Race and American inequalities

Douglas Massey is a leading US social scientist who has worked on issues of inequality in America throughout his career.  His 2008 book (Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System) is a huge contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms producing inequalities in American society, and it amounts to a stunning indictment of racism and anti-poor public policies over a seventy-five year period. And, unlike other interpretations that attribute current racial inequalities topast patterns of overt discrimination, Massey argues that these inequalities can be traced to current discrimination by individuals and institutions alike. (An earlier book, American Apartheid, co-authored with Nancy Denton, is also very important.)

Massey is interested in a specific kind of inequality — what he refers to as “categorical” inequality.  “All human societies have a social structure that divides people into categories based on a combination of achieved and ascribed traits” (1).  The kinds of categories he cites include gender, race, age, and membership in exclusive social organizations.  Categorical inequality, then, is defined as inequalities of income, wealth, or influence that vary systematically with membership in social categories.

How does categorical inequality work?  Massey has a simple answer to this question:

Given socially defined categories and people being distributed among them, inequality is generated and perpetuated by two basic mechanisms: exploitation and opportunity hoarding (Tilly 1998). Exploitationoccus when people in one social group expropriate a resource produced by members of another social group and prefent them from realizing the full value of their effort in producing it. Opportunity hoardingoccurs when one social group restricts access to a scarce resource, either through outright denial or by exercising monopoly control that requires out-group members to pay rent in return for access.  Either way, opportunity hoarding in enabled through a socially defined process of exclusion. (6)

Massey leads off his analysis with a theory of the social psychology of racism and discrimination against poor people. He argues that the stereotyping that is inevitably associated with social cognition leads to a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans, immigrants, women, and poor people that deepens and entrenches their unequal shares in American society. The twin mechanisms of discrimination and opportunity-hoarding both flow on the basis of the categories of discrimination created by these mental constructs – hence “categorical inequality”. (Visit a recent posting for a related argument about the social psychology of prejudice.)

In a very real way, stratification begins psychologically with the creation of cognitive boundaries that allocate people to social categories. Before categorical inequality can be implemented socially, categories must be created cognitively to classify people conceptually based on some set of achieved and ascribed characteristics. The roots of social stratification thus lie ultimately in the cognitive construction of boundaries to make social distinctions, a task that comes naturally to human beings, who are mentally hardwired to engage in categorical thought (Fiske 2004). (8)

People use schemas to evaluate themselves and the social roles, social groups, social events, and individuals they encounter, a process known as social cognition (Fiske 2004). The categories into which they divide up the world may change over time and evolve with experience, but among mature human beings they always exist and people always fall back on them when they interpret objects, events, people, and situations (Fiske 2004). (9)

Massey hypothesizes two dimensions of mental categorization, leading to four gross categories of people in one’s social category scheme: warm-cold (appealing-unappealing) and competent-incompetent. People who are like us are considered “warm” and “competent”. The other three quadrants are categorized as “other”: warm but incompetent (pitied), competent but cold (envied), and incompetent and cold (despised). And he asserts that American racism places African-Americans in the final category. This in turn is used to explain the harshly negative tilt that US legislation has shown across lines of race and poverty.

Massey argues that these cognitive mechanisms work at a pre-conscious level, and are operative even in the behavior and choices of people who consciously experience their values as democratic and egalitarian. These patterns of ongoing discrimination reinforce and reproduce social institutions that assign very different outcomes to African-Americans, poor people, and other dis-valued people. This works itself out in employment, advancement in a career, access to healthcare, and public policy and legislation.

A particularly valuable part of the book is the mass of elegant graphs that Massey has assembled. These represent an eye-opening narrative of discriminatory public policy over almost a century of legislation.  Here is a series of graphs of income inequality over parts of the twentieth century:



The crux of Massey’s analysis here is that inequalities of wealth and income are generated by several mechanisms; but that key among these are the forms of discrimination that find their roots in social psychology and become operative through policy and law.  The gap between white and black median household income documented in figure 2.2 begins in the 1970s at about $20,000 and remains roughly that magnitude through 2002.  And these household income inequalities are created, he argues, through a complex of institutions (economic and political) that serve to compound discrimination and the disadvantages experienced by “out” groups. Moreover, these institutions work to the benefit of the privileged as strongly as they work to the harm of the disadvantaged; so the institutions are unlikely to change. “In other words, whether whites care to admit it or not, they have a selfish interest in maintaining the categorical mechanisms that perpetuate racial stratification. As a result, when pushed by the federal government to end overt discriminatory practices, they are likely to innovate new and more subtle ways to maintain their privileged position in society (Massey 2005c)” (54). This is a gloomy conclusion, and one that argues strongly for a passionate and sustained commitment to remedying the stark racial inequalities that exist in our society.

(Massey refers frequently to Susan Fiske’s 2004 book, Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology.  Here is a shortarticle by Mary Wheeler and Susan Fiske that lays out some of their research on racial prejudice.)


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