An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2011

Race, Inequality & Culture, Vol. 2

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Twenty-two prominent social scientists examine “Race, Inequality, and Culture,” considering topics ranging from education and family support to racial identity, politics, employment, immigration, and the influence of hip hop.

See also Race in the Age of Obama, Vol. 1.

Civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and Eugene Reed speak at Freedom House. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and Eugene Reed speak at Freedom House
Civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and Eugene Reed speak at Freedom House. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Past & Future of American Civil Rights

Although American society will not become race-blind anytime soon, the meaning of race is changing, and processes of racial formation now are quite different than those prevailing just two generations ago. Massey puts the present moment in historical perspective by reviewing progress toward racial equality through successive historical epochs, from the colonial era to the age of Obama. He ends by exploring the contours of racial formation in the United States today, outlining a program for a new civil rights movement in the twenty-first century.

The Declining Significance of Race: Revisited & Revised

Wilson reflects on the nearly eight hundred research studies that claim to provide an empirical test of the arguments presented in his book The Declining Significance of Race (1978; second edition, 1980). Wilson considers representative studies that incorrectly address his book, before discussing those publications that correctly address his thesis, including those that uphold, partially support, or challenge his arguments and basic claims. In the process, Wilson explores how some of these studies led him to revise or extend parts of his basic thesis, especially as it pertains to race and interracial relations today. Wilson also takes into account changes within the African American population since he wrote The Declining Significance of Race. He reveals how his thoughts have changed with respect to both race- and class-based solutions for the problems faced by people of color.

A Post-Racial Strategy for Improving Skills to Promote Equality

In contemporary America, racial gaps in achievement are primarily due to gaps in skills. Skill gaps emerge early, before children enter school. Families are major producers of skills, thus inequality in school performance is strongly linked to inequality in family environments. Schools do little to reduce or enlarge the skill gaps that are present when children enter school. Parenting matters, and the true measure of child advantage and disadvantage is the quality of parenting received. A growing fraction of American children across all race and ethnic groups is being raised in dysfunctional families. Investment in the early lives of children from disadvantaged families will help close achievement gaps. America currently relies too heavily on schools and adolescent remediation strategies to solve problems that start in the preschool years. Policy should prevent rather than remediate. Voluntary, culturally sensitive support for parenting is a politically and economically palatable strategy that addresses problems common to all racial and ethnic groups.

The Achievement Gap: Past, Present & Future

The achievement gap between blacks and whites owes nothing to genetics. It is not solely due to discrimination or social-class differences between blacks and whites. It is due in good part to environmental differences between blacks and whites stemming from family, neighborhood, and school socialization factors that are present even for middle-class blacks. The gap is closing slowly, but it could be closed much more rapidly, with interventions both large and small. Preschool programs exist that can produce enormous differences in outcomes in school and in later life. Elementary schools where children spend much more time in contact with the school, and which include upper-middle-class experiences such as visits to museums and dramatic productions, have a major impact on poor black children's academic achievement. Simply convincing black children that their intellectual skills are under their control can have a marked impact.

Has the Supreme Court Been More a Friend or Foe to African Americans?

This essay challenges the conventional wisdom that regards the Supreme Court as a heroic defender of the rights of racial minorities against majority oppression. It argues that over the course of American history, the Court, more often than not, has been a regressive force on racial issues. Klarman draws three lessons from his survey of the Court's racial jurisprudence: (1) the composition of the Court influences whether its racial jurisprudence is progressive or regressive; (2) the composition of the Court is, in significant part, a reflection of national politics; and (3) the Court's constitutional interpretations regarding race – just as on any other issue – broadly reflect the political and social climate of the era and thus rarely deviate far from dominant public opinion.

Affirmative Action: The U.S. Experience in Comparative Perspective

Broadly defined, affirmative action encompasses any measure that allocates resources through a process that takes into account individual membership in underrepresented groups. The goal is to increase the proportion of individuals from those groups in positions from which they have been excluded as a result of state-sanctioned oppression in the past or societal discrimination in the present. A comparative overview of affirmative action regimes reveals that the most direct and controversial variety of affirmative action emerged as a strategy for conflict management in deeply divided societies; that the policy tends to expand in scope, either embracing additional groups, encompassing wider realms for the same groups, or both; and that in countries where the beneficiaries are numerical majorities, affirmative action programs are more extensive and their transformative purpose is unusually explicit.

Author Daniel Sabbagh

Challenging History: Barack Obama & American Racial Politics

Modern American racial politics remains sharply divided over racial policy issues, with coalitions of political activists, groups, and governing institutions aligned on opposing sides. A “color-blind” policy alliance urges government to act with as little regard to race as possible. A “race-conscious” alliance argues that policies should aim to reduce material racial inequalities and that race-targeted measures are often needed. These modern racial policy alliances are strongly identified with the two major parties; as a result, they contribute to modern political polarization. In a predominantly white electorate, color-blind policies are far more popular than race-conscious ones. President Barack Obama has responded by stressing goals of national unity and foregrounding color-blind policies, while quietly choosing among them on race-conscious grounds and adopting limited race-targeted measures. It remains to be seen whether his approach can succeed in reducing material racial inequalities or immunizing him from charges of reverse racism. It also faces challenges at home and abroad for privileging American national interests above multicultural and internationalist concerns.

Authors Rogers M. Smith, Desmond S. King, and Philip A. Klinkner

Post-Racial & Pan-Racial Politics in the Age of Obama

After Barack Obama's historic election, media reports overwhelmingly credited white independents with setting aside decades of racially polarized voting to send the nation's first black president to the White House. Lee looks more closely to reveal that Obama owes a greater debt to non-white voters (partisan and nonpartisan) than to white independents. As more people of color – including immigrant and second-generation Latinos and Asian Americans – join the ranks of nonpartisan voters, the concept of pan-racialism can shed light on how individuals of a shared demographic category come to engage, politically, as a group. The age of Obama calls not for the celebration of a post-racial politics, but rather for a collective struggle to build a pan-racial politics: that is, a politics of mutual recognition, inclusion, and moral partiality between all racial and ethnic groups.

Author Taeku Lee

Destabilizing the American Racial Order

Are racial disparities in the United States just as deep-rooted as they were before the 2008 presidential election, largely eliminated, or persistent but on the decline? One can easily find all of these pronouncements; rather than trying to adjudicate among them, this essay seeks to identify what is changing in the American racial order, what persists or is becoming even more entrenched, and what is likely to affect the balance between change and continuity. The authors focus on young American adults, who were raised in a distinctive racial context and who think about and practice race differently than their older counterparts. For many young Americans, racial attitudes are converging across groups and social networks are becoming more intertwined. Most important, although group-based hierarchy has not disappeared, race or ethnicity does less to predict a young adult's life chances than ever before in American history.

Authors Jennifer Lucy Hochschild, Vesla M. Weaver, and Traci Burch

Intra-minority Intergroup Relations in the Twenty-First Century

Recent projections indicate that by the year 2050, racial minorities will comprise more than 50 percent of the U.S. population. That is, the United States is expected to become a “majority-minority” nation. This essay adopts a social psychological approach to consider how these dramatic demographic changes may affect both racial minorities and white Americans. Specifically, drawing from theoretical work on social identification, the essay examines the likely psychological meaning (if any) of a majority-minority nation for racial minorities' self-concepts and the resulting effects on their evaluations of members of other racial minority groups. In addition, the potential reactions of white Americans to the possibility of becoming a numerical minority are explored. Drawing on reactions to the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States, the authors conclude by discussing the implications of America’s shifting racial demographics for the U.S. racial hierarchy.

Authors Jennifer A. Richeson and Maureen A. Craig

Hip-Hop & the Global Imprint of a Black Cultural Form

Hip-hop, created by black and Latino youth in the mid-1970s on the East Coast of the United States, is now represented throughout the world. The form's core elements – rapping, deejaying, breaking (dance), and graffiti art – now join an ever-growing and diversifying range of artistic, cultural, intellectual, political, and social practices, products, and performances. The artistic achievements of hip-hop represent a remarkable contribution to world culture; however, the “hip-hop nation” has created not just art and entertainment, but art with the vision and message of changing the world – locally, nationally, and globally. International representations of hip-hop capture and reinterpret hip-hop's history by incorporating local as well as African American aesthetic, cultural, social, and political models. This essay examines the global movement of the hip-hop nation and its artistic incorporation into global youth culture. It considers how that movement is both a social and political process that integrates symbols of African American culture and political struggle.

Authors Marcyliena Morgan and Dionne Bennett

Millenials & the Myth of a Post-Racial Society

According to some academics and journalists, once the “millennials” dominate the political arena, many of the thorny social issues that have caused great debate and consternation among the American public will be resolved. This line of reasoning suggests that young people who embrace and personify a more inclusive society will eventually take over both policy-making and thought leadership, moving both in a more liberal direction. Yet data from the Black Youth Project and the Mobilization, Change, and Political and Civic Engagement Project suggest that deep divides still exist among young people, with black youth particularly suspect of the idea of a post-racial anything. Furthermore, significant and profound differences in how young whites, blacks, and Latinos think about such topics as racism, citizenship, and gay and lesbian issues continue to define American politics today as practiced by the young – even in the age of Obama.

The Black Masculinities of Barack Obama: Some Implications for African American Men

This essay describes how the presidential campaign of Barack Obama reflected two tendencies of social conduct for African American men, colloquially summed up in African American public discourse as “keeping it real” and “keeping it proper.” The first refers to African Americans’ efforts to behave in public settings in ways that presumably indicate a strong social connection to other African Americans, or that validate black Americans over and against some notion of a non-African American standard of social conduct. The latter refers to African Americans’ efforts to adhere to presumably “mainstream” behavioral standards, whereby the humanity of black Americans is demonstrated and advanced. The essay explores how Obama exemplified both perspectives during his presidential campaign and discusses what implications his effort to balance these two, often diametrically opposed, tendencies has for forwarding new conceptions of African American masculinity.

Author Alford A. Young, Jr.

Immigration: The New American Dilemma

The American dilemma was once distinctively American, rooted in the particular history of the United States and in the conflict between liberal principles and exclusionary practice. The contemporary American dilemma takes a different form, arising from the challenges that emerge when international migration confronts the liberal nation-state. Solving the earlier dilemma called for extending and deepening citizenship so that it would be fully shared by all Americans. However, that more robust citizenship is only for Americans, who alone can cross U.S. borders as they please. Consequently, rights stop at the national boundary, where the admission of foreigners is controlled and restricted. Because entries are rationed, migration policies select a favored few, creating new forms of de jure inequality that separate citizens from resident aliens and distinguish among resident foreigners by virtue of their right to territorial presence. Thus, the encounter between citizens wanting to preserve their national community and newly arrived foreigners seeking to get ahead yields an inescapable social dilemma, one that America shares with other rich democracies.

Author Roger Waldinger

Controversial Blackness: The Historical Development & Future Trajectory of African American Studies

The forty-year history of African American studies has led some scholars to take stock of its roots and its future. This essay examines the field's unexpected origins in black colleges, as well as at predominantly white ones, and assesses the early debates and challenges along the road to academic incorporation. Biondi takes up such questions as: Did the field's origins in the Black Power movement jeopardize its claims to academic legitimacy? If black studies is a discipline, what is its methodology? As an outgrowth of black nationalism on campus, to what extent was black studies U.S.-centric? How did the field relate to the rise of diaspora studies and black feminism? Who takes black studies classes and to what extent does the field retain a political mission? The essay concludes that African American studies remains a vital and dynamic field as it moves into the twenty-first century.

Author Martha Biondi