Racial inequalities as a social science research topic

W. E. B. Dubois described the problem of the twentieth century as the problem of the color line. He was right — except in his expectation that the problem would be resolved within the century. It has not been resolved. American cities from east to west show the encrusted social residues of racism, racial discrimination, and racial disadvantage for African Americans. The most basic statistics and geographical patterns of most old American cities bear this out. Patterns of extreme residential and economic segregation persist in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Cleveland, and Peoria. And these patterns of residential segregation are overlain by patterns of significant inequality in the most important dimensions of human welfare. African American families suffer greater incidence of illness, lower income, lower educational attainment, and lower levels of wealth ownership. The color lines in American cities are all too legible, and what they demarcate are major differences in social wellbeing across black and white communities. (Thomas Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, offers an eloquent and rigorous description of these geographical outcomes in Detroit.)

There must be social mechanisms that maintain these differences. These are not “natural” outcomes. And the social sciences should help us uncover those mechanisms. But where should we look for explanations and rigorous, honest empirical investigation? What areas of the social and behavioral sciences are most likely to offer satisfactory explanations of these patterns? And what mechanisms, at what social levels, are most likely to prove to have major impact in entrenching these patterns of racial segregation and difference over so many decades?

Several areas of social and behavioral research seem particularly relevant: the social psychology of bias and discrimination; the study of the politics and finances of urban public schooling; the study of the dynamics of public health outcomes (asthma, diabetes, heart disease); the empirical sociology of employment and employment opportunities; the politics and logistics of urban transportation systems; the culture and economics of nutrition; the sociology of the family; and, of course, the histories of American cities. It is likely that the facts of racial difference that persist are the results of a complex and interconnected set of social causes; we will need many areas of social science research and theory to allow us to sort these out.

Parallel to the question of social causation is the question of public policy: what policy choices exist for governments and other organizations to intervene in ways that begin to reduce these forms of racial disadvantage? What policy tools are efficacious in improving inner city schools, the nutrition and health of poor people, and the educational attainment of inner city youth? What policies of banking and employment can help to address the persistent inequalities of opportunity that exist with regard to borrowing and hiring? How can public policies reverse the pattern of segregation and inequality of opportunity and outcome for black and white families?

Some pressing questions–

* Are there any examples of American cities or states that have demonstrated success in redressing these patterns of racial inequality?

* How do these facts compare to the situation of other sizable minority populations in other countries–for example, France or Germany?

* When will political leaders place this persistent fact of racial inequality and diminished opportunity at the center of the political agenda for change?

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