Why Does Racial Inequality Persist Long after Jim Crow?

“Why does racial inequality still persist in an era, in a moment, when there is less overt racism compared to the era of Jim Crow? Why has persistence of racial inequality remained overt while white racist attitudes in public opinion have been on the decline since the passage of the 1964 Civil Right Act?”

These questions, posed by Nonresident Senior Fellow Fredrick Harris, also a professor at Columbia University, framed a panel discussion on race in America 50 years following passage of the Civil Rights Act. Harris, director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia, moderated a panel that included Sheryll Cashin, Rashad Robinson, Adam Serwer, and Vesla Weaver.

During the conversation, Harris asked panelists to both reflect on what he called “the paradox of inequality” and also the policy solutions “that are needed to arrest the persistence of racial inequality in 21st century America.” Video and highlights of their remarks appear below.

Sheryll Cashin, a professor of law at Georgetown Law School, opened with the observation that “You say we don’t have Jim Crow anymore but we have a lot of the enduring structures of Jim Crow.” Watch:

“So we have persistent racial inequality,” Cashin said, “in large part because of these enduring structures, often tied to where you live.” She explained that residential and education segregation persists to this day, “If you are lucky,” she added:

You won the lottery of birth and picked the right parents and can afford to buy your way into a solid middle- or upper-middle class neighborhood—particularly if you can buy your way into a gold-standard neighborhood—you have access to quality education that sets you up very, very well in life. If you don’t there’s a lot of inequality.

Her policy solutions include inclusionary zoning, where developers are incentivized to make new housing mixed income, and magnet schools, where, as in her case, “a highly resourced, incredible school of the future [is] decoupled from where you live.”

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, explained that “I work with a community and an audience that doesn’t think we’ve sort of gotten any better, doesn’t think that the country has necessarily changed” and that the new ground for activism is around where “corporations have infiltrated our political system.” Watch:

Robinson continued on the theme of closing inequality through technology and response to corporate power, saying:

The question for us is, how authentic will our movement be? How fierce and strong will our movement be over the next 10 or 15 years? And those are just as important questions as are we closing the gaps, or will we close the gap. Because how strong the sort of counterbalance we have to the powers that be, how authentic, how unbought, how unbossed those counterbalances are will determine whether our not our communities will actually be represented in the ways that they need to as they face down the challenges of the 21st century.

One of the policy solutions Robinson advocated was public financing of elections in order to “drive multiracial coalitions” in local communities “that can actually push back against corporate power.”

“We’re not going to do that as long as our elections are bought,” he argued. “As long as money equals speech in this country, those who do not have money will not be able to have a full and powerful seat at the table.”

Adam Serwer, national editor at BuzzFeed, noted that there is, today, “a creed that markets itself explicitly as anti-racist which [is a] belief that any attempt to address the lingering racial inequalities of yesteryear is just as evil as the force of the state used to divide society along racial lines.” Watch:

Serwer added to the conversation about race and class by stating that “Trying to talk about class in the United States without talking about race is like trying to speak English without nouns,” but bringing up race “turns a lot of white people off.”

He also addressed one policy idea to reduce the severe problem (detailed by Vesla Weaver) of the “overreach of the criminal justice system”: winding down the drug war and decriminalizing marijuana.

Vesla M. Weaver, assistant professor of African-American studies and political science at Yale University, argued that we need “race-based, class-inflected policies that are targeted at the folks that have been most left behind.” Watch:

Weaver offered three explanations “that are central to understanding how the Civil Rights Act and that moment delimited the egalitarian impulse of the act.” These were:

  1. That racial inequality persists because policies of the civil rights era were inadequate to addressing the situation of blacks in the bottom third of the income distribution.
  2. The “stunning expansion in prison … concentrated among the most uneducated, most impoverished, and most victimized group of Americans.”
  3. A “hollowed definition of racism” that has had three effects: “vast racial disparities are seen as dispositional, not structural, and therefore legitimate”; we “focus primarily or solely on individual discrimination by bad actors rather than on cumulative disadvantage that has marked the lives of the segregated poor”; and “this colorblind approach robs our nation of a useful vocabulary for explaining persisting racial inequality that looks eerily similar to past systems.”

“From the standpoint of citizens, poor black citizens,” she added, “a gulf develops between what poor blacks see and experience in the daily lives around them, in their worlds and the available narratives, and on the other hand the available legal jurisprudence to make sense of it all.”

Still, Weaver suggested “two glimpses of light in this story.” One is the window of opportunity, as millions of older workers retire, for younger black and Latino workers to occupy those jobs “without costing anybody, without it being seen as a zero sum kind of framework.” The other is that states are revisiting their policies on incarceration, including sentencing reform.

Watch the full video below and get more information about the event here.