protects White but Not African American Men against Discrimination: Comparison of African American and White Men in the Same Geographic Areas”, was authored by Shervin Assari, Susan D. Cochran, and Vickie M. Mays.