Teaching About Race: The Problem is Inequality and Bad Policies, Not Bad Choices

09/24/2015 09:11 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2016

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore had a very funny bit on the 2nd Republican Party debate. Wilmore played a segment with candidates repeating the word race, but they were always talking about the Presidential race. Not one Republican candidate discussed the problems of race in America. But despite efforts by Republican candidates to pretend racism does not exist, it keeps raising its ugly head, as the two quotes from Pew reports demonstrate, and teachers have to find a way to teach about it.

"The share of American children living in poverty has declined slightly since 2010 as the nation's economy has improved. But the poverty rate has changed little for black children, the group most likely to be living in poverty, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data . . . Black children were almost four times as likely as white or Asian children to be living in poverty in 2013, and significantly more likely than Hispanic children." - Pew Research Center, July 15, 2015

"The ideal that all Americans have equality of opportunity regardless of their economic status at birth is the crux of the American Dream and a defining element of our national psyche . . . Forty-three percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile remain stuck in the bottom as adults . . . [T]he "rags-to-riches" story is more often found in Hollywood than in reality . . . [T]he persistence of the black-white mobility gap undercuts equality of opportunity, a concept central to the idea of the American Dream."-- Pew Charitable Trusts, Pursuing the American Dream, July 9, 2012

In June I taught a graduate class for teachers, "Teaching about Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the United States." The class is about being sensitive and thoughtful when teaching topics like race, class, and ethnicity, using historical and sociological reseach to support lesson planning, and listening, questioning, and challenging student preconceptions as teachers find ways to get them to think about and express ideas on very difficult topics. A lot of what the class focused on this time was current events. We could not avoid it.

It is easy to blame racial inequality in the United States on "bad choices" or lack of "personal responsibility" by Black people. If the "problem" is their "bad choices," that means the economic and political system is basically sound and people who are doing okay, both Black and White, can credit themselves for their "good choices." Fox News seems to have an endless supply of paid Black commentators willing to blame Black people for problems facing Black communities. Their goal seems to be helping Whites feel comfortable denying the impact of race and racism.

After Baltimore, after Charleston, after all the calls for healing, and before the next racial incident or explosion hits the news, the United States and the American people need to start examining what are the real sources of racial and economic inequality. Calls for healing without action and change is like treating symptoms but ignoring the causes of a disease.

An April 2014 public opinion poll reported on the website YouGov was an example of America's great racial divide. Republicans were more than three times as likely as Democrats to say people are poor because of individual failings, Conservatives almost five times as likely at Liberals, and Whites were twice as likely as Blacks.

Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, acknowledged that "Self-destructive behaviors -- dropping out of school, joining a gang, taking drugs, bearing children when one isn't ready -- compound poverty." But he also began to look at the way self-destructive behavior was a product of growing up Black, poor, and ghettoized in the United States. For example, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, "Americans in poverty are more likely than those who are not to struggle with a wide array of chronic health problems, and depression disproportionately affects those in poverty the most." This includes a diagnosis of depression double the national rate, and higher rates of asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart attacks. One national study reported that millions of low-income Americans, perhaps as many as twelve million, suffer from parasitic infections associated with cognitive impairment or mental health disorders. Another national study found that fifty-five percent of the infants living in poverty were being raised by mothers who had signs of depressions.

Kristof also examined the impact of economic stress on human performance. It appears that "Worrying about bills, food or other problems, leaves less capacity to think ahead or to exert self-discipline. So, poverty imposes a mental tax." He cited a scientific study of poor farmers in India whose intelligence was tested before and after harvest. When stress was reduced post-harvest their intelligence climbed 10 points or about 10%.

After looking at these reports, Kristof concluded "If you're battling mental health problems, or grow up with traumas like domestic violence (or seeing your brother shot dead), you're more likely to have trouble in school, to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, to have trouble in relationships." He also demanded to know how a society that places such a high premium on personal responsibility could continually deny its responsibility for conditions faced by its members, especially its children. "When the evidence is overwhelming that we fail kids before they fail us, when certain programs would actually save public money while elevating personal responsibility, isn't it also time to stop making excuses for our own self-destructive behaviors as a society?"

Writing for the Economic Policy Institute, Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein recently examined the "social disadvantages" that depress student performance in school. They charged that because policy makers continually "look to better schools and teachers to close achievement gaps" and avoid addressing broader social problems their solutions " consistently come up short." Among the "social disadvantages" facing poor children, Morsy and Rothstein included parenting practices that impede children's intellectual and behavioral development, single parenthood, parents' irregular work schedules, low wages, or unemployment, inadequate access to primary and preventive health care, exposure to and absorption of lead in the blood, concentration in segregated neighborhoods, housing instability, stress, malnutrition, and asthma.

Based on their study, Morsy and Rothstein concluded "Closing the education achievement gap by improving the outcomes of lower-social-class children requires that we reform their social conditions . . . The greater the gaps that remain in such conditions, the greater the gaps that will likely remain in achievement by race and social class." Instead of blaming the victims of poverty, primarily children, Morsy and Rothstein called for a series of vastly expanded governmental programs to address the problems in their lives.

I recently received an email from a young African American woman who follows my Huffington Posts. She is a high school student in Brooklyn whose home is now in turmoil because her cousin, a single mother, just moved in with her one-year old daughter. She asked me to comment on what is going on in the Black community; one of the reasons I wrote this blog. The personal responsibility crew likes to look at these problems and focus on single-parenthood as if that was the one principal causal agent of poverty in the Black community. But the data does not support their biases.

In another study, the Pew Research Center compared the "share of live births occurring outside marriage" in the United States and Europe and found that in 2012 seventeen European countries had higher rates of birth outside of marriage including Iceland, France, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Great Britain, and Finland. In most of these countries the unwed mothers are overwhelmingly White. Clearly other factors beside race personal choice are involved.

According to Eileen Patten, one of the researchers who prepared the Pew report cited in the opening of this blog, a possible explanation for the large number of Black children stalled in poverty is that the unemployment rate for African Americans in the United States is consistently higher than for other racial or ethnic groups. She noted that it climbed when the economy collapsed into recession in 2008 and was much slower to recover. Recession, unemployment, and the failure of the government to provide compensatory services are the cause of poverty, not bad personal choices. Certainly the Black children raised in poverty had never made a personal choice.

Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, attributed racial inequality and poverty in the United States to "Slavery's Long Shadow." He believes that while "America is a much less racist nation than it used to be" and "racial hatred is still a potent force in our society." In addition, he argued that "the racial divide is still a defining feature of our political economy, the reason America is unique among advanced nations in its harsh treatment of the less fortunate and its willingness to tolerate unnecessary suffering among its citizens." Krugman cited a 2001 paper by economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, titled "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-style Welfare State?" The authors concluded, "Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America's troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state." While that study is over a decade old, Krugman demonstrates that current opposition to nation health insurance and Medicaid for the poor is rooted in Southern states with a history of enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, and racism.

Krugman concluded, "Every once in a while you hear a chorus of voices declaring that race is no longer a problem in America. That's wishful thinking; we are still haunted by our nation's original sin."

On its webpage, The New York Times juxtaposed eight powerful and disturbing videos of violent reactions by police officers towards Black or Latino Americans they are sworn to protect and defend. According to Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former prosecutor. "A lot of white people are truly shocked by what these videos depict; I know very few African-Americans who are surprised. The videos are smoking-gun evidence, both literally because they are very graphic, which generates outrage, and figuratively, because people believe their own eyes." Butler has a B.A. from Yale, a J.D. from Harvard, and is African American.