Improving schools

Finding ways to significantly and sustainably improve the effectiveness of public schools in high poverty areas is one of the most urgent problems facing us — particularly when we aim to reduce the inequalities that exist around race and poverty in our nation’s cities. New thinking about schools and curricula has given rise to some practical strategies for achieving this kind of improvement.

For example, the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University is a particularly creative place for using research and development to find replicable ways of improving school success in high-poverty areas. Here is the mission statement for CSOS:

The Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) was established in 1966 as an educational research and development center at Johns Hopkins University. The Center maintains a staff of full-time, highly productive sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists, and educators who conduct programmatic research to improve the education system, as well as full-time support staff engaged in developing curricula and providing technical assistance to help schools use the Center’s research. The Center currently includes the federally-supported Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, and the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships. link

The Talent Development Middle Grades Program (link) is one of the promising efforts that have been spearheaded by CSOS. This program attempts to implement school-level programs that substantially change the odds for the middle grade students who are at risk for dropping out. And the alarming fact is that likely high school dropouts can be identified by the sixth grade, based on factors such as attendance, poor academic progress, and behavioral problems. So reversing these factors early is key to improving high school completion rates six to eight years later. Mentorship for students, professional development for teachers, close teamwork within schools among teachers and principals, implementation of a challenging curriculum for all students, and extra-help labs to help students stay on track are the key strategies that work, according to CSOS research. School organization and climate are critical factors, and they can be addressed through district-level reform efforts (link).

What are the interventions that are shown to be effective? The CSOS Talent Development High Schools Program (link) provides quite a bit of useful research and program reform recommendations. Here is the mission statement for this program:

The Talent Development High School Model is a comprehensive reform model for large high schools facing serious problems with student attendance, discipline, achievement scores, and dropout rates. The model includes organizational and management changes to establish a positive school climate; curricular and instructional innovations to prepare all students for high-level courses in math and English; parent and community involvement to encourage college awareness; and professional development to support the recommended reforms.

The program reform model highlights curricula with high expectations, extended class periods, formal extra help programs, professional development and teaming for teachers, and family and community involvement.

Another important current initiative — also inspired by research at CSOS — is the Diplomas Now initiative that is underway in partnership with CityYear, Talent Development, and Communities in Schools. This program is a response to the severe high school dropout crisis our nation faces, especially in high-poverty cities. Here is a description of this program:

  • Diplomas Now pairs evidence-based, comprehensive school reform with national service teams to provide tutoring, mentoring, monitoring and engagement activities at the required scale, and integrated student supports for the highest need students.
  • Diplomas Now unites three organizations – Talent Development, City Year and Communities In Schools – each one with years of experience in youth service and third-party evidence of impact on helping students succeed. The Philadelphia Education Fund also serves as a national training and technical assistance partner. The partners complement each other and also collaborate well with local education reform efforts.
  • Diplomas Now works closely with school administrators and teachers to identify off-track youth and develop, implement and sustain comprehensive, targeted and customized strategies to get them back on track. Diplomas Now is deliberately designed to incorporate, complement and accelerate the impact of other promising and innovative efforts that aim to boost post-secondary success.

There are a number of promising initiatives underway across the country that are aimed at achieving significant and sustainable improvement in K-12 learning outcomes. It is important that schools find the partnership they need from government and foundations to implement the ideas that work. The Obama administration has committed quite a bit of energy and funds to this effort; let’s hope that it pays off throughout urban America.

Obama and the cities

photo: Cabrini Green housing project, Chicago (now demolished)

Is the Obama administration doing enough to address the problems of urban poverty and lack of opportunity for poor people in cities?

The situation of poverty, inequality, and deprivation in most of America’s cities is severe. Wherever regional studies of health status have been carried out, inner cities show up as abnormally unhealthy populations. Unemployment rates in large cities are generally significantly higher than state and national averages. High school completion rates are lower — often shockingly lower. Housing stock and neighborhoods are in poor condition. Fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to come by — because large grocery stores have often moved outside city limits. And all of this implies that the overall quality of life for the poorest half of most urban populations in the U.S. is low. (Here is a 1988 publication on estimates of urban quality of life — the most recent I can find!)

There is no doubt that President Obama is aware of the gravity of the urban crisis. He knows Chicago intimately, a city that reflects many of these life-limiting circumstances for several million poor people. And his speech of July 18, 2007 reflects an acute understanding of the problem and a commitment to help the country address the crisis. But the question still needs asking: in the first six months of the Obama administration, has there been enough attention given to the problems of cities in America? And so far, the answer seems to be “no.”

These are problems that demand federal solutions. States are generally fiscally unable to take the steps that would significantly improve the economic prospects for urban people in Cleveland, Oakland, Miami, Detroit, or Hartford. And all too often state legislatures are dominated by an anti-urban bias that makes significant state investment unlikely in any case. But cities represent a national crisis, not simply a regional crisis. As Richard Florida emphasizes (CreativeClass), cities are potentially the source of the greatest resources of creativity and growth that the country possesses. But too many American cities are hobbled by concentrated poverty, failing schools, corrupt city administrations, and zero-sum politics, with predictable results. The new businesses, technology innovations, and high-end service providers that should be the basis of revitalization of America’s cities are simply not showing up downtown. There is very, very little progress in quality of life for the poorest 60% of people living in cities across the country.

Moreover, it needs to be recognized that a central part of this puzzle has to do with race. American cities seem to have become machines for reproducing poverty among African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority populations. Far from being a post-racial society, our cities threaten to become a permanent location of racial disadvantage. Residential segregation, discrimination in employment, and a public education system that is sharply racialized in effect seems to create a set of interlocking institutions that make it all but impossible to narrow the race gap — in income, quality of life, health status, or education.

So where is the Federal agenda for urban transformation? One of President Obama’s priorities is education reform for K-12 schools, and this is certainly relevant and important as a means of addressing poverty and racial inequalities. But it isn’t enough. Somehow we need initiatives that will change the game for the tens of millions of disadvantaged children and young people in American cities; that will give them the opportunity to gain the education and skills that will allow them to find their place in a vibrant economy; and to reduce the unacceptable but persistent inequalities of basic life prospects that our cities still create for so many Americans.

Wealth inequality

When we talk about inequality in the United States, we usually have a couple of different things in mind. We think immediately of income inequality. Inequalities of important life outcomes come to mind (health, housing, education), and, of course, we think of the inequalities of opportunity that are created by a group’s social location (race, urban poverty, gender). But a fundamental form of inequality in our society is a factor that influences each of these: inequalities of wealth across social groups. Wealth refers to the ownership of property, tangible and intangible: for example, real estate, stocks and bonds, savings accounts, businesses, factories, mines, forests, and natural resources. Two facts are particularly important when it comes to wealth: first, that wealth is in general very unevenly distributed in the United States, and second, that there are very striking inequalities when we look at the average wealth of major social groups.

Edward Wolff has written quite a bit about the facts and causes of wealth inequality in the United States. A recent book, Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, Second Edition, is particularly timely; also of interest is Assets for the Poor: The Benefits of Spreading Asset Ownership. Wolff summarizes his conclusion in these stark terms:

The gap between haves and have-nots is greater now–at the start of the twenty-first century–than at anytime since 1929. The sharp increase in inequality since the late 1970s has made wealth distribution in the United States more unequal than it is in what used to be perceived as the class-ridden societies of northwestern Europe. … The number of households worth $1,000,000 or more grew by almost 60 percent; the number worth $10,000,000 or more almost quadrupled. (2-3)

The international comparison of wealth inequality is particularly interesting. Wolff provides a chart of the share of marketable wealth held by the top percentile in the UK, Sweden, and the US, from 1920 to 1992. The graph is striking. Sweden starts off in 1920 with 40% of wealth in the hands of the top one percent, and falls fairly steadily to just under 20% in 1992. UK starts at a staggering 60% (!) in the hands of the top 1 percent in 1920, and again, falls steadily to a 1992 level of just over 20%. The US shows a different pattern. It starts at 35% in 1920 (lowest of all three countries); then rises and falls slowly around the 30% level. The US then begins a downward trend in the mid-1960s, falling to a low of 20% in the 1970s; and then, during the Reagan years and following, the percent of wealth rises to roughly 35%. So we are roughly back to where we were in 1920 when it comes to wealth inequalities in the United States, by this measure.

Why does this kind of inequality matter? Partly because significant inequalities of wealth have important implications for such things as the relative political power of various groups; the opportunities that groups have within and across generations; and the relative security that various individuals and groups have when faced with economic adversity. People who own little or nothing have little to fall back on when they lose a job, face a serious illness, or move into retirement. People who have a lot of wealth, by contrast, are able to exercise a disproportionate amount of political influence; they are able to ensure that their children are well educated and well prepared for careers; and they have substantial buffers when times are hard.

Wolff offers a good summary of the empirical data about wealth inequalities in the United States. But we’d also like to know something about the mechanisms through which this concentration of wealth occurs. Several mechanisms come readily to mind. People who have wealth have an advantage in gathering the information necessary to increase their wealth; they have networks of other wealth holders who can improve their access to opportunities for wealth acquisition; they have advantages in gaining advanced professional and graduate training that increase their likelihood of assuming high positions in wealth-creating enterprises; and they can afford to include high-risk, high-gain strategies in their investment portfolios. So there is a fairly obvious sense in which wealth begets wealth.

But part of this system of inequality of wealth ownership in the United States has to do with something else: the workings of race. The National Urban League publishes an annual report on “The State of Black America.” One of the measures that it tracks is the “wealth gap” — the differential in home ownership between black and white adults. This gap continues to persist, and many leaders in the effort towards achieving equality of opportunity across racial groups point to this structural inequality as a key factor. Here is a very good study on home ownership trends for black and white adults done by George Masnick at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard (2001). The gap in the 1990s fluctuated around 28% — so, for example, in 1988-1998 about 52% of blacks between 45 and 54 were home owners, whereas about 80% of non-Hispanic whites in this age group were homeowners (figure 5). Historical practices of mortgage discrimination against specific neighborhoods influence home ownership rates, as do other business practices associated with the workings of residential segregation. Some of these mechanisms are illustrated in Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue’s The New Suburban History, and Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age provides an absorbing account of how challenging “home ownership” was for professional black families in Detroit in the 1920s.

So what are the remedies for the very high level of wealth inequality that is found in the United States? Wolff focuses on tax remedies, and certainly these need to be a part of the story. But remedying the social obstacles that exist for disadvantaged families to gain property — most fundamentally, disadvantages that derive from the educational opportunities that are offered to children and young people in inner-city neighborhoods — is crucial as well. It seems axiomatic that the greatest enhancement that can be offered to a young person is a good education; and this is true in the question of wealth acquisition no less than the acquisition of other socially desirable things.

Can America overcome racism?

The social and economic inequalities in America that are associated with race are staggering and persistent. Pick almost any category where you’d rather have more than less — income, health status, property and home ownership, likelihood of having health insurance, life expectancy, or likelihood of having a favorable outcome in the criminal justice system. In all of these categories there is a wide gap between black and white Americans. And this remains true even when we control for income — the health gap between white and black Americans earning more than $80,000 remains significant. So America has embedded a set of economic and social institutions that reproduce racial disadvantage. America remains a deeply racialized society.

These observations don’t necessarily amount to a conclusion about racist attitudes and deliberate discrimination on the part of most Americans. Attitudes and outcomes need to be distinguished. It is likely enough that there has been a lot of progress in conscious attitudes about race since 1950 for the majority of Americans. But persistent discriminatory outcomes can arise without explicit racist attitudes or discrimination on the part of specific individuals. Central examples of these forms of embedded “structural” mechanisms of racial discrimination include residential segregation and unequal educational opportunities for black and white children, based on where they live. Segregation certainly arose in part through deliberate efforts at excluding black people from certain neighborhoods — real estate “steering”, mortgage and insurance redlining, and overt violence and intimidation. But the mechanisms sustaining segregation today may well be more impersonal. The fact remains that patterns of racial residential segregation help to reproduce the kinds of racial inequality mentioned above.

These racial inequalities are also deeply intertwined with the social geography of major American cities. The concentration of poverty, racial isolation, poor schools, poor health facilities, and high crime rates create a multi-stranded social mechanism for reproducing racial inequality. It isn’t impossible for an African-American child to thrive and achieve in this environment — but it is certainly much harder. And the probabilities are stacked against her.

So, back to the main question: can America overcome its racism? Several things are necessary if this can happen.

First, we have to honestly face the facts — the outcomes mentioned above. We can’t delude ourselves by saying “the problems of race are finished in America” because we’ve elected an African-American president. The facts of racial difference in life outcomes need to be recognized, and we need to be vigilant in uncovering the mechanisms that lead to these disparities.

Second, we have to recognize why it is so important for our political culture that we address and resolve these continuing racial inequalities. Most fundamentally, we believe in equality — equality of worth and equality of opportunity. The persistent inequalities between black and white populations are a fundamental affront to these values. And we believe in democracy –but a democracy cannot thrive in circumstances of what amounts to two levels of citizenship.

But third, pragmatically, justice is a necessary component of social peace. Our country has seen violent outbreaks for over a century over the facts of contemporary race relations — Watts, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Miami. It is only enlightened prudence to realize that we must aggressively and consistently attack the institutional realities that reproduce racial disadvantage. Securing racial justice is a good investment in future social harmony.

Finally, we will need to have the resolve it takes to provide the resources necessary to assure genuine equality of opportunity for all Americans. This will be the work of a generation. But it will lay the basis for a more sustainable, harmonious, and productive society.

Segregation in France

The mix of race, poverty, and urban space has created intractable social issues in many American cities in the past sixty years. Residential segregation creates a terrible fabric of self-reproducing inequalities between the segregated group and the larger society — inequalities of education, health, employment, and culture. As intractable as this social system of segregation appears to be in the cities of the United States, it may be that the situation in France is even worse. Sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie is interviewed in a recent issue of the Nouvel Obs on the key findings of his recent book, Ghetto urbain: Segregation, violence, pauvrete en France aujourd’hui. The interview makes for absorbing reading.

Lapeyronnie is an expert on urban sociology, poverty, and immigration in France and a frequent observer of the rising urban crisis in France. (I’m deliberately evoking here the title of Tom Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) Lapeyronnie’s view is grim: the isolation and despair characteristic of French ghetto and banlieue communities are worsening year after year, and the French state’s promises after the disturbances of 2005 have not been fulfilled. Unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and poverty create an environment in which young people have neither the resources nor the opportunities to improve their social position, and they are largely excluded from the larger French society.

Lapeyronnie offers several important observations. These ghettos are largely populated by immigrant communities — first, second, or third-generation immigrants from North Africa and former French colonies. Racism is a crucial element in the development and evolution of these segregated spaces. As he puts it:

The ghetto is the product of two mechanisms: social and racial segregation and poverty, which enclose people in their neighborhoods, leading to the formation of a veritable counter-society with its own norms, its economy (what one calls the black economy), and even its own political system. … Poor and segregated, feeling ostracized by the Republic and plunged into a veritable political vacuum, they have organized a counter-society which protects them even as they are disadvantaged in relation to the exterior world.

Lapeyronnie makes the point that the development of segregated ghettos is more advanced and more harmful in the smaller cities of France. He describes the situation in these smaller cities as creating an almost total barrier between the ghetto and the surrounding city — an environment where the possibility of economic or social interaction has all but disappeared.

Lapeyronnie notes the role that gender plays in the segregation system. Women of the ghetto can move back and forth — if they accept the “dominant norms” of dress and behavior. And this means the head scarf, in particular. In order to pass across the boundary of ghetto and city, women must adopt the dress of non-Muslim French society. But, as Lapeyronnie points out, this creates a deeply ambiguous position for women, because modest dress and head scarf are all but mandatory within the space of the ghetto. “The veil is interpreted as a sexual symbol, affirmation of a sexual solidarity with Muslim men. It often engenders hostility outside the ghetto while providing protection within the ghetto.” “Here one finds one of the central explanations of the formation of the ghetto … which is organized around the articulation of the race of the men and the sex of the women.”

Another interesting sociological observation concerns the nature of the social networks within and without the ghetto. Lapeyronnie distinguishes between “strong network ties” (liens forts) and weak network ties (liens faibles), and he asserts that social relationships in the ghetto fall in the first category: everyone knows everyone. As a network diagram, this would result in a dense network in which every node is connected to every other node. But Lapeyronnie makes the point that weak networks are a source of strength and innovation in the larger society that is lacking in the ghetto; people can “network” to strangers through a series of connections. So opportunities are widely available — finding a job by passing one’s CV through a series of people, for example. “Strong networks protect people, they are like a cocoon … But they are also a handicap and a weight on each person. Not only is the individual deprived of resources, but many people don’t know a single person outside the neighborhood.” Moreover, this strong network characteristic is very effective at enforcing a group morality (along the lines of Durkheim): “There is a morality and set of norms in the strong network: don’t betray, be faithful to one’s friends, stay together.”

Lapeyronnie concludes the interview with these words:

When a population is placed in a situation of poverty and lives within racial segregation, it returns to very traditional definitions of social roles, notably the roles of family, and on a rigid and often bigoted morality. This is what permits building the strong network.

This is a pretty powerful analysis of the social transformations that are created by segregation, racism, isolation, and poverty — and it doesn’t bode well for social peace in France. Lapeyronnie is describing the development of an extensive “counter-society” that may be more and more important in coming years. The social networks and social relationships that Lapeyronnie describes are a potent basis for social mobilization and new social movements, and there don’t seem to be many pathways towards social progress to which such movements might be directed.

Education choices and personal futures

Why do people pursue education — whether through secondary school or through post-secondary school?

It seems like a very simple question with an obvious answer: education adds to one’s skills and productivity; these enhanced skills make one more attractive in the employment market; and therefore, pursuing education is a rational investment in future lifetime earnings. (The economic impact of post-secondary education has been estimated to be at least one million dollars in additional earnings for the baccalaureate graduate over the high school graduate in the United States.) In other words, the simple answer appears to be that people make rational decisions about their investments in training and education, and they see the financial advantage that can be expected by having completed a degree program. More education is a valuable investment in future income, security, and status.

Caption: % of high school graduates aged 25-29 who have received bachelor’s degree
Source: National Center for Educational Statistics (link)

However, this answer stimulates quite a few difficult questions. Most fundamentally — how are we to make sense of the behavior of the people who do not make this choice? The chart posted above indicates that in the United States, less than 30% of 25-29 year-olds have completed a four-year college or university degree — and this percentage has only risen from 21% to 28% from 1971 to 1995. Moreover, this statistic does not include high school dropouts. So if more education is so plainly a rational investment, why is there such a low participation rate in the United States? Why do so many teenagers drop out of high school? (A recent study estimates that the drop-out rate in the Detroit public schools exceeds 50%, with some estimates going as high as 78%.) Why do many high school graduates choose not to apply to colleges or universities? (Only 36% of adults between 18-24 in the United States are enrolled in college or graduate school; Institute for Higher Education Policy report.) And why do under-educated but qualified young adults choose not to return to colleges or universities to complete their degrees? (In southeast Michigan, for example, there are more than 150,000 young adults between 25-34 who have completed some college courses but have not earned a degree.) So what are we to make of this evidence of dropping out, non-attending, and non-continuing?

Here are a few answers that have been proposed: some people lack the ability (or believe so) to complete their educations; some people lack the discipline to work hard today for a benefit that will only materialize in the distant future; some people lack the confidence that the normal opportunities that await university graduates will be available for them (because of racial discrimination or recession, for example); some people simply don’t think clearly about their current choices — they don’t plan well for the future; and, perhaps, some people are not strongly motivated by material incentives (income, career advancement).

Most of these explanations make sense of the behavior by re-describing the terms of the choice — thereby making the observed behavior “rational in the circumstances”; or they explain the behavior by referring to “failures of rationality” — weakness of the will, miscalculation, indifference to future benefits. (Jon Elster’s work has often focused on these sorts of failures; Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality.) But these explanations don’t seem sufficient; they appear to dissolve the problem rather than explain it.

A second type of explanation of these social behaviors is one based on analysis of structural barriers to educational completion: poor schooling at earlier levels, racial or ethnic discrimination in the provision of educational opportunities, or economic obstacles to continuing education (tuition and the need to work fulltime), for example. To these structural barriers some social psychologists have added the factor of discouragement created in young people by ethnic, racial, or gendered stereotypes about performance. An important example here is found in Claude Steele’s important work on “stereotype threat” and the major effects on performance that can be documented as deriving from stereotyped expectations. (Steele describes some of his hypotheses and findings in this Frontline interview.)

To these rational and structural factors, though, it seems relevant to ask whether there are also cultural expectations and community values that underlie the choices made by young people in various communities concerning education. There is the idea, for example, that midwestern manufacturing regions had developed a culture of complacency about education created by the availability of well-paid manufacturing jobs in the 1950s-70s. The easy availability of manufacturing work that required only a high school education led families to believe that their children didn’t need good educations in order to succeed in the world of work they would be entering. This set of expectations, it is argued, led to a familial attitude that guided young people towards choices that gave little importance to advanced education — and, for that matter, little attention to the importance of strong performance in K-12 schooling — a kind of “Beach Boys” mentality (cars, parties, fun). It would be interesting to know what attitudes towards higher education are found in Appalachian mining communities — is a college education valued by most families as a key ingredient of a good future, or is college education regarded as something foreign and unnecessary? And it seems that there is an opportunity for some good anthropological research on the Latino communities of the United States to help explain why high school completion rates and college attendance are lower than in other struggling communities in the United States.

So the question here is an important one: are there cultural values that work against placing a high value on educational attainment? What steps can be taken to mitigate these forces? And how do cultural, structural, and familial factors interact to give rise to low educational aspirations for a sizable percentage of the American youth cohort?

(I would like to see comparable statistics for Germany, France, and Australia. Any good sources out there?)

The struggle for racial justice

The struggle for racial justice in America was in its sharpest form in the 1960s, from the Freedom Marches in the South in the early sixties to the militant and determined struggles in the North in the later sixties. Organizers, militants, activists, leaders, and volunteers gave their best energies, brains, and courage to this extended effort to change American society. And when you think about it, this decentralized movement was remarkably successful in terms of its reach, the ability of various civil rights and activist organizations to motivate followers, and some of the concrete structural changes that were achieved. (It goes without saying that we have a very long way to go in pursuit of racial justice today, in 2008.)

One way of getting a better understanding of the Civil Rights movement is to read some of the very good historical and sociological scholarship that has been done on the period — for example, Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63 (America in the King Years) or Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer. But another way is to talk with people who lived through the struggle — people who went “went South”, people who worked as organizers and activists in Chicago or Detroit, people who got involved in some of the militant organizations such as the Black Panthers. And often what you gain from conversations like this is somewhat different from what comes across in the organized historical scholarship. It’s more intense, for one thing — just as it must have been in the 1960s to talk with veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade about their experiences in the Spanish Civil War. But it also gives you the participant’s perspective on things rather than the historian’s view. And it focuses often on the process of mobilization and consciousness-raising, rather than the eventual outcome.

I’ve done two recent interviews with scholars whose own experiences of the Civil Rights movement are genuinely absorbing. One is Ahmad Rahman, a history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the author of The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora. Rahman is an accomplished historian and a rising authority in African and African-American history. He was also an activist and member of the Black Panther Party in Detroit in the 1960s. The second interview is with Dr. Gloria House, a professor of humanities and African and African-African American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. House is a well-respected poet and author, and has played an important role in the continuing prominence of Broadside Press. (She recently edited a great volume celebrating the press; A Different Image: The Legacy of Broadside Press: An Anthology.) Her own experience of the Civil Rights movement began at UC-Berkeley, followed by time in Alabama and Detroit. Her experiences with SNCC and the struggles in the South are very intense, and she finds the voice to express what she experienced powerfully. She has spent decades as a scholar-activist in Detroit.

Both interviews are absorbing and eye-opening. One point that comes out of both Rahman’s and House’s recollections is the importance of the struggles for African national liberation in the development of consciousness within the African-American movements — and the “echo” of American developments in African liberation thinking. There is a very clear demonstration of the political-intellectual work that went into framing an understanding of American society and liberation that was suited to the African-American experience. But there are dozens of other important insights — the ways in which the struggle for Black Consciousness developed, the importance of youth engagement in the struggle, and the power of poetry during those decades. Rahman brings some of the issues forward to the present day, by comparing the struggles of French immigrant people against police brutality with the struggles of the African-American community in the earlier decades. And House shares some of her thinking about where the quest for racial justice may be going today — emphasizing community-based activism. She also shares several of her poems about the early days of the struggle at the end of the interview.

It is a constant struggle for all of us to go beyond clichés and cartoons in our understanding of our society and our history. And a very powerful way of doing that is to listen to the voices of people whose experiences are so directly connected to the major fault lines and turning points in our history.

The video interviews with Rahman and House are posted on YouTube, and audio versions are posted as well; Rahman, House part 1, House part 2. The audio interviews are also included in the UnderstandingSociety podcast, available through iTunes.

Visit also this relevant posting on Jim Johnson’s blog, with information about the recent publication of Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.

Higher education and social mobility

There is an appalling level of inequality in American society; and even more troubling, the multiple dimensions of inequality seem to reinforce each other, with the result that disadvantaged groups remain disadvantaged across multiple generations. We can ask two different kinds of sociological questions about these facts: What factors cause the reproduction of disadvantage over multiple generations? And what policy interventions have some effect on enhancing upward social mobility within disadvantaged groups? How can we change this cycle of disadvantage?

Several earlier postings have addressed some aspects of the causal question (post, post). Here I’d like to consider the policy question — and the question of how we can use empirical evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of large policy initiatives on social outcomes such as mobility.

One social policy in particular seems to have a lot of antecedent plausibility: a policy aimed at increasing the accessibility of higher education to the disadvantaged group. The theory is that individuals within the group will benefit from higher education by enhancing their skills and knowledge; this will give them new economic opportunities and access to higher-wage jobs; the individuals will do better economically, and their children will begin life with more economic support and a set of values that encourage education. So access to higher education ought to prove to be a virtuous circle or a positive feedback loop, leading to substantial social mobility in currently disadvantaged groups.

It is a plausible theory; but are there empirical methods through which we can evaluate whether it actually works this way?

Paul Attewell and David Lavin undertake to do exactly that in Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?, published in 2007. Their research consists of a survey study of a cohort of poor women who were admitted to the City University of New York between 1970 and 1972 under an open-admissions policy. Thirty years later Attewell and Lavin surveyed a sample of the women in this group (about 2,000 women), gathering data about their eventual educational attainment, their income, and the educational successes of their children. Analysis of their data permitted them to demonstrate that attenders were likely to enjoy higher income than non-attenders and to have children who valued education at levels that were higher than the children of non-attenders.

The benefits of higher education in increasing personal income were significant; they find that in the population surveyed in 2000, the high school graduate earned $30,000, women with some college earned $35,000, women with the associate’s degree earned $40,783, women with the bachelor’s degree earned $42,063, and women with a postgraduate degree earned $54,545. In other words, there was a fairly regular progression in income associated with each further step in the higher education credential achieved. And they found — contrary to conservative critics of open-access programs in higher education — that these women demonstrated eventual completion rates that were substantially higher than 4-6 year graduation rates would indicate — over 70% earned some kind of degree (table 2.2). “Our long-range perspective shows that disadvantaged women ultimately complete college degrees in far greater numbers than scholars realize” (4).

So access to higher education works, according to the evidence uncovered in this study: increasing access to post-secondary education is the causal factor, and improved economic and educational outcomes are the effect.

This is an important empirical study that sets out some of the facts that pertain to poverty and higher education. The study provides empirical confirmation for the idea that affordable and accessible mass education works: when programs are available that permit poor people to gain access to higher education, their future earnings and the future educational success of their children are both enhanced. It’s a logical conclusion — but one that has been challenged by conservative critics such as Bill Bennett. And given the increasing financial stress that public universities are currently experiencing due to declining state support for higher education, it is very important for policy makers to have a clear understanding of the return that is likely on the investment in affordable access to higher education.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is a sad day of remembrance in America and the world. Forty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. And, followed by the murder of Robert Kennedy only a few months later, America’s heart and history were jolted.

Dr. King’s life devotion to the cause of racial justice in America is one of the most important legacies we have in this country. His moral clarity and his personal courage provided our generations with signposts we still haven’t fully absorbed.  And the work to which he devoted his life is unfinished. It is crucial for our future as a country that we make intelligent and compassionate progress based on this legacy.

It is so remarkably striking to me to see the different life experiences that white and black Americans have lived, especially the generation who are in their fifties and sixties today. These men and women were in their teens and twenties in 1968. They have clear, personal memories of that day in April forty years ago, and of the months that followed.  For most African-American people in this group there are very specific, vivid, and personal memories of segregation and racism in their years of childhood and adolescence. Whether their experiences were of growing up in Arkansas or Chicago in the 1950s, most African-American people of this age cohort have deep and personal experiences of racism. And their memories of the murder of Dr. King have an urgency and personal sorrow that feels very different from the experience of white Americans of the same age.

My discipline is philosophy and I have taught social and political philosophy intermittently throughout my teaching career. At this stage of my career it is very striking to recall how mute this field of philosophy has been to the experience and structure of American racism. The ideas of equality, liberty, and justice are defining values in the field of social philosophy. And yet the topic of racial justice has not been a central focus; only rarely has it been even talked about as we consider the theories of Kant, Rousseau, Mill, or Rawls. And yet my whole education and career are framed by the murder of Martin and the candidacy of Barak. How could race not have been the central problem of social philosophy in America during these decades? It is a failure of collective social cognition, an instance of willful social blindness.

I think there is a connection between these two points. A part of teaching about principles of social justice should be a serious learning of the lived experience of injustice.

The majority in America is inching its way towards a commitment to racial justice. We can make further progress along this road if we will only listen in humility and silence to the experiences of racism that shaped the lives of so many millions of our fellow citizens.

Race and American inequalities

Douglas Massey is a leading US social scientist who has worked on issues of inequality in America throughout his career. He is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. His most recent book (Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System) is a huge contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms producing inequalities in American society, and it amounts to a stunning indictment of racism and anti-poor public policies over a seventy-five year period. And, unlike other interpretations that attribute current racial inequalities to past patterns of overt discrimination, Massey argues that these inequalities can be traced to current discrimination by individuals and institutions alike. (An earlier book, American Apartheid, co-authored with Nancy Denton, is also very important.)

Massey leads off his analysis with a theory of the social psychology of racism and discrimination against poor people. He argues that the stereotyping that is inevitably associated with social cognition leads to a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans, immigrants, women, and poor people that deepens and entrenches their unequal shares in American society. The twin mechanisms of discrimination and opportunity-hoarding both flow on the basis of the categories of discrimination created by these mental constructs – hence “categorical inequality”. (Visit a recent posting for a related argument about the social psychology of prejudice.)

Massey hypothesizes two dimensions of mental categorization, leading to four gross categories of people in one’s social category scheme: warm-cold (appealing-unappealing) and competent-incompetent. People who are like us are considered “warm” and “competent”. The other three quadrants are categorized as “other”: warm but incompetent (pitied), competent but cold (admired), and incompetent and cold (despised). And he asserts that American racism places African-Americans in the final category. This in turn is used to explain the harshly negative tilt that US legislation has shown across lines of race and poverty.

Massey argues that these cognitive mechanisms work at a pre-conscious level, and are operative even in the behavior and choices of people who consciously experience their values as democratic and egalitarian. These patterns of ongoing discrimination reinforce and reproduce social institutions that assign very different outcomes to African-Americans, poor people, and other dis-valued people. This works itself out in employment, advancement in a career, access to healthcare, and public policy and legislation.

A particularly valuable part of the book is the mass of elegant graphs that Massey has assembled. These represent in composite an astounding narrative of discriminatory public policy over almost a century of legislation.

Read the book — it will change your understanding of taxes, policies, safety nets, civil rights, and racism.