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Racial Inequality After Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African Americans

Synopsis of key findings from essay written in Foreign Affairs March / April 2015 Issue

Fredrick C. Harris: Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University.

Robert C. Lieberman: Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.


White Belief In Racial Equality 

  • White Americans generally assume that the end of state-sponsored segregation & discrimination removed structural barriers to African American advancement. A 2013 Gallup poll showed 83% of white Americans said factors other than discrimination were to blame for blacks lower levels of employment, income, and housing.
  • Chronic poverty led to a belief that the root of racial disparities was due to dysfunctional behavioral patterns rather than discrimination. White Americans associated joblessness, broken families, welfare dependency, drugs, crime and violence as pathological cultural traits of black communities rather than the result of racially-motivated economic and social policies.

Economic Sabotage

  • The average wealth of white households in the United States is 13 times as high as that of black households. Additionally, African Americans are nearly 3 times more likely than whites to be poor.
  • Housing de-segregation faced white resistance and redlining. Banks would limit loans available to large minority neighborhoods resulting in lower home ownership, home values, and credit scores. Attempts to integrate neighborhoods were often met with local resistance and judicial override.
  • Risky subprime loans were disproportionately sold to minority borrowers. These loans triggered the financial collapse of 2008 and led to widespread foreclosures in minority communities.

Financial Discrimination

  • Obscure tax and insurance policies often serve to penalize neighborhoods with large minority populations. For example, a recently repealed California law allowed zip-code based profiling in underwriting car insurance, which effectively sorted black drivers into higher-risk categories that required higher payments.
  • De-industrialization in the second half of the 20th century hurt blacks more than whites. Working-class whites had better connections to job networks and relatively greater access to family wealth. This helped them buffer the social dislocation caused by manufacturing jobs being replaced by the service industry, which devastated poor and working-class communities of color.

Educational Discrimination

  • U.S. public schools are actually more segregated today than they were in the 1960s. This is in part due to residential segregation, but there have been repeated de-segregation rollback attempts that have managed to keep divisions in place. The most recent was a 2007 case preventing integration of public schools in Seattle, Washington, & Louisville.
  • Many schools practice no-tolerance punishment policies. These policies punish students through long-term suspensions or handing over the task of enforcing school discipline to the juvenile criminal justice system accelerating the path to future criminality and incarceration known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Consequently, black students are only half as likely to graduate from college.

Criminal Justice Discrimination

  • Almost half of all U.S. inmates are African Americans. Minorities represent about 40% of the population but are 60% of those in jail.
  • African Americans are 6 times as likely to be incarcerated. 1 in 3 black men will go to prison at some point in his life, and 1 in every 15 black men are incarcerated as opposed to only 1 in every 106 white men.
  • Black men with criminal records have a harder time finding work compared to white men. White job applicants with criminal records are half as likely to receive a job interview as equally qualified whites with no records, whereas black applicants are one-third as likely to be interviewed.

Origin of Mass Incarceration

  • Law-and-order policies pursued by Republican presidents Reagan and Nixon led to mass incarceration. They bundled federal and state laws to lengthen sentences, try juveniles as adults, relax prohibitions on the electronic surveillance of alleged criminal activity, and create perverse incentives for local police to win more federal funding by increasing arrest rates.
  • Mass incarceration produced a phenomenon known as intergenerational incarceration in the black community. This is the tendency of the children of convicted felons to grow up in foster homes, engage in violence and crime, and ultimately fall into poverty and homelessness or end up being incarcerated themselves.

Health Discrimination

  • African-Americans have more gaps in health insurance coverage, uneven access to services, and poorer health outcomes than any other group. Black women are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women and the black infant mortality rate is twice the rate for white infants.
  • Advertising of fast food and alcohol involve de facto racial profiling. Companies target minority-populated urban neighborhoods leaving them with limited choices and often contributing to poor health outcomes. Consequently, blacks are more likely to die from cancer and heart disease than whites, and are at greater risk for the onset of diabetes.

Racial-Equality Stress Tests

  • The racial-equality stress test is one potential solution to help policymakers identify institutional mechanisms that perpetuate racial inequality.  Inspired by the financial stress tests imposed after the 2008 collapse to understand where the banking systems vulnerabilities and weaknesses are, racial-equality stress tests would investigate whether nominally race-neutral policies are in fact masking practices that contribute to racial inequality. For example, a test applied to large employers might reveal whether their hiring practices treat white and black ex-felons unequally. Or if schools districts with harsher punishment policies are seeing greater rates of future incarceration. 

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

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