Mechanisms of racial disparities


A fundamental fact about American society is the persistence of disparities between African-American and European-American populations. These disparities are manifest in the most important aspects of social life: income, wealth, education levels, health status, and incarceration rates. And several of these areas of disparity persist even when we control for income. Most observers interpret these disparities as the continuing legacy of facts of racial discrimination and oppression, including the racial system of the Jim Crow South. But often the mechanisms that perpetuate racial disparities are less visible and less intentional than they were in the 1940s and 1950s.

Here I want to consider what some of those mechanisms are in contemporary America. Chief among these is the continuing fact of residential segregation based on race. Elizabeth Armstrong makes this point strongly in The Imperative of Integration, and so did Massey and Denton in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Access to social goods in the United States is highly dependent on where you live. And cities in the United States continue to be highly segregated by race. If poverty, crime, and poor schools are likewise concentrated, then it follows that the opportunities available to black Americans will be, on average, distinctly inferior to those available to white Americans. This is most evident in quality of schooling. But it also shows up in access to nutritional food, health services, and jobs, and vulnerability to heightened rates of crime. A young person’s life prospects are very much affected by where he or she grows up. (Here is a good study by DataDrivenDetroit on the availability of grocery stores in Detroit; link.)

These intuitive observations are very consistent with the arguments about neighborhood effects that Robert Sampson has put forward (link). Sampson documents that neighborhoods have significant effects on the behavior and outcomes of the people who live there. When we combine this finding with the facts of segregation in most American cities and the generally poor status of many inner city neighborhoods, once again we come to the conclusion that black individuals and families are likely to have lessened prospects relative to their white counterparts.

One of the most troubling and persistent disparities along racial lines is in the area of health status, including disease rates, infant mortality, and longevity. Black individuals have higher rates of disease and morbidity than their white counterparts.  And these differences across racial groups persist even when we control for income, so they are not simply a secondary effect of poverty. There has been a great deal of research in schools of public health as to why this is so. Some factors are obvious — differential rates of health insurance, different levels of access to hospitals and clinics, and different levels of quality of neighborhood healthcare resources. But given that even affluent segments of the black community have higher rates of various diseases than their white counterparts, there must be more to the story. One possibility is that there are differential patterns of treatment by health providers across racial groups. Do black women receive mammograms at the same rates as white women? Not everywhere. Another possible mechanism is the factor of stress as a determinant of health. Some public health scholars have explored the possibility that daily lives for black people within a highly racialized society incorporate a background level of personal stress that impairs health (link).

Some observers attempt to explain the persistence of racial inequalities on the basis of cultural differences across white and black communities.  Different attitudes towards education, family, and work have been cited as causes of racial disparities across communities. These explanations, generally from a conservative political position, claim that there is a “culture of poverty” that holds back young black men and women from striving for success in school and work. Here is an earlier post on the pro’s and con’s of this approach (link). Generally speaking, I don’t find it impossible that there are cultural factors that play a role in social inequalities; but it is too easy for conservatives to slide from this apriori possibility into a single-factor rant that absolves the structure of American society from continuing involvement in racial inequality. And yet it seems obvious that the situation of white and black America would be fundamentally different if educational and employment opportunities were genuinely equal for white and black young people — which they are not. A much better approach to this complex of hypotheses about culture and structure in racial outcomes is that taken by Alford Young in his research on the ideas and horizons of young black men in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link).

What about inequalities of employment opportunities for white and black workers? Here there are at least three important mechanisms.  First is proximity to where the jobs are, and the availability of public transit. Second is the educational qualifications of the workforce. And third is the workings of discrimination at the point of hiring and evaluation. Each of these dimensions places poor black workers at a disadvantage. If transit from the inner city to the jobs in the suburbs is poor, then inner-city workers will have a harder time gaining access to those jobs. If the quality of education provided for inner city black students is poor, these young people will be disadvantaged when it comes to finding a job as well. And, of course, if black applicants are treated differently — either consciously or unconsciously — by the hiring process, they will be underrepresented as well. (Here is a review of the sociology of discrimination by Devah Pager and Hana Shepherd, sociologists at Princeton; link.) All these factors appear to be involved in the current disparities that exist when it comes to employment across racial groups.

In short, there seem to be a great number of mechanisms of racial differentiation that are at work in American society that don’t generally presuppose explicit racial antagonism, but that work to channel black individuals into worse outcomes than their white counterparts. These are structural factors that the population faces, not personal factors; and they have pronounced effects when it comes to generating racial disparities in a number of crucial social dimensions.

Here is an earlier post that documents some current research on inter-generational social mobility for the black community (link).

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