Racial Equality Long Way Off: Panel in the Vineyard

Someday, I hope to be one of those academics that summers at the Vineyard. Until then, I’ll just read about them online from hot, muggy New York. I came across this article about an interesting panel discussion at the Whaling Church on Martha’s Vineyard, called “Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama.” The panel happened just a few days ago, and was led by Harvard professor Skip Gates, and included, among others, Harvard professor Lawrence Bobo, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, and New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and moderated by journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

The entire article is worth reading, but I just wanted to pull out a couple of relevant bits here.  Gates put the state of racial inequality in the U.S. in context when he reflected on his recent arrest inside his home:

“There are one million black men in jail or prison and on July 16 this summer I became one of them . . . what about all those men and women who languish unfairly in prison every day, who are racially profiled every day, who have no recourse, no hope of salvation no way to break that cycle?”

Professors Bobo and Darling-Hammond followed Gates introduction with relevant stats on the racial inequality in incarceration:

Panelist Lawrence Bobo, another Harvard professor, had the numbers: one in 100 Americans are behind bars, one in 15 African Americans; or one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34. Next to him, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond noted that the United States had five per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of the world’s prison population. Most of these were nonviolent criminals, Mr. Bobo said. Arbitrary disorderly conduct charges — the initial, later dropped, charge against Mr. Gates — was part of the reason, as was drug use.

Feeding the jail and prison system in this country, is a deeply unequal educational institution:

Though an African American was in the Oval Office, black kids suffered dramatic inequality in educational opportunities, said Ms. Darling-Hammond; the difference between public school spending per child varied from $40,000 per year to $4,000 per year in “apartheid schools” with 90 per cent minorities who lacked textbooks, music or art classes and where there was a 50 per cent teacher turnover rate each year.

So, she said, the U.S. now ranked 35th out of 40 industrialized countries in math achievement, 31st in science and at the bottom tier in graduation rates. The U.S. had slipped from first to 16th in higher education. “Almost all of this comes from inequality,” said the woman who was head of the Obama transition team in education. Depressingly, she said the country had work to do to implement the 1896 Plessy (“separate but equal”) Supreme Court mandate in schools, let alone the integration required by Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

And, even in the elite enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, there’s intense resistance to change, as Prof. Bobo noted citing anecdotal evidence from bumper stickers he’d spotted around the Island:

Mr. Bobo who cited three Vineyard bumper stickers” I’ll show as much respect to your president as you showed mine,” “Had enough change yet?” and “Don’t blame me, I voted for the old white guy.”

Prof. Harris-Lacewell summed up what she called the “exquisite benefit” from the Gates arrest, this way:

“All of us could of course work on making sure we are the most upright, uprighteous, pants on, name their kid Jason instead of Jamal . . .” but it wouldn’t change the power structure.  “For me, one of the most exquisite benefits of the stupid Skip Gates arrest in his home, is the lie that it gives to the notion that respectability will make you safe.”

Indeed, we have a long way to go to change the structure of racial inequality in this country.