No Simple Answers to Achieving Racial Justice But One

I’ve been reading transcripts of six months worth of episodes of the Big Five Sunday political talk shows to wrap my mind around how these shows talk about people of color.

The excerpts on African Americans reveal some predictable trends. Among them, that one of the most popular “solutions” to intergenerational poverty in African American communities is education. And that’s too bad. Yeah, that’s what I said. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but bear with me.

On one episode of Face the Nation, James Peterson, Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, and Condoleeza Rice, who needs no introduction, I’m guessing, had this to say,

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Because if you look at the effect now of race, for most,­­ for many, race is no longer really dispositive [emphasis mine]. But, boy, if you are poor and black and trapped in a failing neighborhood school some place, your prospects are really dim. And so I think as if we update the civil rights agenda we’ve got to think about how to educate the kids with-

DR. JAMES PETERSON: And, of course, Doctor Rice, people of color are over-represented in those poor populations-


DR. JAMES PETERSON: ­­and so it’s,­­ it’s the intersection of both race and class. But education is the civil rights issue of the era. I mean it’s the only way for us to really­­ you know…one of the most direct ways to confront that is through overhauling and making a much more robust public education system.

I emphasized that word “dispositive” because what Ms. Rice is saying there is that race alone is not really determinative unless you layer on class. That, also, is a popular meme.

Interesting conversation. The problem is, that idea is wrong, or at least woefully incomplete. Race does determine outcomes, all on its own, and education is helpful, but a lack thereof is not the fundamental problem.

A May 27, 2014 article written by Janell Ross in the National Journal makes this point by citing statistics concerning the unemployment rate among black college graduates.

Unemployment Rate of African American College Graduates

Citing a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Ross points out that the rate of unemployment of Black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 in 2013 was 12.4%, making Black college graduates in this age group more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-Black peers (5.6%). In fact, the unemployment rate of 22-27 year old Black college graduates is just one percentage point lower than general Black unemployment (13.4%). So much for giving it the old college try.

Among all Black college graduates, the rate of unemployment is just shy of 6%, while white college graduates suffer an unemployment rate of 3.5%. That means the Black v. white unemployment rate among college graduates nearly mirrors the Black v. white unemployment rate overall, which has stood at about 2:1 for decades.

Now, to be clear, 6% is not 13.4%. It obviously helps to get a college degree. But, does it create greater racial parity in employment rates? No.

And Black people aren’t the only ones learning that education isn’t enough. Overall, Asian Americans are the most highly educated group by race (as arbitrary as that category may be in the case of Asians). Yet, among people of color, Asians are more likely to be hired but the least likely group to be promoted into managerial positions in both the public and private sectors. And we have a lower ratio of managers to professionals than whites. Moreover, Asian American per capita incomes lag behind that of whites.

Now, that per capita income figure is deceptive. For instance, some Asian ethnic groups actually make more than whites in terms of per capita income. However, when you compare apples with apples – Asians with masters degrees relative to whites with masters degrees, for instance – whites creep ahead.

Statistics like this don’t lie. Between the ages of 22 and 27, the percentage of unemployment among Black college graduates in 2013 was just one point lower than for all Black people, and almost twice that of white adults in general.

Statistics like this don’t lie. Between the ages of 22 and 27, the percentage of unemployment among Black college graduates in 2013 was just one point lower than for all Black people, and almost twice that of white adults in general.

Why? The most logical answer is racial discrimination.

And that discrimination isn’t passive, as in that white people are more likely to be connected to social networks rich in employers. In one study, white men with recent criminal histories were found to be far more likely to receive calls back on job resumes than similarly qualified black men with no criminal record at all. And today, Think Progress reports on a Young Invincibles study that finds that Black college graduates have the same likelihood of finding a job as a white high school dropout.

scot nakagawaAnd this disparity isn’t just incidental, as in that maybe Black college graduates are more likely to earn degrees in the arts than in engineering. The unemployment rate among Black college graduates is pretty much the same regardless of major.

The problem is that there is no colorblind meritocracy in the U.S. That’s just a myth of white supremacy. Our problem is racism, not a lack of mettle, gumption, pluck, or educational attainment. Sorry to have to bring the bad news, but unless we get over our denial concerning the role of plain, old fashioned racial discrimination in determining opportunity and social mobility in American society, we can never hope to achieve racial equity.

Scot Nakagawa

Published by the LA Progressive on June 26, 2014
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About Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa got his first job as a community organizer in 1980, and since then has worked in organizational management, social research, public policy analysis and advocacy, and philanthropy. He also has a background as a teacher and a service provider working with low-income communities to create accountable organizations that are responsive to community needs. Before forming ChangeLab, Scot served as the Field Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Associate Director of the Western Prison Project (now the Partnership for Safety and Justice), Interim Executive Director of Social Justice Fund Northwest, Executive Director of the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, and as Education Co-Coordinator of the Highlander Research and Education Center. Scot’s primary work in progressive social change has been as a social movement analyst with a particular emphasis on analyzing and creating strategies to counter rightwing movements. His current blog, Race Files, addresses race and racism in U.S. politics and culture.


  1. the Nose Knows says:

    Scott and I have disagreed in the past. Here, I will agree that numbers do not lie. I am a person of color (well, Hispanic) who has spent a very successful career in an industry dominated by white males, Aerospace.
    As a hiring manager who has mentored local college students with their resumes, let me offer one additional observation: Yes, the good old boy network still exists; let’s set that aside for new industries and startups where nobody is old yet.
    You still need an interview to get a job, and you still need a resume (and cover letter) to to get an interview. That’s a recent grad’s one chance to demonstrate in a couple of lines (yes, sad, nobody reads a whole resume but that’s another story) that they are worthy of an interview. Writing, unlike calculus or poetry, is not really taught in college unless you are an English major. If you already know how, you can improve it. If not, it will hinder you. Like math and science, we need to hit reading and writing harder and earlier. Good writing doesn’t guarantee a good resume, but bad writing won’t get you that interview.

  2. In the national conversation, when conservatives are propped upon their media soap boxes inflaming racial animus by proclaiming the undeserved ‘lazy urban unemployed stereotype’ should be cut off from unemployment, they never mention this conundrum.
    Again, facts don’t fit their platform justifying social racism.
    Thank you for utilizing the discussion w/Rice epitomizing the wrong and incomplete assumption the conjoint constructs of class/race, alone, can affect grim futures. More likely, societal racism engulfs and supersedes them both by rendering educational achievement impotent in the pursuit of employment .

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