Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s spring 2015 edition, “Inequality’s Tipping Point and the Pivotal Role of Nonprofits.” It was originally published in Dissent Magazine, in summer 2014, and is reprinted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. © Dissent Magazine 2015.
When President Lyndon Johnson gave his June 4, 1965 commencement address at Howard University, he invoked a symbolic language that would both seize the political moment and serve as a foundation for subsequent policy. The Civil Rights Act had passed only a year earlier, and Johnson, noting that it is “not enough just to open the gates of opportunity,” told the black graduating class that America needed “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.” This call for “results” was a precursor to Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, a mandate for the enforcement of positive antidiscrimination measures in preferred positions of society, or “affirmative action.”
But later in the speech, Johnson moved away from his point of departure, abruptly arguing that “perhaps most important—its influence radiating to every part of life—is the breakdown of the Negro family structure.” This “rhetorical sleight of hand,” as sociologist Stephen Steinberg aptly calls it, would reverberate in public discussion for years to come. By defining the central problem facing the black community as not the deep-seated structures that perpetuate racism but rather deficiencies internal to blacks themselves, the focus of policy would become the rehabilitation of the black family.
The roots of this ideology can be traced to Oscar Lewis’s notion of a “culture of poverty” and the 1965 Moynihan Report, in which black families were characterized as being caught up in a “tangle of pathology.” The contemporary version of this thesis is the “post-racial” narrative in which America has largely transcended its racial divides. The narrative of grand racial progress is coupled with the claim that whatever racial disparities remain are overwhelmingly the result of actions (or inactions) on the part of subaltern groups themselves. If blacks (and other subaltern communities, including Native Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and Vietnamese) simply would reverse their self-sabotaging attitudes and behaviors, this argument goes, full equality could be achieved. Herein lies much of the rationale for austerity policies. If behavioral modification is the central issue, why fund government agencies and programs, which, at best, misallocate resources to irresponsible individuals and, at worst, create dependencies that further fuel irresponsible behavior?
Post-racialists often confirm their perspective by pointing to black and minority appointments to the nation’s elite positions, including the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. Indeed, the president himself often perpetuates this “post-racial” trope. In his speech marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Obama described how “legitimate grievances” had “tipped into excuse-making” and “the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.” “And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity,” he continued, “the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
The president’s rhetoric on race is consistent with the following premises:
- The civil rights era has virtually ended structural barriers to black equality; remaining barriers are due to the legacy of past discrimination, the residual effects of concentrated poverty, and black folks’ own behaviors. After all, virtually all groups of Americans have faced some form of discrimination but managed to “get ahead” anyway.
- Blacks need to cease making particularistic claims on America and begin, in the president’s words, to “[bind] our grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans.”
- Blacks need to recognize their own complicity in the continuation of racial inequality, as well as their own responsibility for directly changing their disparate position.
But if structural factors are largely artifacts of the past, what explains the marked and persistent racial gaps in employment and wealth? Is discrimination genuinely of only marginal importance in America today? Has America really transcended the racial divide, and can the enormous racial wealth gap be explained on the basis of dysfunctional behavior?
The Racial Employment Gap
In marked contrast to incremental gains in relative educational attainment and income, the racial gap in mass long-term unemployment continues to remain intolerably high, with black Americans bearing a disproportionate burden. In the spring of 2014 the black unemployment rate was estimated at 12.0 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for whites. This continues a structural trend where the black rate remains roughly twice as high as the white rate. In fact, over the past forty years there has been only one year, 2000, in which the black unemployment rate has been below 8.0 percent. In contrast, there have only been four years in which the white rate has reached that level. Blacks are in a perpetual state of employment crisis.
At every rung of the educational ladder, the black unemployment rate is twice the white rate. In 2012 the unemployment rate for whites with less than a high-school diploma was 11.4 percent, but for blacks with the same educational level the rate was 20.4 percent. Most telling as an indication of ongoing discrimination in U.S. labor markets is that the unemployment rate for adult white high-school dropouts (11.4 percent) was less than the rate for blacks with some college education or an associate’s degree (11.6 percent).
Field experiments of employment audits provide powerful evidence that employer discrimination remains a plausible explanation for racial labor market disparity. Economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found a 50 percent higher callback rate for résumés with “white-sounding names” than for comparable résumés with “African American–sounding names.” Even more telling, the “better”-quality résumés with African American–sounding names received fewer callbacks than “lower”-quality résumés with white-sounding names.
Princeton sociologist Devah Pager conducted another employment study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that revealed the difficulties for stigmatized populations in finding a job. Wisconsin has outlawed employer use of criminal background checks for most jobs, yet among young males of comparable race, experience, and education, audit testers with a criminal record received half as many employment callbacks as testers without a record. Nonetheless, race was found to be even more stigmatiz