So here it is – Black History Month! Schoolchildren all over the country will spend a few days learning about Martin Luther King, Jr., learning who invented the cotton gin, and even learning how to sing an old negro spiritual (no, not an Al Green tune!). If you can’t feel the sarcasm dripping from my keyboard, take my word for it – it is.
Look, I get it. Recognizing the achievements and contributions of African Americans is a worthy exercise. Particularly given the ahistorical nature of contemporary American society.
However, the way it is taught in schools is rather superficial…and is indicative of larger trends we are seeing in public understandings of race, as well as in recent scholarship.
Three new studies indicate that class, not race, is quickly becoming the defining factor in determining life chances.
The first study, by Sean Reardon at Stanford, argues that the educational achievement gap between poor people and affluent people is significantly larger than the well-known white-black achievement gap. Employing thoughtful and rigorous data analysis, Reardon shows that over time there has been a large increase in the achievement gap between the rich and poor, while the black-white gap has decreased. Another way to say this is that even within racial groups, the achievement gap between the rich and the poor has dramatically increased over time. Why? I’ll get to that in a minute.
The second study comes from controversial social scientist, Charles Murray. In his new book, Coming Apart, Murray asserts that there is an emerging white underclass that exhibits the pathologies often associated with the black underclass. High rates of out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse, and criminality, according to Murray, are now common-place in poor white communities across the country. Think of the book as a sort of modern-day Moynihan report about poor whites. Murray constructs a hypothetical community called Fishtown from a variety of data sources to paint an evocative picture of a white underclass loosened from its moral anchors and dangerously spiraling out of control. Why? I’ll get to that too.
The third study is by Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Jacob Vigdor of Duke. Their conclusion, after analyzing copious amounts of neighborhood census data, is that residential segregation in American cities has declined dramatically over the last several decades to such an extent that all-white enclaves “are effectively extinct” and the nation’s cities are more integrated than at any time since the very early 20th century. To be sure, blacks are still more segregated than Latinos or Asian Americans. Nonetheless, even the black-white patterns suggest significantly more integration than there was a half-century ago. The implication, of course, is that place – and by extension – class is increasingly a factor in gaining access to jobs, goods, services, and educational opportunities.
So, what do we conclude about race?
What we know from the cognitive literature is that people are fast and frugal thinkers. They are looking for mental shortcuts to make sense of their worlds. All of the above has been covered extensively in the media. A quick perusal of the Internet reveals that the headlines absolutely make all of this about class.
More to the point, it also is likely to activate the dominant frame about race – that America has essentially eliminated racism and discrimination (see FrameWorks research reports on race). As Glaeser and Vigdor argue, policies such as the Fair Housing Act paved the way for greater residential integration. This line of reasoning is exactly the type of rationale people in our focus groups gave as the basis for the claim that federal and state policies have rendered the effect of racial discrimination passé.
Look deeper, however, and several important things are revealed. For instance, this study makes clear that desegregation has not been felt equally across racial minority groups. Blacks are still the most likely to live in segregated communities. And the more blacks there are, the more likely they are to be segregated. This does not bode well and suggests that we have much farther to go.
Murray attempts to explain the white underclass phenomena as a function of the abdication of leadership responsibilities by the white (mainly liberal) elite. To Murray, the pathologies of the white underclass reflect the fact that affluent whites are simply too permissive and non-judgmental. What Murray misses – like really misses – is the structural change in the economy. The disappearance of decent-paying jobs in the manufacturing and production sectors, the shift towards an information and service economy, and the fluidity of capital has dislocated less educated people from the labor market. Gee, a novel idea, people without jobs and income resort to things like drugs, crime, and instability. Structure, not culture, is the central causal agent at work here.
As for Reardon’s study about the achievement gap, a deeper examination of the study finds the author repeatedly noting that, while income inequality plays a big role in the achievement gap, so too does race. You don’t have to cut the data very far to see massive race-based achievement gaps – especially regarding African Americans. To be fair, Reardon does say that the income inequality/achievement gap relationship is driven less by inequality in and of itself, and more by the conscious decisions of the more affluent to invest in the cognitive development of their children. Nonetheless, given patterns of housing segregation for blacks and the lack of employment opportunity for the black underclass, it is not too hard to figure out that race continues to play a significant role.
In short, race still matters for people’s life chances. The ways in which it matters and becomes manifest is, to be certain, more complicated and nuanced than in the past, but matter it does. As the French say “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.