Justice & Equality

It’s Complicated: Race and Socioeconomics

Originally published 1/19/15.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Although I didn’t get the day off, I have still been spending quite  some time thinking about race. About a week ago, Trib Total Media published an article about a report regarding racial disparities in Pittsburgh. I found the article and some of the statistics it presented to be compelling.

Here are the statistics that are discussed:

  • “The seven-county metro Pittsburgh is the whitest area of its size in the country at 87 percent;
  • african american students in Pittsburgh schools are less proficient in math and reading than white, Hispanic or Asian students;
  • A typical white student in the Pittsburgh area goes to a school where 90 percent of students are white and not poor; a typical african american student attends a school that is half black, with most classmates poor;

  • 1/3 of african americans in Pittsburgh live in poverty, compared to about 15 percent of white Pittsburghers;
  • Though teen birth rates continue to fall, the rate among black females ages 15 to 17 in Allegheny County is seven times the white birth rate;
  • Black youths are arrested nine times more often for drug crimes than white youths in Allegheny County, compared to a national rate of 1.2 times more often.
  • Graduation rates for black males are at 58% and 69% for black females.

You can read the rest of the article here.

These statistics are challenging because they show that the racial divide is still strong.  Now, I do think some of these statistics are misleading. For instance, if we only included Pittsburgh or even just Allegheny County, I’m sure the percentage of white people would be much lower than the 87% white in the “seven-county metro Pittsburgh” area.

But all the same, I think there is a disparity that I can see even just through my own experiences. I live in a nice middle-class neighborhood with a median household income of $59,000 and the vast majority of the residents are white. Yet a mile and half up the road is another neighborhood where the majority of the residents are black, the median household income is $33,000, and houses are poorly built and many are boarded up.  A mile in a different direction and the median income is $23,000 with the demographic again predominantly black.

To be fair, there is also another borough nearby where the median income is $32,000 and the race is actually predominantly white. (Data taken from city-data.com. Names of boroughs intentionally left off to protect my privacy.)  However, the unfortunate reality is that if you break it down by percentages of people in each race, a higher percentage of black people live in poorer neighborhoods compared to white people (or at least it seems that way). Why is there such strong racial disparity and racial perception?

The truth is that this is a multi-faceted and very complicated issue.  I don’t have all the answers and even if I did I couldn’t fix this problem with one blog post.  I don’t pretend that I will ever fully understand but I do try.

We’ve all heard the statements saying that more blacks are in prison than whites and we’ve also all heard the counter-argument that this is because more blacks commit crimes than whites. Personally, I don’t doubt that both statements are true.

But there is one crucial question that no one is really trying to answer: WHY are more blacks committing crimes? Is it really because black people are criminals?  I don’t think so. I think that economics and socio-economic status play a much greater role in these issues than race.  After I read this article I started doing a bit of research and I created this graph with data gleaned from these reputable sources: datacenter.kidscount.org, governing.com/gov-data, and nces.ed.gov. You can read the full articles by clicking herehere, and here.

race graph

Some people would look at this graph and draw the conclusion that black people don’t graduate high school, live in poverty, and have single parent homes BECAUSE they are black.  But that’s actually not the conclusion that I see. I see that family stability and socioeconomic status play a greater role in high school graduation rates than race. I see that race is not causal of one’s character and lifestyle but rather unfortunately correlated.  I see a recurring vicious cycle between race and economics, caused by a long history of oppression.  And more than that, I see how blessed I have been.

Allow me to elaborate…

Socioeconomic status of the parents plays a tremendous role in the academic and career future of a child.  Single parenthood and income are of course make an impact as well.   A higher income and involvement from both parents provides them more time and money to invest in their children. They have time to read to them, time to go to their activities, money to spend on music lessons and sports. They have time and money to give their children educational experiences, such as museums or after school tutoring.  These children experience a significant amount of emotional and physical stability simply because they have both parents in their lives. Parents with two incomes or one higher income are able to send their children to a private school, or choose to live in a better school district. Parents of lower economic status have no choice. They must use the local school of whatever district they can afford to live in.

Of course children can (and do) beat the odds and thrive. But it’s uphill battle caused by a disparity between the races that continues to be perpetuated throughout the generations.  Take our school district for example:  there are many boroughs included in our school district. The racial demographic of the combined population of the boroughs in the school district is 71% white and 26% black. However, the racial demographic of the school is 40% white and 60% black. So what does that tell you? It tells me that many white parents homeschool or private school their children instead of sending them to a district with a poor reputation.  And because the higher socioeconomic status children, whose parents have more time to be involved, are not in the public schools, the district continues to decline.

The reality is that I am part of this problem.

As much as I care about society, changing these problems, and improving our district, when I have kids if I have to choose between investing in improving the relations in our poor school district and the best education for my child, I will undoubtedly choose my child over society.  Can you blame me?

Regardless of what demographic is primarily attending; there should not be a school in this city without textbooks. The government has a responsibility to fix the public schools and provide them with basic needs, such as textbooks. Unfortunately, textbooks are still an issue in many schools.

Given the inevitably of “nicer” and “poorer” neighborhoods, maybe we shouldn’t even divide school districts by geography.  The days of the “colored” school and the “white” school might be gone, but the reality remains because of the socio-economic dividing lines between neighborhoods. Thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., institutionalized racism is gone, but systemic racism is very much alive.  Assigning schools by geography continues the vicious cycle because poorer students don’t get the same education.

Maybe we should offer several schools that specialize in different fields that parents in a wider geography could choose to send their children to, regardless of their home location. Yes, everyone would want to go to the “good” school. Yes, this would create competition. But maybe that would be a good thing and encourage the schools to strive for excellence so they get more students.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We have made significant strides towards this goal, but I don’t think we are quite there yet.  There is still a strong thought that many blacks are fundamentally involved in the projects and in drug/gang culture. People need to understand that there is a distinct difference between black culture and victim culture. We do a disservice to black people when we equate black culture with drug culture or victim culture.

Sure, there are people that believe they can never be anything better and don’t see a problem with being on welfare. But that is a victim culture, not black culture. If that is black culture, then what does that make my very nice middle-class black neighbors? (Who, by the way, were the only ones in my neighborhood to intentionally come over multiple times to welcome us to the neighborhood.) Are they not black? Do they not have their own culture? Just because they are not stuck in the ghetto doesn’t make them less black.

A co-worker of mine works really hard to raise her biracial children well. She says, “I always say don’t become the victim. Meaning don’t allow what others say or a statistic to keep you from doing exactly what you want to do. It is easy to give up and say I can’t get that job because it’s for a white man or I can’t get that role because it is for a white character, etc. Don’t let that design play out for you.”  Being black does not mean you automatically think like a victim or vice versa. There are plenty of whites and Hispanics that also live in victim culture and plenty of blacks who do not.  We must start drawing a distinction. If we want to reach a point where color of skin is truly separate from character, then all of us, of all races, must stop associating the two together.

Can you imagine how difficult it is to work your way up from nothing? Or actually, to work your way up from worse than worse than nothing, from a negative start? You see, when our ancestors came here as immigrants from Europe or some other area of the world, they truly worked their way up from nothing. They started at the beginning, but they started with a clean slate.

African Americans in this country don’t start with a clean slate. They have dealt with years of abuse at the hands of slavery and institutionalized racism.  When you have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, you aren’t able to invest in reading to the kids, spending money on education, or saving for a home in a nicer area.  When you sell drugs to feed your family, get arrested, and then have a record, it’s nearly impossible to get an honest job, never mind a good one.  When you are only surrounded by other people in the same situation as yourself, you may not even know that there is another way to live.

I talked with my coworker about this issue as well and she said:

“If you were born in the ghetto and live in the ghetto your dreams can be “ghetto.”…. Mine were. I was born poor and had no idea what else this world had to offer. I was content living/ dying poor and having no goals of change, until I was introduced to another way of living. A much easier way of living. The people around you encourage you to be something. When I was in the projects a lot of people encouraged me to drugs and smoking. Now people encourage me to be better.”

It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s very difficult to break. My coworker was able to break it by banding together with other people in the projects who wanted to get out of their situation and encouraged each other in the process.  This cycle gets broken when people invest in each other and when we choose to let others into our lives and support them.  When someone steps into their lives and shows them a different way to live and gives them a new dream.

We have a responsibility to our neighbors, regardless of race. We can’t just turn our eyes away and live in our own bubble. Can you be the one to encourage others to work hard? Could you be the one to show others a new way of living and to give them a new dream?

To come from a mid to high socioeconomic status is blessed, regardless of race. Most whites do, as well as most Asians and Jews. I was blessed. Most of the people reading this are blessed. I was blessed to have been born into a middle class family. I was blessed to have both of my parents married and interested in my life. I was blessed to have grandparents who took me to museums in D.C. I was blessed to have grandparents who paid for my piano lessons and taught me the value of hard work. I was blessed to be able to participate in sports, go on field trips, and have all sorts of experiences. I was blessed to have three square meals a day, healthy and made from scratch. I was blessed to never have to worry about our house being foreclosed. I was blessed to have a dad that made enough money that my mom could stay home with us. I was blessed to be loved, mentored, and encouraged by many good people.  I was blessed to be able to go to college. I am well aware that a lot of people don’t have any of those opportunities.

If you are like me at all, or even had half of what I had, then you had more than most. You are privileged. Please recognize your privilege and don’t take what you’ve had for granted. White friends; please join me in stopping the “If I can do it, they can do it” mantra, because the comparison isn’t fair.  You and I had a huge head start in this game of life. Be thankful for it, and share it.

So how can we change this? It might be easy to feel helpless in the face of systemic racism and large-scale brokenness. There might not be a lot we can do to change the entire world, but we can start with the world we live in: our city, our neighborhoods, our friends. We can start by focusing on mentorship: giving people a new dream and the skills to reach that dream. I’m talking about one-on-one teaching of life skills and building character. This means that more people in our communities have to get involved. We can’t leave it up to the government or official social workers. We can reject the “bootstaps” mentality and have compassion. We can speak out when we see someone treated poorly or teased because of their race or socio-economic status. These things might not change the world, but they’ll change a few people, and that’s an act of heroism to me.

We need to reach out to those in our neighborhoods and even go out of our way to form non-judgmental, non-prideful relationships with people of different classes and races.  That means you. That means me. Make friends with people who are different than you. Open your life to mentor a teenager and give them a different dream.  Stand up when you see injustice. Be an everyday hero.


Image by Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands (Flickr: Day 20.06 _ Diversity and Unity) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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