Contemporary Racial Inequality in the United States

Project Date:
Jun 2010
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Nearly a half century after the civil rights movement, race remains a significant predictor of income, wealth, employment, health, educational attainment, and a number of other social and economic outcomes. In all of these areas African Americans and other minorities lag behind whites, which poses serious issues not only for these group members but for the overall health of American democracy. While the existence of these racial disparities is well documented, the causes of their persistence remain a vexing puzzle. Most of the obvious barriers to equality, such as state-sponsored and sanctioned segregation, explicit discrimination and widespread racism, have declined dramatically under the pressure of anti-discrimination legislation. Nonetheless, these changes have not closed the social and economic gaps between blacks and whites. Many sources of inequality remain, and are actually becoming more acute as income inequality in the U.S. increases.

In order to address the sources of this persistent inequality, Fredrick Harris and Robert Lieberman of Columbia University held a two-day conference and are currently working on an edited volume that will examine a set of empirical and analytical questions around racial inequality: What are the main contours of contemporary racial inequality? How have these patterns of inequality developed over time? What are the differences and similarities in patterns of racial inequality across different policy domains? How can we explain the persistence of racial inequality despite the decline in factors that supposedly accounted for it in the past? How do we expose, model, and test the “subterranean” effects of race in American society?  

Although much work has been done in this area, none of the previous cultural or material explanations are sufficient to identify the causal mechanisms that lie behind the persistent racial gap in American society. Even today, few scholars have carefully and systematically tried to understand these mechanisms, or sort out competing explanations. Harris and Lieberman sought to address this by bringing together a diverse group of scholars to discuss the empirical and analytical questions about contemporary racial inequality, both at the conference and in the subsequent edited volume.

The conference was organized around a series of panels including labor and employment, housing, criminal justice, health, education, and the census. Each panel comprised scholars from different fields, methodological traditions, and causal approaches, working on questions about racial inequality within that policy domain.   


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