As President Barack Obama enters his sixth year in office, the image of a black man against the backdrop of grand marble and the stately appointments of the Oval Office has become quite unremarkable. In fact, many commentators have insisted that Martin Luther King's dream has been fully realized and we are all "post racial" now, meaning that race no longer marks a salient social division in the country's psyche. But are we there yet? Not by a long shot. On almost every measure of wellbeing, the numbers tell a grim story. The wealth gap between white and black families has actually quadrupled -- that's right, increased by fourfold -- over the course of the last generation. Latino and black rates of poverty register between 2.5 and four times the rates for whites. The black unemployment rate is double what it is for whites. Young Latino and black men drop out of high school at roughly twice the rate that young white men do. The infant morality rate for black mothers is 2.4 times the rate for white women, and like other gaps, the disparity in infant mortality has not changed for decades.
Research from a range of disciplines explains why we continue to see significant racial differences -- in labor, housing, education, and wealth, in health care, political power and now incarceration -- decade after decade. Light on the subject comes from a most unexpected place -- innovative work on a phenomenon called "lock-in." Economists like Brian Arthur have developed the "lock-in model" to explain why an early lead for one technology can sometimes persist for extended periods even when the technology faces competition from a superior alternative. The lock-in model focuses on the way that competitive advantage can begin to automatically reproduce itself over time until the advantage eventually becomes insurmountable or, in a phrase, locked in.
The lock-in model can help us to understand how it is that racial gaps may well persist indefinitely, even if all intentional discrimination were to end tomorrow. A number of institutional "feedback loops" parlay earlier advantage into continuing advantage. For example, social networks work to create cumulative advantage and disadvantage. Blacks and Latinos earn lower wages than whites in large part because the people in their social networks who will refer them for jobs are people who earn lower wages. Because the existing underemployed people in a network add new people who are more likely to be underemployed, the network is self-reproducing.
Likewise, gaps in wealth persist partly because black and Latino families can't afford to send their kids to college or give them a down payment on a house. Each generation serves as the foundation for the next generation and so the problem reproduces itself, in the absence of significant class mobility.
In the same way that disadvantage has become self-reinforcing, so too advantage has now become locked in. Whites have been able to build their wealth on the shoulders of earlier generations. White families use their wealth to pay for the next generation's college expenses or the down payment on the purchase of a house -- both activities which in turn have earned the next generation even more wealth. White friends and families refer people in their social networks to high-wage jobs with opportunity for advancement.
As the Billie Holiday song puts it, "Them that's got shall get, and them that's not shall lose." People making everyday choices, about referring friends for jobs or giving their kids help on the down payment, aren't discriminating in the conventional sense. But these choices create a self-reinforcing system that has been operating for hundreds of years, built on the foundations of slavery and Jim Crow. White advantage may now be "locked in," that is, impossible to overcome. Absent some kind of significant restructuring, race will continue to matter in many of the same ways it has mattered during the country's history, long after electing a president who is black -- or Latino or Asian for that matter -- becomes a regular event.