The First Unitarian Church of Omaha, to which I belong, has formed a sister church relationship with a predominantly black church in north Omaha, Clair Memorial Methodist Church. On Saturday we held a joint workshop, “Confronting Racism” at Clair. Several people said that we should “celebrate diversity, transcend race, and hope that things will be better in twenty or thirty years from now.”
I think the problem is much more fundamental and difficult than this. First of all, there are two main reasons why racism is so prevalent in America, one obvious and one perhaps less obvious:
The obvious reason is the very different colors of our skin.
The other reason, equally important, is that there are huge socio-economic differences between the two races. Whites are, by and large, better educated and more affluent than blacks. They also have a more stable family structure, with far fewer single parent families. People tend to live in homogeneous residential areas and associate with others of similar socio-economic background. All of these social factors serve to separate the races into largely non-interacting groups of people.
How do we confront and attack such deeply entrenched racism in our society? We need an approach which is more fundamental than programs like “welfare to work” or “residential integration.” Even equalizing educational opportunity is not enough. What we need is a long term effort to improve educational outcomes for blacks and other children from low-income families. As the above chart of Nebraska data shows, children from low-income families, who thus receive free or reduced price lunch (FRL), are already behind in reading proficiency by third grade and they just keep falling further and further behind in the later grades. This means that they need major intervention before they even get to kindergarten. In fact what they need is early childhood education, beginning no later than age 3. Conclusion: Racism is deeply embedded in American life and can only be eliminated with a long term fundamental effort to greatly improve educational outcomes for blacks. I will discuss proof that this can be done in my next post.
As Charles Murray shows in “Coming Apart,” (http://www.amazon.com/Coming-Apart-State-America-1960-2010/dp/030745343X) the upper class has remained stable with respect to marriage rates (94% in 1960, 84% in 2010), civic involvement, and trust in society while for the lower class marriage rates (84% in 1960, 48% in 2010 and dropping), civic involvement and public trust have all declined significantly.
Children in the lower classes are five times more likely to face abuse, violence, addiction and the death or imprisonment of a parent.
By the time they reach kindergarten, 72% of middle class children know the alphabet compared with only 19% of poor children.
The fraction of children with a single parent is the best predictor of upward economic mobility in a particular region, whereas the level of income inequality is not a significant predictor.
Mr. Cass suggests that public policy should focus on these social problems at least as much as on income inequality. For example:
Education reform should be focused on both ends of the K-12 spectrum: early childhood education to ensure that all children are ready to learn when they get to school and better vocational education in high school so that graduates can find a good job if they’re not going to college.
Remove onerous regulations on the workplace so that employers are not pushed unnecessarily into independent contractor arrangements.
The federal government should be more supportive of marriage (e.g. with tax policy), and the participation of religious organizations in the delivery of public social services (to improve their quality).
Conclusion: Being poorly raised does more to cut off opportunity than being raised poor.
It is well understood that income inequality is increasing in the U.S. for a number of reasons: economic globalization, the rapid development of new technology and the slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009. The New York Times’ economics journalist, Eduardo Porter, discusses the social effects of this ominous trend in the article “Income Inequality Is Costing the U.S. on Social Issues.” For example:
The U.S. has the highest teenage birthrate in the developed world – seven times the rate in France, for example.
More than one out of four U.S. children lives with one parent, the largest percentage by far amongst industrialized nations.
More than a fifth of U.S. kids live in poverty, sixth from the bottom among the OECD.
Among adults, seven out of every 1000 are in prison, five times the rate for other rich democracies and three times the U.S. rate from four decades ago.
In 1980 the infant mortality rate in the U.S. was about the same as in Germany. Today it is almost twice the rate as for German babies.
American babies born to white, college educated, married women survive as often as those born to advantaged women in Europe. It is the babies born to nonwhite, non-married, non-prosperous women who die so young.
In other words, there is huge social disparity between the well-off and the poor in the U.S. and, furthermore, the resulting social breakdown is getting worse. Why has this been happening?
Conservatives say that it is the fault of a growing welfare state which has sapped Americans’ industriousness and sense of self-responsibility. Liberals say that welfare programs arn’t extensive enough to withstand the strict demands of globalization and technological development.
Mr. Porter concludes that, “the challenge America faces is not simply a matter of equity. The bloated incarceration rates, rock-bottom life expectancy, unraveling families and stagnant college graduation rates amount to an existential threat to the nation’s future.”
I tend to agree. Is our democratic political process capable of responding in a satisfactory manner? I will return to this theme often in the coming months!