American Sociological Association

Education’s Limitations and Its Radical Possibilities


Phil Roeder, Flickr CC
June 21, 2018

by Prudence L. Carter, Spring 2018 Contexts

In U.S. society, racial and class inequality are twin social phenomena—more fraternal than identical, distinctive yet deeply interconnected. One can barely make inferences about the former without consideration of the latter. Yet, many of us frequently pit race and class and their related brethren—racism, bias, prejudice, poverty, unemployment, and discrimination—against each other as if they are locked in a winner-take-all competition. Noticeably, the spectrum of the color line (to invoke W.E.B. Du Bois’ metaphor) corresponds to certain gradations of the class line. Particular racial-ethnic groups are represented disproportionately and overwhelmingly in the lowest household income strata of our society; and other groups in the highest.

For example, data from the National Center for Poverty based at Columbia University reveal that among children ages 18 or younger who live in either low-income or poor households, nearly two out of three African American, Native American, and Latinx youth live at or below 200% of the poverty line, compared to less than one out of three of their Asian and White peers. That is to say, the descendants of those who faced slavery, settler colonialism, genocide, and conquest, respectively, fare worse centuries later than the descendants of White colonialists and the progeny of many post-1965 East and South Asian immigrants. This radical disproportionality is what some sociologists have referred to as the “colors of poverty” or even the “racialization of poverty.”

The spectrum and colors of affluence are different. In 2015, Forbes magazine reported that the top 400 wealthiest Whites in the United States possess a cumulative worth of $ 2.34 trillion. Those 400 White Americans’ wealth is nearly 1.5 times that of all 16 million African American households ($1.56 trillion) and 1.3 times that of all 15 million Latinx households ($1.82 trillion). Naturally, some might counter that differences in either human capital or education can explain these expansive and jarring differences in wealth and income. But, even when we control for education, we find that the wealth of college-educated Whites is more than 13 times greater than college-educated Blacks and Latinx. In fact, Whites without a high school degree have significantly more wealth, on average, than Black and Latinx college graduates.


American history, its racial origins, and its political and economic systems created and currently sustain startling racialized economic and educational disparities. As historian Ira Katznelson laid out compellingly in his book, When Affirmation Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, our society missed an opportune time to redress some of its grossest distortions of citizenship, rights, and access from prior historic eras. For the most part, contemporary middle and high school textbooks depict the most myopic views of our collective history of slavery, settler colonialism, conquest, and Jim Crow, raising little awareness of how government and civil society worked cohesively to maintain de jure forms of inequality for centuries, let alone how the impact of this profound inequality has spread well into the current era. Meanwhile, the historical accumulation of disadvantages impacts the educational well-being of the youth who now populate the nation’s public schools. Many of these young people will lack college-readiness; others barely will obtain a high school diploma.

In Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent, Too?, John W. Gardner, former secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson, predicted that equal education and opportunity will continue to be favored by most Americans. Yet, to really achieve this, “it requires the removal of every removable obstacle” including prejudice and status and wealth inequality. Gardner’s words are just as relevant 30 years after they were written. Many of us purport to believe in “equality of opportunity,” but have we really thought deeply about what it takes to enact the practices necessary to realize it?

Economist Raj Chetty and his fellow researchers have found that the chances for intergenerational mobility—as measured by children and parents’ relative positions in the income distribution—remain roughly constant. Children born today have the same prospects for rising from the bottom to the top quintile of household incomes as those born in the 1970s. Those born into poor and working poor families have less than a 10% chance, on average, of reaching the upper quintile of earnings—although, according to Chetty and colleagues, their chances vary by region. If you were born into the bottom quintile of household incomes in San Jose, California, for instance, then you have a higher chance of making it up to the top than if you were born in Charlotte, North Carolina. The economists also find that the chances for mobility are higher in communities with less residential segregation, less income inequality, better primary schools, greater social capital, and greater family stability. For brevity’s sake, let’s refer to these as the “opportunity-rich neighborhoods”.

In March 2018, the New York Times covered some of Chetty and company’s latest findings. Along with economist Nathaniel Hendren and Census Bureau researchers Maggie Jones and Sonya Porter, Chetty analyzed the tax and census records of over 20 million individuals born between 1978-1983 in the U.S. They found that living in “opportunity-rich neighborhoods,” though impactful, is insufficient to fully close the intergenerational mobility gap between Blacks and Whites—especially among males. In fact, the intergenerational mobility gap between Black and White youth born into the highest quintile households is greater than that between their counterparts born in the lowest quintile. As adults, Black males born at the top and living in “opportunity-rich neighborhoods” are equally as likely to fall into the bottom income quintile as they are to remain in the top quintile. Meanwhile, White males born into the top household income quintiles are five times as likely as Black males to remain there as adults. Strikingly, Black women earn slightly more in the next generation (at a 1 percentile difference) than White women, conditional on parental income.

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