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POLITICS & STUFF | What’s Past is Prologue: Race and Poverty in Contemporary America

Photo Courtesy of Liberation School

Imagine a society in which almost 1 in 4 African-Americans are in poverty; for white people, the number is less than 1 in 10 (Proctor et al., 12). Imagine that society in which not only black children are more likely to be born into poverty, but half of them will also remain there as adults. Only a third of poor white people will stay in the lowest income quintile (Reeves, 1). No, this isn’t the 1850’s. This is American poverty in 2016. While we pride ourselves as the land of opportunity and the land of plenty, why is American poverty, past and present, disproportionately people of color?

The relationship between race and poverty is just as complex as it is controversial. As America’s racial divide grows ever-obvious, the urgency to understand this nuanced relationship follows. In the book “The Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist”, Ann Chih Lin and David R. Harris carefully answer this question by arguing that the United States’ economy, culture and policies have been shaped by centuries of asymmetric racial relations and racially motivated behaviors. In turn, contemporary realities perpetuate long-standing institutions and attitudes oftentimes without deliberate efforts to discriminate (Lin & Harris, 4). In other words, people of color continue to be affected by the remnants of historically racist decision-making and policies even if contemporary politicians and actors do not deliberately intend to perpetuate racial disadvantages.

Centuries of racially motivated policies, institutions, behaviors, and attitudes cause racial disadvantages to be cumulative, institutional, and intergenerational. Pivotal eras defined by explicitly racist policies have repeatedly changed the rules of the game to disadvantage people of color. While many people dismiss history as disconnect from the present, past racially-influenced practices have become so influential in America’s social fabric that the most vulnerable communities today are also communities of color. Thus, even if institutions of racial prejudice (slavery, discriminatory housing practices, etc.) are no longer in effect today, disadvantages become inherited and racialized poverty becomes intergenerational (Lin & Harris, 3). Thus, the legacies of past practices and institutions overlap, cascade and continue to marginalize many black households.

Many consider slavery as the root cause of asymmetric racial relations in America; it posed severe institutional and inherited barriers that deprived wealth from generations of black individuals. However, the abolition of slavery in 1845 was no panacea to racial inequalities. The average black household was astronomically behind in wealth compared to the average white household. Even as recent as the 2008 Great Recession, those who had the least lost the most. Without explicit intentions to discriminate, the Recession devastated families of color because they were also the most economically vulnerable. Disadvantage begets disadvantage. Now, “the typical black family has 6 cents for every dollar in wealth as the typical white family” (Hamilton, 4).

Years after the abolition of slavery, discriminatory housing practices became a popular, explicitly racist practice that was intended to marginalize black households. Redlining, blockbusting and white flight forced black families to live in poor neighborhoods with limited resources and opportunities. Compounded by the problem of limited wealth and economic vulnerability, discriminatory housing practices stunted black households’ socioeconomic mobility. “Poor communities influence life outcomes because they shape residents’ values, attitudes, and aspirations and because they affect their access to resources and opportunities” (Royce, 194). Impoverished neighborhoods maintain and perpetuate poverty because their underprivileged environment reinforces a web of disadvantages that makes it harder to be upwardly mobile. Disadvantages become inherited and racialized poverty becomes intergenerational. Thus, even after laws cracked down against discriminatory housing practices, future generations were stuck in residential segregation, under-resourced schools, bad neighborhoods and poor health care systems. American sociologist Matthew Desmond astutely concludes that “the essence of poverty is not simply an economic condition but the linked ecology of social maladies and broken institutions” (Desmond, 3).

Past institutions of racial inequality also generated more complex and nuanced problems; in addition to the interlocking structural obstacles that stunt socioeconomic mobility, social phenomena such as negative social capital and collective socialization create complex group challenges that run deep within the mindset and attitudes of individuals within an impoverished community. From past to present, racially impoverished communities sustain and strengthen the web of disadvantages that makes it harder to escape poverty and leave that neighborhood. While research suggests that the longer a child stays in her bad neighborhood, the worse off she will be in the future, many children are not afforded the opportunity to rise out of their poor environment (Royce, 194).

Some could argue that slavery, discriminatory housing practices and other explicitly racist institutions and behaviors are no longer in effect today, but they set a powerful legacy that far exceeded its historical implications. Even when America has dismantled many racially-biased institutions, their effects continue to subject generations of black households to economic and social vulnerability and trap them in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage.

Is the solution to racialized poverty to work hard, get better jobs, and move families into better neighborhoods? While this reiteration of the American Dream may seem like an easy solution in theory, it does not address the fact that black individuals face more barriers to employment that white individuals.

Not only do historically racist institutions and policies change the rules of the game and perpetuate disadvantages through future generations, the remnants of such racially influenced decision-making foster implicit racial bias that affect communities of color without deliberately intending to discriminate (or whether people are aware of it or not). The growing body of scholarship for implicit racial bias is long-standing and uncontended. The vast majority of studies produce the same conclusions: implicit racial bias exists for everyone in America and infiltrates many institutions from the judicial system to the education system to healthcare and politics. A famous 2009 field study published by the American Sociological Association performed an experiment in which equivalent resumes were sent out to hundreds of similar entry-level jobs in New York City. The only characteristic different between the candidates was their race. The researchers found that a black applicant had to search twice as long as an equally qualified white person to get a job. In a lot of instances, black applicants were offered jobs that were lower quality and required fewer skills. Additionally, they concluded that employers were more likely to hire a white felon than a black candidate with no criminal history. “Rather than viewing discrimination…as the result of a small group of highly prejudiced employers… [variable contexts] shape how information about applicants may be filtered and interpreted along racial lines…[and] make discrimination more likely (Pager et al., 779).

Overall, when tracing the relationship between race and poverty from past to present, we must remember that the past is prologue. Consequences of institutionalized racism continue to ripple across future generations even if the original racist intentions are no longer present. Additionally, we must remember that the remnants of such policies continue to impact not only communities of color but also sustain implicit racial bias among Americans as a whole. Only by recognizing these realities and working with the evidence can we successfully address the issue of racialized poverty.



Proctor, Bernadette D., Jessica L. Semega, and Melissa A. Kollar. “Income and Poverty in the United

States: 2015; Current Population Reports.” (n.d.): n. pag. United States Census Bureau. Sept. 2016. Web. <>.

Reeves, Richard V., and Edward Rodrigue. “Five Bleak Facts on Black Opportunity.” Brookings. N.p.,

15 Jan. 2015. Web. <>.

Lin, Ann Chih., and David R. Harris. The Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Persist. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Print.

Hamilton, Darrick, William Darity, Jr., Anne E. Price, Vishnu Sridharan, and Rebecca Tippett.

“Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans.” National Asset Scorecard and Communities of Color (n.d.): n. pag. Apr. 2015. Web.

Desmond, Matthew. “Severe Deprivation in America: An Introduction.” N.p., 2016. Web.

Royce, Edward. Poverty and Power: The Problem of Structural Inequality. N.p.: n.p., 2009. Print.

Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski. “Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A

Field Experiment.” American Sociological Review. N.p., 01 Oct. 2009. Web.

“Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee: Regarding

Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.” (n.d.): n. pag. The Sentencing Project. Aug. 2013. Web. <>.


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