In a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Harvard economist Roland Fryer finds that discrimination isn't as nearly as important to explaining racial inequality as it once was. He writes:
There are large and important differences between blacks and whites in nearly every facet of life -- earnings, unemployment, incarceration, health, and so on. This chapter contains three themes. First, relative to the 20th century, the significance of discrimination as an explanation for racial inequality across economic and social indicators has declined. Racial differences in social and economic outcomes are greatly reduced when one accounts for educational achievement; therefore, the new challenge is to understand the obstacles undermining the development of skill in black and Hispanic children in primary and secondary school.
"Greatly reduced" is a bit of an understatement; if Fryer's analysis is correct, educational achievement and "pre-market skills" account for a huge portion of the racial gap between blacks, whites, and Hispanics. For example, after accounting for educational achievement, the pay gap between black and white workers drops from 39.4 percent to 10.9 percent for men, and drops from 13.1 percent lower to 12.7 percent higher for black women. The same goes for the racial gap in unemployment, incarceration and physical health; once educational achievement is taken into account, the wide gaps either narrow or disappear completely. And while Fryer doesn't explicitly go into this, we can look to the legacy of institutionalized racism to find the roots of the achievement gap.
As the paper's title suggests, Fryer doesn't see discrimination as an unimportant factor in explaining racial inequality. Rather, it's outweighed in its significance by the achievement and skill gap between African Americans and whites. As he explains, "eliminating the racial skill gap will likely have important impacts on income inequality, unemployment, incarceration, health, and other important social and economic indices." Unfortunately, the racial skill gap has its roots in a near-intractable achievement gap between black and white students. For black students, the racial achievement gap begins shortly after birth -- at age 2 -- and continuously widens; by 12th grade, black students significantly trail their white peers in nearly all subjects and are twice as likely as whites not to graduate or receive their GED.
For those working to reduce racial inequality, Fryer's work offers a familiar takeaway; if we want to make further strides toward racial equality, we need to focus our resources on the difficult task of closing racial achievement gaps in education. In the 21st century, as Fryer writes, "High-quality education is the new civil rights battleground."
-- Jamelle Bouie
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