Difficulty in convincing students of racism and racial inequality

An article about whiteness studies hints at a bigger issue: the difficulty of convincing today’s college students that racism and racial inequality are still problems.

But that progress [end of slavery and Jim Crow plus the election of President Obama] has slanted the mainstream narrative too far into positive terrain, they argue, leaving many to think that racial equality has arrived. Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before…

“The typical college student will always say ‘What racial inequality? Look at the White House,’” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I have to first convince them that inequality exists.”…

He says he starts the conversation by pointing to research such as a Pew Research Center report published last fall that showed the typical white family has roughly 20 times the wealth of the median black or Latino family. Thanks to the recession, the report said the gap is the largest it has been in a quarter century.

But some believe the idea of racism is shifting entirely. A 2008 poll by USA Today/Gallup and  showed that 40% of adults in America think racism against white people is widespread in the United States. A study published last year said that bias against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks.

While some indicators have improved (such as recent measures of residential segregation), there are still plenty of differences between different races. On the whole, life chances are still significantly determined by race. In Divided By Faith, two sociologists describe this as living in a “racialized” society where one’s race and ethnicity has a large impact on even micro-level decisions.

Part of this might simply be the process of continually teaching a new generation of college students. As their context and culture changes, college students arrive in the classroom with different concerns, knowledge, and passions. It would be interesting to track how incoming freshmen classes rate the importance of the issue of race, particularly compared to other concerns (like being able to find a job, terrorism, etc.). Perhaps this is cyclical, dependent on noteworthy events or political debates.

Of course, the world continues to change and academia will continue to shift toward studying newer trends. While the American case has historically been mostly about black-white relations, Latinos are now the largest minority group and how Latinos view themselves is something worth watching. Perhaps the trajectory of “whiteness studies” will change but the issue of race is still salient and is going to be studied for a long time.

“Opportunity hoarding” in suburban schools

Two education researchers argue that suburban schools have practiced “opportunity hoarding”:

While urban schools’ not keeping pace with suburban schools is an acknowledged problem, few have studied the causes of the discrepancies. John Rury and Argun Saatcioglu, professor and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies, recently published an article in the American Journal of Education showing how some suburban school districts gained advantages, thereby excluding them from some others. “Opportunity hoarding,” a term coined by sociologist Charles Tilley, claims that a group that gains advantages tends to work to maintain them.

“Basically, it’s rules of exclusion,” Rury said of the term. “Many suburbs are almost a textbook case of people doing that. They are often marketed as ‘exclusive neighborhoods.’”

Suburban schools have not always had advantages over their urban counterparts. Rury and Saatcioglu studied census data from 1940, 1960 and 1980.

“In the ’40s, urban schools were it. They were the best schools,” Rury said. “Forty years later, it was just the opposite.”

This would fit with a larger story of suburbanites escaping the problems of the city after World War II.

This overview makes it sound like the researchers propose a zero-sum game: if suburban schools have more resources, city schools necessarily have less. Is this necessarily the case? And what evidence is there that suburban schools and communities don’t want to give up their school’s advantages – a resistance to forms of property tax sharing? How could suburbanites be convinced that giving up their own advantages, such as better schools, is worthwhile?

The comment about the switch from the good schools being in the city to the suburbs reminds me of the book Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education. This text looks at what changed in the Chicago Public Schools between 1940 and 1960, emphasizing the increasing segregation within these Northern schools.

Defending the actions of “not quite adults”

In recent years, there has been a lot of research and conversation about the actions of 20-something adults who have moved back home in greater numbers and are waiting longer to marry and pursue careers. Are these 20-somethings lazy, prudent, or are they simply responding to a tougher world? While much of this conversation is negative, a sociologist talks about why he would defend the choices of these “not quite adults”:

Q: How do young people today compare with the past?

A: As we evaluate young people today, it’s like we’ve got the wrong benchmark. That kind of quick start to adulthood that so many generations have in their heads — all that grows out of the postwar period. (But) that’s the anomaly. It was a time when people were quick to leave home. They were also quick to marry. Why? It’s because economic opportunities were ample and social conventions really encouraged it. It was expected and also possible. But if you look further back, you’d see that a lot of the patterns today — with young people in a period of semi-autonomy— was also true of the decades before World War II.

Q: What worries you most about the future?

A: There’s so many negative portrayals of young people, and there are so many worries about why young people are taking their time. My bigger worry is we don’t want to push kids out of the gate before they’re ready. A quick marriage is clearly more likely to end in divorce and involve kids. That’s not good. Quick parenting? It makes it difficult to attain your education and to work full time and build skills and experiences that would help you over the long haul. That’s not good. A quick departure from home means you have fewer resources to invest in your future. Early departures from home are much more likely to result in poverty. That’s not good.

Q: Back to the main idea here. Why is it that today’s young adults have such a bad rap?

A: Maybe it’s just that each generation comes of age in its own time and what is true of one can’t easily be applied to the next. It seems like a timeless theme in history that older generations look down and think the younger one screwed up. What really matters and what we hope to show in this book is just how different the world is they’re trying to navigate, and it’s not just about personal choices. It’s about these big forces that have changed the very landscape of life. We have to not just point fingers at young people but also look at the things they’re doing right and see what we can learn from them.

An interesting perspective as this sociologist argues that this is really a debate about cultural perceptions and values. Within the American context, this idea of autonomy that arose after World War II is particularly interesting. It contributed to these ideas about leaving the house and quickly starting an adult life as well as led many to move to suburbs where they felt they could control more of their own destinies.

This leads to a broader question. What leads to better social outcomes for those in their twenties: to stay at home longer and take advantage of existing social networks or to strike out on their own at an earlier age? This researcher suggests several ways these actions improve the life changes of 20-somethings in several ways: lowers divorce rates, limits the likelihood of living in poverty, and increases the opportunity that those in this group can obtain a worthwhile education.  But I haven’t seen any research looks at data that would allow us compare people who follow these two different routes.