April 15, 2009

Provost Explores the Causes of Racial Economic Disparity

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Deputy Provost and Sociology Professor David Harris felt that previous books correlating race and poverty failed to accurately and completely identify the mechanisms that lead to the existing socioeconomic race disparities. To address these shortcomings, he wrote a book entitled The Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Exist. During a lecture yesterday, Harris discussed the analysis of his book as well as how it was composed.
As deputy provost, Harris focuses on University diversity, admissions and financial aid. Harris is also responsible for enhancing the profile of social sciences at the University.
Harris’ lecture showcased his new book by first displaying statistical data that showed the socioeconomic discrepancy between races and ethnicities and then by expanding on the book’s thesis.[img_assist|nid=36855|title=Bridging the gap|desc=David Harris, deputy provost, speaks at the Africana Center yesterday about the book he edited.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Edited by Harris and his colleague Ann Chih Linh, Colors of Poverty examines a broad range of possibilities to explain the reasons behind the growing discrepancies in socioeconomic status between black and white Americans.
“Normally when we look at a characteristic of interest we look at a data point that we are familiar with. [This book] works with big data sets to let us see how the things we observe fit into the larger distribution,” Harris said.
Harris’ book furthers the analysis of the correlation between race and poverty by identifying the specific mechanisms that contribute to the phenomenon. These mechanisms include discrimination, attitudes, culture, education, social networks, health, land use, social services, incarceration and welfare.
“If you want to understand the mechanism [you have to] identify them and then find the best person you can who knows about the mechanism,” Harris said. “[You have to] bring the people together and break ground. So that’s what we did.”
Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific mechanism or process that perpetuates these racial and ethnic inequalities and each chapter was written by experts on the particular subjects.
While each author examined a distinct mechanism, they each came to the same overarching idea that the present racial disparities are not a result of one specific obstacle, but a combination — a story of cumulative disadvantage and cumulative advantage.
“There is a whole system of disadvantages that make it difficult for people to thrive when something happens to them, [and] there [are] a certain amount of Dr. N’Dri T. Assie Lumumba, professor of Africana Studies, pondered the subtle effects of institutions and mechanisms that cause these inequalities.
“The way the different institutions work, either consciously or unconsciously, to reproduce the same phenomenon of inequality and unequal treatment that was present in the 1960’s with the Coleman report, is sometimes so subtle,” Lumumba said. “But [in fact] … these systems can shut down young children’s aspirations [leading to continued poverty and inequalities].”
Harris emphasized that the only way to end these inequalities is to “stop the system.”
Authors of each section not only discuss the mechanisms but also touch on specific policies that have been implemented to fix these faulty systems. Yet, the book does not take a comprehensive approach to see if and where these policies succeed and where they do not.
Harris agrees that examining the effectiveness of these policies is the next step in his research.
While Lumumba seemed challenged and inspired by the lecture, one audience member expressed being so disturbed and irritated by Harris’ presentation that he would not further comment.
With more light shed on the cause of these inequalities, Lumumba wondered what could be done to break the cycle seemingly perpetuated by American institutions and mechanisms.
Lumumba said, “We have the capacity to change this and our common humanity will be enhanced if we improve the condition of everybody.”
cumulative advantages that sometimes make it hard for others to fail.”
Harris emphasized that “even policies that you’d hope would reduce racial disparities actually exacerbate them.”

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