The Links Between Past Racism and Current Inequality

Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America

Racial inequality is a well-documented phenomenon in the United States. Based on polling data taken in 2019, most Americans agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage compared to whites. Those polls also show that whites and conservatives (as groups) are least likely to agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage. In a previous article, I outlined two competing narratives used to explain racial inequality between whites and Blacks. One narrative favored by the majority of liberals and Black people in the US is that historical and current discrimination is the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. The other narrative favored primarily by conservatives and by a significant portion of the white population is that individual differences in things like cultural orientation, values, motivations, and behaviors are the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. I outlined evidence that shows that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive. In this article, I would like to cover this topic more by exploring the relevant history that precedes racial inequality. We will continue with these two competing narratives in mind. 

We have already looked at the most powerful method for investigating cause and effect: scientific experimentation. I described the experimental and empirical evidence that supports the claim that racial inequality in the US is due both to discrimination and individual differences. But there are other ways to evaluate cause and effect besides conducting experiments. One can evaluate evidence for “temporal precedence”, i.e., that the cause precedes the effect in time. For A to cause B, A must occur before B. In the case of racial inequality, there are two timelines that come from the liberal and conservative narratives. By claiming that discrimination is the cause of racial inequality, liberals are implying that discrimination precedes inequality. Alternatively, conservatives that claim individual factors like culture, values, and behavior cause racial inequality, are implying that individual factors precede racial inequality. Let’s consider the liberal perspective and then the conservative perspective. 

From a historical standpoint, current inequality is entirely consistent with previous inequality. Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America (a cumulative total of 87% of the relevant history starting in 1619). It is only in the last 54 years of US history where Black Americans have had access to rights as citizens. Yet despite these legal advances, many racial gaps have not closed in that time. It is a historical fact that the worst form of discrimination (brutal dehumanization and enslavement) preceded the inequality that Black people face today in the New World. In fact, researchers have predicted the level of implicit bias in a US geographic region today based on the per capita enslaved population in that region in 1886. Basically, the degree to which a county or state depended on slavery before the civil war predicts how much pro-white bias exists in that same region today. Not only that, but slavery was also linked to forms of contemporary structural inequality such as black poverty rates, racial segregation, and Black social mobility. This is striking empirical evidence that the legacy of slavery persists into the current era in both the structure of society and attitudes of many. Of course, since the ending of slavery there were other intervening instances of codified racism such as redlining, the practice by which Blacks were systematically discriminated against when buying a home (until it became illegal in the 70s), which still has negative effects today. In other words, we have good historical and scientific reasons to think that the timing (discrimination precedes inequality) fits the narrative that discrimination causes inequality. 

life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race!

What about the conservative viewpoint that choices and cultural values precede racial inequality? Did racial inequality emerge out of the choices of Black people in the United States? Well, let’s consider the timeline. Over 90% of Black Americans are the descendants of people who were captured, enslaved and brought to the New World. When they arrived, they were intentionally stripped of their culture and separated from their families. Over the course of many generations, millions of African Americans were forced to live in a state of deadly inequality for around 200 years (depending on when they arrived). It isn’t until 1965 that Black Americans could even have the possibility of making free choices that could result in parity with whites. So as we can see, the idea that choice, values, and culture could cause inequality is not supported by the timeline: inequality preceded legitimate self-determination of African Americans to make their own choices, establish values, and build a sense of culture.

Of course, people who endorse this narrative may balk at this line of reasoning and clarify that the persistent inequality in the modern era is the result of choices, values, and culture because now people of all demographic backgrounds are free. To evaluate this perspective, let’s consider an analogy where we think of life in America as a foot race. We start this race from the moment we are born and how far we get is a measure of our health, wealth, and status. Those who run the least distance over time are least successful and those who cover the most ground are the most successful. But, this isn’t the only measure of success, another important measure of success is just how far you have gotten, which is not just about your ability to cover ground, but also a question of where you started in the race. This is because life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race! Meaning, people “pass the baton” to their familial successors in the race, so that those who are related to people who succeeded in earlier eras of the foot race (say from 1619 – 1964) are more likely to succeed in the current era. In life, this is analogous to the intergenerational passage of tangible resources like money, homes, vehicles, and economic opportunities, and also intangible resources like familial support, role-modeling, motivational orientation, and values. 

the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it.

Intergenerational passage of tangible and intangible resources is a well studied topic in the social sciences. Contrary to popular belief, social mobility (i.e. one’s ability to move to a higher level of economic success than one’s parents) is generally quite low in the United States compared to other similar countries. This means that intergenerational economic advantage is particularly decisive in the US. Consider the racial wealth gap: Black families on average have around 10% the median net worth of white families. In terms of actual dollars this means that as of 2016, the median net wealth of whites was $171,000 compared to about $17,600 for black households (and this has likely gotten worse due to COVID-19). This Black-white wealth gap is largely a result of intergenerational wealth transfer. This is also true of homeownership

But, intergenerational transfer goes beyond tangible assets like wealth and homes. Something as intangible as propensity to be incarcerated is intergenerational. A 2017 meta-analysis that synthesized results from 3 million children found that risk of criminal behavior is 2.4 to 1.8 times higher for kids with criminal parents (a trend that has actually gotten worse since 1981). This is partly because parents (even those who have not been incarcerated) often have little choice but to pass their low income, high crime, and overpoliced community to their children. In highly policed areas, children’s contact with law enforcement is linked to psychological distress that predicts criminal behavior (even after controlling for prior delinquent behavior). Black kids that do not have life altering experiences with crime or police find similar intergenerational effects apply to educational advantage. If they do get to college, Black Americans are far more likely to be first-generation college students who do not have the benefit of parents who successfully navigated college. The intergenerational passing of educational advantage is a well-documented mechanism in the white/black achievement gap. People also inherit a positive attitude towards working hard from their parents according to another meta-analysis of nearly 10,000 people. Even the propensity to participate in political struggles that can address some of the systemic issues at play here is itself intergenerational. In the year before Trump won the election with 3 million less votes than Clinton, a study found that political participation intention is partly intergenerational. 

In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

Other lines of evidence demonstrate how disparities influence choice and behavior. For example, lead poisoning is 2 to 6 times higher in Black communities (due in large part to discriminatory housing policies) in comparison to white communities. Poisoning of this sort is a causal factor in higher criminal behavior, intellectual decline, and downward social mobility. But unwelcoming environments aren’t just due to toxins. Experiences with discrimination can also leave very long lasting negative societal effects. In one Africa based study the slave trade was linked to societal levels of trust today by having a detrimental effect on the “norms, beliefs, and values” of modern Africans. In summary, discrimination and mistreatment of Black Americans preceded racial disparities, whether we are talking about tangible inequality, like money and homes, or inequality of an intangible nature, like behavioral patterns, cultural orientation, or motivation. These studies demonstrate that the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it. In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

So yes, conservatives are correct in some sense, individual differences matter, but individual differences are largely passed intergenerationally and thus are in large part the result of past discrimination and racial inequality. Like everything else, behaviors and choices don’t emerge out of nowhere, they emerge from a specific historical and social context. As we have seen the relevant historical context is quite unequal. This is a rehashing of the point I made in my last article that bears repeating: The conservative position does not really grapple with the full problem. Sure, there are differences in choices and values within certain communities, but why? 

Here, I should note that for some, this question leads to a fundamental notion in the history of psychology: nature vs nurture. In previous eras racial disparities were thought to be either due to the environmental differences in the lives of Blacks and whites, or they were due to genetic differences (an idea with an ugly past and present). Scientists now know that this is a false dichotomy, it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both in a complex and often hard to predict interaction. Separating them can be impossible, particularly when certain environmental conditions, like experiences of discrimination are inseparably linked to one’s genetically determined race. For these reasons, the history of focusing on genetics as a cause of racial inequality is both racist and seen as pseudoscientific. But even from a strictly pragmatic perspective, we can only influence environmental factors since we don’t have the tools to ethically influence genetics. Besides, given that around a quarter of the population today were alive when overt discrimination and racism was legal and normalized, and we have compelling evidence that previous inequality intergenerationally became current inequality (as previously discussed), we have every reason to focus on addressing environmental causes for racial inequality. 

Whether we rely on empirical experimental evidence or evaluate temporal precedence, it’s clear that the origin of racial inequality is historical and current discrimination. In view of all the facts, there is not a solid basis to argue that somehow the black community is ultimately to blame for their lower position on the social and economic hierarchy. Racial discrimination was codified into law for 87% of the relevant history for US citizens. In the remaining 13% of history, progress towards racial inequality has been slow. The intergenerational transmission of both tangible and intangible resources has ensured that those who benefited from subjugation and discrimination continue to win the relay race of life in the US. Likewise, the descendants of those who suffered through this history remain behind with little recourse but to continue to struggle for equality hopefully with the allyship of people from other racial groups who understand the need for racial equality. 

4 thoughts on “The Links Between Past Racism and Current Inequality

  1. Racial inequality is existing in is only difference some are obvious and some are not.maybe it is caused by system discrimination in US.but I don’t think American is the worst country in racial problem.


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