What Second Graders Can Teach Us About Inequality

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What Second Graders Can Teach Us About Inequality

(Photo: Seth Perlman/AP)

Two of the most widely cited statistics on inequities within the American labor market are that the average woman earns just 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and that the black unemployment rate is typically double that of whites. While these statistics are partly accounted for by differences in occupation or education, gender pay inequities persist even among men and women in the same job, and the two-to-one unemployment disparity exists even for blacks and whites with the same level of education. What this means is that even among otherwise socioeconomically similar individuals, we can still observe differences in pay or employment that arise from discrimination.

Although the explicitly discriminatory policies and practices that created these disparities are now illegal—thanks in part to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed employment and pay discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin—the inequities persist. That’s because many of the channels through which opportunity is passed, like social networks, are shaped by biases based on race and gender. Regardless of whether these biases are conscious or subconscious, patterns of old-fashioned segregation stand in the way of eradicating them.

Recently, I gained some profound insight into this phenomenon from a most unlikely place: a second-grade music class.

The fact that it was a music class in a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse elementary school offered a powerful symbolism. Here were kids from two different classrooms, with distinct cultures, family backgrounds, and personalities blending their voices together in harmony. Yet, even with the freedom to sit almost anywhere they chose, the students self-segregated by race and gender to a large degree. This seemed innocent enough at first. After all, it’s human nature to gravitate toward those we share more in common with or with whom we feel most comfortable. However, the broader implications of this tendency became more evident as the class went on.

Halfway through the period, the kids began an exercise in which one student would bounce a ball to the rhythm of the song the class was singing. Each time they finished a verse, that student would pass the ball on to someone else to continue the song. After a few rounds, one of the girls in the class spoke up about the fact that the boys were only passing the ball to other boys. When the teacher asked if other people had noticed the same thing, every girl and even a few boys in the class agreed. After enlisting the students to come up with a solution to make the game fairer to those who had been excluded, the exercise resumed under the new rules. Shortly after, another student mentioned that only students from one classroom were getting the ball. By the time they worked through that problem, time had run out for them to complete the exercise.

There were at least three important takeaways from this simple example that can be applied to the way we perceive and address race and gender inequities in this country.

  • The costs of inequality and discrimination may be more heavily born by those who have been discriminated against, but they are problems that belong to all of us—as such, individuals in leadership have a responsibility to listen to, acknowledge, and pursue solutions to these problems. For example, due to racial and gender biases, industries and jobs with a higher concentration of women and people of color tend to have lower pay—often minimum wage. As a result, these workers are more likely to earn poverty-level wages and need to turn to public assistance, which means that American taxpayers essentially subsidize the employers who pay inadequate wages. But policymakers can take action to rectify some of this. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 would not only lift wages for 35 million workers, many of whom are people of color, but it would also save $17 billion in public assistance spending annually.
  • Ending discrimination requires moving beyond a basic acknowledgement of the problem to honest, inclusive, and constructive engagement on the causes and solutions. For example, in order to target enforcement of equal pay laws and gain better insight into discriminatory pay practices, the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently announced a proposal to annually collect summary pay data by gender, race, and ethnicity from businesses with 100 or more employees. If implemented, this would be an important first step towards identifying bad actors and holding them accountable.
  • Segregation exists in nearly every area of American life, including in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and places of worship. Regardless of intent, the result is often exclusion and marginalization of people outside our immediate social circles. In the end, this limits the full range of what could be available to all of us. Historian Richard Rothstein has painstakingly documented the history of racially explicit federal, state and local policies that have segregated African Americans into isolated slums across the country. These policies have created a legacy of racial injustice that has garnered national attention in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and Flint.

I was heartened to see a second-grade teacher address biases within her classroom. Now it’s time for more of our political and business leaders to follow suit.

Valerie Wilson

Valerie Wilson is director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.

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