Saturday, May 12, 2012

Race is About SES

County courthouse lawn, Halifax, NC, 1938
The NY Times reports this morning on the continuing pattern of segregated schools in New York City.  The article goes through the motions, highlights familiar themes: white teachers, black students, race and socioeconomics being inseparable, white parents moving to where schools are more white, black parents feeling misunderstood, black students equating academic success with "acting white", charter schools trying to turn things around by requiring uniforms, plastering the walls with slogans, calling students "scholars", enforcing rigid discipline, and yet generally failing to raise scores and being thought of as "prisons" by students.

I don't deny race is a part of this story.  But it is a by-product of larger themes in our economy and society, specifically the fact that certain racial groups, historically discriminated against and therefore disadvantaged in their ability to build human and societal capital.  This translates into a continued correlation between those groups and lack of economic success.  I don't deny that racial attitudes and cultural norms play some marginally negative role in the continued link between SES and race, but it is far less consequential than SES by itself.

One of the issues raised in articles like this is modern white flight.  White families are staying out of black and Hispanic schools. I think it is important to make a distinction between modern white flight and that of half a century ago, when the civil rights movement ushered in a larger movement of whites out of the cities and into the suburbs.  There were other pressures at work, but as explicit racial attitudes were clearly much different then, it isn't hard to see how race was a major driving factor.  Today, explicit attitudes on race are quite different, and while racism clearly persists, it is much more marginal a feature of the phenomenon of white flight and persistent segregation than simple socioeconomic realities.

So, let's do a thought experiment.  Two neighborhoods exist: one, predominantly African American, one predominantly white.  Yet - and this is of course a rarity - the black neighborhood is largely affluent, its members possessing large amounts of human and societal capital, while the white neighborhood is poor, its members possessing low levels of capital.  For purposes of our experiment, we'll assume that schools in the black neighborhood are high-achieving, while those in the white neighborhood are not (in reality, this would be a very sound prediction according to the data on the link between SES - not race - and school performance).

Which neighborhood school would you like your children to attend?  Of course, ethnicity is a reasonable factor to consider, especially if you are a minority concerned about your child losing his natural heritage.  But the choice is really quite clear.  You want the best education for your child.  You want them surrounded by students from less-stressed, happier homes, fewer discipline problems, better prepared classmates, better organized parents and school culture, etc.  This is all a function of societal capital in which the student population has been developing throughout their childhood.  You want them to attend the majority black school.

Until we address the larger issue of inequity in human and societal capital, racial segregation is going to persist.  As long as our economy is arranged by class, a major requirement of it being a large portion of the workforce performing low-skill labor for low pay, there are going to be economic ghettos, defined as they are by socioeconomic segregation.  And those who will inevitably fill these ranks will be those who have been subject to generational inequities of many types - discrimination, low education, broken families, etc.

Public education is the best resource we have right now for correcting this phenomenon at the margins.  But the perennial question remains - if all have access to an equal education, who will clean the toilets?  There will be a need in the long-term foreseeable future for a great number of low-SES occupations, which will inevitably self-sort into ghettos.  Given the history of African Americans and Latinos in America, especially the influx of immigrant labor from Latin America, these ghettos will no doubt still have an ethnic correlation.  The segregation won't be codified by law, but by our social and economic system.

No comments:

Post a Comment