The Overlay of Economic Injustice and Race in America

Earlier this week the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz offered a personal and sober view of American society and the economy fifty years after the March on Washington: “Dr. King realized that the struggle for social justice had to be conceived broadly: it was a battle not just against racial segregation and discrimination, but for greater economic equality and justice for all Americans. It was not for nothing that the march’s organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, had called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Fifty years ago Stiglitz traveled to Washington for the March.  A recent college graduate, he was set to enter a graduate program in economics just a few weeks later.  He writes that the March on Washington and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King were instrumental in inspiring him to focus his career on economic inequality.

Today, fifty years later, we know that children’s opportunities remain constrained by inequality and continuing racial and economic segregation. Our dilemma is neither merely the failure to have achieved racial justice nor rapidly accelerating economic injustice; the two are overlaid for the mass of black and brown children.  According to Stiglitz, today the median income of black families is 58 percent of the median income of white families, with the median total wealth of whites 20 times that of blacks.  Stiglitz reports that 65 percent of African American children live in low income families, and “The Great Recession of 2007-9 was particularly hard on African-Americans (as it typically is on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum). They saw their median wealth fall by 53 percent between 2005 and 2009, more than three times that of whites: a record gap.”

Stiglitz summarizes the mass of factors that conspire to undermine educational opportunity.  While an income-inequality achievement gap has now surpassed the racial achievement gap in American public schools, it is important to remember that for a mass of children the gap is one and the same. Today American children of color are too often segregated in all poor public schools.

Only a year before the March on Washington—in 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, a book that opened America’s eyes at least temporarily to the poverty and inequality our society had chosen not to see.  Harrington’s indictment continues to describe our very separate and unequal society: “There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known… This book is… about the other America. Here are the unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life… Now the American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. Middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip may catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theater, but their children are segregated in suburban schools.”

I wonder what we choose to see today. Stiglitz’s important piece this week is aimed to help us open our eyes.

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