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March 20, 2013

'Mechanisms of Racial Disparities'

Daniel Little:
Mechanisms of racial disparities: A fundamental fact about American society is the persistence of disparities between African-American and European-American populations. These disparities are manifest in the most important aspects of social life: income, wealth, education levels, health status, and incarceration rates. And several of these areas of disparity persist even when we control for income. Most observers interpret these disparities as the continuing legacy of facts of racial discrimination and oppression, including the racial system of the Jim Crow South. But often the mechanisms that perpetuate racial disparities are less visible and less intentional than they were in the 1940s and 1950s.
Here I want to consider what some of those mechanisms are in contemporary America. Chief among these is the continuing fact of residential segregation based on race..., cities in the United States continue to be highly segregated by race. If poverty, crime, and poor schools are likewise concentrated, then it follows that the opportunities available to black Americans will be, on average, distinctly inferior to those available to white Americans. This is most evident in quality of schooling. ... A young person's life prospects are very much affected by where he or she grows up. ...
One of the most troubling and persistent disparities along racial lines is in the area of health status, including disease rates, infant mortality, and longevity. Black individuals have higher rates of disease and morbidity than their white counterparts. ...
Some observers attempt to explain the persistence of racial inequalities on the basis of cultural differences across white and black communities.  Different attitudes towards education, family, and work have been cited as causes of racial disparities across communities. These explanations, generally from a conservative political position, claim that there is a "culture of poverty" that holds back young black men and women from striving for success in school and work. Here is an earlier post on the pro's and con's of this approach. Generally speaking, I don't find it impossible that there are cultural factors that play a role in social inequalities; but it is too easy for conservatives to slide from this a priori possibility into a single-factor rant that absolves the structure of American society from continuing involvement in racial inequality. And yet it seems obvious that the situation of white and black America would be fundamentally different if educational and employment opportunities were genuinely equal for white and black young people -- which they are not. ...
What about inequalities of employment opportunities for white and black workers? Here there are at least three important mechanisms.  First is proximity to where the jobs are, and the availability of public transit. Second is the educational qualifications of the workforce. And third is the workings of discrimination at the point of hiring and evaluation. Each of these dimensions places poor black workers at a disadvantage. If transit from the inner city to the jobs in the suburbs is poor, then inner-city workers will have a harder time gaining access to those jobs. If the quality of education provided for inner city black students is poor, these young people will be disadvantaged when it comes to finding a job as well. And, of course, if black applicants are treated differently -- either consciously or unconsciously -- by the hiring process, they will be underrepresented as well. ... All these factors appear to be involved in the current disparities ... across racial groups.
In short, there seem to be a great number of mechanisms of racial differentiation that are at work in American society that don't generally presuppose explicit racial antagonism, but that work to channel black individuals into worse outcomes than their white counterparts. These are structural factors that the population faces, not personal factors; and they have pronounced effects when it comes to generating racial disparities in a number of crucial social dimensions. ...

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