Friday, October 7, 2011

John A. Powell: Opportunity Is Racialized

John A. Powell

From The American Prospect, "Race, Place, and Opportunity: Where we live influences our life chances. Too many blacks still live in concentrated poverty," by John A. Powell on 22 Septemebr 2008: We live our lives trying to gain as much opportunity as our circumstances will allow. Space and place have always been important to pathways (and roadblocks) to opportunity, but they became even more important for the distribution of opportunity after World War II, when national policies began to shape the racial dimensions of housing and economic development. Today, we live with the legacies of a deliberately segregated past.

Where you live usually determines the school your children attend, your degree of neighborhood safety, your access to public transportation or highways, the availability and quality of finance and credit, your employment opportunities, and your social network. These spatial arrangements of opportunity are contoured by our past, and if not changed, they will have serious implications for our future. The geography of opportunity has significant influence on the choices available to us as well as on the shape of the culture we inhabit. Unfortunately, in our society these arrangements continue to carry a footprint of race whether currently intended or not. We can tell much about someone’s life opportunity by his or her zip code.

These differences play out not only in our neighborhoods but also at the city and state levels. At all levels, places with the weakest support for schools, unemployment insurance, and health benefits tend to be geographically and racially concentrated. There is a strong correlation among location, weak economic opportunity, and race. Blacks are generally segregated from opportunity through use of space. Although the majority of the poor are white, most of those living in concentrated poverty are black.

In the U.S., to live in a neighborhood of high-concentrated poverty (defined as the percent of the residents below the poverty level) means that life chances for you and your family will be greatly constrained—even if you yourself are not poor. Conversely, to live in a neighborhood or a state with a solid tax base and good amenities produces a favorable opportunity structure; the life chances of you and your family will be enhanced—even if you are low-income. But if you are black or Latino—even if working- or middle-class—you are much more likely to live in a neighborhood or state with a weak opportunity structure than you would be if you were white.

John A. Powell

A myriad of public policies and private practices create these spatial opportunity structures and sort people into them. Where blacks live in large numbers, whether in a particular state or region, or a rural or urban area within a region, those places tend to be underfunded and with weak institutions. Even if someone from one of these stressed areas can get to a job site, there is growing evidence that he or she will face discrimination not just based on race but also based on places or zip codes where blacks are most likely to live.

Factors such as poor schools, crime, a low fiscal base, a weak job market, and an inadequate social network tend to reinforce each other. A family living in this environment must overcome cumulative factors that expose its members to mutually reinforcing constraints. The interaction of different conditions in the environment cannot be explained by just focusing on individuals. Looking at systems, we can understand that causation is multiple, mutual, cumulative, and reciprocal, and the relationships among different factors are just as important as the factors themselves.

For example, poor schools limit employment options, and limited employment options for parents mean that their children are more likely to wind up in poor schools. So outcomes are not “caused” by a particular input (schools) but are produced by the reciprocal interactions of various inputs (schools, neighborhoods, jobs, crime).

Five decades of social-science research has documented the relationships between racially and economically isolated neighborhoods and employment, health, crime and violence, educational outcomes, and a range of other factors. A systems approach brings into view ways in which outcomes produced within the system spill across societal settings, accumulating across institutional domains and over time.

Racially and economically isolated housing markets and public schools contribute to segregated labor markets, reinforcing the existing economic and racial segregation that is now embedded into many metropolitan regions. Housing location, for example, is one of the primary mechanisms for accessing opportunity in our society. Spatial segregation is opportunity segregation. Americans should not have been surprised or confused as to why so many of the families stranded in New Orleans just happened to be black.

(source: The American Prospect)

John A. Powell: Opportunity Is Racialized


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