Social inequality is one of the most pressing problems facing contemporary societies. As the 21st century passed through its first decade, it becomes clearer and clearer that the attempt to create a sort of common global identity is facing strong opposition. This is most clearly seen in the wage gap disparities between white and black members of society. This sample essay from Ultius explores in great detail the ongoing inequalities that still plague our society.
Social Inequality: The Colorblind Fallacy
Society at large likes to think of itself as progressive, and one of the goals of the 21st century has been to transcend racism and develop a culture in which everyone is treated equally. So far, however, treating everyone equally has not been able to move beyond recognizing people as belonging to certain groups—and maybe it never should. We have a tendency to view everything in binaries:
- Young/old and so on
The way society at large has understood race is in essentialist terms:
- White or nonwhite
- White or black
- White or Hispanic, etc.
The cultural attempt at progression has included trying to get past those essentialist terms and view everyone as “the same.” Though “equal” does not have to mean “the same,” people act like it does. In our society, equality is not based on difference but instead on pretending to be colorblind, a decidedly non-viable solution.
The norm as a contributor to social inequality
We have come quite far in terms of human evolution. We have built empires, conquered lands, had the renaissance and the industrial revolution, and have developed technology beyond what any generation before could have imagined. But “we” still refers mostly to white men, who have used women of all races and men of all nonwhite races to support them in the background but without any credit. “We” pretend that our society is the melting pot or tossed salad, but when we think about history we don’t accredit human development, for example, to black women. Instead, a certain person with very particular traits is thought of—a representative of the U.S. forefathers, the colonizing warrior, the white, straight male, the “norm.” And against this norm all others are measured. White women with certain class privilege can ride off of male privilege from the men in their lives, while nonwhite men can ride off their male privilege and hope their race is viewed second.
Social construction of race
Though we really have come a long way in terms of accepting diversity, our society still leaves people in the predicament where the structural issues of race play a huge role in individual’s successes or failures. We cannot ignore race and pretend that it’s not an issue, as many people do when they say we live in a “post-racial” society. People’s experiences due to their race is very real, and when we pretend that race isn’t relevant we discredit the oppression people face—and the more we discredit it and pretend it’s not there, the greater inequality grows.
Of course, there are economic issues that can be studied between white people and other racial populations:
Focusing on the black population, however, will draw out a clear and simple argument. There has been so much interracial mingling that many people are not entirely black or entirely white, and individuals may be part black and part Hispanic, or part white and part Asian, etc. In “The Gender And Race Composition Of Jobs And The Male/Female, White/Black Pay Gaps,” Donald Tomaskovic-Devey (1993) attempts to analyze why it is that:
“as the percent minority in an occupation rise, earnings tend to decline for minorities and majorities.”
Tomaskovic-Devey uses 1986 studies by Bielby and Baron to prove what he calls “status composition hypothesis,” his theory that as the numbers of black people (or women) in jobs and occupations increases, the value of those jobs and occupations decreases. He uses “occupation” to refer to a broad career area, while “job” to refer to the many positions within a certain occupational field. In a sample from North Carolina, Tomaskovic-Devey found that:
“the average African American is in an occupation that nationally is only 14% black. African Americans are in jobs, however, that average 54% black” (50).
In terms of a wage gap between white and black people, this statistic illustrates how any given black person may work in a typically “white” occupation, and how that same person will typically find themselves working among a majority of other black people on a certain job level, which is usually low.
Using human capital as a function of analysis
By using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data–1979 cohort, (NLSY79), Huoying Wu examines if the human capital approach can explain the life-cycle wage gap between black and white people from 1979 to 1994. The human capital approach assumes that:
individuals are worth a certain capital value based on the investments they make in themselves via education, training, family background, etc.
Wu uses various equations based on the human capital approach and the different investments (and more importantly, opportunities for investments) that black and white people make to prove that human capital does play a role in the wage gap. Wu ultimately finds that:
owing to their longer nonemployment duration, black males encounter a higher depreciation rate than white males… The likelihood of receiving training, in particular company training, is the lowest for black males among the four demographic groups [white men, white women, black men, and black women]. This may explain why the black-white male wage gap widens over their lifetimes (35).
Though there are many factors in determining why certain demographics can invest more or less in their capital, black men are the least likely to receive significant job training as their jobs usually include the most physical labor and the least amount of intellectual work, and therefore they are estimated to have the least capital. Black women, on the other hand, do statistically receive more training than men, but are doubly lacking privilege (race- and gender-wise) so they are still considered the most vulnerable population (among the four populations above). According to Raine Dozier (2012), black women are always left in the worst economic positions, especially when there is a change in workplace structures or a financial recession. This also leads to unintended racial tensions in the workplace which spill over into other facets of society.
Social inequality in the hiring process
In “Race and Gender Differences in Wages,” Andrew Penner looks at a key point of recurring racism (and sexism)—at the point of hiring. He uses information from the human resources office of a financial company of about 20,000 people to:
“examine the role of occupational sorting in race and gender differences in initial salary offers” (597).
Penner takes a somewhat unique approach by examining the way employers go about designating people to certain jobs, and how much those jobs are valued at (which is predetermined to hiring). One of his findings is that the market salary rate for black people is 72 percent of what it is for white people (while women’s market salary rates are 67 percent of men’s, leaving black women in an unfavorable position). Penner determines that race and gender play an “overwhelmingly” significant role at the point of hire, which is important because it shows that wage discrimination is not as likely to happen once one has a given job—it’s more likely to happen before one even starts it; the hiring process is “central” in its job-matching function (611). Penner examines how “job-seekers and employers interact,” noting that it’s been proven that job-seekers go into the hiring process with certain preferences, while the employers in charge of hiring have their own stereotypes which lead them to guide applicants in particular directions that they think would be the best fit (610).
Olga Alonso-Villar et al. agree with Penner in “The Extent Of Occupational Segregation In The United States: Differences By Race, Ethnicity, And Gender,” when they claim that:
stereotyping that qualifies individuals according to their sex–race group, together with organizations that qualify jobs by the group that fills them and queuing processes that allocate ‘‘good’’ jobs to the advantaged group (white males) explain segregation to a large extent. Moreover, some scholars have found empirical evidence of negative attitudes toward minorities even when the workplace experience of employers does not support the stereotypes of the entire group (181).
Sometimes there may not be direct racism between individuals, but positions of privilege and positions that have been stereotyped and fitted for certain races are part of a larger, structural problem.
Human capital and economic inequality
These various studies on race and work have differing subtopics, but tend to form a pattern and make sense alongside each other. If, as Penner purports, racial discrimination does begin at the hiring level, then for what reasons, besides the assumptions of the employer, would a job-seeker not be qualified enough? According to Wu, a lack of human capital due to fixed situations—like family background and schooling—would certainly be a factor. Tomaskovic-Devey would point to his status composition hypothesis, and would note that perhaps the more black people started working in a certain job, the more likely they would be guided towards that job because the more that job’s wage would decrease as they entered it.
Many of the structural assumptions about the work and wages suited for black people impact how much black individuals succeed (or even how much they see themselves as worthy of success) are made by:
It is important that people filling all these positions do not pretend that racial categories are irrelevant, for in doing so they ignore the structural forces up against black people. Being aware of race does not necessarily make one essentialist or racist. According to Ruth Frankenberg (1993):
“one can transcend essentialism, colorblindness, and ‘power-evasion,’ through race cognizance—an awareness of historical, political, social and cultural difference between races” (157).
Essentialism as a proponent of social inequality
Our society today would likely identify most with colorblindness or power evasion, but we are not far from the days when life was defined by essentialism. Though essentialism may no longer be the most dominant framework in our culture, it is the most dominant shaping force in our culture’s history. The majority might claim that “we are all the same under the skin,” but Frankenburg points out that essentialism is the background against which all “movements and individuals—for or against the empowerment of people of color—continue to articulate analyses of difference and sameness with respect to race… It continues to shape material reality” (139). Essentialism defines difference—it was devised so that a hierarchy could be structured, with men above women, white above color (a structure that certainly still applies in the workplace).
Power evasion and civic attitude
Frankenberg explains what she calls power evasion, which is similar to evading color, except instead people pretend they don’t notice power differences between races. Power evasion calls for recognizing “good” and “safe” differences, like racial pride, food and culture, but avoiding “bad” and “dangerous” differences, like power relations embedded in slavery and/or domestic servitude. When operating under this framework:
“some people use the familiar cliché ‘I don’t care if he’s black, brown, yellow or green,’ a phrase that camouflages socially significant differences of color in a welter of meaningless ones” (149).
Frankenberg interviewed people who demonstrated power evasion, and claimed they were “dramatically self-contradictory” and used “nonsensical statements” when exhibiting the various stages of denial, acknowledgement, minimizing differences and creating distance by referring to themselves in the third person. One such interviewee, Irene, described the many interactions she had with different races growing up; she was only able, however, to describe differences “when they did not entail differences of power” (155).
- She relayed her warm and comfortable feelings for the Jews she grew up with, but could not accurately describe their working-class conditions even though they were right in front of her (instead applying the stereotype that they were all doctors and lawyers).
- She also, very cautiously, discusses her relations with Black women who came as “help,” but referred to them hesitantly as “ladies,” despite the fact that they were called “girls” when she grew up.
Irene’s power evasion may seem polite on the surface, but in reality, it fails as a way to truly overcome racial issues.
Downplaying ethnic differences to alleviate social inequality
In Berkley’s Survey Documentation and Analysis (SDA), people were asked if “downplaying or ignoring ethnic differences” would achieve harmony in the U.S:
- 24 percent of people “agreed” that it would
- 13 percent “strongly agreed”
When asked how important one’s ethnic group membership is to “the sense of who you are,”:
- 33 percent of respondents answered “very important”
- 25 percent said “moderately important”
- 24 percent said “not at all important”
This leaves room for some very large differences between people to be presumed. An interestingly-phrased question asked people to rate on a scale of 1-10 “Very Warm to Very Cool” how they felt about African Americans:
- 27 percent feeling “very warm”
- 27 percent right in the middle
- 2.2 percent said “very cool”
When asked on the same scale how they felt about whites or Caucasians:
- 34 percent said “very warm,”
- 19 percent were right in the middle
- 1.5 percent said “very cool”
Berkley’s respondents exhibit the contradictions lying within a mostly colorblind or power evasive society that Frankenburg discusses. A third of people said that race is personally very important to them, yet a quarter said it was not important at all. Simultaneously, only 13 percent strongly agreed that ignoring racial difference would bring society harmony, so it’s hard to tell who is agreeing on what and when their biases are kicking in. Part of the progression that our society pretends it already has would be arrived at much faster if people could do more than simply disapprove of the system of racism, or a lack of harmony.
In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh explains that white people may not know or necessarily approve of having privilege, but that doors do open for them that may not just open for black people. McIntosh (1988) realizes that as a white person she may have unintentionally been racist, because she
“was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of [her] group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on [her] group from birth” (192),
such as a workplace. She agrees with Frankenberg that pretending to be colorblind, especially in power-related situations, is not helpful, claiming that “the silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool” to maintaining the ways in which certain institutions, or occupations, exist.
“Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist” (192).
Indeed, the benefits that are associated with high wages have historically been benefits associated solely with white men; and although anyone can apply for them, who they go to still depends largely on race (as has been shown above through Tomaskovic-Devey, Wu, Penner and Alonso-Villar et al.).
Social inequality through embedded racism
The workplace is not the only place in which race is an inherent issue, but it is a place from which progression can come. If black people were not discriminated against—from human capital investment opportunities to employment opportunities—then they might fare better in other areas. What Frankenberg and McIntosh illustrate is that discrimination goes far beyond individuals. In “Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Colorblind Society,” Michael Brown explains that many researchers have delved into arguments about subjects like human capital without considering just how embedded racism is in entire systems:
one problem with this approach is that an individual’s job experience and education may have been shaped by deeply embedded patterns of discrimination—a racially biased allocation of public resources to schools for example—which means that education is not independent of discrimination. By focusing only on individuals and the skills they bring to the labor market, moreover, analysts obscure the relationship between racial groups, a fundamental element in the development of durable racial inequality (17).
Frankenberg and McIntosh would agree that employment discrimination starts much earlier than the time of hiring, it starts from a child’s earliest years when their education is dependent on where they live, what school they go to, and how important education is in their community to the people who have the power to, as Brown puts it, allocate resources.
Road to a post-racial society?
Though many people claim that we live in a post-racial society (we have a black president so everything must be okay), the reality is that race is still significantly relevant to the realities of job opportunities, and therefore to the realities of how people end up living in poverty and continuing the cycle of less education (human capital) equals less in wages. In many of the studies of wage gaps, gender is studied alongside race, and this is because white and male privilege are still thriving entities; in fact, the more such privileges are ignored, the more they thrive. In Remedying ‘Unfair Acts’: U.S. Pay Equity By Race And Gender,” Jane Lapidus et al. (1998) determine that the best way to move beyond inequality is for people like feminist economists to reveal the realities of structural oppression and change it from a position of awareness, or as Frankenberg would say, of race cognizance.
I began this essay attempting to answer the question of whether it is effective for the sake of progression to try and ignore racial difference. I have come away with the confirmation that it is not useful to employ the colorblind approach, as studies have proven that racial discrimination is still alive and well. Unfortunately, discrimination in all forms will remain alive and well until its systemic nature is challenged; before being challenged, however, it must be truly exposed. As long as people are walking around pretending that everyone is already equal, our society will never progress to the point where everyone actually is.
Alonso-Villar, Olga, Coral Del Rio, and Carlos Gradin. “The Extent Of Occupational Segregation In The United States: Differences By Race, Ethnicity, And Gender.” Industrial Relations 51.2 (2012): 179-212. EconLit. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.
Brown, Michael K.. Whitewashing race: the myth of a color-blind society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.
Dozier, Raine. “Young, Jobless, And Black: Young Black Women And Economic Downturns.” Journal Of Sociology & Social Welfare 39.1 (2012): 45-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.
Frankenberg, Ruth. White women, race matters: the social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.
Huoying, Wu. “Can The Human Capital Approach Explain Life-Cycle Wage Differentials Between Races And Sexes?.” Economic Inquiry 45.1 (2007): 24-39. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.
Lapidus, Jane, and Deborah M. Figart. “Remedying ‘Unfair Acts’: U.S. Pay Equity By Race And Gender.” Feminist Economics 4.3 (1998): 7-28. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.
McIntosh, Peggy. White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women, 1988. Print.
Penner, Andrew M. “Race and Gender Differences in Wages: The Role Of Occupational Sorting At The Point Of Hire.” Sociological Quarterly 49.3 (2008): 597-614. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.
“SDA – GSS 1972-2008 Cumulative Datafile.” SDA: Survey Documentation and Analysis. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. .
Tomaskovic-Devey, Donald. “The Gender And Race Composition Of Jobs And The Male/Female, White/Black Pay Gaps.” Social Forces 72.1 (1993): 45-76. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.