Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage

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In 100 Words or Less: Even as intentional racism becomes less frequent, major racial disparities persist; people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, imprisonment and infant mortality. These disadvantages are now "locked in", in much the same way that Microsoft's monopoly over operating systems continued after courts ordered them to cease anti-competitive behavior. Unions, homeowners associations, the LSAT and voter registration laws were just some of the devices used to promote white advantage. Through positive feedback loops, early advantages can reproduce themselves and remain unresolved without intervention (as demonstrated by the Polya urn). Opportunity begets opportunity; access to opportunity is limited by social networks.


Racial disparities persist, long after the end of Jim Crow and legal segregation, and the gap between white and non-white shows no sign of disappearing.

The wealth gap between white and black families has actually quadrupled— that’s right, increased by fourfold— over the course of the last generation. Research shows that the gap in wealth between black and white families increased from $ 20,000 to $ 75,000 between 1984 and 2007.

Poverty rates themselves have risen and fallen over the last sixty years. But the gap between races has remained huge, with Latino and black rates of poverty registering between two and half and four times the rates for whites.

How much money are we talking about with regard to those wealth gaps? As of 2009, blacks had a median net worth (excluding homes) of $ 2,200, the lowest recorded for the last thirty years, where whites’ median wealth registered at $ 97,900, 44.5 times the median wealth for blacks.

Schools have largely resegregated along racial and class lines. Poor and working-class black and Latino students attend schools that are grossly underfunded, relative to white schools.

As of 2006, one in nine black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four are now in the custody of the state or federal government. 11 Over the age of eighteen, the incarceration rate is one in fifteen and one in thirty-six for black and Latino men respectively, compared to only one in 106 for white men of the same age.

Surely the most heartbreaking gap of all is the persistent difference in infant mortality. The rate for black mothers is 2.4 times the rate for white women, and like other gaps, the disparity in infant mortality has not changed for decades.

Far from being postracial, then, race continues to matter. When we focus less on presidential politics and more on material differences in well-being, we are not “almost there.” We are not even close.

Even if all people everywhere in the US were to stop intentionally discriminating tomorrow, those racial gaps would still persist, because those gaps are produced by the everyday decisions that structure our social, political, and economic interactions. … But the research is pretty clear that American citizens don’t harbor bias at nearly the levels they did during Jim Crow. Study after study documents that racial bias (at least the conscious kind) has gone down over the last forty years.

In several studies, researchers sent resumes with equivalent credentials to employers using names that identified the senders as black (for example, Jamal and Lakisha) or as white (Brad and Emily). Employers invited back for interviews those “job candidates” with white names 50 percent more often than they called back equally qualified black applicants.

The research shows consistently that blacks and Latinos have very different experiences when looking for a house than do whites. Black and brown testers are typically offered less information about housing, given fewer opportunities to see units, and get less help with financing.

This book will argue that white economic advantage has become institutionally locked in, in much the same way as Microsoft’s monopoly advantage did.

At the turn of the century and well into the twentieth century, whites worked to drive out their nonwhite economic competitors to gain an unfair advantage early in the game. … These racial cartels used many of the same kind of anticompetitive strategies— economic boycotts and violence, for example— to unfairly drive their competitors out of the market.

Blacks and Latinos earn lower wages than whites in large part because the people in their social networks who will refer them for jobs are people who earn lower wages.

Whites have been able to build their wealth on the shoulders of earlier generations, who gained early wealth by driving blacks and Latinos and some Asian groups out of key markets.

As Chapter 10 shows, the cost of switching to a system that reduces racial disparity— in technical parlance, the “switching costs”— may be too high for people to pay voluntarily.

Families pass down wealth to their children on the basis of family connection. Friends recommend each other for jobs because that’s what friends do for people in their networks. Workplaces hire by word of mouth because it is cheaper and faster than advertising through more expensive channels.

If employers hire fewer workers of color because they generalize about their education levels, for example, those workers in turn will rationally invest less in the education, skills, and training. Why bother investing if you don’t get a full return? As a result, even imagined differences can become real.

we can better understand the nature of Jim Crow discrimination if we think of it as cartel conduct.

To see the importance of history, we will take an unexpected detour into probability theory, to look at something that mathematicians call the Polya urn model. In a Polya urn model experiment, researchers fill an urn with two balls, one red and one white. The experimenter draws a single ball from the urn, and then replaces it together with an additional ball of the same color as the ball she originally drew. If the draw produces a red ball, that ball goes back into the urn, together with another red ball. Same goes for white. The experimenter continues drawing and replacing for an infinite number of times. In a typical set of draws, the percentage of red and white balls will fluctuate wildly in the first few draws. But at some key threshold point in the drawing process, as the urn continues to fill, the percentage of reds and whites settles at a particular proportion, and remains very stable for all later draws. Amazingly, later events don’t change the final percentages in any appreciable way. As mathematicians have demonstrated, early draws determine the composition of the urn. The very earliest draws will tip the urn toward some equilibrium mix of colors, and this mix will persist from then on. This is true, even though we can’t determine in advance what the final composition of the urn will be. Indeed, the urn could settle into any combination of percentages of red and white balls. But the urn’s early history matters far more than later history, because the early draws chart the path that subsequent developments will reinforce. By analogy, the early history of competition among racial groups can explain contemporary outcomes. In much the same way that the early draws of the urn determined the ultimate composition of the urn, those early rounds of economic, social, and political competition among the races were rigged anticompetitively by racial cartels. If the early draws favored whites, it should now come as no surprise that the urn is now mostly white.

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Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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