Tag: Racial Wealth Gap

About Structural Racism

This morning my friend Tom asked me on Messenger if I could help him get educated on Structural Racism, preferably with quantitative data. The easiest way to explore the concept is with a blog post.

First, some thoughts about prejudice and discrimination. Nearly 70 years ago, sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote that we need to distinguish between racial attitudes and racialized behaviors. He cast this distinction in a useful two by two table. People who were prejudiced and discriminate based on that prejudice he called Bigots (RKM didn’t go for catchy titles). People who were not prejudiced and never discriminated he called Liberals. It’s the two cross cells that are especially interesting. There are people who are prejudiced but don’t act on it: Timid Bigots. Finally, there are people who aren’t at all prejudiced but find themselves discriminating on the basis of race. He called these Reluctant Discriminators.

As an individualist culture, we seem mostly concerned with the Bigot or Timid Bigot categories. We expect people to be respected regardless of their race. (The backlash against being “politically correct” illustrates how we have not moved out of the Timid Bigot category). Reactions to protestors complaining about “racist cops” suggest that we believe the law enforcement officials are just doing their jobs and that we shouldn’t attribute motive to them (although the reports of racist social media posts show up more often than we would like). We should encourage people to rethink their past prejudices and to rise above stereotypes, but that won’t get us where we need to go as a society.

It is the Reluctant Discriminator category we need to be paying attention to in light of the past two weeks. It draws our attention away from individually oriented attitudes or behaviors and causes us to ask where the impetus to discriminate comes from if not personal animus. This is the essence of Structural Racism and why it’s so hard for people to get their head around.

In short, Structural Racism means that the inequalities we see present in society today are imbedded in multiple social structures that perpetuate over time. The outcomes black and latinx people experience are at least partially shaped by those very structures. That’s not to say those outcomes are guaranteed but there are certain probabilities that attach.

Consider this data from the National Center for Children in Poverty. In a longitudinal examination of children who spent half of their childhood (birth to 15) in poverty, they explored the percentage still in poverty at 20, 25, and 35. For white children in poverty, 11% were in poverty at 20 and 25 but only 5% by 30 and 4% were by 35. For black children, 19% were in poverty at 20, 30% at 25, 19% at 30, and 20% at 35. These differences aren’t based upon individual attitudes but upon one’s location in the economic structure and the avenues to success available.

These structural differences are not new. One need go no farther than the Constitution of the United States to see that blacks were officially designated as 3/5 of a person. There is a lot of good literature on the ways in which that kind of inequality requires an ideology of superiority (read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise) but the ideology follows the structure.

Or consider the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. As much as we like to quote the “judged by the content of their character” line, King was very much aware of the nature of structural advantages given to whites that were denied to blacks. The first two-thirds of the Dream speech is about how America had failed to live up to its promises. In his Washington Cathedral sermon in March of 1968, he said the following:

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

A similar argument is made in Mehrsa Baradaran in her The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. She traces the attempts to build community banks in predominantly black inner city neighborhoods and the limitations that were placed on those banking entities. In short, they were limited to being little more than savings and loans where people deposited savings from earnings. At the same time, the federal government was significantly subsidizing white commercial banks to offer mortgage loans to the white middle class rapidly moving to the suburbs. Even if black families could work around the redlining that limited their ability to buy a house, their mortgage would be run through a white bank and the subsequent profits from those investments would leave their community. Black families were significantly limited in their ability to build capital and were considerably more vulnerable to disruption than their white counterparts. In 1963, the average white family had wealth (including home and retirement assets) $120K more that of the average black family (140K to 20K). In 2016, that gap had increased to nearly $800K.

We can consider the same issues in relation to criminal justice. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow argues that mass incarceration is a direct reaction to changes brought by the civil rights movement. Even without endorsing all of Alexander’s argument, we can see structural racism at work. Laws were passed that disproportionately impacted black neighborhoods (crack cocaine, marijuana possession) and politicians railed against fictitious Thugs in the streets (“superpredators”, “black out game”). Police departments deployed their personnel to poorer neighborhoods where they would arrest wrongdoers which would then show them as high crime areas: reinforcing the deployments, creating disincentives for businesses, increasing insurance rates. Differential criminal justice processes result in problems like cash bail. For those with resources, they pay their bail and are released on their own recognizance. For those without — disproportionately black and latinx — they sit in the county jail for a year or more awaiting their trial date. This removes them from jobs and family and helps create a presumption of guilt (they’re in jail, aren’t they?). It’s no surprise that some of those folks will plead guilty to a lesser charge — even if not guilty — to be able to return to some semblance of normality at some point.

(I plan to have more to say about criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to the “Defund the Police” proposals later this week.)

The same patterns can occur in family and schooling. Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts using the NCAA tournament (remember those?) as a metaphor. My argument (which you can read here, here, and here) was that the same schools tend to get the top eight seeds in the tournament over time. Those structural advantages allows them better recruits, more donor money, more television which lead to more recruits, etc. That doesn’t mean that the small school with a 16-seed will never win just that the odds are tremendously against it. Family and Schooling inequities get passed along with those with resources getting more and those without falling further behind. There will be stars that beat the odds but the probabilities remain daunting.

The patterns I’ve been describing aren’t new. We’ve known about them for decades but, until now, haven’t been willing to address the concerns in any way. On Last Week Tonight this past Sunday, John Oliver shared a quote from Dr. Kenneth Clark. Dr. Clark and his wife were the social scientists whose testimony was so influential in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The quote came from testimony Dr. Clark had given to Congress following the urban riots in 1967 and 1968 that were analyzed in the Kerner Commission Report. In his testimony, Clark said this:

I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot…. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.


Why should this time be different? Maybe we’ve begun to grasp that there are large issues of inequality that need attention that go far beyond concerns about Bad Apples. What we need now is for a lot of Reluctant Discriminators to push back on the discriminatory structures in which they are imbedded.

It’s a small symbolic step, but when the Navy and Nascar ban the Confederate flag and Lady Antebellum becomes simply Lady A, then maybe, just maybe, we’re beginning to see things with fresh eyes.