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Lee: Race drives inequality

BY ASHLEY LEE | MAY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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The national conversation has fixated on inequality of late, particularly thanks to the unlikely success of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a dense economic look at the roots of inequality. But, as an April column from The Nation argues, economic inequality didn’t just happen arbitrarily or as a result of market forces, it’s been rooted in an inter-generational imbalance of power reinforced by discriminatory practices.

And yet, when confronted with the reality of racial inequality, many argue that it is merely a lack of individual effort among minority groups at the root of the problem. A recent CBS News poll found that 45 percent of white Americans say that “most blacks lack the motivation or willpower” to pull themselves out of poverty when asked to explain why racial inequalities exist.

This view willfully ignores history. The past isn’t just a chapter you read, then put away. The legislation, policies, social injustice, violence, terror, and unrest are components of the actualities we’ve inherited today.

Nevertheless, there are those will relentlessly choose to push the belief in American meritocracy and opportunity as great equalizers. However, these de facto American values do not take into account how whites have had advantages since this country’s inception.

If a group has been in power for centuries, while accumulating wealth and influence, its members are bound to have a completely different outlook than say, a minority group whose members are less than half a century removed from the last major civil-rights legislation.

In that case, such values as meritocracy and opportunity can be easily encouraged and romanticized by those who have benefited the most from them.

The reality is that we actually have to put in the work to make these values believable. It’s not wise to assume things will get better when so many Americans are complacent with the status quo. We must look at how historic policies and cultural norms have shaped the present-day by purposefully excluding certain groups from political, social, and economic advancements.

If we understand this, then it should be evident that policies meant to uplift historically disadvantaged groups are necessary.

The continued necessity of such programs is part of the reason why I was extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action last week. By allowing states to decide whether race or gender can be a factor in public-university admissions, America has taken a step back. There are people who truly believe the playing field is now even, so there is no need for such initiatives.

Fifty years of living under civil-rights legislation does not eliminate the effects of 300 years of race-based oppression and white domination. For there to be racial equality, we need to destroy the institutions that were discriminatory to begin with.

In the meantime, more attention needs to be given to bettering students of color in our primary and secondary public-school systems so they are just as prepared for postsecondary education as white students.

For now, however, to romanticize the American meritocracy and to deny the racial components of inequality is to live in utter ignorance. Our social, economic, and political institutions in mainstream society have not been completely revamped to assist those in the margins. 

We need to rebuild our institutions from the ground up to ensure racial equality, not simply renovate the existing meritocracy.


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