Monday, March 24, 2008

Putting a Price On Race

Shankar Vedantam has a great column today on the whole discussion of race in America. First he outlines a rather unusual experiment.
Social psychologists Philip Mazzocco and Mahzarin Banaji once asked white volunteers how much money would cover the "costs" of being born black instead of white. The volunteers guessed that about $5,000 ought to cover the lifetime disadvantages of being an average black person rather than an average white person, in the United States. By contrast, when asked how much they wanted to go without television, the volunteers demanded a million dollars.
This is indicative of how whites in America tend to judge race as rather inconsequential. There's a weird optimism among whites -- especially white men -- in America. These are the same guys that get angry about affirmative action and the "unfair" advantage women and minorities get from such policies. They tend to think everyone pretty much starts on a level playing field, even if that couldn't be further from the truth.

Mazzocco and Banaji were taken aback: The average black person in America is 447 percent more likely to be imprisoned than the average white person, and 521 percent more likely to be murdered. Blacks earn 60 cents to the dollar compared with whites who have the same education levels and marital status. The black poverty rate is nearly twice the white poverty rate. Blacks tend to die five years earlier than whites; the infant mortality rate among black babies is nearly 1 1/2 times the rate among white babies. And because of long-standing patterns of inheritance, blacks and whites begin life with substantial disparities in family wealth.

"The point we were making is, whatever the cost of being black might be, whites are vastly underestimating it," said Mazzocco, of Ohio State University at Mansfield. "You throw in the 5-to-1 wealth gap . . . if you wanted to put a dollar-and-cents value on the difference, you would come up with a number much larger than $5,000."

To me the consequence isn't the lost lifetime earnings, it's more about a lack of perception about how pervasive racism still is in America today. It's not just about the moment of hiring or college admissions, it has to do with compounded circumstances that put young black men in prison rather than in college. It is sometimes helpful, though, for those white guys to think about it in terms of dollars to get a perception of just how unequal opportunities in America are.
In a speech last week, Obama similarly argued that his former pastor had failed to acknowledge how America had changed for the better. But Wright's critics, Obama added, were also wrong -- because true equality is still remote.
This is because of the "varying yardsticks" Shankar talks about. Whites tend to measure the status of blacks today in comparison to the past -- slavery -- while blacks tend to measure their status to a future equality. By any measure, blacks are definitely better off than they were at the time of our country's inception, but so are whites. But they are still facing inequality at any number of levels that often get overlooked. Most recently, when Bush cut funding for historically black colleges and universities, it was a clear signal in economic terms of how valuable the opportunities outlined especially for blacks are to Bush's budget.

Update: I forgot to link to the column.

Update II: Case in point: Pat Buchanan thinks America is the best country on Earth for "black folks."

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