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What’s Wrong With Inequality Studies?

They ignore the role of race

“Race-neutral social-welfare and redistributive economic policies do not eliminate racial inequality in societies that are unequal to begin with.” – Juliet Hooker and Alvin B. Tillery Jr.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 3, 2016.

By Juliet Hooker and Alvin B. Tillery Jr.

As co-chairs of a task force appointed by the American Political Science Association to examine the relationship between race and class, we have spent the past year working with a group of 21 political scientists and sociologists to study the myriad ways in which racial and class inequalities are linked.

The most concise way to explain the conclusions we reached: Race shapes class. This view represents a significant shift from the 1980s, when leading academics argued that race was declining in significance in American society. Today the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Despite the robust debate underway (in the Democratic presidential primary, at least) about how to address inequality, there has been almost no focus on how policy proposals to reduce income disparities would affect longstanding socioeconomic gaps between minorities and whites.

Imagine the following scenario: For 50 years, the federal government denies the citizens of California the right to vote, free movement in the labor market, and access to the provisions of the welfare state. Gaps in income, wealth, longevity, and other indicators of well-being quickly emerge between Californians and the rest of the country. Californians, meanwhile, wage a successful social movement to correct these injustices. Although they make great strides, significant socioeconomic gaps between them and other Americans persist. Meanwhile, federal policies redistribute wealth from the middle class to the top 1 percent. The growing inequality is so alarming that it becomes a major issue in national politics. Yet the average American’s income remains greater than that of the average Californian. Any policy solutions that did not address existing inequalities would not close the gaps between Californians and other Americans.

From 1788 to 1965, the life experiences of most minorities living in the United States precisely mirrored that scenario, and the legacies of this history leave them in the most vulnerable socioeconomic position in the country.

But academic studies of inequality continue to ignore the racial gap. Why?

First, consider the intellectual inertia that dominated discourse about race in the last half of the 20th century. The social sciences came to the overly optimistic consensus that white racism was declining and was having less of an impact when it did rear its ugly head. Just 13 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, William Julius Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (University of Chicago, 1978), which argued that "economic class has been elevated to a position of greater importance than race in determining individual black opportunities for living conditions and personal life experiences." This class-over-race proclamation spawned an industry of studies focused on how black poverty was a function of economic dislocations in the post-civil-rights era and not the legacy of 200 years of government-sponsored depredations against black people.

Second, in the 1990s, there was a surprising resurgence of arguments grounded in scientific racism that attributed the persistence of racial gaps to the supposedly innate inferior mental capacities of minorities. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994) is, of course, the most well-known text in this neo-eugenicist tradition. The book’s main impact on inequality studies has not stemmed from the ideas that it propagates. Unlike Wilson’s arguments about class over race, The Bell Curve has been widely debunked. The problem is that most of the literature debunking the book begins with the assumption that the "racial-achievement gap" is a major source of the racial-inequality gap. The problem with this assumption is that the disparity between white and black income and wealth is not only or mainly the result of greater white educational achievement. As works by scholars such as Ira Katznelson and Linda Faye Williams have pointed out, these gaps are largely a product of the government choosing winners (whites) and losers (African-Americans) in welfare-state provisions in the mid-20th century.

One clear example of this is Social Security. When it was created it excluded farmworkers and domestic workers — many of whom were African-Americans — in order to gain the votes of Southern congressmen, who did not want to extend its benefits to blacks. As a result, when the Social Security Act was passed, in 1935, 65 percent of African-Americans nationally and 70-80 percent of them in the South were ineligible for the benefits it extended to white workers.

Neither of these intellectual trends took seriously the fact that class and race are mutually constituted in America. The trends also ignored the global dimensions of the debate. Virtually every nation in the Western Hemisphere privileged whites over people of color at some point in its history. Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, halting Chinese immigration; it was in effect until 1947, and not until 1967 were its elements completely eliminated. Brazil was the last Western nation to abolish slavery, in 1888, and today, despite the fact that emancipation was not followed by legal racial segregation or Jim Crow policies to prevent blacks from voting or running for office — as it was in the United States — preto(black) and pardo (brown) Brazilians still account for only 20 percent of the deputies in Congress in contrast to their 50.7 percent share of the population in the latest census.

Both of those nations have struggled to overcome those legacies while simultaneously promoting socioeconomic equality.

The research papers developed by our task force resulted in a couple of concrete answers regarding the relationship between racial and class inequalities. Governments throughout the Americas have experimented with both race-targeted and class-based approaches to combating inequality. And while class-based policies have helped to lower overall poverty rates, they have not closed the persistent gaps that exist between whites and blacks. Indeed, our research shows that race-neutral policies do not address wealth or income disparities between different racial groups in racially hierarchical societies.

In Canada, for example, Keith Banting, of Queen’s University, together with Debra Thompson, of Northwestern University, found that despite policies aimed at overcoming a history of discrimination toward aboriginal peoples, racial disparities were exacerbated by retrenchments in Canada’s welfare-state provisions in the late 1980s and ’90s. At the time, changes in immigration policies were bringing rec­ord numbers of immigrants of color from developing countries, and those immigrants were facing greater difficulty moving into the labor market, despite having educational credentials better than those of previous cohorts of immigrants. That has resulted in expanding socioeconomic gaps between ethno-racial minorities and whites in Canada.

In Latin America, where social scientists have documented persistent hierarchies that privilege European-descended populations over other ethno-racial groups, recent expansions in social-welfare programs by leftist governments have reduced poverty, but the impact of such programs on racial disparities is less clear. According to Tianna Paschel, of the University of California at Berkeley, while these programs do reduce some racial inequalities, they do not address gaps in all areas. In education, for example, where affirmative action has been put in place at prestigious federal universities, the small size of the college sector over all means that the policy has not yet led to a large reduction in racial disparity in education as a whole.

Race-neutral social-welfare and redistributive economic policies do not eliminate racial inequality in societies that are unequal to begin with. What this means for the study of inequality is that — to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign — "It’s both race and class, stupid."

Alvin B. Tillery Jr. is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. 

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