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Racial Inequality Examined at Askwith Forum

At the Askwith Forum, “Urban Neighborhoods and the Persistence of Racial Inequality,” on April 29, panelists shared bleak forecasts about whether the country would turn around the downward spiral of poverty and racial inequality in America.

“When I look at problems from this broader, holistic perspective, I don’t have many glimmers of hope.” said Harvard University Professor William Julius Wilson. “The reason I don’t have much optimism right now is because of our political climate. Let’s face it, we are not going to get any serious policies to address these issues in the near future.”

Many, including New York University Associate Professor Patrick Sharkey in his latest book, Stuck in Place, argue that social policies in America have created, historically, larger inequalities that have persisted for decades. “The degree of persistence is remarkable,” Sharkey told the audience in Askwith.

While Sharkey pointed out that there was racial progress in the 1960s, it also had virtually ended by the 1970s. Since then, the gaps in economic status and educational attainment between whites and blacks in America have steadily grown.

During a presentation of his research, Sharkey revealed that the problem goes beyond income to the actual environments in which people live. Sharkey’s research showed that African Americans making more than $100,000 annually live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than whites making less than $30,000. “This is what we are talking about when we look at interaction between race and neighborhood – it’s something not explained by income but explained by the segregation of neighborhoods,” he said, adding that the problem is so tenacious that it affects generation after generation of African Americans.

Following Sharkey’s presentation, Dean James Ryan moderated a discussion which focused on the different ways to combat racial inequality in America’s neighborhoods.

“We need to focus on durable urban policy,” Sharkey said, encouraging a change in social policies where investing in interventions on multigenerational levels and creating programs/policies to withstand economic shifts become the norm.

While Wilson and Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California  – Berkeley School of Law, didn’t debate Sharkey’s research, they offered different opinions on what might work best to help solve inequality in America.

Questioning Sharkey’s stance on durable urban policy, Rothstein argued that integration was a better approach.

“We tried for 50 years to invest in urban neighborhoods,” he said. “There seems to be no basis that durable urban policy is a more deliverable realistic than integration.”

Ryan asked panelists about the most daunting part of reducing poverty and whether there are signs of hope. This gave way to a series of seemingly glum responses.

“The problem I think we have in this country — and I’m not terribly optimistic that we can solve this in the future — is that we’ve forgotten about the racial aspect of these problems,” Rothstein said.

Citing recent votes by the Supreme Court to unsuccessful federal policies to children’s textbooks which largely ignore racial segregation, Rothstein argued that America acts like we don’t have a history surrounding these issues.

Wilson agreed that many policies to date hadn’t really worked. He cited a growing hope that early childhood interventions would be successful, but, like Rothstein, questioned whether the current administration would really support them.

“There is no way we can substantially close the achievement gap in schools [given] the concentrated poverty Sharkey describes,” Rothstein said. “Most things we can do in schools don’t really have to do with schools.”