Monday, September 15, 2008

The Roller Coaster of Racial Issues

I study race, public policy, and the politics of inequality in the United States. People who work in my field have to get used to a certain amount of emotional whiplash. Looking back a handful of decades, we marvel at how the civil rights movement wiped out de jure discrimination and established a more meaningful democracy in America. Our celebration is always tinged with disappointment and frustration, though, because we know where the story goes from there. The books that fill our offices overflow with evidence thatracial segregation and unequal treatment remain basic features of American life. They explain in painful detail how efforts to help the disadvantaged have foundered for decades on a nasty post-civil-rights politics of racial resentment.
One minute, we find ourselves contemplating the stunning achievements of the black middle class. The next, we read that in America today 59 percent of black men without a high school degree will experience incarceration before they reach the age of 35. (The corresponding number for white men without a high school degree is 14 percent.) We watch as a major political party nominates a biracial candidate for President of the United States, and a week later we read that a white member of the U.S. House of Representatives has just described him as "uppity." High and then low, to one side then the other, the rollercoaster of American race relations tosses us around like rag dolls.
Minnesota has its own version of this rollercoaster, and it’s well illustrated by some of the work happening at the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center (PNLC) this month. On September 19th, we’re hosting an event called "The History of Minnesota’s Prosperity" to celebrate the long, effective tradition of antipoverty efforts in our state. It’s a part of our history that should make Minnesotans proud. Now as in the past, Minnesota has one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation. And let’s be clear: our success in fighting poverty hasn’t happened by accident. It reflects our strong commitments to community investment, policy innovation, and collaboration across the public, non-profit, and private sectors. (more...)
As we celebrate Minnesota’s accomplishments – and ask how we can build on them in the coming decade – some may be tempted to sweep the complexities of race under the rug. It would be easy to tell ourselves that fighting poverty is simply the "Minnesotan thing to do." Full stop. But other work being done at the PNLC should remind us of how race complicates the story of poverty (and the politics of poverty) in Minnesota. In a study presented earlier this month, Sarah Bruch and I tried to measure the degree to which blacks are "marginalized" relative to whites in each of the American states. Our measure took into account disparities in the rates at which whites and blacks in each state (a) attained the status of home owner, (b) gained access to full-time employment, and (c) achieved entry to post-secondary education. We also measured (d) black-white disparities in prison admissions and (e) the extent to which blacks and whites were spatially isolated in separate areas of residence. Based on these indicators, we found that Minnesota had the third largest black-white gap of any state in the country. In other words, Minnesota is a national leader in the degree to which blacks remain isolated from whites and excluded from full social and economic incorporation.
So as we pause to reflect on Minnesota’s tradition of prosperity, we should make room for the conflicted emotions – and troubling questions – that are familiar to those of us who study race in America. Minnesota is a national leader in the fight against poverty, and we should be proud of that fact. But Minnesota is also a national leader in racial inequality, and this fact will need to be placed at the center of our public conversation if we hope to devise effective solutions to the poverty that remains in our state. Here’s a sobering comparison. In 2006, the poverty rate for white residents of Alabama was 57 percent higher than the poverty rate for white Minnesotans. In that same year, the poverty rate for black Alabamans was almost exactly the same as – only 2 percent higher than – the poverty rate for black Minnesotans. Why are African Americans in Minnesota just as poor as their counterparts in Alabama, while whites in Minnesota are so much better off? Why are poverty rates for blacks and whites more equal in Alabama than in Minnesota? And most important of all, what can we do now to ensure that Minnesotans in the future will look back on these facts as distant pieces of history and cite them to show how far our state has come?

Posted September 15, 2008

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