What is the current state of racial disparity in the United States? What are its root causes, and how can we address them? These are the questions posed to Penn faculty and guest participants in Racism and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America, a preceptorial run by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program in partnership with other Penn entities and consisting of 13 conversations running throughout the 2020-21 academic year.
The program, which is open to the public, is a collaboration between the SNF Paideia Program, the Office of the Vice President for Social Equity & Community, the Office of the Provost, the Andrea Mitchell Center, Civic House, and New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives as part of the Year of Civic Engagement.
A preceptorial is not a course taken for credit but rather a discussion of ideas, said Provost Wendell Pritchett, who introduced the first panel on Oct. 26.
“The killings and protests of this year have led many observers to wonder, and I include myself here, if the country is at a precipice of a steep decline or at the beginning of a welcome rise to a fair and more equal future. It’s safe to say it feels like a tipping point one way or another. I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that it’s the latter,” Pritchett said. “That said, this is our reality. There’s no corner of American life unaffected by racism.”
The session centered on income and wealth disparities, with Amy Castro Baker of the School of Social Policy & Practice; Lisa Servon, professor of city and regional planning in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design; and Regina Smalls Baker, professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy at The New School.
The session was moderated by Michael Delli Carpini of the Paideia program. “We decided to start with this particular topic, income and wealth disparity, because, especially in an economic system like the United States, income and wealth are arguably at the center or foundation of many of the other race disparities,” Delli Carpini said.
This conversation is especially relevant during a pandemic where African Americans are dying at much higher rates than the majority population, Pritchett said. In Pennsylvania alone, “Blacks make up about 10% of the population and account for 30% of the cases and 20% of the deaths. And, of course, these cases are rising, unfortunately,” he said. COVID’s impact exposes the depth of structural racism across American society, which manifests in health disparities, quality of care differences, and economic inequality, he said.
Darrick Hamilton began the conversation by illustrating wealth and income disparities across racial lines. Prior to the pandemic, the top .01% of earners (those making above $1.5 million) controlled approximately 90% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% control about 1%, he said. This gap “is larger than it’s ever been, dating at least back to the Great Depression, to a generation that was coming out of the Gilded Age,” and will only become more pronounced as the pandemic rages on, he said.
This disparity of wealth and class is even more pronounced when we look at race, Hamilton said. While Black people comprise 13% of the U.S. population, they own less than 3% of the nation’s resources. “The typical Black household has about a dime for every dollar” of the typical white household, Hamilton said. “The wealth disparity is dramatic, and it will get worse. That is, unless government acts.”
Wealth is not just about financial security; it also affords agency, he said. Economic security provides people with the ability to surmount medical challenges or fight an expensive legal system. “The problem with this is not only the economic concentration of resources but the plutocracy, the ability to convert those economic resources into political gain so that you can continue to accumulate,” Hamilton said. “It’s antidemocratic.”
Economic power can be converted into political power, he said. “Banks are able to target Black people because they’re politically marginalized. So, when we see fines and fees, it’s because the locality can exert influence politically on the population to balance their budgets.” As a result, Black people are labelled as a “surplus population,” allowing the U.S. to caricature them as “welfare queens, deadbeat dads, and super predators” and “define the poor as undeserving,” Hamilton said.
The situation in the U.S. is “even worse than the government statistics portray” because of the way we collect and interpret data, said Regina Smalls Baker. Many families do not qualify as “poor” according to the official poverty threshold but can’t afford to pay rent or medical bills or are suffering from food insecurity, she said. Based on current projections, the unemployment rate is higher among Black Americans, and that trend will continue to grow.