11/26/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Poverty Costs Us All, But Children of Color Pay the Highest Price

Harvard's Randall Kennedy has written a timely book on affirmative action, given the impending U.S. Supreme Court decision on preferential treatment in public university admissions. In For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and The Law, Kennedy supports preferential treatment for people of color, based on past discrimination and continued racial segregation in housing patterns.

Racial isolation, he argues, is insidious: It harms the health, education and earning power of blacks and Latinos, contributing to an unemployment rate nearly double that of whites. The resulting poverty affects their social behavior and psychological well-being. They suffer the shame of being "the other" -- those people who some have said can't make it in life without a "hand-out." This video, recently posted online by UCLA student Sy Stokes, speaks volumes about the growing frustration among some young people of color.

Yet this poverty makes all America suffer -- if not for moral reasons, then as a more practical torment, as poor students of color fall further behind in the classroom and the workplace.

Children of color and those challenged by poverty take the values of racism to heart and make them their own. At the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, we see it all too often. For example, a volunteer tutor in an Indiana school district related a conversation he had with students who were about to take a standardized test.

"The newspaper says we're not going to pass the state test," they told him. When he asked if they thought they would, a girl replied, "Well, they don't think we will, so we probably won't." And when the volunteer talked to students about college, a boy said: "Kids from the 'hood don't go to college."

These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, as the negative opinions of others are internalized and allowed to shape self-defeating behaviors.

Poverty may be little more than the luck of the draw, birth family or ZIP code. As accidents go, however, poverty is especially cruel. Marshall Sahlins, writing in Stone Age Economics, says it "is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and end; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. ... It has grown ... as an invidious distinction between classes."

Worse, a malignant narcissism seems to affect our nation -- the "I-got-mine-so-you-are-on-your-own" refrain. Two-thirds of Americans say they believe many African Americans have difficulty getting ahead in life because of personal factors, according to the Pew Research Center. Just 19 percent blame racial discrimination.

The effects of discrimination endure. Racism remains in schools (academic tracking, low expectations, restricted access to advanced education that stress high intellectual performance) and the workplace (statistical discrimination in hiring caused by negative stereotypes of prospective employees). According to sociologist Devah Pager, "White men with criminal records are as likely to be awarded jobs as black men with no such records."

In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make the point that "one common factor [that] links the healthiest and happiest societies [is] the degree of equality among their members. Not wealth, not resources, not culture, not climate, diet, nor form of government. Further, more unequal societies are bad for everyone with them -- the rich and middle class as well as the poor."

It is said that ours is the only nation not founded on the ethnicity of its people, but on a shared commitment to certain ideas and values, including courage, respect, consideration, perseverance, industry, responsibility, justice, initiative, moderation and integrity. Being an American is a shared way of thinking and life. Consider the movement Ken Burns is leading by encouraging all Americans, but especially students, to create and share videos of themselves reciting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

But if the patriotism of shared national values is not enough of an incentive to bring our country together, then the growing international focus on transforming education systems should motivate America to action. Reading Amanda Ripley's book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, it is painfully clear how far we are falling behind other countries in such student performance measures as the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA). Ripley writes:

In 2009, U.S. teenagers ranked twenty-sixth on the PISA math test, seventeenth in science, and twelfth in reading. ... Economists had found an almost one-to-one match between PISA scores and a nation's long-term economic growth. [And] if the United States had Finland's PISA scores, GDP would be increasing at the rate of one to two trillion dollars per year.

If America is to reverse the downward trend of achievement, we must focus relentlessly on rigorous content and instruction, and enable learners to understand that intelligence is not consigned by their genes, but something they must work hard to develop in their heads.

Here is something else we must do:

Support affirmative action programs, so students of color and those challenged by poverty can take seats in the most exclusive classrooms alongside those with the good fortune to be born into middle-class or wealthy families. Let's give all children an even break.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at