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Daniel Little

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The Realities of Race in the United States

Posted: 06/18/2012 2:28 pm

Race and racial discrimination have been part of the social order in the United States for a very long time. But we do a very poor job of recognizing and understanding the realities of race in our country. And we've done an even worse job of ameliorating those realities.

The current realities are stark. There are pervasive, life-determining disparities between white and black people in the United States that extend from birth to old age. There are persistent disparities in health status across racial groups. Infant mortality, longevity, and mortality by a long list of diseases show sharply different patterns by racial groups. (Here is a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund that documents many of these disparities.) School systems in inner cities continue to fail the children of those cities, and pronounced patterns of residential segregation ensure that the primary victims of those failures are children of color. Unemployment rates, income, and wealth are likewise highly disparate for white and black Americans, as are education levels, incarceration levels, and outcomes within the criminal justice system for broadly similar groups of offenses. (Michelle Alexander's recent The New Jim Crow documents the last set of points.)

So it seems evident that there are racially specific structures in American society that systematically disadvantage African-American children, adolescents, and adults when it comes to health, schooling, and employment, and those disadvantages cascade forward into large differences in mortality, health, and affluence. The opportunities that are available to white and black Americans are starkly different, and the outcomes are divergent as well.

So where is the urgency that we ought to see in our institutions and leaders in face of these disparities and their structural causes? There is little urgency. Politicians gloss over continuing disparities or engage in rhetoric that blames the victims. Efforts are made to reduce access to the vote in many states across the country by conservative organizations. Our gaze is directed away from the stark realities of the race system in the United States. It is striking to recall that the only president in recent memory who placed civil rights and racial equality high on his agenda was a Southerner, Lyndon B. Johnson. Since Johnson there has been little sustained attention to the realities of poverty and race in our country at the highest levels, and state governments have been even less concerned.

Organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP are fully aware of these realities, and they are doing a good job of expressing what they know. The Urban League's annual report on the state of black America should be read by all of us. But their descriptions and demands for action are disregarded as "partisan" or "special interest."

In order to make more progress on addressing these continuing social realities of race we need to have a better set of theories about how they work. What are the mechanisms that underlie racial disparities of opportunity and outcome? Previous generations worked on the theory that racial disparities would disappear when the legal basis of racial discrimination was erased -- the end of Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and 1960s and the efforts to end continuing patterns of discrimination in employment, education, and housing in the 1970s and 1980s. But it is now evident that these changes, while necessary, were not sufficient.

It is for this reason that I find the current thinking of the social and political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson so promising. Anderson's recent book, The Imperative of Integration, is a major practical contribution to our ability to understand the patterns of race in the United States. Anderson focuses on one factor that continues to underlie almost all forms of racial disparities -- residential segregation -- and provides an analysis of how this system works.

Here is her central finding (summarizing a great volume of social science research):

Segregation of social groups is a principal cause of group inequality. It isolates disadvantaged groups from access to public and private resources, from sources of human and cultural capital, and from the social networks that govern access to jobs, business connections, and political influence. It depresses their ability to accumulate wealth and gain access to credit. It reinforces stigmatizing stereotypes about the disadvantaged and thus causes discrimination.

And here is how Anderson summarizes her conclusions:

I have argued that integration is an indispensable goal in a society characterized by categorical inequality. It is necessary to block and dismantle the mechanisms that perpetuate unjust social inequality, and to realize the promise of a democratic state that is equally responsive and accountable to citizens of all identities.

This analysis points the way to a better future: reducing residential segregation has the promise of reducing educational inequalities, employment inequalities, and ultimately wealth inequalities across racial groups in the United States.

Anderson is a good example of an engaged scholar who devotes sustained attention to the social problems with which she is concerned. Along with Jeffrey Jones, she has maintained a valuable website on "The Geography of Race in the United States" here.

 
 
 

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