Monday, May 4, 2015

American Slavery Shapes Life Chances in 2015

The New York Times has a great visualization of some new research on economic mobility from some Harvard researchers. Here's the map. Red is bad, blue is good:

The language the Times uses here is clunky, but basically here's what's being measured: the average yearly income of a 26-year-old who grew up poor. If you grew up poor in a red county, your average income as an adult is much lower; if you grew up poor in a blue county, your average income is much higher. One of the main takeaways, of course, is that place matters a great deal to life opportunities. (It also matters at the neighborhood level). The South and Southwest, and many urban centers, are not very good places to grow up poor. But if place matters, it is important to remember that history conditions space. There's nothing natural about poor kids in one county having less chance of success than poor kids in another. It's a historically contingent outcome. With that in mind, let's look at another map:

This map shows the percentage of the population that was enslaved according to the last census before the Civil War.  Look familiar? It turns out there is a strong correlation between enslavement 150 years ago and economic mobility now. It's important to understand that the lack of mobility in the South is not mysterious. For centuries White southern elites have pursued cheap labor as their foremost economic priority. They have succeeded! It just doesn't work very well for the poor.

This gets at a frequent misunderstanding people have about racism. They think of it as fundamentally irrational and bigoted, and therefore assume that they are free from its pull. Moreover, they often don't recognize something as racism unless it is very obviously and essentially racist, with no other factors at play. But of course, nearly nothing works like that. As with any other force, racism does not exist in a vacuum. It interacts with other variables in complex ways. And so, after the Civil War, White southerners did not try to institute Black Codes out of an irrational hatred for Black skin. They did so with the very rational desire to make a profit. Racism is profitable, and it is almost always tied economics. As one southern elite wrote after the Civil War, "You will find that this question of the control of labor underlies every other question of state interest." The fact that White southern elites were ultimately able to impose an oppressive system of sharecropping through the first half of the twentieth century goes a long way toward explaining the research the Times published today.

There's a broader point to be made here about structural racism as well. Notice that the areas of highest mobility tend to be in the upper Midwest and plains states where the population is almost entirely White. The White poor are simply not as stigmatized, segregated, policed, and isolated as are poor people of color. White children almost never grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, while poor children of color frequently do. Because the White poor are more likely to have social and economic connections to the middle class, they have higher mobility.

As we continue to learn more about the structures of opportunity in our society, moralistic appeals to culture as the cause of poverty are increasingly becoming intellectually lazy and morally troubling. Yet such appeals are likely to remain popular, because they absolve the powerful and blame the weak.

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