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Inequality in the West

Racial and Ethnic Variation in Occupational Status and Returns to Education, 1940–2000

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2016


The western region of the United States has exhibited racial and ethnic diversity that rivals that found in any other part of the country. Yet the socioeconomic differences among western racial and ethnic groups have been studied much less intensively than corresponding differences in other regions of the United States. In this article we use data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series from 1940 through 2000 to describe the recent history of occupational inequality in the West. We find evidence of a persistent and significant occupational disadvantage for African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans. In contrast, the two Asian groups included in our analysis, Chinese and Japanese, frequently enjoyed an actual occupational advantage relative not only to other racial and ethnic minority groups but also to the majority native-born white population. Controlling for group differences in educational attainment explains much of the racial and ethnic variation in occupational inequality, but further analysis shows that it is inaccurate to assume that all groups enjoy the same occupational benefits from additional schooling. As a result, controlling for education without considering such differential occupational returns to schooling can yield a misleading picture of occupational inequality. Finally, we interpret these findings in relation to different theoretical perspectives on racial and ethnic inequality in the United States.

Copyright © Social Science History Association 2007

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