Tag: Structural Inequality

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.

Structural Inequality Three: Unequal Outcomes


The day the NCAA brackets were announced, I wrote this post on the nature of structural inequality. I argued that even though we like underdogs and upsets, the odds favored the turnout we expected from the beginning. As it turned out, three of the final four teams had been designated #1 seeds before the tournament (Go State!). This is probably as it should be — the best teams (at least as determined by the seeding committee) get to play in the Big Game.

Wisconsin has been in three final fours and won the whole thing in 1941. Duke has been in fifteen final fours and has four championships, the most recent in 2010.

This echoes one on the basic ideas in stratification: past benefits accrue over time.

This weekend I finished the two books I’ve been reading on the nature of inequality in America. As I’ve written, one is Our Kids by Robert Putnam and the other is The Long Shadow by a team of sociologists from Johns Hopkins. Reading them in tandem was enlightening.

Putnam’s book is full of site-specific case studies contrasting successful kids and challenged kids. Whether in Ohio, Oregon, Atlanta, or Orange County, similar patterns emerge. Each chapter fleshes out the case studies with national census-type data.

The Hopkins book also uses a site-specific comparison with some incredible data following the same set of kids from 6 to 28. The authors look at neighborhood characteristics, family dynamics, school conditions, and economic concerns. Where Putnam relies on story, the Hopkins folks end up doing some high level regression to look at how status is transferred (or not) across generations.

One of the curious things about the books is that they don’t work with the normal journalistic 1%-99% comparisons. Half of Putnam’s families are upper-middle class but nobody has a yacht. The Hopkins book focuses on families in the Baltimore Public Schools, so they don’t pick up those who moved to more affluent suburbs.

This is important. The inequality characterized in the books is not the story of rich people. It’s about “normal” people and those who have somehow been left behind (usually through no fault of their own).

Both books wind up telling exactly the same story. There is a significant difference in access to the very things that contribute to intergenerational success. Those who have resources use those to achieve. Those who don’t find themselves falling further behind.

Here’s a chart from The Long Shadow (page 124, picture from my Iphone).

Long Shadow

My stats students will recognize this as a Chi Square table. The rows represent the social class of origin. The columns represent the social class at age 28. The expected values tell us what we’d expect to find if there was no relationship (as one would expect in a meritocracy).

As the table shows, those who start out lower SES half are still lower class at about 1.5 times expected. They are less than half as likely to be upper SES at 28 as expected. At the other end, the upper SES kids who were lower class was only 1/4 of what would be expected but more than twice as likely to be upper SES at 28.

This remarkable stability of structural inequality is shocking, even to us social scientists. Here’s Putnam’s reflection:

Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids. Before I began this research, I was like that. I’ve worked hard, I thought, to rise from a modest background in Port Clinton— much of the time heedless of how much my good fortune depended on family and community and public institutions in that more communitarian and egalitarian age. If I and my classmates could climb the ladder, I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today. Having finished this research, I know better.

What factors explain these differences? Both books illustrate the patterns of family life beginning prior to the beginning of school. Those who have advantages are able to start strong and have school work for them. Those who don’t begin behind and have family or community disruptions that inhibit the expected school to college to occupation pipeline.

There are differences in school quality and neighborhood safety. But these pale in comparison to family struggles.

It is unreasonable to simply suggest that the disadvantaged should care more about school or have better marriages or take their kids to church. It’s not all economic but it is largely structural. Moving forward in the ways we seem to expect as a society may seem self-evident, but we have to address that fact that some people are starting significantly behind.

Furthermore, the Hopkins book demonstrates that those gaps widen over time. Differences in resources when kids start school play out in differences in resources throughout the elementary grades. Differences in elementary grades expand when kids get to junior high and really take off at high school. (Putnam’s book is full of stories of disadvantaged kids having a caring teacher in early grades who isn’t replaced as they move through their educational journey.)

This is why Putnam’s book ends with some specific recommendations that our policy makers should act upon. Enhanced Earned Income Tax Credits, better child care supports, teacher incentives to poor schools, changes in sentencing and reentry policies. These will all cost money in a time when we seem unwilling to do so. But we will pay much higher costs downstream.

If we can grasp Putnam’s understanding that these are in fact Our Kids we might see that such investments are not only feasible but mandatory in modern society.

Who Sinned, the Child or the Parents? Inherited Inequality

This is the second post in my series on structural inequality.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9: 1-3)

As I’ve been working through my study of the structures of inequality, this passage from John kept ringing through my head. All of the talk of the 47%, of takers, of those who don’t have proper work ethic, seems to be designed to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between individual choices and the impacts of poverty.

It is no surprise that Robert Putnam’s book is titled Our Kids. It’s a very interesting rhetorical move. We look at children with less opportunities and we can ask a question similar to what the disciples asked: who sinned? Was it this child’s fault or her parents?

It is a provocative question the disciples asked because of what it implies about next steps.

If, we would assume, the blindness is the result of this man’s actions and choices, then we could be freed from responsibility to act. If, on the other hand, it is the byproduct of choices made in earlier generations, it’s hard to know how to undo those past actions without a Tardis. Again, we are freed from responsibility.

So it is with the children in Putnam’s book or in the Hopkins study of Baltimore (The Long Shadow). I’m still working through both books, but it is clear to me that we can either look at poor choices made by a young tough in New Orleans or we can see how family disruption and parental drug issues hampered a young woman in Oregon.

What do we do now?

In the Baltimore study, they were looking at the situation of students starting public school in Baltimore in 1982. One of the chapters looks specifically at the family background of those six-year-olds. I took this picture of the Table (even if it is a little crooked):

Baltimore FamiliesThe researchers first broke the data by socioeconomic status and then, within lower SES, by race. This data shows the kinds of statistics that people like to toss around when critiquing inequality: single-parenthood, early pregnancy, lack of educational achievement. There are stark differences present in these columns. Note, for example, that in over a third of the families the mother had never married. The breakdown by class and race shows a 42% gap between the higher SES families (which were only high within Baltimore standards), and the lower-SES African American families.

But these demographics mask deeper, family system issues. Sometimes those relate to lack of job opportunities in the city. Incarceration is a factor as well. So are issues of drug and alcohol addiction.

Consider the story of Bess, one of those kids who started first grade in the early 1980s. Here is her situation as an adult as reported by the interviewers:

Bess, who grew up in what she described as a chaotic family environment, had her first baby at age fourteen in the summer of eighth grade, then a second in tenth grade. She tried to finish high school, indeed worked hard at it, but was unable to trust her mother to watch her first baby and eventually gave up. Bess would call home from school, she told us, and her mother would not be there; she would come home to find her baby soiled and unfed. “If I had somebody to watch who I knew, you know, was a good person to watch and I knew she was gonna’ be alright, then, you know, I woulda’ stayed [in school].” Bess was surrounded by an abundance of family — a cousin who supported a drug habit by prostituting herself and her mother, who, according to Bess, was drunk “morning to night.” Bess is one of the Youth Panel’s permanent dropouts, a victim, she says, of a neglectful mother and extended family disruption (2014, 48).

“Who sinned”, they asked, “this girl or her mother?”

Frankly, Jesus’ response is hard to figure out. He seems to suggest that the man is born blind “for such a moment as this”.

I prefer to take Jesus to be saying, “Your question is irrelevant. What is important is how God’s work can be done.”

Both of the books I’m reading share this common sentiment. Somehow, the children are suffering from the situations in which they grow up. Or at least some of them are. Putnam has a regular series of what he calls scissor graphs, which show advantages accruing to upper class families (because they have time for summer enrichment and organized sports) while disadvantages deepen for lower class families (because life circumstances set them farther and farther behind).

We wrestle with an appropriate response to inequality in the same way the disciples did.

We want to celebrate “good families” and don’t want to legitimize family dysfunction. We can argue that having two parents in the household, in their first marriage, who spent time interacting with their children yields the best outcomes for those children. This is demonstrably true.

But we can’t actually say to Bess’ mother, “you should marry the father, clean up your life, read to your children, and take the family to church.” Or more correctly, the only reason to say so is to ease our conscience about our own families.

Maybe we’d be better able to address issues of inequality if we saw Bess’ situation as a way to see God’s work displayed.

We’d worry less about affixing blame and show compassion on the young girl in a remarkably difficult circumstance.

Another March Madness: Inequality in America

15mens_bracket copy

Over the next three weeks, I’m focusing this blog on issues of inequality. In part, this is prompted by Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which explores the nature of inequality of opportunity across generations. I’m only into the second chapter, but both the changes to Port Clinton, Ohio (Putnam’s hometown and the focus on chapter one) and the changes in Bend, Oregon (chapter two), easily illustrate the connections between structural changes in economics, education, and housing and the cultural dynamics shaping the life choices of families impacted. As I’ve read essays about Putnam’s argument, they seem to serve as a Rorschach test — illumining the favorite theories of the author. It will doubtless be argued that it does the same for me.

I’ve also been reading The Long Shadow, a sociological study of children growing up in Baltimore schools. They have also been impacted by changes in terms of economy, housing, and culture. The students in the study are those left behind after white flight caused many with resources to flee Baltimore for the surrounding counties. The Long Shadow is interesting because it compares the dynamics of lower class whites, lower class blacks, and moderately upper class whites. While the picture is complicated by factors of culture and racism, there are very different patterns when it comes to opportunity.

In addition to these sources, it seems that every day brings news of the realities of inequality. The Ferguson report from the Department of Justice illustrates the dynamics of differential enforcement. I’ve got recent data on school achievement and college persistence that illustrates the way education at all levels plays a gatekeeping function. We have recently begun to approach a national consensus that our drug policy has been devastating to urban communities and prison overpopulation.

And yet we seem unwilling or unable to recognize inequality in our midst. Perhaps, as Matt Taibbi suggested, it’s as simple as the residential segregation that undergirds our interactions. Because we don’t know people outside our circles, we can cherry pick egregious cases and treat them as if they are indicative of entire groups of people.

Or maybe we can’t see it because the possibility of Horatio Alger success is so ingrained in the American psyche. We don’t know how to talk about differential opportunity because that might somehow suggest that people were trapped by their circumstances.

Better to believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules could get ahead — the bootstrap mentality. As MLK said in one of his final sermons at the National Cathedral, it’s one thing to say a man should pull himself up by his bootstraps but it’s a cruel joke to say that to a man with no shoes.

But if there’s one time of the year when we should understand the structural nature of inequality, it’s March. Today, the bracketology came to a head and we know who made it to the dance. Beginning Tuesday, teams begin competing in the NCAA men’s national championship. The whole thing centers on the top seeds of Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova, and Duke.

We watch the tournament and root for “Cinderella teams”, small feisty groups of guys who don’t read the brackets and come from small markets. This is their “one shining moment”. But in the vast majority of the cases, the seeding matters. The strong teams seem to prevail. We like the hustle of the Coastal Carolina team, but eventually Wisconsin will wear them down. Remember too that these 68 teams are but a tiny fraction of NCAA Division One schools.

Furthermore, if we look at the top couple of seeds in each bracket we can find teams that are somewhere in that mix every single year. It’s not just that they have a talented team — they have a reputation, a coaching staff, scholarship dollars/boosters, and facilities that help them attract the best players.

It doesn’t mean that the number one seeds will be in the final four. They can have an off night or have a key player injured or in foul trouble. But the odds are that the lower seeds will prevail.

This is a lesson that is far deeper than what we see Thursday to Sunday over the next three weeks. It happens in the same fashion every day across this country. So I’ll be blogging during the tournament to explore how those dynamics play out. I hope you’ll follow along.