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Racial disparities: What should we do?

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America has just discovered that large disparities between whites and blacks exist in virtually all major life outcomes – including health, education, income and wealth. This has been true for many generations; frankly, it should not have taken us so long to figure this out.

Some disparities between blacks and whites have narrowed over time, like those in education and earnings; others have grown worse, like those related to incarceration and wealth. The racial gap in deaths caused by the COVID-19 virus have been particularly shocking, as have been the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

But why have all of these racial gaps persisted for so long? Here we find mostly two stories, with seemingly little overlap. 

The “progressive” story blames ongoing disparities between blacks and whites on an historical legacy of racism, which has prevented African Americans from obtaining homes, education and jobs of the caliber of those gained by whites, leaving them far behind in accumulating wealth over time. “Structural racism” in the criminal justice system, in schools and workplaces, reinforces these gaps. And ongoing racial biases keep neighborhoods and schools segregated, and generate worse treatment of blacks in all walks of life.

But the “conservative” story puts more blame on a set of personal behaviors and characteristics that drive gaps between blacks and whites. In this story, an “achievement gap” (as measured by grades or test scores) limits black education, especially in college – and much of the achievement gap begins in the home before children enter kindergarten. Young black teens often fail to gain work-related skills, and then fail enter the labor force, where they would pile up meaningful work experience. They choose to become single parents quite early in life, which limits their family incomes and wealth while worsening the life chances of their children. And high rates of crime mostly drive incarceration rate, rather than the bigotry of police and the courts.

As someone who has spent much of my career studying racial disparities in employment, I find some truth in both narratives. And their interplay and dynamics can get quite complicated.

Take, for instance, the racial gaps in education. Underfunded and segregated schools worsen achievement gaps that start in the home. Local schools are segregated because residential neighborhoods are segregated; the latter is due to housing discrimination but also to zoning laws in more affluent locales (including those where many “progressives” reside), designed to prevent lower-income housing from being built there (which might reduce property values). Public schools in predominantly black neighborhoods are also underfunded, due to reliance on the local property taxes to finance education.

And we have competing interpretations of the interplay between other causes of racial disparities. Progressives argue that discrimination and poor education restrict black male employment opportunities, and then generates some of the illegal activities (especially in the drug trade) that lead to incarceration – making it impossible for many black women to find good marriage partners.

But conservatives argue that single parenthood in the black community predates incarceration, and contributes to low family income and wealth over time. And they argue that low employment and crime reinforce the worst stereotypes of employers or police, generating hiring decisions and policing that appear biased or racist. Again, there is evidence in support of both sets of beliefs.

So how can we proceed to lessen these disparities? In this moment of recognition, we should make the following commitments:

First, the enormous racial gaps in so many life outcomes should be unacceptable, and we should undertake a range of policy actions to reduce them at the federal, state and local levels.  

Second, progressives and conservatives should stop fighting each other, and find common ground in both of their narratives (even while they continue to disagree on which causes are more or less important). A hopeful example is that both the left and the right now oppose mass incarceration, and work to limit it and help those emerging from prison.

Third, progressives and conservatives should together create an agenda to close racial gaps. As progressives insist, more funding should be available for strong pre-K programs, K-12 schools and colleges, especially those that African-Americans (and other disadvantaged students) heavily attend. Efforts to desegregate schools, and fight bias and racism in all walks of life, should be promoted.

More should be done to roll back incarceration, which has crippled the lives of so many individuals and families. At the same time, conservative efforts to promote strong families, as well as employment-related skills and law enforcement – while still fighting police abuses against African Americans – deserve support as well.

Only when we make these commitments and translate them into broadly-supported action will we be sure that the current moment, in which we all recognize unacceptable racial gaps in so many walks of life, is not wasted.

Harry J. Holzer is LaFarge Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings.

Tags Achievement gaps race and society racial inequality

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