Kevin Gao / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Karl Alexander, sociology, Johns Hopkins University, speaks on Monday about his research on inequality in society.

April 25, 2016

Lecturer Explores Sources of Economic Success

Print More

Race, socioeconomic status and environment are key factors in determining an individual’s perception of success, according to Prof. Karl Alexander, sociology, Johns Hopkins University.

At a talk on Monday, Alexander discussed his book The Long Shadow: Family, School, Neighborhood and the Shaping of Inequality, which he said was based on his study of the 790 individuals in diverse Baltimore neighborhoods.

“The book The Long Shadow is a culmination of a 30 year journey,” Alexander said. During this period, he said he followed his subjects to observe the diverging life paths that resulted from their environment and socioeconomic status.

“[These people’s] Plan A is doing well in school as the path to moving up,” he said. “Plan B is doing well in the workplace without a college degree. But what’s our Plan C?”

These varying degrees of success can be attributed to the spheres of influence — family, school and neighborhood — that shape an individual’s growth, according to Alexander.

Alexander used excerpts from students discussing success to illustrate their differing ideas of achievement.

“I think I’m successful now, because I’m happy,” one excerpt said. “I don’t have a lot of money … I live paycheck to paycheck … but I’m happy because I come home every day to the person I want to be with.”

White males possess a significant advantage over other genders and races in “every [and] any aspect,” according to Alexander.

“They’re more likely to get employed full time rather than part time, they earn more and they have more education,” he added.

However, white men from a middle class background also report the highest rates of binge drinking and drug abuse, according to Alexander.

Alexander added that inequalities in society contribute to growing problems in equal opportunity in the work world.

“If we can’t change the narrative, then we’re just waiting for the next incident to happen,” he said.