Racial inequality

As I understand it, there are two prominent strands in the contemporary U.S. left. On the one hand, there’s interest in economic issues, e.g. either making existing institutions more redistributive, or changing them in more fundamental ways. On the other hand, there’s interest in identity-based social issues—so-called “social justice” issues—particularly having to do with race and gender. (This isn’t meant to be exhaustive; e.g. it doesn’t cover COVID or climate change.)

Because social-justice issues are particularly prominent these days, and also seem like good candidates for being among the most important issues in the U.S., I’m interested in improving my understanding of them. I’m going to start with race. As I did last week, I’m relying mainly on Wikipedia (particularly African Americans and Racial inequality in the United States). Here are some things I’ve learned and some thoughts.

Demographics. African Americans are the third-largest ethnic group in the U.S., with about 12% of the population, after whites (72%) and Hispanics (18%).

History. Before the Civil War, most blacks in the U.S. were enslaved. The conflict between the pro-slavery South and anti-slavery North was the main political issue in the first half of the 19th century. After the war, discrimination against blacks continued, including segregation, voter suppression, and violence. The civil rights movement gained traction in the 1950s; causes included the participation of African Americans in World War II and outrage over Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded federal authority over states to protect black voting rights.

Economics. Black and Hispanic households have a lot less wealth than white households. According to a 2009 study, the median black household has $5,677, the median Hispanic household has $6,325, and the median white household has $113,149. Similarly, blacks and Hispanics have about double the rate of episodic poverty as whites.

Crime. As of 2008, the prison population (of 1.6m) was 38% black (591,900), 34% white (528,200), and 20% Hispanic (313,100). Since 2015, police have each year killed an average of 241 blacks, 462 whites, and 170 Hispanics. In 2018, 2,925 blacks were murdered (2,600 by black offenders), compared to 3,315 whites and 957 Hispanics.

As you can see above, blacks (and Hispanics) are a lot poorer than whites. Prima facie, I would think that improving the economic conditions of blacks should be the most important policy goal in this area (after all, this is presumably the biggest driver of other problems such as crime/imprisonment). But of course, we could also just push for policies that help the poor generally, regardless of race (as Freddie deBoer argues here). So the biggest question I have would be whether there are any reasons to prioritize policies aimed at helping blacks per se over policies aimed at helping the poor.

You would want to focus on racially targeted policies, I would think, just in case the persistence in poverty among blacks turns out to be mainly a result of factors that don’t apply to other poor people—e.g., if the main reason why there’s persistent black poverty is discrimination against blacks, then maybe the most efficient response would be to do things to stop the discrimination. (Here’s a debate on that question that I found interesting.)

I also find it helpful, though, to distinguish policy issues like these from social or cultural issues. For example, one popular idea these days is that the U.S. suffers from “structural racism” or “systemic racism,” and, relatedly, that U.S. history is a history of racism/racial oppression. I think these ideas are not necessarily connected to any particular policy proposals (except maybe that the ideas should be taught in schools). So we should evaluate these ideas just in terms of whether (1) they’re accurate and (2) whether promoting them is constructive (keeping in mind the opportunity costs of focusing on these ideas rather than others).

I also see Black Lives Matter as falling into this category. Ostensibly, BLM is focused primarily on the issue of police violence against blacks. If we just go by the numbers of blacks killed each year by police (241), this doesn’t seem like it should count as one of the most important policy issues. (Compare the 93,000 people who died of drug overdoses last year.) But I take it that BLM is concerned with this issue because it’s a symptom of what they see as a more general social problem, that blacks aren’t regarded as the equals of whites.

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