Racial inequality remains a 'defining feature of American life,' Johns Hopkins provost writes

Robert Lieberman, co-author Fredrick Harris examine in 'Foreign Affairs' article how institutions hold back African-Americans

Fifty years after the civil rights era, racial inequality remains a real and vexing force in American society, one that is often perpetuated by institutions that appear on their faces to be race-neutral.

Image caption: Robert C. Lieberman

That sobering truth, along with thoughts on how it might be overcome, are the focus of an article published online today in the new issue of Foreign Affairs titled "Racial Inequality After Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African Americans." The article is co-authored by Johns Hopkins University Provost Robert C. Lieberman and Fredrick C. Harris, professor of political science at Columbia University and director of that university's Center on African American Politics and Society.

The commentary comes in the wake of a recent wave of protests and rallies across the nation sparked by the deaths of two unarmed black men—Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Their deaths, and subsequent decisions by two separate grand juries to not indict the white police officers whose actions led to their deaths, helped to reignite the national debate about race, Lieberman and Harris write.

More, from Foreign Affairs:

The upheaval stood in stark contrast to the promise of a transformation in race relations that President Barack Obama's inauguration appeared to hold six years ago. For many of Obama's supporters, his election represented a milestone in U.S. history, marking the dawn of a "postracial" society—a new era in which skin color would no longer stand as a barrier to opportunity or achievement. Obama himself embraced this imagery, insisting that "there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." Although he acknowledged the country's history of racial division and conflict, he clearly envisioned a future in which racial distinctions would fade into insignificance, and he promoted himself as an avatar of that future.

Such lofty rhetoric already seems dated.

Racial inequality is, Lieberman and Harris write, a "defining feature of American life." They cite several statistics in support of their argument: African-Americans are nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be poor, almost six times as likely to be incarcerated, an only half as likely to graduate from college. The average wealth of white households in the U.S. is 13 times higher than that of black households.

Also see: Lieberman and Harris speak at University of Virginia's American Forum (May 2015)

The disparities remain despite progress made during and after the civil rights movement, which outlawed state-sanctioned segregation and explicit discrimination. Half a century later, "a new American dilemma—the continuity of racial inequality in the midst of racial change—has confounded policymakers and commentators alike," the authors write.

They propose introducing rigorous stress tests, similar to the safeguards financial institutions put in place to understand weaknesses and vulnerabilities following the economic crisis that began in 2008. This would not be easy, they admit, and it is not a quick fix, but it is an idea that holds promise.

Lieberman and Harris conclude: "The idea of large-scale stress-testing of institutions might seem unrealistic—but it is hardly any less realistic than simply hoping that in the absence of fresh thinking or new approaches, Americans will suddenly wake up one day to find that they live in a blissfully postracial country."

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