Tag Archives: race

America’s white millennial problem: Why the next great generation might not be a liberal one

Nearly anytime Democrats lose an election, there is a pervasive narrative that, just around the bend, there will be an “emerging Democratic majority.” Originally projected to occur between 2004 and 2008, it now appears further away than ever after last month’s midterm blowout. Republicans have a stranglehold on the House, where they control their largest number of seats since 1948. That lead will be incredibly tough to chip away at. Democratic chances of regaining the Senate in 2016, once considered a near certainty, are looking iffy. Republicans control 31 governorships, as well as 68 of 98 state legislative chambers. Democrats still have a strong chance of winning the Presidency, but given the importance of the states for shaping income distribution and policy, even that victory will ring hollow.

Yet again, the Democratic Party faces bleak governing prospects in the short term, with only the nebulous promise of a demographic windfall somewhere off in the future — and even that prospect should be little comfort to progressives. While the “millennial” generation has widely been seen as the key to future of Democratic successes, there are reasons to believe that the liberalism of millennials, at least on certain key issues, has been overstated.

Yes, there is a strong case that younger voters on the whole are more liberal. For instance, a study by the Center for American Progress finds that while the mean American’s ideological position is 209 (with 0 being most conservative and 400 being most progressive), those under 29 score 219.7 (Obama voters scored 244).  But while millennials are more socially liberal across the board, there are stark racial divides on economic issues. Younger voters are more likely than older voters to agree with the statement, “Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” and “the government should be doing more to solve problems.” These questions, however, are rather vague and positively worded. And other data suggest a large gap between white millenials and millenials of color. For instance, young white men supported Romney in the 2012 election.

White millenials are also significantly less supportive of Obama (54 percent) than black millenials (95 percent) and Hispanic millenials (76 percent). The most recent poll of Obama finds that young whites and older whites have virtually identical approval ratings. A recent Pew survey of millennials finds that on economic issues, there are strong gaps between young whites and young non-white millenials (see chart).

On social issues, however, these gaps are virtually non-existent. This suggests that while social liberalism will continue to be a political winner, economic liberalism may be tougher to sell to white millenials. Additionally, while white millenials say they want to live in a racially equitable society, they are no more likely than their parents to support policies to make that society come about. ”At the same time, whites primed with the reality of growing diversity become are less likely to say they support diversity and more likely to support the Republican party.”

Furthermore, even as minorities make up a larger and larger percentage of the electorate, these racial changes will not inevitably benefit Democrats. While Republicans have never won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote  – the claim that Bush won 44 percent in 2004, as widely reported, now appears to have been incorrect — they could do so in the future. Pew data, for example, show that third generation Hispanics are more socially liberal, but more economically conservative than older Hispanics.

Additionally, a recent Gallup poll shows support for Obama among younger Black Americans is modestly lower than support among their older counterparts. This actually hold strue among millenials as a whole; as there appear to be age gaps that would render the Democratic advantage ephemeral. Harvard’s Institute of Politics finds that there is a distinct difference between the way young millenials (18-to-24) and older millenials (25-to-29) view Obama. Meanwhile, a 2012 American University poll finds that college students in swing states supported Obama by 35 points, while high schoolers (13-to-17) in swing states supported Obama over Romney by only 7 points.

Discussing the future always presents challenges, particularly in the realm of politics. However, when we look at the ideologies that shape the parties, we can see a few general trends from these data. First, the economic liberalism of the millenial generation appears to be driven primarily by people of color, rather than by younger, more liberal whites. (On social issues, the generation appears to be more liberal across the board.) Second, while millenials lean Democratic, they are still effectively up for grabs. White millenials, the data show, may become suspicious of further government programs to advance racial equality, and young people of color may be open to a Republican party that eschews virulent racism. Finally, electoral structures combined with the geographic locations of Democratic voters will bias the system toward Republicans for at least another decade, and possibly longer.

It’s difficult to know what parties will do to remain viable in a shifting American political landscape. However, it’s by no means certain that a new “Democratic majority” will be an economically liberal one. It’s plausible that the new Democratic party will embrace an Andrew Cuomo-esque neoliberalism. The Democratic party that appears to be emerging will be friendlier to finance and economically conservative, but also very socially liberal, particularly on gay marriage and women’s rights. The Democratic party will be committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions but not at a terrible price to businesses. Public goods will be sold off at bargain basement prices and the safety net will be expanded only slowly, if at all. Both parties will pretend that racial grievances are a thing of the past and present a rosy vision of color-blind America. The ideological distance of both parties on foreign policy will remain where it is today: virtually indistinguishable. This is not inevitable, but what we know about millenials, particularly white ones, suggest this is the most plausible scenario. In the battle for the soul of the Democratic party, millenials might not be on Team Elizabeth Warren.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

How America can fix the racial wealth gap

One of the most persistent but unaddressed problems in the United States is our massive racial wealth gap. Wealth provides an important cushion from the threat of unemployment, medical emergency or other unforeseen events. Wealth can also help pay for college, the start of a new business or the purchase of a first home. However, most Americans struggle with debt. A recent Federal Reserve Report finds that of Americans who had savings before 2008, 57 percent reported using up some or all of their savings in the aftermath of the recession. However, wealth and debt are not distributed equally (see chart).

The racial wealth gap is caused by the fact that wealth is passed from generation. As Gregory Clark notes in his recent book, “The Son Also Rises, the residual effects of wealth remain for 10-to-15 generations. Given that most Americans are only four generations removed from slavery and one generation away from segregated neighborhoods, restrictive covenants and all white colleges, the only truly surprising fact is that the racial wealth gap is not larger. America is also uniquely susceptible to persistent wealth gaps because of our low inheritance, estate and capital gains taxes and the fact that what minimal taxes exist our fraught with loopholes. In 2010, the richest 400 households took home 16 percent of all capital gains (a sweet $300 million each), but paid the same tax rate as a worker making $80,000. At the same time, a loophole in the tax code has allowed the wealthiest to avoid $100 billion  in estate and gift taxes since 2000. On the other side, our public school system is profoundly discriminatoryour neighborhoods deeply segregated and access to credit is racially discriminatory. As Thomas Piketty recently demonstrated, “In terms of total amounts involved, inheritance has thus nearly regained the importance it had for nineteenth century cohorts” (see chart).

The biggest myth of the racial wealth gap that must be demolished is that education or rising incomes can eradicate it. As Matt Bruenig has persuasively shown, this argument is laughably absurd.  College educated Blacks have less wealth than white college drop-outs (see chart).

Bruenig also shows that high income Blacks and Hispanics also have less wealth than whites (see chart).

Between 2007 and 2010, all racial groups lost large amounts of wealth. However, the wealth reduction fell disproportionately on Hispanics and blacks, who saw a 44 percent and 31 percent reduction in wealth (compared to an 11 percent drop for whites). This was due to blacks and Latinos disproportionately receiving subprime loans, both because of outright lending discrimination and housing segregation.A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. They find five main factors responsible for driving the gap, which together explain 66 percent of the growth in inequality. The factors, in order of importance, are number of years of homeownership, household income, unemployment, college education and financial support or inheritance.

The most frustrating problem with the racial wealth gap is that it is not abating. While half of whites say that “a lot” of progress has been made towards Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream,  the data show that the racial wealth gap has only increasing since 1983 (see chart).

What is to be done?

There are several important public policy changes that can alleviate the racial wealth gap. The first is to prevent the further accumulation of debt. While debt is often seen as a problem attributable to individuals, the academic literature is clear that broader economic forces are at largely responsible for the run-up of debt. Credit card debt is particularly harmful for people of color who often face discriminatory lending practices. A recent study of credit card debt finds that people of color pay a far higher IPR on average than white borrowers. The CARD act has already been a boon to consumers, but underlying drivers of debt, such as rising inequalityretirement insecurity and lack of health insurance must also be addressed.

Higher education debt must also be addressed. Research from Demos finds that if “current borrowing patterns continue, student debt levels will reach $2 trillion sometime around 2022.” However, student debt is not distributed equally, but rather falling primarily on students of color and low-income students. That’s because in our age of austerity, governments are spending less money on higher education, shifting the burden of paying for college onto students. Federal and state governments need to step up and fund an investment in the next generation.

On the other side, however, we must also foster wealth-building initiatives. Historically, homeownership has been a pathway to the middle class, but deep residential segregation means that Blacks and Hispanics often own homes that are far less valuable than white homes (see Table 3). Further, in the wake of the crisis many banks are buying up foreclosed houses and renting them out. That means income for people of color is no longer becoming wealth for people of color, but rather wealth for rich bankers.  One solution would be a first-time homeowners tax credit that is weighted to benefit low and moderate income households, rather than the mortgage interest deduction, which favors the wealthy. FICO credit scores should replaced with more reliable credit measurements.  But the ideal way to reduce wealth inequality, not only between people of color and whites, but also between the richest .1 percent and the rest of us, is a baby bond.

A baby bond is an endowment given to Americans at birth and maintained by the federal government until they are 18. The bond functions in a similar way to Social Security and can be sued to pay for college, buy a house or start a business. Hillary Clinton, in fact,briefly floated the possibility of a baby bond during her 2008 campaign, although the modest $5,000 sum she proposed is certainly smaller than ideal. Britain brieflyexperimented with a baby bond proposal, although it later became the victim of Tory Austerity.  Dr. Darrick Hamilton and William Darity Jr., leading proponents of  a baby bond, propose a progressive bond that caps at $50,000 for the lowest wealth quartile bond could close the racial wealth gap in three generations.  Their proposal would be given to three-quarters of Americans (based on wealth eligibility). They estimate that such a program would cost $60 billion a year, about one-tenth of the 2014 defense budget.

The baby bond need not increase the deficit. A recent CBO report finds that right now, tax credits primarily benefit the wealthiest, at a cost of nearly $1 trillion a year. This money could easily fund an extensive baby bond program that would, over time, eliminate the racial wealth gap. Another option would be to restore progressivity to our tax system. Because the baby bond program would not be explicitly targeted at people of color but rather would benefit most Americans, it could easily win broad support (much as Social Security is currently untouchable). Any presidential candidate should make the baby bond a central plank of their 2016 if they want to seriously address the problem of wealth inequality. Without such a proposal, wealth, and therefore political power will become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. It may already be too late.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Republicans at a Crossroads: Win Over People Of Color, or Make Sure They Don’t Vote?

Last week’s election has seen many Republicans scoffing at the thesis, put forward by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in 2004, that there was an“Emerging Democratic Majority” that would usher in a long period of Democratic dominance. Ross Douthat, for example, has written of an “Evaporating Democratic Majority.” The subsequent analysis has often focused on low turnout among young voters — an important story, but far from the whole thing. In fact, this election sets the stage for how the Republican Party will react to changing demographics over the next several election cycles. Will they change their policies to appeal to a how America has changed, or will they try to change who gets to vote?

The dramatic age gap in the most recent midterm election has been frequently noted in recent discussions on the midterms. While it is certainly important that only 12 percent of voters in the most recent election were under 30 and 37% were over 60, this doesn’t tell much. About 12% of voters in the 2010 and 2006 elections were under 30 as well, if anything the increasing gap is largely due to the aging of the population (and persistent gaps in youth turnout). However, while the “liberalism” of youth has been widely discussed, there are problems with the narrative, among them, the huge differencesbetween young whites and young people of color (see chart). Much of the liberalism of millennials is not that young whites are more liberal, but simply that there are fewer of them. Even with these caveats, it’s clear that much of the current Republican agenda (particularly opposition to gay marriage) is anathema to young voters, while racial appeals make voters of color who might otherwise support Republicans wary.

 

The question for Republicans is how they will respond to an increasingly diverse population and one that doesn’t support their agenda. One option, and the one that gave them the Senate this year, is massive voter suppression. They will have many more opportunities for such suppression: Before the election, Republican controlled 59 of the 98 state legislative chambers; they now control 67. That means they’ll be able to pass more ALEC-sponsored legislation to reduce reproductive rights, bust unions and cut education and health insurance. It also means that Democrats will find it difficult to win back these chambers in time for the 2020 redistricting. (Redistricting is part — though not all — of the reason for Republican stranglehold over the House.) Republicans will also have leeway to pass even more restrictive voting laws — rolling back same-day registration and early voting, passing voter ID laws and tightening restrictions on convicted felons. All of these laws are proven to shift the electorate toward conservative policies by reducing turnout among people of color, young people and low-income people. Unsurprisingly, the ones already on the books have worked, and the 2014 midtermhad lower turnout than any election since 1942 (before the Voting Rights Act).

As I’ve shown, there is a strong chance that felon disenfranchisement laws affected the outcomes of important Senate races. I also found evidence that voter ID laws (particularly those that required a photo ID) reduced turnout. These findings are support by academic studies on the question. Long story short: It’s almost certain that voter suppression efforts led to an election in which three in ten eligible citizens voted. It’s highly likely that they tilted the playing field toward conservative politicians.

Republicans as a party could likely remain viable for a while with this strategy. They control enough legislatures to effectively gerrymander the congressional map. The Senate favors sparsely populated Conservative states. Democrats are concentrated in urban areas which further solidifies Republican avantages. Republicans would have trouble getting enough voters to win the Presidency, but with control of both bottom chambers, they could still gridlock the political system. Since such gridlock primarily benefits the rich, who are the main constituency of the Republican party, this isn’t much of a problem. Further, research shows that when whites are informed that the country is becoming increasingly diverse, they show a stronger preference for the Republican party. Recentresearch by Felix Danbold and Yuen J. Huo finds the whites informed that they will no longer be the majority in 2050 are less likely to say they support diversity. Political scientist Spencer Piston tells Salon that in his research using the American National Election Studies data, “I find no relationship between age and prejudice against blacks (as measured by a stereotype battery) among whites.” This suggests that voter suppression and coded racial appeals could serve Republicans for a long time.

The other option is for Republicans to tailor their agenda to people of color. While this may seem impossible — given the recent race-baiting by a gargle of Republican candidates — it is not. Spencer Piston recently released research showing that light-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans are more likely to support Republicans than darker-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans. He tells Salon that this held even after controlling for income, nationality and gender. Further, in currently unpublished research, he finds that support for redistribution is not affected by skin tone. This suggests that Republicans could possibly win over some Latino voters with a conservative message, if only they reduced racial resentment. But they won’t.

As I’ve shown, the class bias in our electorate benefits the rich. One study of developed countries finds that in countries with higher turnout, governments redistribute more money. The U.S. has the second lowest rate of turnout among OECD countries, and it also, unsurprisingly, has some of the lowest levels of redistribution. As long as the Republican party serves the interests of the rich, it will work endlessly to suppress low-income voters. Further, it will hold the government in gridlock, which benefits the rich.

At the end of the day, the sad fact is that the more people who vote, the worse it is for the wealthy people who overwhelmingly support Republicans.

There were other factors at play in the Senate race, certainly. The incredible cynicism of modern conservatives — who both actively sabotage government and then complain when it doesn’t works — was important. Americans, constantly told by pundits that a President should lead, appear to be unable to understand that deep structural factors prevent himfrom doing so (a problem on both sides). Further, in many races, the liberal candidateswere simply inept, and those who ran on truly progressive agendas, like Governor Malloy of Connecticut, did well.

However, it cannot be ignored that in recent years, one political party has centered their election agenda around disenfranchising voters. Midterms are historical bad for groups that vote Democratic, but massive voter suppression is the only way to explain the Republican “wave.”  With the aid of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County,states have been able to pass legislation which cause mass disenfranchisement. There will certainly be more. As the country becomes more diverse, the Republican party has a choice: play on racial fears, stoking racial animus or try to broaden its coalition of voters. Right now, it has prefered the former. That isn’t good for democracy.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

The Republican Party’s cynical electoral philosophy

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a law that could disenfranchise 600,000 Texans. But the effects of the law won’t fall equally: African-Americans and Latinos are 305 percent and 195 percent less likely (respectively) to have the necessary forms of identification than whites. The Republican party is increasingly unpopular, and relies almost exclusively on white voters. The charts below show the 2008 if only white men voted and if only people of color voted (source). Since 2008, people of color become a growing share of the voting population while the GOP has, if anything, moved further to the right. It has further alienated voters of color with racist attacks and laws. But as they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, make sure they don’t vote. Over the last four years the Republicans have gone through elaborate attempts to make sure populations that don’t support them don’t get a chance to vote.

 Since 2006, Republicans have pushed through voter ID laws in 34 states.  Such laws did not exist before 2006, when Indiana passed the first voter ID law. The laws were ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud, but a News21 investigation finds only 2,068 instance of alleged fraud since 2000 (that is out of over 146 million voters). They estimate that there is one accusation of voter fraud for every 15 million voters. As Mother Jones notes, instances of voter fraud are more rare than UFO sightings. There have been only 13 instances of in-person voter fraud (the sorts that a voter ID law would reduce), while 47,000 people claim to have seen a UFO.

On the other hand, research by the Brennan Center for Justice finds that, “as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.” Those who do not have ID are most likely to be “seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students” – i.e. people who vote Democratic (chart source).

There is now a large literature studying the effects of voter ID laws. James Avery and Mark Peffley find, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” The GAO finds that, voter ID laws reduce turnout among those between ages 18-23 and African-Americans (two key Democratic constituencies). A 2013 study finds that the proposal and passage of voter ID laws are, “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” They write, “Our findings confirm that Democrats are justified in their concern that restrictive voter legislation takes aim along racial lines with strategic partisan intent.” [Italics in original] The authors also find that increases in low-income voter turnout triggered voter ID laws. A more recent study finds, “where elections are competitive, the furtherance of restrictive voter ID laws is a means of maintaining Republican support while curtailing Democratic electoral gains.” That is, not all Republican legislatures propose voter ID laws – only those that face strong competition from Democrats. If Republicans are concerned about election integrity, why do they only pass voter ID laws when they’re about to lose an election? Because they’re using these laws for partisan advantage.

Voter ID laws are also racially motivated. A recent study finds that voters are significantly more likely to support a voter ID law when they are shown pictures of black people voting than when shown white people voting. In Minnesota, Take Action Minnesota showed that a pro-voter ID group had a picture on their website showing a black inmate voting and a man wearing a mariachi outfit – clearly playing off racial stereotypes.

But this isn’t the only time Republicans have tried to leverage state-level advantages into federal gains. After the 2010 walloping, Republicans decided they would need to tilt the odds in their favor. Using their control of state legislatures, they gerrymandered districts to ensure their victory. In 2012, Democrats actually had a larger share of the popular vote for the House of Representatives, while Republicans gained their largest House majority in 60 years. Cook Political Report noted, “House GOP Won 49 Percent of Votes, 54 Percent of Seats.” How? They changed the rules of the game. Karl Rove came out and said it in an op-ed, writing, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” They won in districts that were drawn specifically to allow them to win. There were certainly other factors at play, but it’s hard to image Republicans winning as many seats without their nifty swindle.

As Tim Dickinson points out, this isn’t the end:

In a project with the explicit blessing of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a half-dozen Republican-dominated legislatures in states that swing blue in presidential elections have advanced proposals to abandon the winner-take-all standard in the Electoral College…Thanks to the GOP’s gerrymandering, such a change would all but guarantee that a Democratic presidential candidate in a big, diverse state like Michigan would lose the split of electoral votes even if he or she won in a popular landslide.

If Republicans have their way, we’ll eventually be back to the days of the poll tax and the literacy test, where the votes of blacks, youth and the poor simply don’t count. We’re already half-way there; one study finds that the indirect costs of obtaining a voter ID are higher than the cost of a poll tax was. The Senate, with its antiquated system of two Senators per state means that the largely rural, old, white and conservative Midwest and South have far more sway than liberal metropolitan areas. By one estimate, 0.59% of the U.S. population will decide control of the Senate this election. This gives Republicans a strong advantage in the Senate, something to remember if they win it this election.

Republicans have also made use of felony disenfranchisement to boost their electoral success. Some 5.85 million Americans are denied the vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Because of the racial bias in our criminal justice system and the war on drugs, a disproportionate share of these voters are black. One study finds that because felons are more likely to be poor and people of color, disenfranchisement benefits Republicans. The authors estimate that, “at least one Republican presidential victory would have been reversed if former felons had been allowed to vote.” Further, they find that such laws may have impacted control of the Senate, and even more state and local elections. It’s no surprise that in Florida, a state where 10% of voters can’t vote because of a felony conviction, one of Rick Scott’s first moves as governor was to tighten rules for felons trying to gain voting rights. To add insult to injury, some 2 million incarcerated citizens are often counted as residents of the place where they are incarcerated, rather than their home. This allows districts where prisons are built to gain disproportionate influence because districts will often include large, non-voting prison populations. In Ward 6 of Rhode Island, prisoners represented 25% of the population.

The radicalism of the Tea Party and the Republican party at-large is partially due to the fact that they don’t represent the whole population- they represent a primarily white and middle to high income voting bloc. And that’s how Republicans want to keep it – they know they can’t win in fair race, so like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, they set all sorts of obstacles in their opponent’s way. Hopefully, much like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, their plan will blow up in their faces. Voters will be so angry about Republican attempts to suppress the vote that they’ll turn out in even higher numbers. Evidence suggests that a shift in turnout would have important effects on policy. Sadly, convicted felons, undocumented immigrants and many citizens without ID will still be denied the vote. In the cartoons, cheaters never win, for Republicans it’s been a successful electoral strategy for three decades running.

 

A version of this piece originally appeared on Salon.

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Why the GOP hates U.S. history: Inconvenient truths that freak out American conservatives

Conservative hero Ben Carson is worried about American teenagers joining ISIS. But it’s not because of “radical Islam.” It’s because of new high school history standards.

American’s right wing, you see, is terrified of history because it is always sentimentalizing it. Many of its arguments rely on a feeling of nostalgia for “good old days,” that appeals almost exclusively to aging whites. That means that a more accurate history, one that considers groups that are traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor — don’t necessarily sit that well. Their stories, the stories of the downtrodden, crush the false narrative that many conservatives like to imagine — that of a idyllic past marred by the New Deal, women’s liberation and civil rights.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a school board recently tried to limit the historical curriculum to only events that would, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Needless to say, much of American history — the Great Depression, the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese-Americans — would, under those parameters, need to obfuscated. The Republic National Committee, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the new Advanced Placement U.S. History standards ”radically revisionist.” But conservatives may want to take the plank out of their own eye before examining the speck in their neighbors. Here are the most important distortions of history the right has promoted recently.

Before Welfare, Everything Was Awesome 

Example: Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argues, “Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions.”

The Problem: As with most conservative revisionism, the idea is that before nasty programs like welfare, the poor did just fine, because private charity aided them. Many conservatives will argue that the War on Poverty has done nothing to reduce poverty and instead we should rely on private charity. But the War on Poverty has actually done much to eliminate poverty and private charity could never fill that chasm that would open up if federal poverty programs were eliminated. So how did we get rid of poverty before government? The answer is that there never was a mythical time without government.

As Mike Konczal writes,

“There has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century.”

Later, Congress established a pension system for civil war veterans that consumed about 25 percent of all government spending. Rather than “welfare queens” being a post New-Deal development, some 40 states had programs to support single mothers in 1920. In fact, far from being an invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and liberals, social insurance programs are staple in civil society. Frederik Pedersen finds that back in the 10th through 12th centuries, Iceland had an extensive social welfare program. Rome, too, had a system of public support designed to aid poor children.

Elizabeth Bruenig notes that the purely voluntary Church-based social insurance many Christians adore never existed. Conservatives ignore the fact that the church was often acting in accord with the state, “You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.” Islamic public assistance was also a hybrid church-state institution. The idea that there has ever been a successful purely voluntary public assistance program is a conservative myth invented to justify dismantling anti-poverty programs in the name of a utopian fantasy.

Basically everything about slavery 

Example: Recently convicted felon and conservative columnist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “The End of Racism,” provides some great examples of rewriting race. D’Souza says of slavery, “No free workers enjoyed a comparable social security system from birth until death.” Later, he writes, “Masters … encouraged the family unit which basically remained intact.” He concludes, “In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The Problem: Conservatives in the U.S. have a race problem, specifically that many of them believe that blacks are “primarily responsible for their own success or failure” and that government programs only get in the way. And conservative politicians tend to racialize welfare programs to decrease support for them. To believe that black Americans would have been better off without government intervention, you have to pretend history doesn’t matter.

As Marx notes, people, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” There simply is little mobility for black Americans today because the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and housing segregation still weighs heavily. A recent study finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Further, white people in these counties harbor more racial resentment.

That’s because when slavery permeated society — the legal structure, culture, science — nothing was left untouched by racism and racial hierarchy. The conservative “I built this myself” mentality denies that most wealth is passed from generation to generation, and so is privilege. Erasing the memory of racial hierarchy allows conservatives and Americans to pretend that individual effort, rather than structural racism, is keeping black people down.

So what was slavery really like? Jennifer Hallam writes, “Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.” Rather than being “relatively mild,” slavery relied on brutality and violence, the horrors of which are described in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

And, of course, racism and racial hierarchy didn’t end when slavery was formally abolished, but rather continued through local policies, terrorism and violence. This violence was often orchestrated at the highest levels of government. Consider, for example, the FBI’s attempts to discredit MLK or the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

In his response to Phil Robertson’s sentimentalism about the Jim Crow era last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates cites Freddie Moore:

“The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche. Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.”

And racial violence didn’t end in the ’30s, but continued until through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and, well, two months ago.

U.S. foreign policy

Example: Conservative foreign policy is dictated by a small coterie of conquistadors. These people are called “neo-conservatives.” Some people claim neoconservatives have no uniting vision; in fact, the basis of neo-conservativism is a belief that imperial violence can spread democracy. To maintain this myth, the long history of imperialism must be re-written. Thus the official RNC statement on the AP controversy laments that “the [AP] Framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) …” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including American involvement in WWII, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.”

The Problem: Imperial violence cannot spread democracy. America’s foreign policy history is littered with failed attempts to impose our ideas on others — often with the ulterior motive of stealing resources. As Mark Twain writes, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Among the other examples of horrifying and cynical use of American power conservatives may wish to avoid:

  • Reagan supporting the Contras, a fascist junta: Much of Reagan’s presidency is now hagiography, rather than history. Because of this, it’s often hard to remember how awful the group that Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” truly was. Truth is, the Nicaraguan Contras were known for their brutality. And where did Reagan get the money to support the brutes? Why, by selling weapons to Iran. Yes, the Iran that George W. Bush later called a member of the Axis of Evil. The International Court of Justice ruled against the U.S. for violating another country’s sovereignty and laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, but the U.S. ignored the decision.
  • Chemical weapons: Before the U.S. joined forces with Assad to fight ISIS, he was public enemy number one for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilian populations. But the U.S. has used chemical weapons on a range and scale that Assad could hardly even fathom. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dumped between 12 and 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. At least 1 million Vietnamese had defects or disabilities caused by U.S. chemical attacks. And those chemical weapons we judged Saddam Hussein so harshly for using? The U.S. not only knew the attacks were coming, we gave Hussein intelligence on strategic sites to attack.
  • Screwing up democracy: Sure, America supports democracy — unless that democracy will do something to hurt business interests. Among acts that qualify: nationalizing oil fieldsraising minimum wages and boosting literacy. In place, we installed brutal, murderous dictators — but only ones that would push through economic “reforms” and play ball when we needed.
  • Prolonging the Vietnam War: Richard Nixon intentionally sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s chances of winning the Presidency. In the wake of the failure, the war continued for two long and bloody years, made more horrifying by Nixon’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia.

Then there’s the support of genocidal maniacs like SuhartoMontt and Khan. And that’s just the last half century!

Conclusion 

English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines conservatism as “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

There was a time when conservatism was a philosophy concerned primarily with wrestling with and understanding tradition and the limits of human reason and ability. However, these days conservatism is reactionary — it has been imbued with racism, conspiratorial thinking and a hyper-individualistic capitalism. Instead of questioning the limits of reason, it has jettisoned it. In its place remains free market dogmabad Biblical interpretation and a sentimentalized past. In place of reason and argument, most conservatives rely on fantasy and reminiscence. Allowing conservatives to redefine the past will be incredibly harmful.

As George Orwell notes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

This article originally appeared on Salon. 

Five reasons why democracy hasn’t fixed inequality

One of the most longstanding hopes (on the left) and fears (on the right) about democratic politics is that voters of modest means will use their electoral weight to level the economic playing field. In a market economy, the median voter’s income will invariably be below the national average creating an apparently compelling opportunity for a politics of redistribution. This makes the sustained increase in income inequality in the United States and other developed countries a bit of a puzzle. One common suggestion, offered recently by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, is ignorance. Voters “don’t grasp how deep inequality is.”

But while Americans understanding of economic trends is certainly imperfect, the data suggest that the broad trends are known to the population. Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns, for instance, find that when asked to compare the ratio of the highest paid occupation and the lowest, Americans at the bottom of the income distribution do believe inequality is high and rising. In 1987, Americans as reported that the highest-paid occupation took home 20 times what the lowest paid occupation did – by 2000, they thought the gap had grown to 74 times.

A recent Pew survey finds that 65% of adults agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the past 10 years, only 8% say it has decreased. A Gallup poll from earlier this year suggests that 67% of Americans report that they are either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the income and wealth distribution in the U.S.

If ignorance doesn’t explain inaction, what does? These five factors are the most important culprits:

1) Upward mobility

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

According to research from Carina Engelhardt and Andreas Wagner, around the world people overestimate the level of upward mobility in their society.

They find that redistribution is lower then when actual social mobility is but also lower where perceived mobility is higher. Even if voters perceive the level of inequality correctly, their tendency to overstate the level of mobility can undermine support for redistribution. In another study Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara find that, Americans who believe that American society offers equal opportunity (a mythology) are more likely to oppose redistribution. Using data from 33 democracies, Elvire Guillaud finds that those who believe they have experienced downward mobility in the past decade are  32% more likely to support redistribution. A relatively strong literature now supports this thesis.

2) Inequality undermines solidarity

Enns and Kelly find, rather counterintuitively, that when “inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment.” That is, higher inequality leads to less demand for redistribution. This is perhaps because as society becomes less equal, its members have less in common and find it less congenial to act in solidarity. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner argue that, “the best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

As inequality increases, the winner-take-all economy leads voters try to look out for their own children. The period during which overall inequality has risen has seen a massive increase in more affluent families’ spending on enrichment for their own children.

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

Chris Dillow points to research by Klaus Abbink, David Masclet and Daniel Mirza who find in social science experiments that disadvantaged groups are more likely to sacrifice their wealth to reduce the wealth of the advantaged group when inequality was lower than when it was higher. Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.”

3) Political misrepresentation

Ideological factors can’t tell the whole story. Many Americans support redistributive programs like the minimum wage and support for the idea that hard work leads to success has plummeted in the last decade. A further important reason for the lack of political response to inequality relates to the structure of American political institutions, which fail to translate the desires of less-advantaged Americans for more redistribution into actual policy change. Support for this thesis comes from many corners of the political science field, including Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, andKay Lehman Schlozman. Research by five political scientists finds that status quo bias of America’s often-gridlocked congress serves to entrench inequality.

More simply, lower-income Americans tend to vote at a lower rate. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with lower turnout inequality also have lower income inequality. Elsewhere, Franko finds that states with wider turnout gaps between the rich and poor are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases, have weaker anti-predatory-lending policies and have less generous health insurance programs for children in low-income families. Kim Hill, Jan Leighley and Angela Hilton-Andersson find, “an enduring relationship between the degree of mobilization of lower-class voters and the generosity of welfare benefits.” Worryingly, Frederick Solt finds that, “citizens of states with greater income inequality are less likely to vote and that income inequality increases income bias in the electorate.” That is, as inequality increases, the poor are less likely to turn out, further exacerbating inequality.

4) Interest-group politics

The decline of labor unions has decreased the political importance of poor voters, because unions were an important “get-out-the-vote” machine. A recent study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler finds that the decline in union strength has reduced low-income and middle-income turnout. But labor’s influence (or lack thereof) is also important when the voting is done. Research finds that policy outcomes in the United States are heavily mediated by lobbying between interest groups, so organization matters.

Martin Gilens writes, “Given the fact that most Americans have little independent influence on policy outcomes, interest groups like unions may be the only way to forward their economic interests and preference.” His research indicates that unions regularly lobby in favor of policies broadly supported by Americans across the income spectrum, in contrast to business groups, which lobby in favor of policies only supported by the wealthy.

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

It’s no surprise then that numerous studies have linked the decline in union membership and influence with rising inequality.

5) Racial conflict

A recent study by Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson finds that when white Americans are reminded that the nation is becoming more diverse, they become more conservative. Dog-whistle phrases like “welfare queens” have long driven whites to oppose social safety net programs they disproportionately benefit from. Research from Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam indicates that racial bias among white voters is strongly correlated with hostility toward means-tested social assistance programs. Another study by Steven Beckman and Buhong Zhen finds that blacks are more likely to support redistribution even if their incomes are far above average and that poor whites are more likely to oppose redistribution.

In other words, a massive public education campaign about the extent of income inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve the kind of redistributive policies liberals favor. The real obstacles to policy action on inequality are more deeply ingrained in the structure of American politics, demographics, and interest group coalitions. Insofar as there is a role for better information to play, it likely relates not to inequality but tosocial mobility which remains widely misperceived and is a potent driver of feelings about the justice of economic policy. As John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Stronger unions, more lower income voter turnout and policies to reduce the corrupting influence of money on the political process would all work to reduce inequality. It will take political mobilization, not simply voter education to achieve change. The wonks have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.

There is no American dream for black children

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have once again made the nation consider the durability of racial injustice as a defining factor of the American experience. Black children go to increasingly segregated schools, experience significantly less mobility than whites and are far more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. The American dream has always been defined by upward mobility, but for black Americans, it’s harder to get into the middle class, and a middle-class lifestyle is more precarious.

There are numerous factors that help explain why blacks have lower levels of upward mobility, but a surprisingly unpersuasive one is family structure. Conservatives like to tout the research of Raj Chetty and others who find that, “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the single strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” But this observation comes with a caveat — children in two-parent households fare worse in areas with large numbers of single parents. There is reason to believe the causation is reversed. Rather than single-parent households causing low upward mobility, low upward mobility and rampant poverty lead to single-parenthood.

Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research — Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine — find that single motherhood is largely driven by poverty and inequality, not the other way around. They write,

The combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.

A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “Young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”

Most recently, Bhashkar Mazumder finds that, among those between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. His research finds that the role of two-parent families for mobility is less important than conservatives assert. While living in a two-parent households increases upward mobility for blacks, it has no effect on upward mobility for white children, nor does it affect downward mobility for either race.  If marriage has a significant effect, it is not marriage per se, but rather income and parenting effects that are at work; married people by default have more incomes and more time to spend with children. The solution, then, is paid leave, universal pre-K and government-provided daycare, not wealthy conservatives clutching their pearls and chastising young people for not getting hitched.

So, marriage fails to explain black-white gaps in mobility. What, then, is responsible for the lack of upward mobility among blacks?

1. Housing segregation

Racial segregation explains how it’s so easy for the black middle class to slip back into poverty. As sociologist John R. Logan writes, “The most recent census data show that on average, black and Hispanic households live in neighborhoods with more than one and a half times the poverty rate of neighborhoods where the average non-Hispanic white lives.” This has profound implications for upward mobility.

A 2009 study by Patrick Sharkey finds that, “Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.” Sharkley finds that if black and white children grew up in similar environments, the downward mobility gap would shrink by 25-to-33 percent. As the chart below shows, black children are far more likely to grow up in high poverty disadvantaged neighborhoods, which makes upward mobility difficult. (Source)

2. War on drugs and mass incarceration

The war on drugs disproportionately targets people of color: One in 12 working-age African-American men are incarcerated. While whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession. The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. The effects of incarceration on upward mobility are profound.

Bruce Western finds that, “by age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.” This impact, however, is more profound for blacks. Western finds that incarceration reduces lifetime earnings for whites by 2 percent, but Hispanics and blacks by 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively. All of this means that men who are incarcerated will live a life at the bottom. For men who begin life in the lowest income quintile, only 2 percent of those who are incarcerated will make it into the top fifth, while 15 percent of those who are not incarcerated will.

3. Segregated employment opportunities

In “When Work Disappears,” Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points to the importance of occupational segregation — the fact that African-Americans who are often concentrated in poor urban areas struggle to get jobs in the suburbs or places with a long commute. Only 2.9 percent of white workers rely on public transportation, compared to 8.3 percent of Latino workers and 11.5 percent percent of black workers.

An excellent example of occupational segregation is in Silicon Valley, where data released after pressure from advocacy groups like Color of Change suggests that at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google and eBay, only 3 to 4 percent of workers are black or Hispanic. However, a study by Working Partnerships USA finds that, “While Blacks and Latinos make up only 3 to 4 percent of the disclosed companies’  core tech workforce, they are 41 percent of all private security guards in Silicon Valley, 72 percent of all janitorial and building cleaning workers, and 76 percent of all grounds maintenance workers.” (Source)

Much of the problem is social networks. Recent research by Nancy DiTomaso finds that favoritism perpetuates inequality, even in the absence of racial bias. She finds that most employees relied on social networks to obtain a majority of the jobs they held in their lifetime. Because social networks tend to be segregated, this fosters occupational segregation. Miles Corak shows that many children get their first job through their parents, further solidifying the effect of social networks on occupational segregation.

Marianne Bertrand finds that changing the names on résumés to those that are traditionally white or black affects call-backs for jobs. White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview. She also finds that whites with better résumés were 30 percent more likely to get a call-back than whites with worse résumés, but for blacks, more experience only increased call-backs by 9 percent. Another barrier to employment can be social networks.

4. Wealth gaps

Wealth is an important part of a middle-class lifestyle. When a family or individual is struck with illness or the loss of a job, wealth provides support. When a child attends college or is trying to get on his or her feet, a family with wealth can help pay the bills. The large wealth gaps between black families and white families, then, helps explain why black families have such high levels of downward mobility. The recently released Survey of Consumer Finances allows us an opportunity to examine wealth gaps. Matt Bruenig finds that, “The median white family has a net worth of $134,000. The median Hispanic family has a net worth of $14,000. The median black family has a net worth of $11,000.”

Between 2007 and 2010, all racial groups lost large amounts of wealth. However, the effects fell disproportionately on Hispanics and blacks, who saw a 44 percent and 31 percent reduction in wealth, compared to an 11 percent drop for whites. This was due to blacks and Latinos disproportionately receiving subprime loans, both because of outright lending discrimination and housing segregation. A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. They find five main factors responsible for driving the gap, which together explain 66 percent of the growth in inequality. The factors, in order of importance, are number of years of homeownership, household income, unemployment, college education and financial support or inheritance

5. Two-tiered education system

The U.S. increasingly has a two-tiered education system, with students of color trapped in underfunded schools. (Source)  A recent study finds that, “schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students.”

Schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. The average white student attends a school that is 72.5 percent white and 8.3 percent black, while the average black student attends a school that is only 27.6 percent white, but is 48.8 percent black. These schools are underfunded and understaffed. In 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit after 18 public schools had “literature classes without books,” computer classes where students discuss what they would do if they had computers, “classes without regular teachers” and classes without enough seats where students stood in the back.

Mazumder finds that student scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (a comprehensive test taken toward the last few years of high school) can help explain differences in upward mobility between blacks and whites. He also finds that completing 16 years of education is a crucial factor in upward mobility. The fact that AFQT scores help predict upward mobility is often used by those who argue that racial differences in intelligence largely explain differences in upward mobility. However, since the AFQT is taken in high school, a better explanation is that differences in AFQT scores represent the combined impacts of poverty, bad schools, wealth gaps, substandard healthcare and segregated employment opportunities working together to reduce long-term mobility.

The idea that there are biological factors reducing upward mobility for African-Americans is both odious and entirely false. As Nathaniel Hendren told me when discussing his research,

We can absolutely reject that theory. In order to believe that theory, you have to believe that the spacial differences across the U.S. are differences in some kind of transmission of genes. Suppose you move from one area to another and you have a kid. Does your kid pick up the mobility characteristics of the place you go to? Now obviously, your genes don’t change when you move. What we find is that kids start to pick up the mobility characteristics of the place they move to, and they do so in the proportion to the amount of time they end up spending in that place. The majority of the differences across places are casual. If people lived in different places, they would have different outcomes.

This all leads to the saddest conclusion — were it not for poorly conceived policies, we could have more upward mobility in the U.S. While conservatives like to point at cultural factors and throw up their hands, a far more productive solution is to redress our massive public policy problems — like the war on drugs and dropout mill schools — that are proven to reduce upward mobility.

The conservative mind-set is ahistorical — we are told to throw away the legacy of slavery and segregation and expect blacks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, ignoring the structural dynamics keeping them down. Research by Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Matthew Blackwell finds that Southerners who live in counties with higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 express more racial resentment and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. As Marx noted, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

 

 

This article originally appeared on Salon.

Beyond Ferguson: 5 glaring signs that we’re not living in a post-racial society

In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, a recent Pew poll finds that 47 percent of whites believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves,” with regards to the death of Michael Brown, while only 18 percent of African-Americans feel the same. Meanwhile, a similar Pew study found that whites are far less likely to see discrimination in the treatment blacks receive by the education system, the courts and hospitals. Such views are held by many Americans, who believe that “blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Police killings of unarmed blacks are certainly the most visible manifestation of systemic racism, but data show that racism still manifests itself frequently in everyday life.

In America, race determines not just where someone lives and what school he or she attends, it affects the very air we breathe. Although many whites wish to believe we live in a “post-racial” society, race appears not just in overt discrimination but in subtle structural factors. It’s impossible to delineate every way race affects us every day, but a cursory examination of major structural racial problems can give us a feeling for how far we still have to go.

1) Education

Education is an important key to fostering upward mobility and alleviating inequality. However, schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. At the peak of integration, 44 percent of black Southern students attended majority white schools. Today, only 23 percent do. This is particularly worrying because recent research by Rucker C. Johnson finds that school desegregation benefited black students, because it “significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status.”

Researchers have increasingly referred to a rise of “apartheid schools,” which are almost entirely non-white. In 2003, one-sixth of all black students were educated in such “apartheid schools.” These districts are underfunded and understaffed, and frequently referred to as “dropout factories.” So students of color are far less likely than their white peers to attend schools with a full range of advanced courses.

As ProPublica documents, more and more schools are squeezing out of court oversight. The result, according to Sam Reardon and his colleagues, is increased racial segregation.

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At the college level, the situation is little better. A recent report by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl finds that college education in America consists of “a dual system of racially separate and unequal institutions despite the growing access of minorities to the postsecondary system.” They find that students of color are less likely to end up in the most selective schools than white students with the same qualifications.

2) Wealth

There is a large racial wealth gap between blacks and whites in America, partially driven by income but exacerbated by racially biased housing policies (which will be examined below). A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. The recession has only exacerbated the gap, with whites losing 11 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010, while blacks lost 31 percent and Hispanics 44 percent.

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The housing crash disproportionately affected blacks and Hispanics, who were more likely to receive subprime loans even when compared to whites with similar credit scores. In one instance reported by the New York Timesa loan officer at Wells Fargo said the bank “saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania.” However, even before the recession, disparities inemployment, college education, homeownership and inheritance helped solidify racial wealth gaps. Instead of wealth, more and more Americans, particularly people of color, are burdened with debt.

3) Job Markets

Unemployment is particularly high among African-Americans, the result of both explicit discrimination and occupational segregation.

Occupational segregation, or the delegation of blacks to jobs with low upward mobility and wages, is rife. People of color are primarily affected by practices like just-in-time scheduling, which gives workers little warning before a shift.

Part of the problem is infrastructure and education. People of color are far more likely to rely on public infrastructure, and therefore suffer from cuts to public transportation. Decades of housing segregation have trapped African-Americans in jobless areas with badly understaffed schools. Social networks reinforce the patterns, since most Americans get their jobs through friends and family connections. Outright discrimination plays a role as well: Marianne Bertrand finds that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to receive a call-back than applicants with black-sounding names with the same credentials.

4) Upward Mobility

Possibly the defining American attribute is the dream of upward mobility. Sadly, this tends to be more farce that fact — America lags behind other developed countries in measures of upward mobility. But recent research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, shows that levels of upward mobility vary across the country — and is strongly predicted by income inequality and racial segregation. They write: “Income mobility is significantly lower in areas with large African-American populations.” (Whites in the areas also had lower levels of mobility.)

Specifically, they note the importance of segregation, “areas that are more residentially segregated by race and income have lower levels of mobility.”

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A recent Pew Research Center study shows that not only do blacks have lower levels of upward mobility; among those that do make it into the middle class, their children are more likely to slide back into poverty. In what may be the most depressing footnote I’ve ever seen in a chart, Pew notes that there are not enough observations of blacks in the fourth and fifth (read: highest) quintiles of income to make observations about upward mobility.

 

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In a recent study, Bhashkar Mazumber finds that out of all children born between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. He also finds, like Pew, that African-Americans in the middle class are on far more precarious footing than whites: 60 percent of black children born in the top half of the income distribution fell to the bottom half later in life, but only 36 percent of white children born in the top half of the income distribution fell to the bottom half later in life.

Surprisingly, Mazumber finds that “[w]hile these results are provocative, they stand in contrast to other epochs in which blacks have made steady progress in reducing racial differentials.” While we like to believe we are constantly progressing, these data suggest we may be backsliding with regard to mobility and race.

5) The War on Drugs

The socioeconomic realities discussed above cannot be divorced from the war on drugs: It is a war that is primarily fought against people of color in the country. One in 12 working-age African-American men is incarcerated; and while whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession.

The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, around half of federal prisoners’ most serious offense is drug-related. The war on drugs has undermined the legitimacy of law enforcement and eroded their esteem in the eyes of the public. Even before the Ferguson shooting, 70 percent of blacks agreed that, “blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites” when dealing with the police.

Instead of housing those who have committed violent crimes, U.S. prisons are increasingly teeming with nonviolent offenders. Formerly incarcerated people struggle to find work, and are therefore more likely to turn to crime in the future, creating a vicious and counterproductive cycle. A Pew study finds that the costs of incarceration are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages. Even when they are no longer incarcerated, former inmates are often deprived of basic rights, including franchise. Around 13 percent of African-American men have been denied the right to vote.

This is to barely touch on the empirical literature on school punishmentaccess to healthcare, a history of racially biased federal policy and the other deep issues that we face. The most disturbing fact is that in almost all of these areas, we have actually seen previous progress eroded, even while we proclaim ourselves a post-racial society. It’s time to take an honest look at race in America. We probably won’t enjoy it. But we need it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

The Threat of Just-in-Time Scheduling

One of the most unnoticed labor trends in the past few decades has been the rise of “just-in-time scheduling,” the practice of scheduling workers’ shifts with little advance notice that are subject to cancelation hours before they are due to begin. Such scheduling practices mean that already low-wage workers often have fluctuating pay checks, leading them to rely on shady lenders orcredit cards to make ends meet. Such consequences especially affect women and workers of color, who disproportionately fill these jobs.

just in time
Source: Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, “Schedule Unpredictability among Young Adult Workers in the US Labor Market: A National Snapshot,” July 2014 (Click symbol to enlarge)

New research from three University of Chicago professors, Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, examines scheduling practices for young adults (26 to 32 years old). Many outlets have reported their finding that part-time workers face greater scheduling uncertainty than full-time workers: 39 percent of full-time workers report receiving hours one week or less before work, compared to 47 percent of part-time workers. But less attention has been paid to the race gap: 49 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Hispanics receive their hours with a week or less of notice, compared with 39 percent of white workers.

Non-white workers also report far less control over their hours. Lambert and her co-authors find that 47 percent of white workers have their hours set by their employer. By contrast, 55 percent of blacks and 58 percent of Latinos say their employer sets their hours. Only 10 percent of Latinos and 12 percent of blacks report being able to set their hours “freely” or “within limits,” while 18 percent of white workers do.

just in time scheduling
Source: Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, “Schedule Unpredictability among Young Adult Workers in the US Labor Market: A National Snapshot”, July 2014 (Click symbol to enlarge)

Hours vary widely from week to week for many of the young adults Lambert and her colleagues studied. They find that “among the 74 percent of hourly workers who report at least some fluctuation in weekly work hours … their weekly work hours varied from their usual hours by, on average, almost 50 percent during the course of the prior month.” Such large fluctuations in hours also indicate large fluctuations in wages, which make life difficult for an increasingly debt-burdened overall population.

In a previous study Lambert and Julia Henly also found that unpredictable schedules increase stress and often disrupt a worker’s family life. Using data from 21 stores across the U.S. they found that workers with unpredictable schedules reported more stress and conflict between work and family life. “Precarious scheduling practices are not isolated within a few organizations but rather reflect growing national and international trends,” they concluded. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and labor commodified, employees will be treated more like “factors of production” and less like people. Rather than a few egregious corporations, such practices are increasingly the norm in low-wage and middle-wage industries.

Rising toll

Just-in-time scheduling is an increasingly prevalent practice in two of the fastest-growing and deeply unequal sectors of the economy: retail and service. Both sectors disproportionally employ women and people of color. It’s not a stretch to connect just-in-time scheduling to a broader war on women and workers which has been waged by the modern conservative movement.

Because most worker protections were passed before the influx of women into the workforce and were designed to exclude people of color, these groups are perfect targets for the anti-worker agenda. Because women and people of color are highly concentrated in low-wage service sector jobs (home health care, retailfast food) that only recently started unionizing, they are even more vulnerable. Congressional Republicans have opposed pay parity for women, early childhood education and paid parental leave. Recent decisions by the conservative Supreme Court havedecimated unions in the highly minority- and female-led home health care sector as well as prevented women from getting necessary health care through their employers.

Low wages and erratic work schedules take an obvious toll on working families and workers of color. But they also affect the general economy. Research suggests that lagging demand may be holding back the economy because low-wage workers can barely afford necessities. Few can follow President George W. Bush’s famous advice “go shopping more” or “go to Disney world” and thereby stimulate the economy.

Scheduling abuse compounds this problem by making work and wages subject to erratic swings. Sociologist Nancy Cauthen writes that, “Many low-wage workers are expected to work the day shift one day and the night shift the next and/or to be available seven days a week.” Although the right likes to portray trickle-down economics as good for long-term growth, the literature suggests the opposite. By depriving workers of stable incomes, conservative policies actually stifle economic growth.

What’s more, if the goal of such employers is to increase profits, there’s good reason to curb these scheduling practices: Studies show that giving workers more control over their hours and their time actually increases productivity, while JIT scheduling increases turnover and decreases work satisfaction and loyalty. Managers, who are forced to juggle more workers, also work more hours.

The union movement — once a bulwark against the encroachment of employers — is still nascent in service and retail whereas it has deep roots in male-dominated sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing. The recent Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn, which struck down the requirement for home healthcare workers to pay “agency fees,” will only hold back unionization even further.

Federal protections for workers haven’t been expanded since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and therefore haven’t adjusted to the rise of women in the workforce. These protections also effectively excluded people of color; for instance, farm labor (made up of Hispanics) is still exempt from many labor protections. Thus, the U.S. is one of the only countries that fails to mandate paid maternity leave. The result is that all but 5 percent of pregnant women in retail are denied paid maternity leave — which forces on them a devastating choice between their job and their own health and that of their child. Women who do have paid leave get it through employers, so such policies are concentrated at the top of the income distribution.

The result is that many employees must adjust their family time to meet the demands of customers and employees. While many conservatives, such as Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru, talk about the importance of family and the working class, few support commonsense worker protections and none supports unionization.

Flexible or stable

The U.S. needs legislation to ensure guaranteed minimum weekly hours that will help regularize workers’ pay. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced the Schedules That Work Act which would give workers the right to request a “flexible, predictable or stable” work schedule without retaliation. The bill stipulates that employers must detail upon employment the number of hours an employee can expect to work each week, and be given two-week notice before any scheduling change. The bill also requires that those who arrive at work only to find out there are no shifts available would be paid for four hours of work. Low-wage workers often travel long distances or pay for fuel only to arrive at work and be told they aren’t needed that day. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have sponsored a Senate version.

Although Republican intransigence will make federal action difficult, there are other options. Some states havetaken the initiative and passed “reporting time pay laws,” which require payment for workers that report to work, even if they aren’t needed. A stronger union movement, especially in the retail and service sectors, can also provide a counterbalance to the power of corporations and stem rising inequality. Service-sector workers receive a $2.00 an hour wage bump when they unionize, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and are more likely to have health insurance and a pension plan.

Corporations should take note of the lower turnover and higher productivity that structured scheduling provides, just as social conservatives should look to the benefits for working families. Workers are taking to the streets, fed up with low pay and bad hours. The economy is hobbled by lack of demand. The push to laissez-faire, orchestrated by ideologues in D.C. is finally under siege by an inchoate mass of workers. As Karl Polanyi notes, the “laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate state action,” but “subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.” Without these reforms, employers will continue to exploit low-wage workers, to the detriment of all.

Amy Traub, a Senior Policy Analyst at Demos, contributed to this article.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.