Economic and Racial Inequality Obliterate Opportunity in America: Do We Care?

The 50th anniversary this month of the passage of the Civil Rights Act has produced some soul-searching journalism.  How is it our society has made so little progress?

In an early April interview at, Stanford University professor and education writer Linda Darling-Hammond describes the injustices in public education in the United States: “First of all, we have a dramatically unequal allocation of wealth in the society, which is getting worse…. Then we need schools that are equitably funded, with more money going to the students who have the greatest needs…And then beyond that, I think we have to be sure that the state builds a high-quality teaching force, well-prepared for all candidates… It’s a fundamental problem of the red-lining… around those schools that allowed them to become such poor places for teaching and learning.  That is the real problem that has to be addressed.”

During the same week, Valerie Strauss printed in the Washington Post a column by Economic Policy Institute advocate Elaine Weiss and New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey in which they declared: “Stuck in place. That seems the most accurate description for the circumstances in which many African-American children and their families find themselves today… When it comes to neighborhood and school inequality, the federal government has always had a short attention span.  Small-scale, short-term initiatives to address urban disadvantage have come and gone, but our nation has never made a commitment to durable policies with the capacity to transform communities, schools, and the lives of families within them.  As a result, neighborhood inequality has been passed down to the current generation.  About two out of three African Americans who were raised in poor neighborhoods grow up and raise their own children in similarly poor neighborhoods compared to just two out of five whites… These disturbing statistics indicate that racial inequality is multi-generational.  The challenges facing black children today are a continuation of the disadvantages experienced by generations of their family members. And the cumulative experience of life in the nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods is most severe.”

Then  last Saturday’s NY Times published a disturbing and moving reflection on racial segregation by columnist Charles M. Blow:  “The landmark act brought an end to legal racial segregation in public places.  But now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities.  Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arcing ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.”  Blow quotes the research from sociologists Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff that the proportion of American families living in extremely affluent communities has grown from 7 to 15 percent between 1970 and 2009, while in the same period the percentage of families segregated in extremely poor neighborhoods has grown from 8 to 18 percent.  And Blow reports on new research from the Civil Rights Project that, “New York has the most segregated schools in the country.”  He reports that, according to Reuters, “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

We are left to contemplate the reality that none of these writers confronts head-on: those making our education policy from the U.S. Department of Education (working closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other mega-philanthropies), to the Congress, to the legislators in our statehouses (increasingly working hand-in-glove with the American Legislative Exchange Council) are not honestly talking about any of this.  The education press is filled with discussions of Value Added (econometric) Measures for teacher evaluation and the pros and cons of the Common Core Standards and portfolio school reform theory that emphasizes school closures and privatization.  But we hardly ever read about steps that might be taken to ameliorate poverty.  We almost never talk about creating disincentives for the kind of self-sorting Blow describes—the growing economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation in urban America.  And talk about increasing investment in public education and targeting public investment to schools in our nation’s most desperate communities seems more and more limited to the school finance experts.

All this is the sobering reality this month as America marks the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.





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