Policy Wonk: Economic inequality fuels racial unrest

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Or is it the other way around?

Whatever, the two seem inextricably bound together. In a nation that talks a lot about “equality,” “equality of opportunity,” and “equal treatment under the law,” we fall woefully short on delivery.

Lets get some facts on the table.

Census Bureau data from 2015 indicates that the U. S. population is 321 million; the black, Hispanic or Latino population is 97 million, or roughly 30 percent of the U.S. total.

Of the total U.S. population, about 1 in 7 live in poverty. But of the 47 million who live in poverty, more than half, or 24 million, are black, Hispanic or Latino.

If we turn to unemployment data for the second quarter of 2016 provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the picture for minority groups is equally grim. Total unemployment in the U.S. is down to 4.8 percent, and white unemployment is 4.2 percent. But black unemployment is 8.3 percent and Hispanic or Latino unemployment is 5.6 percent.

Teenage unemployment is higher across the board, but again, white teenagers fare markedly better than minority group teenagers: their unemployment rate is 15 percent, for black teens its 31 percent and for Hispanic or Latino teenagers, 18 percent.

Real (inflation-adjusted) income and wage data going back more than 30 years provided by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau evidences the same inequality of treatment. In 2014, median household income for whites was more than $60,000; for blacks it was about $35,000; for Hispanic or Latino households it was about $42,500.

If the focus is on individual wages using white male wages as the annual 100 percent benchmark, the data shows that the only group that has gained significantly is white women: they’ve moved from 59 percent of the male wage in 1970 to 78 percent in 2013; black women have moved from 48 percent to 64 percent; black men’s wage have barely moved, from 69 percent to 75 percent.

Hispanic or Latino men’s wages have actually declined (relative to the white male 100 percent benchmark), from 72 percent to 67 percent; Hispanic or Latino women’s wages have moved from 49 percent to 54 percent.

The bottom line is clear: women and minorities make significantly less in hourly wages than white males, and this has been true for a very long time.

School funding data shows a similar pattern of unequal treatment.

A nearly 20-year-old Brookings Institute study noted “recent analyses of data prepared for school finance cases in Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, and Texas have found that on every tangible measure – from qualified teachers to curriculum offerings – schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students.”

Little has changed in the interim.

Beyond these broad patterns of long-term, systematic, public and private, economic and social discrimination of black, Hispanic or Latino populations we must also recognize the historic disproportion of black-versus-white arrest records, incarceration rates, and deaths growing out of confrontations with police.

Given all of these realities, why are we shocked that blacks, Hispanics and Latinos are angry, and have taken to the streets? Why are we shocked that these groups show growing impatience, that some within these groups have turned to violence? Recalling the aftermath of the Rodney King episode, one could argue we’re lucky they haven’t burned the house down.

I would argue that the historic black-white inequalities in our justice system are inseparable from the economic inequalities. The recent spate of deaths of black individuals at the hands of police have created a flash point that must be addressed, another (perhaps a last) opportunity to address not just policing methods, techniques, and relations with the communities they serve, but the much larger set of economic and social discrimination that has festered for decades.

This array of problems will never be solved completely, and certainly not overnight. But improvements in a broad range of areas can surely be made. Seeing the problem as just one of better police-community interactions, or even of creating a better (more fair) justice system will not keep the lid on.

Leaders at all levels must see that if ever more violent racial unrest is to be avoided, the larger interrelated set of set economic discrimination must be ended. France is currently reaping the whirlwind of its own economic and social injustice towards its Algerian, Muslim, and Eastern European populations. Whether they can end it by fashioning a more inclusive society remains to be seen.

People will be pushed only so far; they will work within the system only so long. Our black, Hispanic and Latino populations have been patient for a very long time. Too long a time. We are not immune from a whirlwind of our own making.

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.