This article is part of Occupy the Future, a forum on lessons to be drawn from the Occupy movement.
It is an age-old debate: which has more significance in terms of inequality—class or race? The Occupy movement has focused on gross economic inequality in the United States. But while economic inequality affects our life chances and well-being, we cannot ignore the relationship between color and membership in the 99 percent and 1 percent. Black, Latino, and Native American citizens are more likely to be confronted with what it means to be at the bottom.
Is there sufficient discussion in the Occupy movement about race? Are we, the 99 percent, willing to see how we, too, collude in racial inequality in the choices we make about whom we hire, where we live, where we send our children to school, where we worship, and how we create social networks? Class-centered debates tend to be more palatable than race-centered ones. We don’t tense up as much when we talk about class. Yet, inequality will not be reduced by changes in economic practices alone if we ignore the effects of racism.
The growth of the American middle class after World War II owed a lot to the establishment of the Federal Housing Authority in 1934 and to generous entitlements proffered by the GI Bill, including access to higher education. But these government programs were not race neutral in their effects. Racism encouraged neighborhood redlining and thus limited black and Latino access to mortgage loans. University segregation prevented many blacks and Latino GIs from obtaining higher education. Discriminatory mortgage practices prevented people of color from developing assets through home ownership, creating a significant wealth gap.
Blacks and Latinos did eventually gain greater access to home ownership—through predatory home loans that inflated the housing bubble. During the recession aggregate wealth has plummeted in communities of color. The median wealth of white households is now twenty times that of black households and eighteen times that of Hispanic households according to a July 2011 report from the Pew Research Center. That is twice the prevailing disparity of the previous two decades. In 2007 the average middle-income white household had $74,000 in wealth, whereas the average high-income African American household had only $18,000, according to a May 2010 report from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy. [PDF]
The economic downturn has also drastically reduced opportunities for employment. Black unemployment is twice that of whites, a gap that persisted even during a period of economic growth. The recession changed the situation from bad to worse. Latinos are better off than blacks, but their unemployment rate is at least 3–4 percentage points higher than the corresponding rate for Whites.
Some of the employment gap may owe to differences in education and skill levels, but even middle-class people of color with skills and education have taken a hit. In the civil rights era, when the United States opened up to the notion of racial equality in economic opportunity, many blacks sought civil service jobs in local, state, and national government. They are now experiencing another economic shock as layoffs and government-office closures mount. As the public sector sheds jobs, African American workers are hit the hardest.
The problem is not just about jobs and wealth. We find the same racial disparities in education. Many black and brown children attend schools that do not prepare them adequately. A disproportionate share of our nation’s urban schools continue to lag behind their wealthier, white suburban counterparts in resources and performance. And the dropout rate for Latinos is more than double the national average. The average white thirteen-year-old reads at a higher level and fares better in math than the average black or Latino seventeen-year-old. Differences in family resources among blacks, Latinos, and whites do not fully account for this. Even when we compare the test scores (our most common and narrow measure of achievement) of black children to those of white children from equally affluent families, black children’s scores lag behind. That the typical black or Latino child, whether poor or middle class, attends schools with fewer resources and lesser quality than the typical poor or middle-class white child partly accounts for the discrepancy. But even in resourceful, multiracial, and so-called good schools, African American and Latino students have disparate educational experiences from their white peers. Research demonstrates the impact of racial disproportion in access to certain classes and content, as well as in teacher expectations, evaluation, and treatment.
With President Obama in the White House, many Americans believe that race no longer matters. But of course it does. We have not addressed how our society’s economic and educational disparities are so highly correlated with skin color and ethnicity. Racism—both past and present—compounds economic problems for people of color, for whom the enduring effects of racial inequality close access to the middle class, let alone the top 1 percent. By being color-mute, the Occupy movement will only encourage our nation’s continuing dangerous denial of race-based inequality.