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Class vs. Race

By BO Staff Writer

The following article, “An End to the Class vs. Race Debate” by Ralph Richard Banks who is a law professor at Stanford, was previously published on the New York Times website and is now reissued by Black Opinion:

March 21, 2018

A new study rebuts a widely shared view that racial disparities in social mobility are economic inequalities in disguise — the belief that if we address class issues, we can fix racism.

The report, by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty, the Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren and colleagues at The Equality of Opportunity Project, provides an empirical basis for an economic susceptibility that black parents like me have sensed: Across generations, we are less likely than whites to rise and when we do, are more likely later to fall. We seem unable to grasp or preserve economic gains as other groups do, including Latinos and Asian-Americans.

The study’s findings build on the authors’ prior research that has empirically substantiated two insights about intergenerational economic mobility. One is that a child’s economic position is sticky: Children from affluent families are many times more likely to maintain their privileged status than children from poor families are to attain it.

The other is that while economic mobility may be individual, the conditions that enable or retard it are social. Wealthy neighborhoods with good schools and strong social ties propel even poor children toward a brighter future.

But the reality for black communities is grim.

Black families trace our economic insecurity in part to a gender divide that we see but often don’t discuss. We know that African-American daughters tend to do well. They climb the socioeconomic ladder as high as their white peers, if not higher.

It’s the boys who fail. Whether born to a rich family or a poor one, in an impoverished neighborhood or wealthy one, black boys lag behind their white peers as adults. Black boys who grow up rich are twice as likely as their white counterparts to end up poor. And of those black boys who start life poor, nearly half will remain so in adulthood, while more than 2 in 3 of their white peers will escape the poverty of their youth.

Black women may surpass their white counterparts in individual income, but they lag in household income. The men who would be their husbands are missing — incarcerated, unemployed, unable to be the partners that women want. Or the parents that children need.

And so the failings of one generation fall upon the next, as the trajectories of black boys are shaped by the absence of black fathers. Looking beyond the usual focus on how individual children are affected by the presence of their fathers, Mr. Chetty and his colleagues found that the presence of black fathers in the community powerfully shapes boys’ trajectories. Black fathers are a social resource.

The two-parent families that don’t form perpetuate African-Americans’ disadvantage across generations. The economic predicament of black men, which disconnects them from their children, threatens to ripple across families and generations.

All of which raises the question: How do African-Americans in the 21st century confront the prospect of being indefinitely left behind?

The cycle that the research documents had a beginning and it can have an end. A s black women began to take advantage of the opportunities opened by the civil rights movement, black men were hit first with deindustrialization — the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs throughout large swaths of our nation — and then with a surge in incarceration unlike anything a democratic nation had ever seen. Black children bore the brunt of their parents’ suffering. Many well-meaning Americans remained oblivious to a national tragedy.

Black men’s disadvantage has shaped not only how they are perceived but the meaning of race as well. Racial disparities — in incarceration, unemployment, school failure — fuel racial bias, which ensnares black boys, rich and poor alike. Boys like my own go from cute and cuddly to strong and manly, and so become a threat in the eyes of many. The bias, subtle yet pervasive, compounds the disparities by undermining the relationships and hope that one needs to get, and stay, ahead. And so the cycle continues.

But it need not. We can disrupt the cycle of black disadvantage. What we’ve lacked is the will to do so. We act as though economic inequality is inevitable, relegating poor children of all races to schools to which most parents would never choose to send their own children, schools often in neighborhoods where most would never choose to live. We segregate ourselves by race and class, and accept the inequality of opportunity that doing so breeds.

So many Americans profess to be blind to race, which ensures only that it will remain salient. So many worry more about appearing to be racist than working to remove the enduring taint of slavery and segregation.

We will find a way to undo intergenerational racial disparities when we find the will. And to find the will, we need to recognize what’s at stake: The conditions that challenge us imperil the future of black boys and black families and the viability of the American dream itself.

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