Tag Archives: race

Wealth is dived deeply by race and gender

Years of discriminatory policies that favored white men at the expense of the common good have created stunning disparities that persist to this day.

Though many Americans favor an approach to equality that stands for “giving everyone an equal chance,” the realities of inheritance, neighborhood segregation and outright discrimination make such meritocratic ideals suspect. (This meritocracy myth is akin to insisting, as 19th century political economist Henry George once noted, “that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.”) A new study by Mariko Chang shows just how deep those wealth gaps remain today.

Chang’s report, published by the Asset Funders Network and making use of Consumer Finance Survey data, suggests stark gaps. First the report shows gaps between married couples, single men and single women.

It’s worth noting the large disparities not just between men and women, but also between the median and mean. That suggests a deep inequality: the mean is being pulled higher by numerous rich people at the top. (Consider an instance in which Bill Gates walks into a bar full of working-class women and men. The mean wealth increases dramatically, while the median increases modestly.) As Matt Bruenig has noted, “The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it.”

Adding a racial lens to the data (viewed in the chart above) also produces stark divergences: the median black woman has $200 in wealth, the median white man: $28,900. Age also matters: The data suggest millennial (18-34) women, of all races, have $0 in wealth. That leaves very little buffer from an unexpected job loss or medical emergency (made even more likely by the conservative war against access to healthcare, for instance their refusal to expand Medicaid, which primarily harms people of color).

Indeed, data show “the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation.”

Although women are now more likely to complete college than men, this alone won’t close the wealth gap. The median single woman with a college degree has wealth of $18,710. The median single man: $31,400. Even pay equality won’t close the gaps. The highest-earning women, those earning more than $65,001, have median wealth of $166,000, while men in the same bracket have median wealth of $223,700.

As I’ve noted recently in Salon, policymakers are biased toward the policies of rich white men. Indeed, for a long time, all of the policymakers were rich white men. The gaps Chang exposes are not simply the product of neutral or natural forces; extensive research shows that government policy was there all along, benefiting some at the expense of the few.

What are the solutions? First, America needs a strong public sector. That means more money for infrastructure, childcare, higher education and universal pre-K. America needs to invest in its cities, and its communities, particularly low-income, black and Latino communities that have faced decades of disinvestment and neglect. Second, America needs full employment. That means active fiscal policy and guaranteed jobsfor all Americans who want to work. Third, America needs a financial sector thatworks for everyone. That means a modest financial transaction tax to limit excessive trading and a baby bond to give every American a shot at buying stock, starting a business or buying a house in a better neighborhood. To get there, America needs a true, participatory and equal democracy. That means ensuring policymakers pay attention to everyone, not just the wealthy donor class. Limits on, or at leastdisclosure of, lobbying and campaign contributions from the rich, combined withpublic financing to amplify the voices of women, people of color and workers would bring us closer to a vibrant democracy. Eliminating discriminatory barriers to voting will breathe life into our democracy.

Deep disparities in wealth belie the American myth that simply because we have a black president and Oprah is massively wealthy our problems are over. Chang’s report shows that single black and Hispanic women own less than a penny for every dollar owned by single white men. Once again: single black and Hispanic women own less than a penny for every dollar owned by single white men. That didn’t just happen.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Does Fox News viewership correlate with racism?

In the wake of Dylann Storm Roof’s horrifying act of terrorism in South Carolina, many have pointed to the negative influence of conservative media in incubating right-wing extremism. Bill Maher, for example criticized outlets such as Fox News, The Drudge Report and The Daily Caller for presenting a “twisted view,” in which Black people were taking over the country. These criticisms are not new: Fox News has for years come under criticism for its racially-charged coverage. Just recently, in January of last year, Isaac Chotiner wrote that Fox News creates segments “meant to scare its white audience into believing that African Americans, or Muslims, are out to get them.” Meanwhile, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow have both criticized Fox News’s coverage of the Ferguson murder last year.

New data suggests that their criticisms may be correct.

Using 2012 American National Election Studies data to test whether Fox News viewers have distinct racial attitudes, it can be demonstrated that, indeed, these viewers are more likely to reject the reality of structural racism and to endorse negative stereotypes of Black people.

I examine three areas of racial opinion. The first questions in the data measure racial stereotyping in particular. These questions ask respondents to say whether they believe that Black people are “hard-working” or “lazy,” “intelligent” or “unintelligent” and whether they have “too much influence” or “too little influence” in politics. The second set of questions look at more structural issues. These questions ask respondents whether they agree or disagree with these statements:

Work Way: ‘Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.’

Slavery: ‘Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.’

Deserve: ‘Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.’

Try: ‘It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.’

Discrimination: How much discrimination do Black people face?

And finally, I look at attitudes towards solutions: whether respondents support government aid to Blacks, think that the government should ensure fair jobs for Blacks. My analysis focuses only on non-Hispanic whites.

To begin, I examined only whites who identify as conservative, and compared the racial attitudes of those who watched Fox News regularly to those who did not. In addition, I examined specifically those who watched “The O’Reilly Factor,” the most popular Fox News show (there is obviously overlap here, about 67 percent of respondents who regularly watch Fox News also report regularly watching O’Reilly). On structural racial issues, I find a nearly 13 point difference on structural racial issues between white conservatives who do not watch Fox News with those who do, and 15 point difference between those who do not watch Fox News with those who watch “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The gaps on most questions are similar, but it’s worth noting that a stunning 92 percent of Fox News viewers and 94 percent of O’Reilly viewers agree “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” Half of O’Reilly viewers say that there is little or no discrimination against Blacks today, compared with 45 percent of Fox News viewers and 40 percent of white conservatives who don’t watch Fox News.

On issues of interpersonal racism, I find that Fox News and O’Reilly factor viewers are more likely to say Black people are “Lazy,” but are only slightly more likely to say that Black people are unintelligent. However, white conservative Fox News viewers are nearly twice as likely to say that Black people have too much influence over politics. This question is not typically assumed to indicate racial stereotyping, but it should. In a recent study, political scientist Richard Fording and John M. Cotter of the FBI find, “the presence of black elected officials to be positively related to white hate group activity, even after controlling for the size of the nonwhite and Hispanic population, economic conditions, and other characteristics of the political environment.”


White respondents who watched Fox News are also far less likely to endorse government action to benefit Black people, saying that the government should not fair treatment in the workplace and that “Black people should help themselves.”

Obviously, there could be other factors at work here: Maybe people more predisposed to racist attitudes gravitate towards Fox News (though this is still an indictment of Fox News). White conservatives who watch Fox News tend have slightly lower incomes and less education than conservatives who don’t — this could help explain some of the effect. They are also older, though evidence suggests that young whites are no less likely to espouse racist attitudes than their parents. In addition, when I examined the racial attitudes of only white conservatives over 50, I still found large differences between Fox News viewers and non-Fox News viewers.

As the chart below shows, whether we compare all whites who watch Fox news vs. those who don’t, or vs. conservatives, or vs. Republicans, or vs. conservatives over 50, the result remains the same: those who watch Fox News are far more likely to endorse racial stereotypes and ignore the issue of structural racism. Those who watch “The O’Reilly Factor” are more likely to deny structural racism and oppose government action to help Blacks.

The Fox News effect is powerful: One study finds that Fox News boosted Republican vote share by 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points between 1996 and 2000. Numerousstudies find that Fox News influences viewers perceptions on key issues. Many of these studies focus on issues related to race, such as the Ground Zero mosque and undocumented immigration. One study finds that, “the Fox News audience is indeed more favorable toward Bush, and has greater hostility toward his opposition, even when controlling for party identification.” They may also be promoting harmful and negative stereotypes about African-Americans, poisoning race relations in America. While it’s impossible to prove that Roof was influenced specifically by Fox News, it’s clear that white conservatives who watch Fox News are far less likely to accept the realities of structural racism than those who do not. They are also modestly more likely to accept harmful racial stereotypes about Black people. Particularly worryingly, they are far more likely to believe that Black people have too much influence over politics. What’s clear, above all else, is that right-wing media are partially responsible for the fraught racial tension in American politics.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Education alone can’t solve America’s racial wealth gap

Earlier this month, the United States marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma voting rights marches. While much has changed since, racial wealth gaps have persisted over the past 30 years and even grown since the Great Recession. Today the richest 10 percent of white families own 65.1 percent of the nation’s wealth.

In a new report (PDF), Brandeis University’s Institute for Assets and Social Policy (IASP) and Demos, a progressive think tank where I work as a researcher, investigate what it would take to close this gap. The report concludes that racial disparities in wealth are driven by public policy decisions and calls for “racially aware policies” that could help reduce America’s rising wealth inequality. This includes eliminating disparities in homeownership rates, college graduation and the return on a college degree as well as the wealth return on income.


Conservatives and centrist commentators often present college education as a near panacea to reduce the racial wealth gap. But the Demos/IASP report challenges this claim. It found that increasing graduation rates would reduce the wealth disparity between black and white people by only 1 percent and between Latinos and whites by 3 percent. There are many possible reasons for this. For one, students of color take out more in student loans than white students. The debt burden detracts from wealth-building opportunities over a graduate’s lifetime. In addition, people of color are less likely to get into the most selective schools and face discrimination in labor markets after graduation. As a result, black and Latino students do not reap the same gains from a college education as their white counterparts.

In fact, race is a far greater determiner of wealth than education. As Demos blogger Matt Bruenig pointed out last year, black college graduates have less wealth than white high school dropouts. Using a new model called the racial wealth audit, Demos/IASP researchers found that the racial wealth gap between white and black families would be reduced 10 percent if the returns on college education could be equalized. But that’s not nearly enough to close the divide.



Bruenig’s previous research found that blacks and Latinos in the same income brackets have less wealth than whites. The Demos/IASP report confirms these findings: Black and Latino households with similar income distribution as whites would still face a substantial wealth gap. Eliminating income gaps would reduce the wealth gap by only 11 percent for black people and 9 percent for Latinos. Among black households, the average family would own $92,545 less wealth than an average white family. The average Latino family would own $94,033 less wealth than the average white family. This is because income distribution only tells part of the story. The remaining gap can be explained, in part, by the differences in opportunities to turn wages and salaries into wealth.

Controlling for the differential returns on every dollar of income shows a far greater effect on wealth disparity. In fact, for every $1 that accrues to black families with an increase in income, white families earn $4.06. For every $1 in wealth for additional income to Latinos, white families earn $5.37. The racial wealth audit shows that equalizing the return on income could reduce the wealth gap with white households by 43 percent for black households and by 50 percent for Latino households. But black and Latino families earning the same incomes as white families will still have only half the wealth.


It may be surprising to those who think that racial equity depends on equal opportunities in the labor market alone. But it’s important to remember that income is a flow, while wealth is a stock. White families have been building up wealth for centuries, thanks in part to the enslavement of black people and discrimination against blacks and Latinos, who were excluded from those gains.

A 2004 paper from economists Maury Gittleman and Edward Wolff provides some hint as to why income equity cannot solve the racial wealth gap. After controlling for income and with a similar return on capital, the authors found that black families save at the same rate as whites. Previous IASP research corroborates their findings (PDF). Differences in wealth outcomes are explained by factors such as inheritance, home ownership and unemployment.


As shown in the chart above, in another study (PDF), Wolff and Gittleman demonstrate that black and Latino families are far less likely to receive wealth transfers and that when they do, they tend to be smaller. Wealth transfers include inheritances and tax reductions, which disproportionately benefit white people. In fact, wealth transfers are the most unequal aspect of the wealth disparity. The Gini coefficient, the most common measure of inequality, runs from 0 (in which all wealth transfers are equal) to 1 (in which one household receives all wealth transfers). In 2007 the Gini of wealth transfers (primarily inheritances) was 0.961, compared with a 0.489 posttax and transfer Gini of income in the same year (PDF). That is, the distribution of wealth transfers is twice as unequal as the distribution of income. Even when households that did not receive a wealth transfer are excluded from the analysis, the Gini is still at 0.814. That means nearly all the wealth transfers in the U.S. go to a small group of people at the top.


The Demos/IASP report also shows the deficiency in the way millennials understand race in the United States. This is worrying given the fact that the millennial generation is often said to be postracial. Millennials are more likely to believe that racial disparities should be allowed to correct themselves than their parents are. In many ways, their views align with those of conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who in 2007 argued, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” However, it ignores the effects of history and how wealth replicates itself. In his pioneering book “The Son Also Rises,” historian Gregory Clark notes that:

Groups that seem to persist in low or high status, such as the black and the Jewish populations in the United States, are not exceptions to a general rule of higher intergenerational mobility. They are experiencing the same universal rates of slow intergenerational mobility as the rest of the population. Their visibility, combined with a mistaken impression of rapid social mobility in the majority population, makes them seem like an exception to a rule. They are instead the exemplary of the rule of low rates of social mobility.

Clark found that the residual effects of family wealth remain for 10 to 15 generations. A family’s wealth cache simply won’t go away without dramatic changes.

Even more concerning, the notion that racial inequality can take care of itself is not only embraced by white millennials but also by millennials of color (though to a lesser extent). This means that the institutionalized structural barriers to racial equity are not receiving enough attention. Many Americans fail to understand how much more unequally wealth and financial assets are distributed than income.


To parrot Roberts, the best way to reduce the racial wealth gap is to reduce the racial wealth gap — not simply to increase access to education or income. Policies that bolster home ownership — the leading wealth asset for most middle-class families — and those that reduce neighborhood segregation will do far more to close the wealth gap than changes in education. Other progressive ideas such as a baby bond program, which establishes wealth-building opportunities for those who have been excluded from them in the past, could substantially reduce wealth gaps.

Deeply entrenched wealth disparity is the product of history. Eliminating it entails reckoning with history as well as robust public policy reform. Ideological commitments to equality of opportunity without policy action won’t be enough.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera

Millennials Are More Racist Than They Think

News about race in America these days is almost universally negative. Longstanding wealthincome and employment gaps between whites and people of color are increasing, and tensions between police and minority communities around the country are on the rise. But many claim there’s a glimmer of hope: The next generation of Americans, they say, is “post-racial”—more tolerant, and therefore more capable of easing these race-based inequities. Unfortunately, closer examination of the data suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it.

In 2010, a Pew Research report trumpeted that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” In the Chicago Tribune, Ted Gregory seized on this to declare millennials “the most tolerant generation in history.” These types of arguments typically cling to the fact that young people are more likely than their elders to favor interracial marriage. But while millennials are indeed less likely than baby boomers to say that more people of different races marrying each other is a change for the worse (6 percent compared to 14 percent), their opinions on that score are basically no different than those of the generation immediately before them, the Gen Xers, who come in at 5 percent. On interracial dating, the trend is similar, with 92 percent of Gen Xers saying it’s “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” compared to 93 percent of millennials.

Furthermore, these questions don’t really say anything about racial justice: After all, interracial dating and marriage are unlikely to solve deep disparities in criminal justice, wealth, upward mobility, poverty and education—at least not in this century. (Black-white marriages currently make up just 2.2 percent of all marriages.) And when it comes to opinions on more structural issues, such as the role of government in solving social and economic inequality and the need for continued progress, millennials start to split along racial lines. When people are asked, for example, “How much needs to be done in order to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality?” the gap between white millennials and millennials of color (all those who don’t identify as white) are wide. And once again, millennials are shown to be no more progressive than older generations: Among millennials, 42 percent of whites answer that “a lot” must be done to achieve racial equality, compared to 41 percent of white Gen Xers and 44 percent of white boomers.

The most significant change has been among nonwhite millennials, who are more racially optimistic than their parents. (Fifty-four percent of nonwhite millennials say “a lot” must be done, compared with 60 percent of nonwhite Gen Xers.) And this racial optimism isn’t exactly warranted. The racial wealth gap has increased since the 2007 financial crisis, and blacks who graduate from college have less wealth than whites who haven’t completed high school. A new paper by poverty experts Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank estimates that whites are 6.74 times more likely to enter the top 1 percent of the income distribution ladder than nonwhites. And Bhashkar Mazumder finds that 60 percent of blacks whose parents were in the top half of income distribution end up in the bottom, compared with 36 percent of whites.

As to how well whites and nonwhites get along, only 13 percent of white millennials say “not well at all,” compared with 31 percent of nonwhite millennials. (Thirteen percent of white Gen Xers and 32 percent of nonwhite Gen Xers agree.)

In a 2009 study using American National Election Studies—a survey of Americans before and after each presidential election—Vincent Hutchings finds, “younger cohorts of Whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.” My own analysis of the most recent data reveals a similar pattern: Gaps between young whites and old whites on support for programs that aim to further racial equality are very small compared to the gaps between young whites and young blacks.

And even though the gaps within the millennial generation are wide, as with the Pew data, there is also evidence that young blacks are more racially conservative than their parents, as they are less likely to support government aid to blacks.


Spencer Piston, professor at the Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, used ANES data and found a similar pattern on issues relating to economic inequality. He examined a tax on millionaires, affirmative action, a limit to campaign contributions and a battery of questions that measure egalitarianism. He says, “the racial divide (in particular the black/white divide) dwarfs other divides in policy opinion. Age differences in public opinion are small in comparison to racial differences.” This finding is, he adds, “consistent with a long-standing finding in political science.” Piston finds that young whites have the same level of racial stereotypes as their parents.


There is reason for an even deeper worry: The possibility that the veneer of post-racial America will lead to more segregation. The post-racial narrative, when combined with deep structural racism, leads to what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists,” a system where racial gaps persist less because of explicit discrimination and more because of structural factors—things like the passage of wealth from generation to generation or neighborhoods that remain segregated because of past injustices.


We can see numerous examples of how the post-racial rhetoric is hampering a racial justice agenda. In Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District, a 2007 case in which two school boards were sued for using racial quotas to ensure that schools were diverse, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This reasoning is pervasive in his decisions. When the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Roberts wrote that the country “has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” The results were immediate: Across the country, states began putting up barriers to voting, which the finds disproportionately affect black voters. Political scientists Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have concluded that the laws are indeed motivated by a desire to reduce black turnout—all proving that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right when she noted in her dissent that the logic of the decision was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”


It’s possible that the court will use the same “post-racial” logic someday for affirmative action, too. Or to strike down the Federal Housing Administration’s ban on housing actions that have a “disparate impact” on African-Americans, such as exclusionary zoning or lending practices that disproportionately penalize people of color. This is particularly important since the most important impediment to black upward mobility is neighborhood poverty.


The conservative stance on racism is to deny structural racism exists and therefore deny that the solution to racism lies in structural changes. Instead, conservatives view the way to end racial disparities as simply ignoring the issue and treating everyone equally. While this sentiment sounds nice, it means that children who are born into poverty and face structurally racist housing, criminal justice and education systems will never have equal opportunity. The conservative view was once lambasted by 19th-century economist Henry George as “insist[ing] that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.”


Yet many millennials subscribe to this view, with an MTV/David Binder poll finding only 39 percent of white millennials believe “white people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups.” By contrast, 65 percent of people of color feel that whites have differential access to jobs and other opportunities. Further, 70 percent of all millennials say “it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.”


And the irony is that having a black president has made this failure to acknowledge structural barriers to opportunity worse. Numerous studies find that the election of President Barack Obama has made whites, particularly young whites, sanguine about racial disparities in America. One study surveyed 509 people of all races before and after the 2008 election about their perceptions of discrimination against blacks. The youngest third in the sample were 11.7 percent less likely to perceive discrimination in the wake of Obama’s election than they were before, while the oldest third was 8.5 percent less likely. A study of college students at the University of Washington, also based on surveys before and after the 2008 election, finds that those polled were less likely to see the need for continued racial progress after Obama’s election. In the recent MTV study cited above, 62 percent of millennials (58 percent of people of color, 64 percent of whites) agreed that “having a Black President demonstrates that racial minority groups have the same opportunities as white people.”




A 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 58 percent of white millennials say discrimination affects whites as much as it affects people of color. Only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of African-American millennials agree.


This is disturbing for the future of race in America. The Roberts vision of radical colorblindness has irreparably harmed racial progress. If young Americans buy into his vision of a colorblind society—and a large literature suggests they do—white America and black America will diverge further, creating a permanent underclass in which people of color are denied equitable access to the American dream.

This piece originally appeared on Politico

The myth destroying America: Why social mobility is beyond ordinary people’s control

In America, there is a strongly held conviction that with hard work, anyone can make it into the middle class. Pew recently found that Americans are far more likely than people in other countries to believe that work determines success, as opposed to other factors beyond an individual’s control. But this positivity comes with a negative side — a tendency to pathologize those living in poverty. Indeed, 60 percent of Americans (compared with 26 percent of Europeans) say that the poor are lazy, and only 29 percent say those living in poverty are trapped in poverty by factors beyond their control (compared with 60 percent of Europeans).

Such beliefs are just that: beliefs. While a majority of Americans might think that hard work determines success and that it should be relatively simple business to climb and remain out of poverty, the reality is that the United States has a relatively entrenched upper class, but precarious, ever-shifting lower and middle classes. While many Americans might hate welfare, the data suggest they are fairly likely to fall into it at one point or another.

In their recent book, “Chasing the American Dream,” sociologists Mark Robert Rank, Thomas Hirschl and Kirk Foster argue that the American experience is more fluid than both liberals and conservatives believe. Using Panel Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID) data — which has tracked 5,000 households (18,000 individuals) from 1968 and 2010 — they show that many Americans have temporary bouts of affluence (defined as eight times the poverty line), but also temporary bouts of poverty, unemployment and welfare use. (The study includes food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families/Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income and any other cash/in-kind program that relies on income level to qualify.) The researchers conclude that a large number of Americans eventually fall into one of these categories, but that very few Americans stay for long. Instead, the social safety net catches them, and they get back on their feet.

The authors also find that the risk of poverty is higher for people of color. (Since the PSID began in 1968, most non-white people in the survey have been black.) And while most Americans will at some time experience affluence, again, this experience is segregated by race.

In a study published earlier this year, Rank and Hirschl examine the 1 percent, and find that entry into it is more fluid than previously thought. They find that 11 percent of Americans will enter the 1 percent at some point in their lives. However, here again, access is deeply segregated. Whites are nearly seven times more likely to enter the 1 percent than non-whites. Further, those without physical disability and those who are married are far more likely to enter the 1 percent.

The researchers didn’t measure how being born into wealth effects an individual’s chances, but there are other ways to estimate this effect. For instance, a 2007 Treasury Department study of inequality allows us to examine mobility at the most elite level. On the horizontal axis (see below) is an individual’s position on the income spectrum in 1996. On the vertical level is where they were in 2005. To examine the myth of mobility, I focused on the chances of making it into the top 10, 5 or 1 percent. We see that these chances are abysmal. Only .2 percent of those who began in the bottom quintile made it into the top 1 percent. In contrast, 82.7 percent of those who began in the top 1 percent remained in the top 10 percent a decade later.

One recent summary of twin studies suggests that “economic outcomes and preferences, once corrected for measurement error, appear to be about as heritable as many medical conditions and personality traits.” Another finds that wages are more heritable than height. Economists estimate that the intergenerational elasticity of income, or how much income parents pass onto their children, is approximately 0.5 in the U.S. This means that parents in the U.S. pass on 50 percent of their incomes to their children. In Canada, parents pass on only 19 percent of their incomes, and in the Nordic countries, where mobility is high, the rate ranges from 15 percent (in Denmark) to 27 percent (in Sweden).

There is reason to believe that Chris Rock is correct that wealth, which is far more unequally distributed than income, is also more heritable.

In his recent book, “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark explores social mobility in societies spanning centuries. He finds, “current studies… overestimate overall mobility.” He argues that,

“Groups that seem to persist in low or high status, such as the black and the Jewish populations in the United States, are not exceptions to a general rule of higher intergenerational mobility. They are experiencing the same universal rates of slow intergenerational mobility as the rest of the population. Their visibility, combined with a mistaken impression of rapid social mobility in the majority population, makes them seem like an exception to a rule. The are in instead the exemplary of the rule of low rates of social mobility.”

Clark finds that the residual effects of wealth remain for 10 to 15 generations. As one reviewer writes, “in the long run, intergenerational mobility is far slower than conventional estimates suggest. If your ancestors made it to the top of society… the probability is that you have high social status too.” While parents pass on about half of their income (at least in the United States), Clark estimates that they pass on about 75 percent of their wealth. Thus, what Rank and Hirschl identify, an often-changing 1 percent, is primarily a shuffling between the almost affluent and the rich, rather than what we would consider true social mobility.

The American story, then, is different than normally imagined. For one, Americans live increasingly precarious existences. In another paper, Hirschl and Rank find that younger Americans in their sample are more likely to be asset poor at some point in their lives. But more importantly, a majority of Americans will at some point come to rely on the safety net. Rather than being a society of “makers” and “takers,” we are a society of “makers” who invest in a safety net we will all likely come in contact with at one point or another. However, there are some who don’t.

The Gini Coefficient measures how equally distributed resources are, on a scale from 0 to 1. In the case of 0, everyone shares all resources equally, and in a society with a coefficient of 1, a single person would own everything. While income in the U.S. is distributed unequally, with a .574 gini, wealth is distributed far more unequally, with a gini of .834 — and financial assets are distributed with a gini of .908, with the richest 10 percent own a whopping 83 percent.

Wealth and financial assets are the ticket to long-term financial stability; those who inherit wealth need never fear relying on the safety net. And it is these few individuals, shielded from the need to sell their labor on the market, who have created the divisive “makers” and “takers” narrative. Using race as a wedge, they have tried to gut programs that nearly all Americans will rely on. They have created the mythos of the self-made individual, when in fact, most Americans will eventually need to rely on the safety net. They treat the safety net as a benefit exclusively for non-whites, when in reality, whites depend upon it too (even if people of color are disproportionately affected).

As I’ve noted before, the way the welfare state works (primarily inefficient tax credits for the middle class) has made this delusion tenable. It is therefore not that Americans believe themselves to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” but rather “self-made men” (with a dose of racism), that drives opposition to the welfare state. The problem is that most people will eventually realize they won’t become millionaires, but few will realize the way government has benefited them throughout their lives.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Are millennials tolerant racists?

Millennials are considered the most diverse, tolerant and racially progressive generation in U.S. history. “The younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders,” the Pew Research Center declared in a 2010 report based on analysis of more than two decades of data. Commenting on the report, The Chicago Tribune’s Ted Gregory went one step further, arguingmillennials are “the most tolerant generation in history.”

America’s newest generation is more racially progressive than its predecessors’. For example, the Pew study shows that millennials are more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and are generally moreaccepting of immigrants. They see themselves as racially progressive as well. According to a 2014 survey (PDF) of millennials conducted by MTV and David Binder Research, nearly all respondents said they believe “everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race,” 72 percent said “their generation believes in equality more than older people,” and 58 percent believed “racism will become less and less of an issue” as they take on leadership roles. More than half believe that racial bias is “small but real” and “subtler” than it was in the past.

However, such pervasive sentiments do not reflect reality. In fact, beneath the facade of a colorblind generation remains a deep underclass. And millennials are not as racially progressive as the narrative suggests. Studies show that white millennials have opinions similar to older generations’ on issues such as race. A closer look at the Pew Center’s data and other relevant research shows a less-reported but revealing fact: Much of the purported tolerance of the millennial generation is due to the inclusion of more people of color in the pool.

White millennials

Spencer Piston, a professor at the Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, examined the 2012 American National Election Studies racial stereotype battery. Respondents were asked to rate whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians according to how hard working or intelligent they are. “White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population, at least using this data set and this measure of prejudice,” Pistonsaid during a recent New York magazine interview. A 2012 Public Religion Institute poll found that 58 percent of white millennials say discrimination affects whites as much as it affects people of color. Only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of black millennials agree. Similarly, the MTV poll found that only 39 percent of white millennials believe “white people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups.” By contrast, 65 percent of people of color felt that whites have differential access to jobs and other opportunities. Still, 70 percent of millennials said, “it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.”

White millennials are more optimistic about the state of race relations. For example, a 2014 Pew survey found that 42 percent of white millennials said “a lot” needs to be done to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equity, compared with 54 percent of millennials of color. One-fifth of white millennials said “a little/none at all” needs to be done. There is a significant racial gap in terms of attitudes about how well blacks and whites get along. About 30 percent of nonwhite millennials said whites and blacks don’t get along “too well/not at all well,” compared with 13 percent of white millennials. These gaps remain unchanged across generations. All in all, when the Pew data are disaggregated, they shows large and persistent racial gaps that are obscured when the generations are considered as a whole.

Millennials don’t fare better than their parents on implicit racial bias either. The nonprofit Project Implicit conducts an association test to measure automatic and unconscious preference for European or African faces. A study of 2.5 million voluntary tests taken from 2000 to 2006 found very little variation on implicit bias across age groups, with the exception of those 60 or older. The chart below shows the results of the implicit-association test (IAT) and individuals’ self-reported bias, with a score of 2 indicating a strong bias toward whites and –2 indicating a strong bias toward blacks. The old and young showed differences in their self-evaluation of racial bias, with older people off by 0.38 points and those in the youngest two brackets underreporting their bias by 0.52 on average.


The fact that millennials perceive themselves as uniquely tolerant may make them more likely to practice or accept discriminatory behavior. “A representative panel of Americans interviewed immediately before and after the election [of Barack Obama] reveals a roughly 10 percent decline in perceptions of racial discrimination,” Nicholas A. Valentino and Ted Brader, wrote in a 2011 study in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.

But the dramatic change in perceptions was clearly symbolic. Valentino and Brader found that “declines in perceived discrimination were associated with increases in negative opinions of blacks and heightened opposition to both affirmative action and immigration.” A large body of research supports this finding. For instance, a 2009 study by Vincent Hutchings found (PDF) “scant evidence of a decline in the racial divide” from 1988 to 2008 on policies that would alleviate racial inequality. Even more startling, Hutchings noted, “younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.”


Millennials are more likely to view Obama’s electoral victory as proof that racial discrimination has been alleviated. Research shows that his election led to what is called symbolic racism, the belief that discrimination no longer exists and that persisting inequalities are due to blacks’ weakness. When whites were reminded of Obama’s victory (regardless of whether they supported him) they were more likely to say that racism is behind us and that blacks receive undeserved advantages. They were more likely to say that a continued push for racial equity is unjustified and that any failure of blacks to succeed is their own responsibility.

A 2009 survey of 74 undergraduates at the University of Washington found that Obama’s election led to a decline in the number of respondents who said there was a need for racial policies such as affirmative action, workplace diversity policies and measures that boost equitable access to health care. Similarly, while liberal undergraduate students at Stanford University wereprimed to recall their support for Obama over a white candidate, they were more likely to support a white job applicant over an equally qualified black applicant.

A flicker of hope

But there are signs of hope for racial progress. In a 2013 study, Tatishe Nteta and Jill Greenlee examined what they call the “Obama generation” — those born from 1982 to 1992. “It appears that the youngest generation of white Americans is leading the way toward a more liberal racial future, [but] the structure of these attitudes compels us to stop short of predicting a more racially liberal America,” they wrote in the journal Political Psychology. French essayist Albert Memmi’s observation on racism explains the authors’ hesitation. He wrote, “There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious.” That is, while young white Americans are clearly aware of interpersonal racism, they seem unwilling to address structural or implicit biases. It may be that racial progress will occur simply because there are fewer young whites relative to people of color.

Another hopeful development is that Americans, across all ages, are less racially biased than before. Studies show that the last four decades saw a general decline (PDF) of racial prejudice across all generations rather merely the young becoming more racially tolerant. However, both whites and blacks are less likely to attribute racial gaps to discrimination. Instead a growing number choose no explanation at all, suggesting what sociologist Tyler Forman calls “racial apathy.” Yet racial inequities still exist. And the millennial generation is still deeply segregated. Racial gaps in employment opportunity, income, education, incarceration and wealth are eitherstagnant or growing. If millennials remain utterly unaware of racial reality in America, the gaps will only grow deeper.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Millennials Are Less Racially Tolerant Than You Think

However frustrating the current state of race relations in the U.S., there is, according to various pundits and prognosticators, hope for the future: Millennials, they say, are the most tolerant, race-blind generation in human history. And when they grow up and constitute the bulk of the adult U.S. population, many of the problems that have plagued U.S. race-relations for centuries will simply melt away, relics of a less-enlightened past.

It’s a claim that shows up again and again. A 2010 Pew Research report trumpeted that more than two decades of research confirm that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” In the Chicago Tribune, Ted Gregory seized on this to declare millennials “the most tolerant generation in history.” David Burstein, the millennial author of Fast Futuresaid millennials are “more tolerant … than any generation before them.” Hannah Seligson, also a millennial, sounded a similar note in the Daily Beast, writing that research “reveals that we’ve emerged as the most diverse, tolerant, pioneering, educated, and innovative generation in history.” And it’s not just the pundits: A poll from Reason-Rupe shows that in every age bracket, a majority of respondents say that “tolerant” describes millennials “very well.”

Given that race-based gaps pertaining to employment opportunities, income, education, incarceration, and wealth are either persisting or growing, there’s a welcome sense that help is on the way in the form of a more racially enlightened populace.

The problem with these rosy sentiments is that they’re at least partly false. Those who claim that the rise of the millennials will usher in a new age of racial harmony are cherry-picking or misreading statistics. They’re doing so primarily in two ways: by lumping together all millennials when they report survey findings rather than breaking out white millennials views on racial issues, or by focusing narrowly on a small set of questions about explicit racial beliefs that don’t tell the full story. The fact of the matter is that millennials who are white — that is, members of the group that has always had the most regressive racial beliefs, and who will constitute a majority of U.S. voters for at least another couple of decades — are, on key questions involving race, no more open-minded than their parents. The only real difference, in fact, is that they think they are.

When it comes to certain surface-level statistics, it’s true that millennials as a group are more racially progressive than their parents. Pew data show they are more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and are more in favor of immigration. Nearly all agree that “everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their race.”

Dig just a few inches deeper, though, and there’s plenty of fodder for pessimism. Just ask Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University. He examined the 2012 American National Election Studies racial stereotype battery, in which survey respondents are asked to rate whites, African-American, Hispanics, and Asians according to how hard-working or intelligent they are, and found something startling: Younger (under-30) whites are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans (among the older cohort, 64 percent felt this way, and among the younger cohort the number was 61 percent — not a statistically significant difference). “White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,” Piston told Science of Us in an email, “at least using this dataset and this measure of prejudice.”

Asking people racially tinged questions directly can only get you so far, of course. Social scientists have known for a long time that there frequently exists a gap between how people respond to questions and how they really feel — people are swayed by the expectation of how they should answer. A favorite way around this is to measure implicit bias — that is, forms of bias that the holder might not even be aware of and that can manifest themselves in split-second decision-making. In the most common examples of so-called implicit association tests, words or images are briefly flashed, “priming” subjects to respond to subsequent stimuli — if you’re quicker to pair a black face with the word criminal, to take a hypothetical example, you’re exhibiting more implicit bias, and researchers think these effects extend out of the lab into everyday interactions.

If white millennials were, in fact, significantly more racially tolerant than previous generations, it would show up in implicit association tests. And yet they do no better than many of their older counterparts. For example, a study of 2.5 million voluntary IAT tests from between July 2000 and May 2006 shows very little difference across age groups, with the exception of those 60 or older. Other age cutoffs show a similar result: With the exception of the elderly, who do exhibit significantly more racial animosity, there is little generational difference in implicit bias. What does divide old and young is differences in the accuracy of their self-evaluation of racial bias. While older people underestimate their bias by an average of .38 points on a four-point scale, the youngest two brackets under-report their bias by an average of .52 points on average. Younger people, in other words, are simply more deluded about their own beliefs.


None of this has stopped white millennials from congratulating themselves for being so racially progressive, nor has it staunched their racial optimism. Tellingly, nonwhite millennials aren’t quite so optimistic. According to Pew data, when millennials are asked how well they think whites and African-American get along, just 13 percent of whites answer “Not too well/not at all well,” compared to 30 percent of nonwhite millennials. So there are some obvious disconnects here — both between what white millennials see when they look in the mirror and their real-life beliefs, and between how white and nonwhite millennials view the current pace of progress.

It’s true that America is becoming a more racially diverse place — as is frequently pointed out, it is likely that by sometime around 2050, whites will be in the minority. Hopefully, this diversity will bring with it more understanding. But many observers, appealing to stereotypes about millennials that have dubious empirical grounding, are creating a veneer of false progress. Millennials may eventually usher in a more racially enlightened age, but such a shift will require a deeper understanding of race and racism than many white millennials exhibit, rather than the self-congratulatory rhetoric of a postracial society.

This piece originally appeared on New York.

The unbearable whiteness of America’s donor class

The rise of money in U.S. politics has been widely discussed in the wake of two controversial decisions by the Supreme Court: Citizen’s United and McCutcheon v. FEC. However, the discussion has largely been framed along class lines — with the voices of the poor and middle class drowned out by theexplosion of donations and political activity by wealthy elites. While this is true, there is also an important racial element to the rise of big money in politics. For example, a recent report by Demos found that the dominance of money in politics has slowed racial and economic progress (PDF) in the United States.

Political donations are deeply racialized, with more than 90 percent of contributions above $200 made to presidential campaigns and super PACs in 2012 coming from majority-white neighborhoods. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found that all of the most politically active U.S. billionaires, with possible exception of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is of Persian-American origin, are white. Similarly, the top 10 Republican and top 10 Democratic donors in 2012 appear to be white, according to Demos. There are scarcely any comprehensive data about the race of donors. A preliminary report on donors in New York City’s 2009 municipal electionsconducted by Public Campaign found that the lowest-tier contributions came from more diverse neighborhoods than the top-tier donations. Contributors from predominantly African-American neighborhoods accounted for 30 percent of donations of $10 or less but only 5 percent of donations over $2,500, according to the report.

For whites, the trend is reversed, with people from white neighborhoods accounting for 78 percent of donations over $2,500 and 38 percent of donations of $10 or less. The lowest-tier contributors were from neighborhoods where people of color make up 73 percent of the population, while those donating more than $2,500 lived in districts where people of color make up only 26 percent. Small donors lived in neighborhoods with a 17.14 percent poverty rate and a median income of $53,790, while the top donors came from communities with a 5.14 percent poverty rate and a median income of $111,170.


Campaign contributions facilitate access, influence legislative agendas and, of course, help get those agendas passed. The widening gap in the level of donations means that people of color will not be represented as well as whites. In their seminal work on political equality in the United States, John Griffin and Brian Newman found that “whites get what they want more often than do Latinos or African-Americans.” This lack of representation is not simply due to class differences. “This is true even beyond the effects of income differences between the groups and even when minorities make up a substantial proportion of a constituency,” according to Griffin and Newman.

In his book “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America” Paul Frymer found that Democrats ignore the preferences of African-American voters, a “captured minority,” in order to win over white voters. Since blacks have chosen not to defect to the Republican Party, they struggle for representation by the Democrats. “All too often the Democratic Party has taken the black vote for granted, and all too often the Republican Party has written it off,” Jack Kemp, then a Republican nominee for vice president,said during a campaign stop in Harlem in 1999. In a study comparing voter preferences on government spending levels to presidential budget proposals from 1974 to 2010, Griffin and Newman found that “presidential requests are much more responsive to the budget preferences of whites and the wealthy.” They found that the gap for African-Americans is smaller when a Democrat is in office than when a Republican is.

This has important effects on legislation, as whites and people of color differ strongly on many issues, particularly those related to class. As the chart below shows, the differences on preferences about redistribution between whites and people of color (14 points) are stronger than the differences along class lines (10 points). A 2012 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that differences on whether the government should spend money on jobs versus reducing deficit are similarly strong along race lines (23 points) compared with class (11 points). On issues relating to race, recent polls show huge racial gaps on the perceptions of major American institutions.


The funding gap between black and white communities also makes it difficult for candidates of color to raise money. Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in all 2006 state legislative races and 64 percent less in the South. This is an important barrier for potential candidates who already face discrimination by voters. The lack of diversity in candidates is problematic, given the importance of descriptive representation (in which politicians share salient qualities such as race with their constituents) for substantive representation where candidates share their constituents’ policy preferences. “Descriptive representation independently improves the relative representation of minorities” and in some cases leads to political equality, according to Griffin and Newman. In a 2012 study in the American Journal of Political Science, Eric Juenke and Roper Preuhs found that candidates of color represent constituents of color better than white candidates do. However, as Jason Zengerle notes in The New Republic, black representatives, particularly in the South, are increasingly in the minority as white Democrats fall to coordinated campaign money from big donors. At all levels, big money politics stifles the representation of people of color.

The lack of representation has had major effects on people of color, as Adam Lioz documents in a series of case studies. For instance, the private prison system has lobbied extensively to maintain the carceral state, which primarily affects men of color. At the same time, the financial system has engaged in blatant racism, aided by lax regulatory policies. According to a study by the Center for Responsible Lending, among borrowers with good credit, people of color received a high interest rate loan three times as frequently as white borrowers. Reports also show racist lending practices by bank employees. “Employees had referred to blacks as ‘mud people’ and to subprime lending as ‘ghetto loans,’” according to a 2009 report by The New York Times. Such acts were possible because of lax regulation because of themassive political power of the financial sector.

There are several ways to fight the big money bias. For one, public financing has proved effective in eliminating the big money bias in the political system. A 2012 study published by The Election Law Journal found (PDF) that New York City’s donor-matching program has shifted the class and racial diversity of donors. It empowered small donors (a pool more diverse than large donors) and increased the absolute number of campaign contributors. Second, to limit the influence of big money in U.S. elections, we need policies that could boost voter turnout.

However, as Griffin and Newman point out, there are limits to the strategy: The benefits of representation are not as strong for blacks and Hispanics as for whites. In other words, African-Americans who vote aren’t that much better represented than those who don’t. This points to the importance of electing people of color to office, which does more to increase the representation of people of color. Still, a public financing program to reduce the influence of money in politics, sane lobbying reformssame-day registration, an end to felony disenfranchisement and increased descriptive representation could go a long way to thwart the influence of big money in our politics.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

The right’s dog-whistle trick: How it exploits racism to rip apart the social safety net

In his newest book, “Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez argues that politicians on the right have used coded racial appeals to tear at the fabric of the social safety net. Lopez, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the Fletcher Foundation’s Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship and is a leading thinker on issues of racial justice and the legal system. (He’s also a senior fellow at Demos, where I am a research intern.)

Salon spoke with Lopez about “Dog Whistle Politics,” conservatism and racial politics in the United States. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

I think the best place to start with this book and with the history of dog-whistle politics is Barry Goldwater. That’s the first time you have this melding of the plutocratic agenda with dog-whistle politics. 

I think that’s exactly right. Goldwater shows you both elements. I think people have really only paid attention to one side. People have paid attention to the fact that there is this coded racial appeal and they react by saying that race plays out only at the margins. But when you look at Goldwater and you see that these racial appeals are tied to an attack on liberalism, are tied to an attack on the activist state, then you see that this is not a minor, vestigial effect on campaigns, but  rather it’s central to the ideological project of conservatism. And then you can start to see the power of dog-whistle politics.

Richard Hofstadter’s essay on Goldwater [“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”] doesn’t focus as much on the racial aspect, he focuses on the pseudo-conservative nature and ties it into what he calls the “paranoid style” in American politics. How much of a factor is dog-whistle politics and how does it interact with these other parts of conservatism?

When you look at Goldwater you are looking at the inception of coded racial appeals. When you look at Goldwater’s national campaign, which Hofstadter does, the paranoia is focused on communism. His national campaign commercials are pitched toward national security, not race. Nationally, that’s the issue around which he presents himself. It’s the South where he is particularly aggressive in pushing a racial element in his campaign. So I wouldn’t make the statement that Goldwater launches a national racist campaign; that dishonor goes to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When Nixon talks about “law and order” it’s both code for race and code for the civil disturbances of the antiwar movement, the protest movements. They interact in the sense that these are efforts at faux-populism. These are efforts to explore popular anxiety through appeals that stir fear in order to generate votes for policies that are going to undermine the liberal state. What’s important here is that they are operating in code, but the agenda is, the substance of the proposal is, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state.” But rather than say, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state,” they say, “We need to worry about minorities, we need to worry about threats to your freedom. Society is being taken over by these foreign elements.” I think that is how these interact.

Joe McGinniss discusses in “The Selling of the President 1968″ how Nixon’s campaign tailored their ads to the South, but the age of the Internet makes that more difficult. If you try to run a racially coded ad in the South, Northerners are going to notice that. How has that changed dog-whistle politics?

I think it does. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, you can do much more granular targeting of audiences. On the other hand, it’s much easier for others to find that material. The incident with the Obama-phone lady became a national incident, but it was a TV commercial run in just one state. It came to people’s attention: “Hey, look, a Tea Party group is running this as a TV commercial.”

Martin Gilens has an essay [“How the Poor Became Black”] about how media influences racial perceptions, and he talks on the national level about how when CBS reports on the undeserving poor it’s more likely to be a black face and when it’s the working poor or hard times it’s more likely to be a white face. What effect does the national media have on dog-whistle politics? How have they been complicit in this?

The impact is tremendous. Politicians can seed the media with these frames and because these frames have a strong racial logic behind them, they end up being picked up by the media and amplified dramatically. An example would be Ronald Reagan’s warnings about undocumented immigrants and the threat of them pouring across the border. He essentially creates that issue as a sort of a media frame. When he’s first elected people don’t have a sense that this is a major social problem facing the United States, but by [Reagan] constantly talking about it, the media begins to pick up on it and report stories on it and it becomes a national hysteria. I would say he does the same thing with crime. The more he talks about crime, the more it becomes an issue, the more the media find that it’s actually easy to report on crime stories. Reporting on crime stories goes up by 200 or 300 percent while the incidence of crime doesn’t. That generates a tremendous amount of fear around these coded threats that the politicians are using to campaign on.

Thomas Frank has argued that the plutocratic agenda hasn’t melded with race, but rather with social issues. Do you see race in these social issues?

I think Thomas Frank’s analysis is terrific, but I think he’s fundamentally wrong on race. Race is one of the many social issues in which the plutocratic agenda has been enveloped, but it’s more than just one of them — it’s the primary one. This isn’t to downplay the influence of religion or guns or abortion or gay marriage or any of those other red meat issues. But it’s race that provides the most powerful dog-whistle and the paradigm around which these other coded campaigns were based. Frank is wrong because he understands racism as “hate every black person” racism.

He understands it as the commitment to white supremacy. He has this phrase in his book where he says, “America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease” and he’s referring to Trent Lott’s slip in which he extolled the Dixiecrat campaign of 1948. I agree. America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease. You don’t have widespread commitment to continued white supremacy. But that is vastly different from saying America doesn’t have a race problem. Race has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years since the civil rights movement. It evolved dramatically during the course of the civil rights movement. That doesn’t mean it has gone away, but rather that the form it has taken has changed. But its impact, its ability to shape American politics and get many people out to vote in ways that harm themselves and help the very rich, has remained and, in fact, even grown over the last 50 years.

You talk about the connection between social issues and race …

If you think about race and religion, for example, what happens with religion is that as soon as public schools are ordered integrated in the South, many whites flee to white academies that are very often Christian academies, so you have this very tight connection between race and Christian academies as a way to avoid integration. Ronald Reagan knows this and he makes it part of his agenda to reach out to these schools and tells them that they will get his support and receive state funding. He is going to support them maintaining these segregated spaces; I think it’s a very close connection. I don’t want to overstate it and say that race underlies everything. The force of these social issues are partially autonomous from race. But there are also very strong overlaps. Gun rights and race also have strong overlaps.

What about the George W. Bush administration? Bush is known for spending a lot on Africa and HIV/AIDS as well as working for comprehensive immigration reform. Did he rely on dog-whistle cues?

Bush is someone who in some ways appreciated that conservatism needed to moderate, that it was becoming too extreme. You see that in the slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” as well as in what he tried to do around education, and you see it in his move away from the egregious race-baiting of his father in the Willie Horton ad. Coming out of Texas and realizing the increasing political power of blacks and Latinos, Bush was initially much more careful not to engage in that sort of really aggressive race-baiting. That shifted after 9/11. It shifted first around Muslims. What you see is the Bush administration now casting itself in a role as the “defender of the homeland,” which requires an enemy, and it’s not enough that the enemy remain external, that enemy has to be internal as well.

The Bush administration begins to cast itself as involved in  a “clash of civilizations” in which there are internal enemies as well and we need to show that there are these terrorist sleeper cells, and how do we do that? We increase hysteria, we increase prosecutions and we establish these security and secrecy protocols so we can’t actually tell you about the people that we are prosecuting. But we assure you that they are incredibly dangerous. All of the rhetoric then feeds into and adds a tremendous amount of political legitimacy to the latent hysteria in the U.S. about non-whites residents of the U.S. who are perceived as irredeemably foreign, as permanently foreign, and as threatening. That really accelerates around Muslims and it very easily adds fuel to social hysteria around Latinos — and Ronald Reagan had done his part to create that fear, so it was already simmering. But now you add the narrative of “We are a nation embattled” and the rhetoric of the homeland, which has a racial cast to it.

Almost immediately, politicians begin to say that the threat is our southern border, and when we try to stop “illegal aliens,” we are trying to stop terrorism. So the Bush administration ends up being a time of intense racial hysteria, now not so much about African-Americans, although that continues, but about these foreign but internal threats from brown foreigners, be they Muslim or Latino. That’s how race ends up working over the course of the Bush administration.

The Tea Party shares a lot with the Barry Goldwater style of conservatism, except now the racism has expanded to include Hispanics and Muslims.

With the Tea Party there is both a racial hysteria that is occurring on a national level and at a more regional level. On a national level, you have organizations like Fox News, which understand perfectly well that they can energize and mobilize a large portion of the white population by constantly hammering away at racial issues. That’s exactly what it does with Obama, with the notion that he is foreign, with the notion that he is Muslim, with Sarah Palin’s notion that he is “palling around with terrorists.” She makes that comment with respect to a white activist [Bill Ayers], but with respect to the time, terrorist codes as “Muslim.” On a national level, a lot of energy is being expended by Tea Party mobilizers to motivate people in terms of race.

It’s worth remembering that Roger Ailes was a person who was key in developing Nixon’s strategy and now he is head of Fox News, so it’s not entirely surprising.

Absolutely. There is a direct connection there.

The Tea Party seems to have a rift with the more “moderate” national party.

There is an autonomy as to which politicians dog-whistle and how they see their electoral prospects. So states like Arizona or Georgia, these are states in which politicians can be incredibly aggressive in the ways that they dog-whistle around Latinos and the slurs they use when they talk about illegal immigrants and the sort of harsh and punitive laws they pass. That will play well in terms of their local populations and will get them elected and reelected. Until it doesn’t. The national party looks around and sees that the political power of Latinos is increasing and we need to scale it back. But in some sense it’s not up to the national party to scale it back now. You do get these autonomous elements and politicians have their own political calculus and it might be such that it allows them to engage in much more egregious race-baiting than the national conservative movement might deem most effective. You have this process in which faux populism can escape the control of national central organizers.

The toughest part is identifying the solution. As soon as you start talking about the Tea Party and race they turn around and say, “You are the racist for saying that we are the racists.” Can you elaborate on some solutions?

The solution is clear, although it’s not short-term. We have changed the way race operates. The rhetoric of race has changed dramatically in a way that racial justice projects have lost, but also, and more fundamentally, liberalism has lost. It’s lost because race has shifted to a coded and expressed register and on both registers the language of race is controlled by conservatives. So on the coded register, you have this constant drumbeat of insinuations that taint liberalism as a giveaway to minorities through language like “welfare” or “amnesty” or “causing terrorism.” And you don’t see liberals using a coded racial language to rebut that. Then on the express level, conservatives have made racism mean only an open reference to race itself. What that means is that whenever liberals or racial progressives say, “Hey, you know racism remains a big problem in our society,” something as innocuous as that, they immediately get slammed for playing the race card and conservatives run around saying, “Hey, we’re a post-racial society, but you just introduced race into the conversation.”

An interesting example was when Obama made the brief remark that he doesn’t look like all the other presidents on the dollar bills. He doesn’t! We ought to be able to say that, and we ought to be able to say that there has been a practice of scaring people around race. The minute he said that, he was the racist, he was the one injecting race into the conversation and poisoning the post-racial harmony that otherwise defines the U.S. as far as conservatives were concerned. We cannot restore a robust commitment to progressive government that helps everybody until we can challenge that rhetoric. And we can’t challenge that rhetoric until we once again engage with the power of race in our society. And that is a medium-term project. But it requires the commitment of lots of different actors, from politicians themselves, from foundations, from unions and from the media to really reengage with the role that race is playing and to be much more sophisticated in our understanding of how racism works and the many different forms of racisms. We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms. And until we recognize that and start talking about it we’re going to see that some of those forms of racisms are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.

Of course, during the Jim Crow South, a lot of the efforts used to disenfranchise black people ended up disenfranchising poor whites. You argue that the plutocratic agenda is being wielded to harm poor whites.

I would say this point is so central that I would put the point even more strongly. Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich. This is fundamentally about power, it’s fundamentally about how we are going to organize a society for everybody. The core point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class.

I want to emphasize that, because when people hear race, they think about poor minorities. And then the next thing they think is, “I don’t really get it, that’s not me, I’m pretty different, I’m going to tune out.” But the central point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class. This has been the way conservatives have found that they can attack commitments to education, commitments to a social safety net, commitments to infrastructure, commitments to job programs, commitments to progressive taxation that taxes the most wealthy to help the rest of society. This is about all of us, and if we continue to think, “race is the way they go after poor minorities, and yeah, that’s bad, and I’ll get to that next, but I don’t have a job and my unemployment insurance has just been cut and my kids don’t have good public schools to go to and I can’t afford private schools,” we’ve missed the point, and we’ve missed the way that race has been used to destroy a society that promotes the middle class.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

The great American rip-off: How big-money fuels racial inequality

In the wake of Citizens United, large donors dominate the political landscape, with 84 percent of the money spent in 2014 coming from contributions greater than $200. The big money explosion is complete. In 1980 the largest political donor gave $1.72 million (in 2012 dollars); in 2012, the largest donor gave $56.8 million, or 33 times as much. It’s obvious that this big money bias favors the rich over the poor, but new research suggests it may also hamper racial equity.

As money has come to play a larger role in politics, it has opened up the political system to the abuse of a few of the very wealthiest Americans, an ascendant donor class. However, due to racialized distribution of wealth and income in the United States, this “donor class” is overwhelmingly white (see chart).

This means that campaign contributions primarily come from white donors. An AP investigation of 2012 to  super PACs and presidential campaigns finds that more than 90 percent of those contributions came from white neighborhoods. Demos’ analysis of the top 10 Republican and Democratic donors finds that, “All of these donors appear to be white.”

These biases are important; gaps on issues like the budget deficits, inequality and paid sick leave break down more strongly on race lines than they do along class lines, for example. On other issues, there are salient racial divides, and political scientists find that people of color are better represented when their representative is of the same race (white legislators, even Democrats, are not as responsive). There are therefore substantial differences between white and nonwhite opinions on important issues, and it therefore is worrying that money in politics is so skewed toward white donors.

Campaign contributions matter for access and agenda-shaping. Research shows that campaign contributions from businesses can lead to lower corporate taxes. A study of the telecommunications industry finds that political spending leads to less stringent regulation. Recently, Christopher Witko finds that campaign donors are more likely to get a government contract. In a recent field experiment, donors were more likely to obtain a meeting with a Congress member. Campaign contributions and lobbying, then, not only influence whether a policy is enacted — but whether that policy is even considered.

As Adam Lioz notes in the case studies he discusses in the Demos report, “When elected officials are dependent on corporate donors to fund their campaigns, business interests enjoy disproportionate sway over the policymaking process.” One case study is the private prison industry, which has benefited enormously from the incarceration boom. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of inmates housed in private prisons increased 17-fold (the number held in government prisons doubled). Investigative reporter Lee Fang hasextensively documented how private prisons have taken over immigration detention and lobbied extensively for stricter immigration enforcement. The largest private prisons have spent millions lobbying at the federal and state level, particularly in periods during which immigration laws were under consideration. Lioz also links money in politics to predatory lending, which disproportionately impacted people of color and was left loosely regulated because of powerful monied interests.

As noted above, one way to increase the political system’s responsiveness to people of color is to get them elected into office — but money in politics hampers progress here. A 2006 study of state legislative races finds that candidates of color raise far less money than white candidates, and the problem is worse in the South, where most blacks live. This hampers turnout: Political scientists Thomas Holbrook and Aaron C. find that in mayoral elections, “the effect of the total amount of campaign spending on turnout is notable.”

Without significant reform, the rich will gain a stranglehold on our political system. Recent developments, however, suggest that America is going in the opposition direction — from adopting proposals straight from Citigroup lobbyists to the attempt to increase the cap on donations to political parties 10 times its current limit. Over the long term, Citizens United and McCutcheon need to be overturned, but with the current composition of the court this is unlikely. There are still reforms that can be made. Congress should pass the Disclose Act to stop the flood of dark money. Lobbying regulations have been shown to increase political equality. Public financing increases donor diversity and reduces the time candidates have to spend with big money donors. National parties should do more to recruit candidates of color and working-class candidates. Same-day registration would increase turnout among the poor and people of color, which research shows would combat the big money bias in our political system. The tough part about getting these reforms passed: They have to be passed by politicians who are already bought and paid for.

That doesn’t mean there is no hope. Evidence suggests that states with lower gaps in voter turnout have higher minimum wages, lower inequality and stricter lending laws. In Connecticut, the passage of public financing allowed Dannel Malloy to make paid sick days a core part of his campaign. Lindsay Farrell of Connecticut Working Families’ saidthat public financing “allowed him to be competitive in a race at that level without compromising on an issue like paid sick days.” In Minnesota, a grass-roots organizing campaign led by TakeAction Minnesota stopped an ALEC-backed photo ID law. Someday, there may well be a politician who, like FDR, says to monied interests, “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

This piece originally appeared on Salon.