Education’s Limitations and Its Radical Possibilities
In U.S. society, racial and class inequality are twin social phenomena—more fraternal than identical, distinctive yet deeply interconnected. One can barely make inferences about the former without consideration of the latter. Yet, many of us frequently pit race and class and their related brethren—racism, bias, prejudice, poverty, unemployment, and discrimination—against each other as if they are locked in a winner-take-all competition. Noticeably, the spectrum of the color line (to invoke W.E.B. Du Bois’ metaphor) corresponds to certain gradations of the class line. Particular racial-ethnic groups are represented disproportionately and overwhelmingly in the lowest household income strata of our society; and other groups in the highest.For example, data from the National Center for Poverty based at Columbia University reveal that among children ages 18 or younger who live in either low-income or poor households, nearly two out of three African American, Native American, and Latinx youth live at or below 200% of the poverty line, compared to less than one out of three of their Asian and White peers. That is to say, the descendants of those who faced slavery, settler colonialism, genocide, and conquest, respectively, fare worse centuries later than the descendants of White colonialists and the progeny of many post-1965 East and South Asian immigrants. This radical disproportionality is what some sociologists have referred to as the “colors of poverty” or even the “racialization of poverty.”
The spectrum and colors of affluence are different. In 2015, Forbes magazine reported that the top 400 wealthiest Whites in the United States possess a cumulative worth of $ 2.34 trillion. Those 400 White Americans’ wealth is nearly 1.5 times that of all 16 million African American households ($1.56 trillion) and 1.3 times that of all 15 million Latinx households ($1.82 trillion). Naturally, some might counter that differences in either human capital or education can explain these expansive and jarring differences in wealth and income. But, even when we control for education, we find that the wealth of college-educated Whites is more than 13 times greater than college-educated Blacks and Latinx. In fact, Whites without a high school degree have significantly more wealth, on average, than Black and Latinx college graduates.
American history, its racial origins, and its political and economic systems created and currently sustain startling racialized economic and educational disparities. As historian Ira Katznelson laid out compellingly in his book, When Affirmation Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, our society missed an opportune time to redress some of its grossest distortions of citizenship, rights, and access from prior historic eras. For the most part, contemporary middle and high school textbooks depict the most myopic views of our collective history of slavery, settler colonialism, conquest, and Jim Crow, raising little awareness of how government and civil society worked cohesively to maintain de jure forms of inequality for centuries, let alone how the impact of this profound inequality has spread well into the current era. Meanwhile, the historical accumulation of disadvantages impacts the educational well-being of the youth who now populate the nation’s public schools. Many of these young people will lack college-readiness; others barely will obtain a high school diploma.
In Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent, Too?, John W. Gardner, former secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson, predicted that equal education and opportunity will continue to be favored by most Americans. Yet, to really achieve this, “it requires the removal of every removable obstacle” including prejudice and status and wealth inequality. Gardner’s words are just as relevant 30 years after they were written. Many of us purport to believe in “equality of opportunity,” but have we really thought deeply about what it takes to enact the practices necessary to realize it?
Economist Raj Chetty and his fellow researchers have found that the chances for intergenerational mobility—as measured by children and parents’ relative positions in the income distribution—remain roughly constant. Children born today have the same prospects for rising from the bottom to the top quintile of household incomes as those born in the 1970s. Those born into poor and working poor families have less than a 10% chance, on average, of reaching the upper quintile of earnings—although, according to Chetty and colleagues, their chances vary by region. If you were born into the bottom quintile of household incomes in San Jose, California, for instance, then you have a higher chance of making it up to the top than if you were born in Charlotte, North Carolina. The economists also find that the chances for mobility are higher in communities with less residential segregation, less income inequality, better primary schools, greater social capital, and greater family stability. For brevity’s sake, let’s refer to these as the “opportunity-rich neighborhoods”.
In March 2018, the New York Times covered some of Chetty and company’s latest findings. Along with economist Nathaniel Hendren and Census Bureau researchers Maggie Jones and Sonya Porter, Chetty analyzed the tax and census records of over 20 million individuals born between 1978-1983 in the U.S. They found that living in “opportunity-rich neighborhoods,” though impactful, is insufficient to fully close the intergenerational mobility gap between Blacks and Whites—especially among males. In fact, the intergenerational mobility gap between Black and White youth born into the highest quintile households is greater than that between their counterparts born in the lowest quintile. As adults, Black males born at the top and living in “opportunity-rich neighborhoods” are equally as likely to fall into the bottom income quintile as they are to remain in the top quintile. Meanwhile, White males born into the top household income quintiles are five times as likely as Black males to remain there as adults. Strikingly, Black women earn slightly more in the next generation (at a 1 percentile difference) than White women, conditional on parental income.
The intergenerational mobility gap between Native Americans and Whites is akin to that of African Americans to Whites, averaging about an 18 percentile point difference at each income level, conditional on parent incomes. This pattern does not hold for any other comparisons of racial-ethnic groups. Between Asians and Whites, the intergenerational mobility gaps are tiny, and analyses reveal that Asians obtain similar and even higher incomes than Whites in the next generation at nearly every parent income level. And Latinx persons are not far behind with small intergenerational gaps of 2 percentiles at the 25th percentile and 6 percentiles at the 75th percentile.
One of the most dramatic findings from Chetty et al. is the magnitude of the gap between Black and White males living in “opportunity-rich” neighborhood contexts. Like any good social scientists, Chetty and his coauthors tested the conventional explanations offered by sociologists and economists, including the influence of educational attainment, neighborhood effects, family structure (specifically the presence of married, heterosexual parents), and even wealth (as measured by home ownership). Such analyses showed that the intergenerational gap would fall by 25%, at most, if Black and White boys were to grow up in the same neighborhoods. Even after accounting for all of these possible explanations—education, neighborhood, parents’ marital status, and wealth—the intergenerational mobility gap between Black and White males persists.
Notably, the incarceration rates for Black men on a single given day at 10.6% ranged anywhere from twice as likely as Native American men (the group with the next highest rate of incarceration) to about 10,000 times more likely than Asian American women (the group with incarceration rates of less than .001 percent). All other groups fell somewhere in between, including Black women at 0.6% and White men at 1.6% Class matters, too: Black men from the lowest income backgrounds were incarcerated at the highest levels with 21% locked either in jail or prison at the time of the 2010 Census—a rate ten times greater than those of Black men from the highest income percentile. Incarceration patterns by race and gender mirror the patterns of disproportionality in suspensions and expulsions in schools. Recently released data from the General Accounting Office and the Office of Civil Rights reveal that Black males experience significantly higher rates of suspensions and expulsions than any other group—a precursor to what is now commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In general, Black youth—males and females—as well as LGBTQ youth and students with disabilities are suspended at disproportionately high rates. Furthermore, studies show that young Black children are suspended more often from pre-school and kindergarten, and thus criminalized as early as young as age 4 or 5. Apparently, many Black preschool children are not granted the developmental benefit of the doubt that mischief and naughtiness bestow. Their bodies and behaviors are read differently in schools, and, in the long run, they may suffer from it academically, materially, spiritually, and physically.
What does social science research tell us already about the social status and experiences of Black males that would engender such disparate findings in mobility and well-being? Addressing this question requires intersectional analyses that recognize how gendered forces operate in society. For myriad reasons, high school drop-out rates and college attendance rates are significantly lower and greater, respectively, for females across all racial-ethnic groups. Thus, the interactions of race, class, and gender most likely influence the differences between Black men and women in both academic and economic outcomes.
In my first book, Keepin’ It Real, I shared that adolescent Black and Latinx boys explained to me why they perceived that it was more difficult for them to obtain service jobs than for their sisters and female peers. Even then in the mid-1990s, economist Harry Holzer had found that among Blacks, the hiring of females instead of males increased with the number of tasks performed and credentials required, although both groups’ hiring percentages were significantly and strikingly lower than their White counterparts’. In addition, the probability to be hired was greater for Black females than males when the job required customer contact. Some of these differences may owe to the actual feminization of certain job sectors; there are more females than males in clerical and sales jobs. These patterns might also occur because of the differences in occupational choices by gender. Black males—as the research of scholars such as Elijah Anderson and Khalil Gibran Muhammad inform us—are read as threatening with a propensity for criminality; and the media remind us far too frequently how that plays out on the streets with police. Some—Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, and Alton Sterling, to name a few—are surveilled, disproportionately suspected of engagement in illicit behaviors by police, and killed for no other apparent reason other than they are perceived as dangerous Black men.
The descriptive incarceration statistics from the Chetty et al. study hint at something pervasive in the ethos of our society. Yet, the limitations of the available data did not allow them to prove it. Although we learn that low racial bias among Whites reduces the mobility gap to some extent, Chetty and colleagues’ measure of racial bias is, by their own admission, not necessarily the best or most reliable. Thus, we can only infer that racism accounts for some intergenerational mobility gaps. The Chetty study leaves us begging for more as it invokes the question of how researchers can more fully capture how disparate racial forces (also disproportionately and intimately entangled with poverty and low levels of employment) afflict the daily lived experiences of Black people in the U.S.
Certainly, not all racially marginalized and economically disadvantaged youth fail to reach the higher rungs of academic success and mobility. In fact, a critical number will sail the winds of upward mobility by entering the doors of higher education. Many will enter a stratified higher education system via community colleges, and as Tressie McMillan Cottom’s best-selling book, Lower Ed, documents, via for-profit colleges, which enroll Latinx and first-generation college students disproportionately and dominate in the production of Black bachelor’s degree holders. In contrast, U.S. flagship public universities, especially some elite ones, underserve many of its most marginalized students. In California, Proposition 209 prohibits state institutions from considering race, ethnicity, or sex, specifically in the areas of public employment, contracting, and education; the driving principle behind political support for Prop. 209 is the equivalence of access and fairness, based on test-score measures.
Surely, there is absolutely nothing wrong with fairness. But let’s face the facts: our society asks students with widely disparate ecological contexts of life—in terms of exposure to poverty, racism, and other forms of disadvantage—to compete similarly. Those contexts are associated with test score outcomes. Sociologist Sean Reardon and colleagues have examined every school district in the U.S. and found that the correlation between the median wealth of a district and its test score median is roughly .85. Test scores increasingly reflect socioeconomic status and material wealth. Achievement gaps in school districts reflect opportunity gaps.
Even when African American, Latinx, and Native American students are on the upward mobility track and attend “good” schools or, in the case of Blacks, live in opportunity-rich neighborhoods, as the big-data studies of Chetty, Reardon, and colleagues indicate, something malevolent still impedes their chances for true equal opportunity within those resource-rich contexts. These studies and others (including mine) find that even in so-called good schools and neighborhoods, the achievement and mobility outcomes for Black and Brown youth are lower than their White peers, even if they perform and fare relatively better than their co-ethnic peers in poorer contexts. Additionally, as MacArthur award winner and social psychologist Jennifer Richeson and her colleagues reveal, when racial and ethnic diversity increases in education or elsewhere, often the sense of group threat and entitlement increases.
The most visible, contemporary examples of this are the highly ethnocentric, populist campaign and election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the controversial (and costly) free speech events held on various university campuses in the year since his inauguration. Last fall, the nation’s attention was roused by the tragic events in Charlottesville. Some of us could not believe our eyes as neo-Nazis and White supremacists—many men dressed in business casual khakis and buttoned-down shirts—marched across the University of Virginia campus, shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” among other exclusive utterances. Many of us were heartbroken by the attack on a crowd of anti-racist protestors, including Heather Heyer, who was murdered when one White supremacist plowed his car into the crowd.
Not that racial resentment and hatred ever fully disappeared, but today’s conspicuous display of them by groups of Whites, all with their free speech guaranteed, is disturbing. Marching boldly and loudly, they decry the significant social, economic, and political gains fought for and earned since the Civil Rights era. The cost of liberty, freedom, and rights for those previously denied all three is to bear witness to and counter-protest against marchers who spew hateful language and wield historical artifacts of violence. On public university campuses, people of color, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant people bear the disproportionate psychological burden. They are asked to pay the communal tax for the liberty of ultra-conservative, (mainly) heterosexual, Protestant White men to foment psychological terror… all in the name of free speech. Hate speech defies democratic, American ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Throughout history, our nation has experienced repeatedly the consequences of exclusive, intolerant, unbridled views. Social progress necessarily demands some moral and legal constraints on different types of expression. Paradoxically, tolerance in the United States of America—by way of unfettered, offensive, hateful free speech—divides our nation deeply.
Segregation, both racial and economic, is arguably the stickiest thorn in the side of American society with regard to the reduction of racial and economic inequality and the healing of our nation’s divides. The above-mentioned studies have convinced me—a sociologist of inequality and education—that policies and practices primarily targeting improved educational attainment and opportunity for historically disadvantaged racial-ethnic groups, though vital, are not enough. I infer this based on studies like one by Reardon, Lindsay Fox, and Joseph Townsend, which reveals the fact that even when individual incomes and educational outcomes are well-above average, stubborn racial differences persist. The average Black and Latinx worker with an annual salary of $100,000 lives in a neighborhood significantly poorer than the ones in which their White and Asian counterparts with similar incomes live; the median neighborhood income for this group of upper-income individuals was $54,393 for Blacks; $59,371 for Latinos; $65,653 for Whites; and $75,043 for Asians.
Couple these findings with recent research about the exchange of information and ideas: In a network analysis of 10 million Facebook users published in the March 2015 issue of Science, researchers found that “friends” in networks are quite homogeneous along partisan and ideological lines—Democrats versus Republicans. Only about one in five of any given Facebook user’s friends are ideologically opposites from the user. The implications here are great. Notably, race and political party affiliation are correlated to some extent. African Americans are overwhelmingly registered Democrats, for example. Critically, the limited ability of both educators and students to engage effectively across social, cultural, and ideological differences—because of their neighborhood compositions and friendship networks—challenge our schools and universities. Growing up in homogeneous economic and racial communities and schools inadequately prepares us for the differences that await us beyond the fold.
Social scientists and decision makers who focus on macro-level and structural conditions can direct our attention to much-needed economic and social policy changes that meet targeted thresholds for higher standards of living and improved mobility in a wealthy, liberal democracy. At the same time, we cannot afford to ignore the macro-meso-micro connections. On the other end of the spectrum, civil society must engage to advance our personal mindsets and social choices. Many of us maintain racial and economic inequality (of opportunity) through our daily behaviors and our consumption of education as primarily a personal or private good. We have strong and well-founded desires for the “best” schools and neighborhoods—based on tests and neighborhoods—for our own children. In the process, we keep the “others” out.
While subject to debate, presumably, a fundamental and philosophical purpose of education—from pre-kindergarten to higher education—is to grow generations of literate, critically thinking, creative, civically engaged students who work to edify and build a cohesive nation and democracy. Somewhere in the social system, this purpose has faltered. Some will argue it was never realized in our schools. Others will express a lost faith in the power of education due to racism’s and poverty’s unyielding persistence. Many of our school-communities—including affluent ones—are in desperate need of radical makeovers both inside and outside of the schools’ walls. To be sure, education alone—in particular, schooling—is not the sole intervention for our society’s problems. Still, I continue to believe in the fundamental power of education. It is one of the most dominant socializing institutions in our lives. To shift the tides of both economic and racial inequalities substantially, we must, nevertheless, find dynamic ways to reimagine and enact education’s equitable promises.
Darrick Hamilton and William A. Darity, Jr. 2017. “The Political Economy of Education, Financial Literacy, and the Racial Wealth Gap,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review First Quarter: 59-76. A review by two of the foremost experts on racial differences in U.S. wealth and the intergenerational transmission of advantages.
Nikole Hannah-Jones. 2015. “Segregation Now,” Propublica. A highly acclaimed article by an investigative journalist, this piece delves into the relationships between housing and school segregation across generations through profiles of several families.
Amanda Lewis and John Diamond. 2015. Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. New York: Oxford University Press. Uses years of observations within a diverse, suburban public school, to reveal how even the “highest quality” public school may engender educational inequality across different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
Daniel Losen, ed. 2015. Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion. New York: Teachers College Press. An edited volume that comprises research-based chapters from multiple social science disciplines, highlighting how disproportionality in school suspensions and expulsions by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability compounds already existent achievement disparities; it also offers some concrete policy and practice recommendations.