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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
List of Feature Boxes


Poverty and the Myth of Meritocracy
Racial and Economic Inequality Through the Lens of Political Science
Defining Inequality
Hegemony and Intersectionality
The Politics of Inequality
Structure of the Book

1 Representation and the Roots of Inequality

Defining (In)Equality
Democracy’s Promise: America’s Founding Principles
Representation: Elected Officials
Representation: The Courts
The American Anomaly
Alternatives to Our Current System
American Pluralism

2 Income and Wealth

Representing the Poor

3 Housing

The Roots of Disadvantage
Opportunities for Home Ownership
Racial Inequality and Housing
Poverty and Housing in Rural America

4 Education

The Roots of Inequality in Education
Inequality in Funding
Inequality in Outcomes

5 Crime and Criminal Justice

Due Process v. Crime Control Models
Police Brutality and Black Lives Matter
Criminal Justice and the Perpetuation of Inequality

6 Immigration and Employment

Discrimination in Hiring
Education and Training Opportunities
Immigrants and Employment

7 Health

Access to Health Care
Disparities in Health Care Access
Disparities in Nutrition and Access to Healthy Foods

8 Gender

We Just Don’t Get It
Getting Our Language Straight
Gender Inequality and Poverty
Gender and Housing Access
Gender Inequality and Education
Gender and Criminal Justice
Gender, Reproductive Rights, and Health
Women in Office

9 Affirmative Action

History of Affirmative Action in America
From Davis to Ann Arbor to Austin
Affirmative Action Beyond the Classroom
Affirmative Action Ballot Initiatives and Referendums

Conclusion: The Space Between Power and Powerlessness




When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.[1]
—Donald J. Trump, June 16, 2015

I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other.[2]
—Hillary Rodham Clinton, September 26, 2016

[W]hen you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car. And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.[3]
—Bernie Sanders, March 6, 2016

The men who designed the US system of government in the latter part of the eighteenth century present a frustrating paradox to current students of American politics. The Founding Fathers brilliantly devised a structure of government that would last, relatively unchanged, for well over two hundred years (and counting). They were deeply flawed, however, with respect to their inability to reconcile the sweeping promises they articulated in the founding documents with the reality of widespread and brutal inequality that characterized the nation at that time. We celebrate the Founding Fathers by honoring their birthdays, displaying them on our currency, and studying them in our classrooms. But we need to qualify our admiration because their personal lives and public actions did not fully reflect their rhetoric and broader beliefs. In short, American democracy is at once vibrant because of their vision and imperfect because of their blind spots.

If we are interested in improving American democracy—in making “a more perfect union,” as then senator Barack Obama said in his popular 2008 speech on race in America[4]—we are wise to redirect our attention from the individuals who designed the system and occupied key positions in it, to the system itself—the key assertion of this book. We will seek to understand how individual actors (both ordinary citizens and political elites) operate within a system that has largely constrained attempts to rectify what many recognize as injustices.

Inequality in America comes in multiple forms, though this volume focuses primarily on two: poverty and racism. But as we will see, it is impossible to disentangle other types of inequality from issues related to race and economics. Although I do not specifically address inequality related to sexual orientation or physical ability, for example, these factors (and more) are very real and meaningful challenges that affect millions of Americans on a daily basis. While I recognize the interaction among these forces at certain points and address gender in Chapter 8, I mostly focus on the distinct and interrelated elements of race and poverty and the intricacies of the legacy of inequality that has come to characterize American government and politics in its first two centuries.

Poverty and the Myth of Meritocracy

On the surface, understanding poverty appears simple: some have the financial resources they need, and some do not. If we want to understand how one of the wealthiest nations in the world can also be home to so much poverty, however, we need to examine the assumptions that accompany the realities of statistics about poverty. These assumptions help explain why ordinary Americans (the vast majority of whom are not wealthy) are willing to tolerate the existence of widespread income and wealth inequality, as well as abject poverty.

In August 2011, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and scholar Cornel West launched an eighteen-city “poverty tour” to call attention to these issues. The tour culminated in the publication of a book, The Rich and the Rest of Us,[5] in which the authors lay out a vision for understanding poverty in a more complete (and complicated) way. Subtitled “A Poverty Manifesto,” their book serves as a call to action. They ask Americans to eschew the “lies about poverty that America can no longer afford” (e.g., that poverty is a character flaw, that minorities receive the bulk of government entitlements, and that poverty is uniquely urban),[6] and they advocate for public policies that are designed to lead to economic justice. Their work is powerful because it taps into Americans’ shared core values, such as egalitarianism and justice. But other core values, such as individualism, are harder to reconcile with policies that promote economic redistribution. Together, we will explore the spaces where there is commonality and the areas where there is friction between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans on issues relating to racial and economic inequality.

Residing at the core of these differences is the notion of meritocracy, the belief that those who have success earned it while those who do not, did not.[7] Few would deny that Americans start out life with an unequal chance of financial success. But understanding how injustice is perpetuated requires an understanding of how inequality at birth often manifests in a lifetime of advantage or disadvantage.

In November 2010, Meghan McCain,[8] a noted blogger and daughter of longtime US senator (and 2008 Republican nominee for president) John McCain, used her space on The Daily Beast blog to criticize former Alaska governor (and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee) Sarah Palin for calling the Bush family “blue bloods” (a reference to their upper-class status). McCain, who considers herself a Republican, charged that such divisiveness within the party was counterproductive. But her response illustrates some core assumptions that most Americans hold about social class in the United States. In her blog entry, McCain ignores institutional factors that constrain poor Americans’ chances of becoming blue bloods while enabling the children of wealthy Americans to follow in their parents’ footsteps. She writes:

I actually had to Google what the meaning of “blue bloods” was, although I could surmise that it was some kind of knock against education and coming from a family of some success. Yes, in essence that is what this statement meant. Families that work hard and achieve a long line of successful people are “blue bloods” and thus, [Palin] implied the opinions of said people are jaded and elitist, even if that family lineage has a long history of public service and leadership within [the] Republican Party.

As McCain admits later in the piece, she reacted to Palin’s accusation personally because she grew up with tremendous privilege. Rather than recognizing that her privilege was unearned (it was a function of her parents’ success, not her own work), she dismisses Palin’s comment as inappropriate because “blue bloods” is a derogatory term for “families that work hard and achieve a long line of successful people.” Here McCain invokes the myth of meritocracy; she believes that hard work leads to economic success (often through education), and she incorrectly (and perhaps unintentionally) suggests that each generation starts from scratch in its achievements.[9] It is certainly possible that members of each generation of a privileged family work hard in their own right, but the lack of recognition of the head start that subsequent generations have (compared to those who begin life in poverty) is startling. Further, it reflects our collective socialization that urges us to accept the legitimacy of the American political and economic systems. We are taught to believe that those who are financially successful (as well as those who have access to excellent educational institutions) are fully deserving of that privilege, whereas those who are not must have acted badly at some point and, therefore, deserve their poverty. As we will see, however, such a generalization is unfair and harmful because it obscures systemic factors that contribute to poverty (and wealth) so as to rectify injustice.

This dynamic was very clearly at work in the 2016 presidential campaign, as millions of poor, primarily white, voters from rural areas of the country put their trust in billionaire real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump. On the surface, it should seem curious that millions of working-class Americans would throw their support behind a person who has never struggled economically a day in his life. There are no easy explanations, but one element is that Mr. Trump represented for millions of Americans a pushback against the cultural elite. That is, even though he is wealthy, he spoke to workers, has created jobs for workers, and openly criticized political correctness and other aspects of a cosmopolitan America that many find offensive.[10] His opponent, Hillary Clinton, embodied that elite class; though she was raised of modest means in a Chicago suburb, most of her adult life was spent in the public sphere. By the time she ran for president, she epitomized “establishment” politics, and the alternative was alluring. As we will discover in the following pages, social class is more than income or wealth. Although it is rooted in economic stability, class encompasses a set of norms that involve many aspects of everyday life, from clothing to love to the value of education, and even the way we use and appreciate humor.[11] Wealthy as he is, rural, white Americans[12] found in Donald Trump a fellow American who shared their values and understood their struggles. He promised to help reestablish the American middle class, and they were willing to give him a chance.

Despite our national folklore, America does indeed have a class system that affects individuals’ ability to achieve the American Dream. While it is not an officially designated system with titles (such as in Great Britain)[13] or a rigid caste system (such as in India),[14] Americans clearly recognize differences based on economic circumstances and customs that serve to organize society. Class structure in the United States is disproportionately (though not solely) based on wealth.[15] For that reason, we will address the concept of poverty as opposed to the broader concept of class. Economic and racial inequality will be our primary focus; we will explore the reasons that they exist and the myriad paths to reduce such inequality.

Irrespective of class designations—most Americans believe themselves to be in the middle class,[16] so such labels may carry little useful meaning—we will see that the data characterizing the distribution of income and wealth in the United States clearly reveal a large gap between the rich and the poor. That gap has been growing rapidly over the past thirty years, and, as we will see in Chapter 2, the number of Americans who reside in the middle is shrinking.

This notion of class differences came into sharp focus late in the summer of 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS or Occupy) movement was born with the launch of a website ([17]) and a social media campaign, calling attention to the historically high and expanding degree of economic inequality in the United States. Protests began in Lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011, and rallies and demonstrations quickly spread to other cities in the United States and around the globe. The Occupy slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” refers to the dramatic accumulation of wealth by the top 1 percent of Americans (see Chapter 2).

The mantle was carried even more visibly in the 2016 presidential election, as US senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ran a strong campaign for the Democratic nomination rooted in the call to rectify economic inequality. Both Occupy and the Sanders campaign were successful in calling attention to an issue that was largely ignored by the media (and thus most of the American public) for nearly fifty years. As a result of Occupy, the 2012 presidential candidates were forced to address the issue, and America became positioned for a frank discussion about whether such trends are consistent with our fundamental shared values. Energized by the relative success of the Sanders campaign (he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, but not before winning twenty-one states and Puerto Rico[18]), young Americans in particular appear eager to continue the discussion and find unique ways to create meaningful change to bring about greater economic justice.

Given our history, we cannot consider these economic factors without also considering race. Race and poverty are not interchangeable demographic markers in the United States: there are wealthy people of color, and there are poor whites. However, poverty is disproportionately African American and Hispanic/Latino[*] in America, and issues that uniquely face persons of color are often present irrespective of economic success.

Racial and Economic Inequality Through the Lens of Political Science

The first half of the twenty-first century marks a critical period in the racial history of the United States. By many projections, persons who identify as white[19] will become a numerical minority in the next few decades.[20] Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 marked a milestone that just a generation earlier many Americans never expected they would see. Yet the racial tension that surfaced in the shadow of that election, including during his reelection campaign in 2012,[21] increased awareness of police brutality against African American men (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement[22]) and led to Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016,[23] serving as a sober reminder that America’s deep racial divisions persist.

In the days after the 2008 presidential election, the term postracial entered the public sphere in a meaningful way. With an image of civil rights legend Jesse Jackson weeping openly in Chicago’s Grant Park while the newly elected president gave his acceptance speech as a cultural backdrop, many Americans—white Americans in particular—believed that the history of racial oppression had come to a dramatic close. After all, the most powerful person in the nation was African American. Those who had been skeptical of racism’s legacy in the first place believed that the event was simply a bright marker of what they had been saying for decades—racism ended in the 1960s when Jim Crow segregation was abolished legally. On the other hand, those who recognized that racism was more than racial animosity took comfort in the symbolism, if only momentarily.

The belief that America is characterized by a postracial identity dramatically cuts against the lived experiences of generations of persons of color in America. America’s poorest and most economically vulnerable citizens are still distinctly black (African American) and brown (Latino and Hispanic). Further, inequality between middle- and upper-class whites and those who hover near the poverty line has increased dramatically in the past generation, suggesting the existence of “two Americas”[24] with little evidence of inequality being reversed in the near future. This book documents that inequality through the lens of political science. We will examine racial and economic inequality with particular attention to how public policy and power dynamics in America are influenced by—and perpetuate—disparities in income and wealth, housing, education, crime, immigration, employment opportunities, and health. The reasons for this inequality are complicated, but answers on the political left and right often center on “common sense” or other simplistic frameworks. Potential solutions, however, require a sophisticated understanding of the systems and institutional constraints that set parameters for the attitudes and behaviors of the mass public and political elites alike. In the following chapters, we will explore this complexity with an eye to the achievement of increased equality.

Striving for more equality is not a value-neutral proposition. Equality is a core value for Americans, but that does not mean we are unified with respect to what it means or how to achieve it. In considering this dynamic, it is helpful to think about the difference between objectivity and neutrality.

Scholars and journalists both strive for objectivity—the conscious effort to be attentive to one’s biases when analyzing a situation. But in many ways, this goal can never be fully realized. Striving toward neutrality, however, particularly with respect to inequality, is undesirable. Few of us would approach this book with the attitude “Equality—I can take it or leave it.” To the contrary, this subject tends to inflame passions. Many Americans have risked and indeed have given their lives in the name of social justice. The friction, as we will see, most often arises when we consider what equality looks like and, if we decide that we have fallen short of achieving it, how to remedy that failure.

This book, like all books, is not without bias because this author, like everyone else, is not without bias. The first lesson of politics is to acknowledge that we all have lived experiences and ideas that shape not only who we are but how we view the world. This unique perspective (or bias) is a natural part of discussing issues of public concern. Bias is not problematic; ignoring or (worse) refusing to acknowledge bias is both dangerous and unproductive. The key is to be as reflective and transparent about that bias as possible and to work toward minimizing the effects of our preconceptions as we seek to learn and grow.

The baseline assumption in this discussion is twofold: (1) there is racial and economic inequality in America, and (2) inequality is inconsistent with the tenets of democracy that undergird our nation’s founding principles. There are legitimate arguments against these premises. For instance, some would argue that inequality is not structural or related to race—that individuals of all races and ethnicities have, can, and do succeed in America, and that the values of hard work and persistence adequately explain economic discrepancies. By this logic, if poverty is disproportionately of color in America, it must be either biologically rooted or the result of a culture within African American and Hispanic/Latino communities that encourages laziness, criminality, drug use, and other destructive behaviors. Those who subscribe to such a perspective have no interest in resolving inequality through political channels because they do not perceive the problem as being systemic in nature. For them, this book will be irrelevant. I start from the position that poverty is neither biologically determined nor a result of cultural or behavioral choices. To the contrary, America’s history of structural, persistent, and infectious racism has served as bedrock for inequality for the past four hundred years.[25]

Both left and right in American politics broadly acknowledge this assertion, and solutions are proposed from across the ideological spectrum. As will become clear throughout this book, leaders and interest groups from both liberal/progressive and conservative traditions wish to rectify this historic oppression, though they approach it in very different ways. While neutrality is not a goal in these pages, some degree of partisan and ideological balance is appropriate. Accordingly, efforts toward greater racial and economic equality proposed by individuals from a variety of perspectives are highlighted. Each reader will decide which approaches seem the most feasible or desirable, but meaningful movement toward a more socially just nation will incorporate a wide variety of ideas.

This book contains both liberal and conservative biases—a position that is increasingly difficult to find in our ideologically stratified public discourse. It is liberal in the sense that it recognizes that inequality has existed on a mass scale in the United States throughout its history, is systemic, and contradicts the underlying core values of the nation as a whole. It is conservative in the sense that it issues no explicit call for radical change to address those injustices. Assumptions about the legitimacy of American governmental institutions and norms go largely unaddressed throughout the book. The message is that there are multiple ways to address inequality, and none should be dismissed because it does not coincide with our personal political beliefs. If we are to ever fulfill America’s promise, we must do so in an intellectually collaborative way. The examples in this book strive to model that assertion.

Defining Inequality

It is important to consider what inequality means in this context. The relationship between race (and ethnicity) and economic inequality forms the core concern of this text. In a capitalist system, some individuals will acquire, accumulate, or otherwise possess more wealth than others. Accordingly, reducing inequality does not entail allotting the same amount of possessions, money, and debt to each individual. Rather, it refers to the dramatic (and increasing) gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans, and the disproportionate levels of poverty (and its corresponding characteristics, such as incarceration, illiteracy, health disparities, etc.) in communities of color.

By a number of measures (explained in detail in Chapter 2), the gap between those who have been able to earn money and accumulate wealth and those who struggle to make ends meet has increased dramatically. Part of America’s political culture, dating back to the nation’s founding, involves a belief in rugged individualism. We herald the person who achieves financial success without coming from a wealthy family. While few could find fault in such a sentiment, the other side of that coin features a lack of compassion for impoverished Americans.

To many Americans, poverty is an abstract concept that refers to others. Most do not believe themselves to be poor,[26] even those who might be considered so by objective measures.[27] Racism—another prominent symptom of “othering” in American culture—is a central (though not sole) culprit in the continued existence of inequality, but perhaps not in the way that is often suggested. Scholars who study race reserve the term racism for systemic elements that perpetuate white privilege and power. To understand what this means (and how it works), let us consider it alongside the related concepts of bigotry and prejudice.

All three of these terms—racism, bigotry, and prejudice—relate to psychological elements of Americans’ daily lives, but racism also refers to the ways that institutions, culture, and social systems reflect the historic oppression of persons of color in America and perpetuate inequality as a result. As will become clear in the following pages, decisions that were made at the time of the nation’s founding, as well as those made since, have contributed to the construction of a complex system that was originally designed purposefully to disadvantage African Americans and Native Americans. Although much of our collective conscious–level attitudes about racial equality have progressed, this system continues to operate in ways that privilege whites and disadvantage persons of color. This is what scholars refer to as systemic racism, institutional racism, structural racism, or simply racism.

In colloquial use, however, racism or racist is used to refer to overt and often hostile race-based animosity that resides at the level of individual citizens (rather than systems). Scholars refer to this as racial bigotry.[28] Race-based bigotry can move in all directions. Whereas racism has a clear component of systemic power and therefore can only work to advantage whites, individual-level bigotry can include hostility toward persons of a race different from one’s own. For example, if an African American supervisor continually berates or disadvantages white employees compared to black employees, we might say that he or she is bigoted. If an Asian American person has disdain for Latinos, that is bigotry (and is likely rooted in racism because of deeply held negative predispositions about Latinos). If a white person is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, he or she is a bigot. In short, what we generally call racist is more precisely defined as racial bigotry.

Bigotry is usually explicit, but prejudice often is not. It can be embarrassing to realize that we have biases related to race, ethnicity, gender, or anything else, but most of us can recall a time when such prejudices surfaced. Paul Haggis’s Academy Award–winning film Crash dramatically demonstrates this construct.[29] When we are stressed, scared, deprived of sleep, or otherwise in a position to have our social filters compromised, these deep-seated associations can surface. Consider the frustration we often experience when we encounter a poor driver. Attributing the tendency to drive poorly to a person’s gender or race (or any characteristic that is different from our own) but not in others (when the person looks like us) reveals a subconscious bias, or prejudice.[30]

Another way to think about the difference between prejudice and bigotry is considering how we react to racist jokes. If we tell racist jokes or if we laugh when we hear them, we are bigoted. However, simply understanding why the joke might be considered funny reveals prejudice—even if we consciously resist manifesting that prejudice in our behavior. If a joke about Italian Americans contained a punch line that centered on intoxication, most folks would not get the joke because there is no stereotype about Italians drinking heavily. If, however, the same joke centered on Irish Americans, for whom that stereotype exists, most would recognize its humor (revealing prejudicial beliefs) even if they did not laugh (which would reveal bigotry).

In other words, most of this sort of prejudice lies beyond our consciousness. There is a rich (and growing) body of scholarly literature dedicated to exploring the related concepts of implicit association[31] and symbolic racism.[32] As far back as the 1970s, researchers were conceptualizing and working on ways to measure (through sophisticated survey questions) subconscious prejudicial attitudes. More recently, the Project Implicit researchers at Harvard University[33] have demonstrated that most individuals hold subconscious associations about members of racial and ethnic groups (as well as groups based on other characteristics).[34] Research involving physiological indicators promises to reveal even more about these latent prejudices.[35] Experimenters have been busy measuring brain activity, heart rate, sweat on participants’ palms, and a host of other variables to determine how race-based stimuli affect the body, and what those reactions may tell us about deeply held biases.

Racism is related to both implicit and explicit prejudice, and all three relate to the persistence of inequality in America. Few would disagree with the assertion that America was founded on racist principles. The superiority of Europeans over Native Americans and Africans was assumed in the nation’s earliest years, and the defining document—the Constitution—explicitly dehumanizes African Americans and excludes Native Americans from considerations of representation.[36] The Fourteenth Amendment reversed the Three-Fifths Compromise relating to African Americans, and subsequent laws and court rulings have reflected (and contributed to) the progressive shift in racial attitudes, but the structures relating to economics and opportunity have shifted much more slowly. This has resulted in a cycle of perception and reality that has been difficult to interrupt. For example, as explained in Chapter 5, incarceration rates for Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately higher than for whites, leading to a perception that members of those groups are predisposed to criminality. The reality, of course, is much more complicated. Incarceration rates do not necessarily reflect actual rates of crimes committed (or even arrests). Further, street crime is related to poverty, which is related to economic opportunity, which is related to educational access, which is related to housing, which is related to income and wealth, which is related to race and ethnicity.

This is why the term racism as commonly used today is counterproductive to finding real solutions to racial and economic inequality. Calling someone a racist inevitably leads to a denial (e.g., “I don’t use the n-word” or “I have black friends”).[37] Because most Americans are not bigoted, and because whites are particularly sensitive to accusations of racism, this exchange leads to a dead end with respect to the role that race continues to play in American political culture. Whites tend to believe that racism is either (1) a thing of the past or (2) something that is a problem for overt bigots. This inability to deal honestly with race and inequality is a significant barrier to the political solutions necessary to move forward.

Hegemony and Intersectionality

The concept of cultural hegemony refers to a largely invisible, over­arching set of assumptions that pervade a culture. The power of the concept resides in the notion that while there is an accepted hierarchy that structures a culture, it is so widespread and understood that we generally do not even think about it. This results in a troubling cycle: inequality is perpetuated as a given, and at the same time we are not encouraged to think about it. Sociologists and political scientists who study culture and power work to understand how the hegemonic order continues to structure and reinforce inequality, while activists and educators often seek to make those structures visible, which is seen as the first step toward eroding their effects. This book is a combination of those efforts, seeking to understand hegemony by highlighting its effects. Bear in mind that economic and racial inequality are only two elements of America’s cultural hegemonic order.

Intersectionality refers to the complicated ways that forms of discrimination and otherness interact to create advantage and disadvantage in a culture.[38] Stemming from a critical theory approach to understanding the politics of inequality, intersectionality acknowledges the limitations of

addressing any type of inequality from one’s own perspective without being attentive to how that perspective may not be universal. In other words, white feminists are unlikely to question their own privilege (as whites in a racist system) if they do not have heightened consciousness about how race intersects with gender in a society where both classifications have power associated with them. Similarly, African American men who are working for racial justice may not consider their own privilege in a patriarchal system unless they are mindful of where power intersects. The combination is not always additive or even multiplicative. For instance, it is true that white is the privileged race in the United States, and men are the privileged gender. However, it is not always the case that African American women are more disadvantaged than African American men. In some contexts that may be true, but in others (such as with respect to suspicion of crime), black males may be at a greater disadvantage than both black women and white men. To understand how systemic inequality functions, we must keep these dynamics in mind.

The Politics of Inequality

Some of the most interesting and thoughtful work on inequality is written by sociologists. While their findings and theories are represented throughout these pages, this book attempts to help the reader understand the politics of poverty and racial inequality. We will consider how power, government, and public policy issues interact to at once affect and reflect inequality in America. In a nation that was launched with a document that espouses equality for all (the Declaration of Independence), why are we still struggling with these issues more than two centuries later? Where is there space for agreement about solutions? Can liberals and conservatives in America agree on strategies to reduce inequality? Who is working on these issues?

At the core of this exploration is the concept of representation. As explained in the next chapter, the Framers established a democracy in which public officials are elected to stand in for the will of citizens as decision makers. This arrangement—called a republic—means that simple majority rule does not always prevail. As we will discover, this was quite intentional, as the Framers feared tyranny of the majority as well as tyranny of the minority. One result, however, has been that a small minority of wealthy, mostly white and male Americans have had disproportionate access to power throughout our history. That does not necessarily mean that the rights of the poor, women, people of color, and other minorities will not be respected, but generation after generation of such leadership causes skepticism and even cynicism among citizens who do not see themselves reflected in what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the power elite.”[39] Together we will examine how actors in the political system are constrained by institutional factors within a system that was deliberately designed to produce only small, incremental changes.

As a final caveat, the reader is encouraged to try to minimize the tendency we have to personalize and individualize blame for the injustice that is outlined in the following pages. Not only is it counterproductive to engage in the politics of blame, but it is outside the realm of what social and behavioral science can generally explain. Political scientists are more interested in the effects of attitudes, behaviors, and structures rather than the intent of actors. While it can be tempting to try to catch someone being racist, for instance, it is more thoughtful and productive to understand that racism afflicts every American, at least (and perhaps most importantly) subconsciously, and to consider the effects of those psychological dynamics on public policy and the effort to bring about more economic and racial equality in the United States.

Structure of the Book

This book focuses on one aspect of American government and politics and encourages the reader to think more deeply about the complexities that have led to contemporary racial and economic inequality in the United States. The Notes contain ample references and can be used as a resource for drilling down more deeply into the rich areas of academic research that are too briefly considered in the following pages. Whenever possible, I provide URLs for access to online information.[40]

The book is primarily structured around the notion of representation. Accordingly, each chapter features “Representing” boxes that highlight a particular individual or organization working toward economic and/or racial justice on behalf of the American people. These boxes are designed to be inspirational and to reveal the variations in ideological grounding among those who are seeking to promote change. Similarly, the “What Can I Do?” boxes offer some suggestions about how young Americans can make a difference in myriad ways. Often students leave a course that centers on inequality with a sense of helplessness. While the reality of widespread and deeply rooted injustice in the United States can be sobering, it need not be debilitating. This brief introduction is intended to offer an entry point into deeper reflection and scholarly examination of these issues so that future generations will see marked improvements in these areas.


[*] The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are distinct. The former refers to a category of individuals characterized by a common language root, while the latter refers to individuals whose nation of origin is Latin America (which includes languages other than Spanish). Where there is a clear distinction, the terms will be used purposefully in this book. At other times, they are used somewhat interchangeably.

[1] “Full Text: Donald Trump Announces Presidential Bid,” Washington Post, June 16, 2015,
[2] Aaron Blake, “The First Trump-Clinton Presidential Debate Transcript, Annotated,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2016,
[3] “Transcript of the Democratic Presidential Debate in Flint, Michigan,” New York Times, March 6, 2016,
[4] The speech can be viewed at
[5] Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (New York: Smiley Books, 2012).
[6] Ibid., 173–175.
[7] For a thoughtful treatment of the notion of meritocracy, see Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf, eds., Meritocracy and Economic Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
[8] Meghan McCain, “Who You Calling a Blue Blood, Sarah?” The Daily Beast, November 30, 2010,
[9] Mitt Romney similarly invoked this formulation during his 2012 presidential campaign. He framed the Obama administration’s desire to allow tax reductions for the wealthiest Americans to expire as “punishing success,” which suggests that the wealthy have worked harder and out-competed others.
[10] Joseph P. Williams, “Penthouse Populist: Why the Rural Poor Love Donald Trump,” U.S. News and World Report, September 22, 2016,
[11] See Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach (5th ed.). Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc. (2013). For a brief table summarizing Payne’s theory, see
[12] Donald Trump earned 57 percent of the white vote in the 2016 election (compared to Hillary Clinton’s 37 percent). He was particularly successful with white men: his 62 percent win in that demographic was double his opponent’s. However, he also won amongst white women (52 percent to 43 percent). He captured the rural vote 61 percent to 34 percent. “Exit Polls,”, November 23, 2016,
[13] For a discussion of the state of the class system in Great Britain, see Caroline Gammell, “Britain’s Class System ‘Alive and Well’ Claims Research,” Telegraph, April 17, 2009,
[14] For a brief overview of the Indian caste system, see Allison Elliott, “Caste and The God of Small Things,” 1997,
[15] Alexander Chancellor, “The Class Menagerie,” Guardian, March 9, 2005,
[16] In 2007, a CBS News poll found that only 2 percent of Americans indicated that they were “upper class,” and 1 percent said that they were “lower class.” Lori Robertson, “Defining the ‘Middle Class,’”, January 24, 2008,
[17] This site was no longer operational as of the writing of this edition. For similar content, navigate to,, or, or visit their Facebook page at
[18] “2016 Delegate Count and Primary Results.” New York Times, July 5, 2016,
[19] There is ongoing debate about whether the words white and black should be capitalized when referring to race. Because Westview Press follows the Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends lowercase, I have followed that convention in this book. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see the following blog entry that I coauthored:
[20] The 2010 census revealed that white babies (under the age of two) are already a numerical minority. Dara Sharif, “White Babies Now a Minority in the U.S.,”, June 24, 2011,
[21] See, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Fear of a Black President,” Atlantic, September 2012,; Ron Rosenbaum, “Is the Republican Party Racist?,” Slate, October 8, 2012,; “A Map of Racist Tweets About President Obama’s Re-election,” AlterNet, November 9, 2012,
[22] Sara Sidner, “The Rise of Black Lives Matter: Trying to Break the Cycle of Violence and Silence,” CNN, December 28, 2015,
[23] Donald Nieman, “Donald Trump’s Campaign Is an Echo of Reconstruction-Era Racism,” New Republic, October 12, 2016,
[24] This phrase was made famous in recent history by Democratic US senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Edwards. Chuck Raasch, “Edwards Brings ‘Two Americas’ to Center Stage,” USA Today, July 28, 2004,
[25] The first slave ships arrived in North America roughly four hundred years ago, though the earliest settlers perpetuated injustices on Native Americans for more than a century prior to the arrival of Africans. Lisa Rein, “Mystery of Va.’s First Slaves Is Unlocked 400 Years Later,” Washington Post, September 3, 2006,
[26] A recent poll revealed that 88 percent of Americans identify themselves with the term middle class. Peter Moore, “Poll Results: Middle Class,” YouGov, May 28, 2015,
[27] In 2014, 14.8 percent of Americans lived in poverty, as defined by the US Bureau of the Census. National Poverty Center, “Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions,” 2016,
[28] Bigotry is actually a broader term referring to resentment toward others who are different from the person who is exhibiting bigoted attitudes and behaviors. Besides race-based bigotry, bigotry may be related to gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, able-bodiedness, and so on.
[29] Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2005.
[30] A number of studies have employed designs where stereotypical white, Hispanic, and African American names were used to determine levels of racial bias. These studies have shown, for example, that Latinos are less likely than whites to receive a response from an election official about a voting-related question. Julie K. Faller, Noah L. Nathan, and Ariel R. White, “What Do I Need to Vote? Bias in Information Provision by Local Election Officials,” manuscript, July 11, 2014, African Americans are significantly less likely to receive calls for jobs than whites with identical credentials. Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review 94, no. 4 (2004): 991–1013. African American elected officials are more likely to respond to African Americans who write with questions, even if the person writing is not a constituent. David E. Broockman, “Black Politicians Are More Intrinsically Motivated to Advance Blacks’ Interests: A Field Experiment Manipulating Political Incentives,” American Journal of Political Science 57, no. 3 (2013): 521–536.
[31] See, for instance, Anthony G. Greenwald, Debbie E. McGhee, and Jordan L. K. Schwartz, “Measuring Individual Differences in Implicit Cognition: The Implicit Association Test,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 6 (1998): 1464–1480; Allen R. McConnell and Jill M. Leibold, “Relations Among the Implicit Association Test, Descriminatory Behavior, and Explicit Measures of Racial Attitudes,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 37, no. 5 (2001): 435–442; Andrew Karpinski and James L. Hilton, “Attitudes and the Implicit Association Test,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 5 (2001): 774–788; Bertram Gawronski, “What Does the Implicit Association Test Measure? A Test of the Convergent and Discriminant Validity of Prejudice-Related IATs,” Experimental Psychology 49, no. 3 (2002): 171–180.
[32] See, for instance, P. J. Henry and David O. Sears, “The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale,” Political Psychology 23, no. 2 (2002): 253–283; David O. Sears and P. J. Henry, “Over Thirty Years Later: A Contemporary Look at Symbolic Racism,” Advances in Experimental Psychology 37 (2005): 95–150; Christopher Tarman and David O. Sears, “The Conceptualization and Measurement of Symbolic Racism,” Journal of Politics 67, no. 3 (2005): 731–761; Brad T. Gomez and J. Matthew Wilson, “Rethinking Symbolic Racism: Evidence of Attribution Bias,” Journal of Politics 68, no. 3 (2006): 611–625; Joshua L. Rabinowitz et al., “Why Do White Americans Oppose Race-Targeted Policies? Clarifying the Impact of Symbolic Racism,” Political Psychology 30, no. 5 (2009): 805–828; Anthony G. Greenwald et al., “Implicit Race Attitudes Predicted Vote in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 9, no. 1 (2009): 241–253.
[34] One recent study suggests that implicit bias may not be as closely related to electoral outcomes as explicit prejudice. Nathan P. Kalmoe and Spencer Piston, “Is Implicit Prejudice Against Blacks Politically Consequential?” Public Opinion Quarterly 77, no. 1 (2013): 305–322.
[35] Jeremy Hogeveen, Michael Inzlicht, and Sukhvinder S. Obhi, “Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2013; Susanne Quadflieg et al., “Exploring the Neural Correlates of Social Stereotyping,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21, no. 8 (2008): 1560–1570; Jennifer A. Richeson et al., “An fMRI Investigation of the Impact of Interracial Contact on Executive Function,” Nature Neuroscience 6, no. 2 (2003): 1323–1328; David M. Amodio et al., “Alternate Mechanisms for Regulating Racial Responses According to Internal vs External Cues,” SCAN 1 (2006): 26–36; David M. Amodio et al., “Neural Signals for the Detection of Unintentional Race Bias,” Psychological Science 15, no. 2 (2004): 88–93; David M. Amodio, “Can Neuroscience Advance Social Psychological Theory? Social Neuroscience for the Behavioral Social Psychologist,” Social Cognition 28, no. 6 (2010): 695–716.
[36] US Constitution, Article I, Section 2, paragraph 3.
[37] A host of celebrities being caught (or admitting to) using the n-word has been the source of much media attention over the past decade. From Michael Richards to Dog the Bounty Hunter to Paula Deen, this attention serves to reinforce the belief that the primary (or only) evidence of (or concern about) white racial prejudice is the use of this word.
[38] See, for instance, Patricia Hill Collins, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 139–167; Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241–1299; bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Cambridge: South End Press, 1981); bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000); Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1984).
[39] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[40] All URLs were active as of this writing.

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Inequality in America

Second Edition

by Stephen M. Caliendo

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