Does Race Matter?

If it’s not real, how can race matter?

We looked at a friend’s question last time. He asked: why focus on race at the expense of analyzing class and power – especially if race is not biologically “real.”

Today, we confront the fact that although race is not “real,” it has real impacts on our lives. (In future posts, I’ll talk about the history of how society constructed definitions of race to give certain groups power.)

Powerful personal stories, like the one told here by the Oregon professor Rick Settersten, who is raising two black kids in 2013, illustrate the power of race. (Thanks for the tip, Amy Solomon!) But they don’t uncover the system by which race is created and enforced.

Horror stories about racist actions and vitriol make my skin crawl. I get mad, but I try not to stop there. I try to push myself to go further.  I look at those stories squarely and then begin to collect still more stories.  Patterns emerge. And those patterns illustrate the broad and systemic forms of racism.

Data, or statistics, represent a multitude of stories — those of Settersten and many others. And if we want to change the way race operates in America, we have to keep the personal stories in mind — the humanness — and then dig for data. We might ask: what do the social scientists say about race and class?  Let’s look what they found when they separated the effects of race from the effects of class in different parts of society.

The overall conclusion won’t surprise you: although “race” isn’t something that is real, social scientists in different specialties all found that it has an impact on our lives today.

Yet the reach of “race” may indeed surprise you. “Race” — even though it is made up — affects the job you get, the house you buy and even how your kid is treated in school. Take a look at these examples:

• Discipline in Education. Students of color are more likely to be more harshly disciplined than whites for similar offenses. Why? The statistics tell us that schools punish black students for more subjective infractions. Racial disparities drop for more objective infractions, such as drug or weapon possession. In his personal recounting, Settersten sees this dramatically as he raises his son.

• Housing Discrimination. The Race Matters Institute tells us that “African American homebuyers encountered discrimination in 17 percent of their efforts to purchase homes and Hispanic homebuyers experienced discrimination at the rate of 20 percent.”

Again,  Settersten sees this — in 2013!

• Hiring. In real-life “audit studies,” white applicants are more likely than black applicants to be hired even if skills and other qualifications are equal. (Harry J. Holzer, Chief Economist at the Department of Labor has a nice review of the literature around low-wage labor, hiring and access to jobs).

• Access to jobs. Geographic concentration of the poor in general is on the rise. This is especially true in the black community. Recent research shows that low income blacks and other minorities are increasingly isolated from places of employment growth.

• Bouncing back from job loss. Whites are more likely to receive unemployment benefits than are blacks or Hispanics even though these two groups lost jobs at a higher rate than whites during the Great Recession. (The reason: they are more likely to work in jobs that pay unemployment benefits.)

• Racial Wealth Gap. Income disparity in America is stark, but it is especially dramatic along racial lines. White household median wealth is 20 times more than median wealth in a black household and 18 times more than the median wealth of an Hispanic household. The result: Middle-income whites, blacks and Hispanics are not all at the same place in our class structure. To be middle class in each group is something vastly different.

This chart from a recent Pew Research report on wealth gaps:

Pew Median Net Worth Households 2011

White net worth more than 10 times greater than Hispanic or Black

These kinds of economic differences then make Blacks and Hispanics much more vulnerable to economic calamities like the housing crisis. (More on this in the future.)

• Social Safety Net. Limited access to federal programs like Food Stamps and the Earned Income Credit. A lack of outreach and publicity mean that immigrant populations are less likely to receive these benefits even if they are legally entitled to them.

So, there are lots of examples that we are using race to make some lousy distinctions between people. And I’m not arguing that we look at race alone. I think that a class-based strategy can take us a long way. However, I think that we ought to be clear that race still counts. And that a class-based strategy alone won’t get us to the full understanding — or the public policy — we need.

A good place to find for more information on some of these findings and on others is the Race Matters Institute, which has published a series of  fact sheets. (The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Association of Black Foundation Executives are partners in the organization.)

Are there other studies that illustrate race alone — without class — showing itself that particularly speak to you? If race has its own impact, beyond class, does that affect the way you look at public policy or philanthropy?


Join The Conversation.

  1. Paul Shoemaker says:

    Todd, thank you for being thoughtful and courageous. I get that “race isn’t real,” but it’s hard to even think that way. It is real in our day to day lives. We live in a country that is truly a great experiment in the mix of cultures, races, ethnicities, like no other country has tried before. It makes me proud to be an American AND it reinforces why we all have to be so in touch with everything you note in this post. Knowledge, information, alongside stories, keeps us all self-aware of what we can be blind to our own actions and thoughts.

  2. This is so well spoken, Todd. Thank you.

    Gayatri Spivak writes about “strategic essentialisms,” wherein constructs of identity are permitted to have a voice in order to talk about shared experiences that exist despite the “fiction” of constructs like race. Wiki summarizes it succinctly, “Spivak coined the term ‘strategic essentialism,’ to refer to a sort of temporary solidarity for the purpose of social action.” This means that despite having a multiplicity of understandings of a population, Spivak was advocating for allowing umbrella category (like “feminist,” “race,” “male” or “woman”) to be temporarily useful in permitting for the visibility of the kind of critical mass necessary for advocacy and social change. Strategic essentialism like “race” allows us to “see” experiences or perspectives of people of color and other disadvantaged communities.

    Though Spivak has moved on from using the term other colleagues have found it very useful. For me the value of such essentialisms is the permission to speak about shared experiences that might otherwise be rendered invisible and thereby silenced. It is almost like the magic glasses from childhood. Do you remember those? In order to read a message that was on the page you had to look through a colored lens of red — or was it blue? What those glasses showed us was that there were other messages inherent within the words presented, but they would not become visible without a particular lens.

    I appreciate that Loom Foundations helping John Powell speak in Seattle. I came to the website to check what link between foundation and John Powell’s work might be. I’m so glad I did. Thanks for the great work that Loom empowers.

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