The Inequality Debate We Should Be Having

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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

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.”

That issues of urban
segregation and unequal education are so absent from this year’s election cycle
is more than a little
, says Richard Rothstein at the American
. When racial segregation became a visible political issue in the
late 1960s, even Republican leaders became active in fighting it. One
Republican in particular, George Romney, the head of the Department of Housing
and Urban Development under Nixon, supported a broad-based policy of
residential integration–of the kind unthinkable today.

Not content with
approaches like busing that attacked school segregation at the student level,
Romney saw integration as an expansive, holistic public issue, says Rothstein. A
student’s success in the classroom, he believed, had as much to do with their
access to health care, their parents’ employment situation, and the safety of
their neighborhood as it did with the racial makeup of their class. Following
advice from 1968’s Kerner
(which President Johnson flatly ignored), Romney’s plan was to invest heavily in low-income and
subsidized housing mostly in white suburbs, and to force suburbanites to
reverse racist zoning practices. But the plan, despite having (conservative)
supporters in high places, did not see the light of day. Nixon, whose ideas on
school and residential integration might today be considered liberal, believed
that forcing communities to integrate was the wrong approach. As a result, the
principled Romney, who as a presidential candidate had strongly spoken out against
segregation in the tumultuous year of 1968, chose to resign.

Needless to say, Mitt
hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps–but then, Obama hasn’t made much
noise on poverty or race either. In the first three debates this year, the GOP
team has actually mentioned poverty far more
than the Dems, says Seth Freed Wessler at Colorlines.
At the same time, Obama has spoken “less
about race
than any other Democratic president since 1961,” writes Ta-Nehisi
Coates in The Atlantic.

That’s a shame, because
problems of inequality and segregation won’t go away without dialogue and serious
action. An Obama presidency may be somewhat
better overall
than a Romney presidency in terms of race and poverty, but that
assumes structural solutions are impossible. To really tackle segregation and
inequality, we need a holistic approach–like the kind that might have worked in

Image of Milwaukee’s
racial makeup from 2000
U.S. Census
(public domain). Milwaukee is famously the most
segregated city in the United
States; blue dots represent black residents.

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