The vertical dimension of race: Social power

Art by Alyssa Guzman
Racial justice is the path to racial progress. Follow us on twitter @GetRaceRight

Race and access to resources

If you are a member of a minority group in this country, chances are that you began thinking about racial differences in social power long before now. If you are White, maybe not so much. Andrew Hacker (1992), Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Queens College in New York City, offers a compelling question to help us think about the issue. He asks White people to suppose that there is a secret office responsible for determining the race of every American. An official from this office contacts you one day to explain that a mistake was made when you were born. You’re supposed to be Black, not White, and the law requires that this oversight be corrected immediately. Tomorrow morning, you will wake up with chocolate brown skin and an Afro haircut. The official says, however, that he understands that this will be a big change, and the agency is willing to offer you some “reasonable recompense.” You are scheduled to live the rest of your life as a Black American. How much compensation would be fair?

(For this excerpt from the video with Prof. Hacker, please watch from 10:39 to 12:16.)

How much, indeed, would White people want in exchange for being Black in America? Prof. Hacker has asked this question many times, and reports that a million dollars a year is a pretty standard response. Apparently, no one ever replied, “Oh, I don’t need any money. Racism is a thing of the past. The playing field is level, and I feel ready to pick up my life where it left off. No problem. Thanks anyway.” Perhaps the fantasy of waking up rich, as well as Black, plays some role in these responses. But people provide some pretty compelling reasons for wanting the money, most of which have to do with the prospect that life as a Black person will be more difficult because of limited access to valued resources like jobs and education and the likelihood that somewhere along the way, racial prejudice will hold them back. It’s easy to dismiss others’ concerns about fair treatment when it’s not happening to you or to people with whom you are close. You take it more seriously when confronted with the prospect of spending the rest of your life with significantly less social power than you currently have.

Let’s look at a few key metrics from analyses by the Pew Research Center (2013).


Race and income--Pew

Asian and White Americans (who have nearly identical median incomes) make 70% more money every year than Black and Latino Americans (who also have nearly identical incomes).  The median income is the 50th percentile, and there is quite a range within each group, obviously.  (There is an especially wide range among Asian Americans because the category includes so many different nationalities, and the immigration patterns from Asian nations in the last half-century have been very different.  Refugees from Southeast Asia who arrived between the 1970s and 1990s came with far fewer resources than, say, South Asian immigrants who have an especially high percentage of M.D.s and Ph.D.s.)

What would a pay raise of 70% mean for you and your family?  What opportunities would those additional funds open up for you?


Race and poverty--Pew

Another way to examine financial well-being is to examine those who, by definition, have insufficient funds to meet even their most basic needs.  In 2011, over one in four Black and Latino Americans did not have enough money to cover basic expenses for food, housing, and transportation.  That compares with one in ten White Americans and one in eight Asian Americans.  Note that poverty rates for African Americans mirror the strength of the national economy quite closely.  When the nation experiences any kind of economic downturn, Black Americans take an especially big hit.  That’s partly because they are more likely to be laid off during hard times, and partly because so many Black families who aren’t in poverty are still just above the line.


Differences in wealth are even more striking than differences in income because wealth includes money and assets inherited from previous generations. It therefore reflects the past as much or more than it reflects the present (Conley, 2003). Sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, in their excellent book, Black Wealth/White Wealth (2006), found that Blacks’ average net worth (assets minus debts) is between 7% and 10% that of Whites—not 10% lower, 10% as much. Furthermore, the gap has remained quite constant in percentage terms, meaning that as societal wealth grows, the actual dollar value of the discrepancy is increasing.  (Note that this chart only goes through 2011, and shows the dramatic effects of “the great recession.”  White wealth has rebounded since then–but not Black or Latino wealth–because White people benefited much more from the large gains in the stock market over the last few years.)

Wealth affects families’ ability to buy a house, send children to college, and weather temporary financial strains. The wealth gap is no accident, of course, but signifies the limited opportunities available to African-Americans for a full century after the end of slavery. (Only about 20% of the wealth gap is accounted for by differences in family structure, such as number of single-parent families.) Oliver and Shapiro call this the “sedimentation of racial inequality,” noting that “in central ways the cumulative effects of the past have seemingly cemented blacks to the bottom of society’s economic hierarchy.”


You won’t be shocked to learn that people with less money also lag behind in other ways, too.  This includes education–one important path to social mobility.  The good news is that Black Americans are now nearly as likely to graduate from high school as Asian and White Americans.  The bad news is that the bar is now substantially higher than it was a generation ago.  Americans with a college degree have a significantly higher income, on average, than those without a degree.  College completion rates are rising for all ethnic groups, but the gaps between the groups are wider than ever.

We could look at a hundred additional measures, and see racial disparities in health, health care, life expectancy, and nearly anything that is important in determining one’s quality of life.  (The Atlantic has some interesting–and sobering–stats in an article entitled, “What if Black America Were a Country?”)  It’s important to note that both race and economic class are important factors in these measures.  Account for class differences, however, and race differences persist.  It’s not just a matter of people of color having lower income and wealth, on average.  Race is a separate, very important variable that has to be addressed on its own.

The Racialization of the U.S.


Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their compelling book, Divided by Faith (2000), refer to the unequal distribution of resources in U.S. as the “racialization” of the society, meaning that one’s race is a significant determinant of one’s life opportunities.  The failure to acknowledge this is one of many blind spots in The Black History Month Story, and, in my opinion, the most important.

In Jim Crow America, White people used to point to the abolition of slavery as evidence that, while things used to be bad, we had moved past race in this country.  The racialization of Jim Crow seemed, well, normal, and those who spoke against it were the ones causing problems.

Today, many White Americans point to the integration of public facilities and say basically the same thing.  Things used to be bad, but now they are better, and we have moved past race.  Contemporary racialization seems, well, normal, and those who speak against it are the ones causing problems.

Emerson and Smith identify four aspects of contemporary racialization that keep it going and explain its power:

  1. It is increasingly covert—carried out behind the scenes and under the radar;
  2. It is embedded in the normal operations of how we do things, often perpetuated, therefore, in the absence of personal bigotry or prejudice;
  3. It avoids direct racial terminology so that the racial aspect of racialization isn’t discussed; and
  4. It is invisible to most Whites, which is one reason that so many White people are perplexed, angry, and emotional in denying that it exists.

Truth is, if you’re White, despite other difficulties and hardships you may face, you benefit from the racism built into so many organizational policies and practices in this and other countries.  In an article in Sojourners magazine, Adam Ericksen notes that White liberals like to feel superior to White bigots, and blame them for the nation’s problems with race, while ignoring the ways they also benefit from and participate in racist systems and structures.

We will explore more about White attitudes about racialization in The View from Above.

Katy Swalwell

There is at least some general awareness of the importance of the first dimension of race, social culture.  We hear talk, for example, about cultural awareness and cultural competence.  There is very little awareness of the second dimension of race, however, social power.  Most Americans, and a very large percentage of White Americans, have no idea of the social and economic disparities among people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds.  That is why Katy Swalwell, a faculty member in the College of Education at Iowa State University, suggests that we be as concerned about “equity literacy” as we are about “cultural literacy.”  Our lack of awareness of the vertical dimension is one more example of the fact that it is invisible to those who are toward the top.

One step toward equity literacy would be to put one of Dr. King’s most famous quotations in context:  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  That sentence sometimes is used as an argument that we should be “color-blind” and quit talking about race.  However, Dr. King spent his life working to reduce racialization.  He was very explicit about this–he was not simply asking White people to be nicer while everything else stayed the same.  He talked again and again about changing economic, social, and political structures in order to eliminate racialization and bring about racial justice.  To use his words to argue that we should ignore race while perpetuating racialization is an ugly distortion of his beliefs and a vicious denial of the meaning of his life.


The Bottom Line:  As so many people have said, race matters.  It shapes our lives, and the quality of our lives, in innumerable ways, offering advantages to some and disadvantages to others.  Because racial justice is, indeed, the path to racial progress, there is no alternative but to address this fact head on.


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