The Inequality Debate We Should Be Having


Milwaukee Segregation 

One of the ironies of American political culture is that in such an overwhelmingly urban and increasingly nonwhite society, issues of poverty, segregation, and race rarely figure into presidential races in a meaningful way. Listening to campaign rhetoric, it’s hard to find evidence that America is becoming poorer, more divided, and less integrated than it was a generation ago.     

This was especially true of Tuesday’s town hall debate. Despite pointed questions about issues like crime and economic growth, both candidates chose not to connect them with the persistent poverty and racial division that increasingly define American cities. Instead, Obama got into a lengthy joust with Romney over who supported natural gas drilling more (and coal and fracking). Meanwhile, America’s racial and class makeup continues to change in profound ways.

For one thing, we’re becoming a more segregated society. A recent report by the Pew Research Center finds that income segregation in American cities has increased dramatically since 1980, especially in places like New York and Philadelphia. While middle-income neighborhoods have shrunk over the past 30 years, low-income and high-income areas are more concentrated than they have been in decades—problems only intensified by the recession. Racial segregation is no less prominent. On average, U.S. cities are more racially segregated now than they were in 1940, says the Economic Policy Institute.

Divisions like these are deeply felt in our public schools. A recent study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project finds that race and income segregation have been rising quickly in American schools, especially since 1991. Today, most students of color attend schools that are overwhelmingly low-income and nonwhite, and one in seven attend what are called apartheid schools, where whites make up less than 2 percent of the student body. In some areas, like the Western U.S., a full 43 percent of Latino student attend such hyper-segregated schools.

And while the Obama administration has touted its support for underprivileged and underachieving schools and students, they haven’t seen much success. In particular, Obama’s support for charter schools, the UCLA report finds, has undermined modest desegregation efforts, as charters remain by far the most segregated branch of public schools. What’s more, issues like these don’t make it very far in the presidential race. “Though segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education,” the report concludes, “neither candidate has discussed it in the current presidential race.”

11/4/2012 6:41:22 PM

I think a factor in the Presidential candidates' disinterest in discussing urban policy is the electoral college. The candidates don't have many reasons to reach out to the big metro areas in California, NYC, Chicago, etc.

Michelle McQuiston
10/29/2012 3:38:23 PM

Um, Milwaukee's not exactly in the South.

Cynthia Carle
10/22/2012 7:47:33 AM

The firestorm that would be ignited if President Obama talked about segregation would cost him a second term.

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