Race, the Great Unmentionable

Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Barack Obama at Buck’s restaurant in Greenville, Mississippi as a candidate in 2008.

Race is the great missing element in most of today’s discussion of inequality. That this should be the case would surely have struck a visitor from the 1960s as extraordinary. It was after all the civil rights movement that made “equality of opportunity” a measuring stick by which we gauge the health of our society.

In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, opportunity got mentioned a dozen times. Race, on the other hand, was mentioned twice, both times as part of a list  (region, party, religion, creed…) of things that should not pull Americans apart. This is par for the course in today’s politics. Discussions of race have largely been replaced by discussions of class. It’s become polite to speak of economic advancement not for one race, but for the underprivileged of all races.

The shift in tone has come not only in politics, but in economics and academia. One key conclusion of the Equality of Opportunity Project, a massive effort to trace economic advancement in the U.S. over several decades, is that place matters a lot more than race. Where you come from has a much greater bearing on your chances of doing better economically than than whether you are black or white.

That sounds like a huge cultural advance for the United States, doesn’t it? But it comes with some major caveats. Dig into the data and you will find that no matter how much you try to get beyond race, you cannot escape the basic fact that the places in the country with the worst histories of racial strife are in many cases those with the worst records on economic advancement.

Race lurks in the background of almost every discussion of economic advancement. Sometimes, quite literally, as in the photo at the top of this post: Greenville, Mississippi, and the surrounding Delta, where Barack Obama went in the 2008 campaign to talk about education and healthcare, is one of the most heavily African-American areas in the country. Like much of the South’s traditional “Black Belt,” it’s also one of the very hardest places to rise out of poverty.

Here’s a bit of background. The Equality of Opportunity project uses decades’ worth of tax data to measure the chance of advancing economically over a generation. There are some powerful metrics the research uses to compare this across states and generations. One is the average income that folks whose parents were poorer than 75% of the country could expect to reach. Another is the chance of a child whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the country, by income, reaching the top fifth by his or her thirties (that ranges from less than 5% in Atlanta to more than 12% in San Francisco).

Below is a map of advancement measured by that first ranking. The darker the area, the more likely children born to poor parents were to stay poor. In the darkest red areas, those born to parents of modest means barely advanced at all. It’s hard to miss that the great majority of those areas lie within the bounds of the old Confederacy.


You might guess from that map that race was hiding somewhere in there. The problem for the EOP economists is that tax data don’t include race. So to understand where race fit in, they had to find some clever ways of teasing that out of the data. The main one was looking at zip codes that were 80 percent white or more. And it turned out that, surprisingly, place mattered a lot more than race. Poor people in the South were much less likely to rise up the economic ladder. But it didn’t seem to matter whether they were black or white.

That result seemed so surprising that I double-checked them with Harvard University economist Nathaniel Hendren, one of the authors of the EOP research. Hendren explained that not only did the results apply in zip codes that were 80% white or more, but the researchers experimented with moving that threshhold as high as 98%. In those zip codes you could be pretty certain that the poorest children were still white. And, as Hendren told me, the results were essentially the same: If you grew up in a town with low advancement, your chances of rising were about equally low regardless of your race.

This is an important finding, and yet still difficult to square with the map, because in American history race and place are very hard to pull apart. To look a little deeper into this, and perhaps bring out the relationship even more clearly than the map shows, I did a little more analysis of the EOP data. The project divided the U.S. into 741 “commuting zones”–essentially towns and the surrounding areas. Below is a chart of the 20 commuting zones with the highest proportion of African-American residents, essentially the places in the country with the greatest proportion of blacks.

The most important column here is the one on the right, the chance of moving from the bottom fifth in income to the top. On average, in these 20 places it’s 3.4%. That’s less than half the 7.8% national average. Here’s an even more telling way of looking at that: Of the 100 biggest metro areas, only one (Memphis, Tenn.) has a rate of income advancement lower than 3.4%. In other words, in the 20 most heavily African-American towns in the South it remains harder to rise out of poverty than in just about every U.S. city.

Thanks to the work of the Equality of Opportunity project, that now counts as a fact, not social conjecture. With the numbers in front of you, it’s impossible (at least for me) to see the picture at the top of the post and block from your mind the fact that it’s taken in a place where the chance of a person born into poverty to reach the upper middle class is barely greater than 1 in 50. That this has nothing to do with race simply beggars belief.

There are  folks who  look at the results from the Equality of Opportunity project and might conclude that we are finally living in a post-racial society. To me, looking at the data above, this seems to be very far from the case. The EOP data show that place is more predictive of your prospects than race is, yet in many parts of the U.S. place has already been defined largely by race. The right inference to draw from all this is not that race doesn’t matter, but that the South’s long history of racial injustice dug out deep pockets of economic and social stratification — and suffering — that continue to diminish the prospects of everyone born there.

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