Please welcome guest blogger R. Tyson Smith, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rutgers University Institute for Health. Starting this July he will be an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in the Sociology Department at Brown University. He can be reached at: tyson321@gmail.com.


In Philadelphia, a great divide splits the opportunities for students who attend public school from those fortunate enough to attend private schools. The differences in resources, safety, class size, and most importantly, educational attainment, are a few of the contrasts that make the two systems almost reverse images of one another.

As problematic as this divide already is, it will get even worse if Governor Tom Corbett succeeds with his proposal to cut 11% from Pennsylvania’s K-12 public school budget. These cuts, coupled with reduced federal funding, means the Philadelphia School District must slash more than $600 million from their annual budget.  All public school students in Pennsylvania will suffer, but students from large urban districts—who already contend with lower per pupil spending than their suburban neighborhood—will be especially hard hit; Philadelphia’s school district will likely need to lay off almost 4,000 teachers.

Corbett’s cuts to public education have important racial implications because public schools in Philadelphia are overwhelmingly students of color whereas private schools are mostly white. Only 14% of the public school students in Philadelphia are white despite the white population of the city being nearly 50%. This disparity is largely due to the enormous cost of a private school education. Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates in the country—half of Philadelphia’s households have incomes less than $35,000 year—and tuition in certain private schools can run nearly $30,000 a year. The difference is compounded by the fact that middle to upper-class families commonly opt out of the public system. In the more affluent and white zip codes of Philadelphia, it is taken for granted that one’s child will attend a private school. This norm increases the contrast in racial composition between public and private and lowers the social investment in Philadelphia’s public schools by elites.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Corbett’s cuts and their impact on Philadelphia’s racial equality go largely unnoticed by families privileged enough to pay top dollar at area private schools (on the order of $250,000 for kindergarten through 12th grade). This is despite the fact that most private schools today routinely champion “diversity” and “community service” as values central to their educational mission.  One look at the websites and admission brochures of private schools (often more euphemistically called “independent schools”) show how diversity and service are integral to their striving for inclusion, equity, and justice. Some of these private schools, of course, do a better job than others in trying to address the inherent inequalities, and financial aid can make it more affordable for a certain percentage of the families; however, from looking at their publicity materials, you might think racial and class inequality had been solved. (Or perhaps this is the point?)

Nevertheless, even though certain groups can afford to look the other way, everyone should be concerned about Pennsylvania’s cuts to public education. Strong public schools provide a public good that improves the Philadelphia community as a whole—when the overall populace is better educated, everyone benefits. And regardless of where you or your children attend school, we all live and work in the same society once you are past high school age.

Moreover, Corbett’s cuts will further exacerbate the gulf in opportunities between Philadelphia’s black and white children. This is a harmful divide that should be no more the responsibility of Philadelphia families enrolled in public school than families enrolled in private school. If we want racial segregation to be a relic of the past, shouldn’t we make fighting Corbett’s cuts a priority like other collective efforts such as diversity initiatives and community-service projects?

Accepting politicians’ claims that “there is no money” and that these are tough times requiring tough decisions is today’s norm, but state budgets, like all financial decisions, are less about dollars and more about priorities. Whether it is through a severance tax on drilling during Pennsylvania natural gas boom, a stronger demand for funding which has been directed to serial wars, or redressing the lenient tax enforcement on major corporations, money could be found if public education were a true priority.

I recognize that many people feel that educational reform is beyond their reach; the myriad of issues, from No Child Left Behind to standardized tests to teacher unions, is commonly cited as obstacles to improvement. While these issues are not necessarily invalid, let’s not let them derail this conversation or prevent us from acting on what’s right in front of us—protesting Corbett’s cuts to public education.  We may not be able to change inequity in education overnight, but we can do our part by stopping it from getting worse. In doing so, we serve our community, fight a divide in children’s opportunities, and help sustain a more genuine racial diversity, not the patina of diversity so often advertised.

Despite — or perhaps because of — Barack Obama’s election as President, affirmative action remains one of the most controversial and divisive issues in American society today. It’s an issue that can divide not only different racial/ethnic groups, but even members of a single racial group like Asian Americans. In fact, some of the most heated arguments I’ve had with people over affirmative action has been with other Asian Americans.

The issues and controversies surrounding affirmative action are not going to be resolved any time soon and perhaps not even in my lifetime. For now, I hope that we can all look at the issues from a more sociological and objective, rather than personal, point of view and at least understand each side’s positions, even if we don’t agree with them. To help in that process, MSNBC as an article that does a nice job at describing the current state of affirmative action in the U.S. in an objective and balanced way:

Strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, the court said — affirmative action was not. But that ruling far from decided what many considered the big-picture issue: Does protecting minorities discriminate against the majority? More than 30 years [after the famous Bakke v. University of California lawsuit], and scores of lawsuits later, the question remains unanswered. . . .

“The laws that Congress wrote are clear — everyone is protected from racial discrimination,” said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that advocates eliminating race and ethnic considerations. “Not just blacks, but whites. Not just Latinos, but whites.”

Those who favor affirmative action say race divisions still exist in this country, 40 years after the civil rights movement. “Race so permeates society that you can’t ignore it,” said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project. . . .

Twenty years later, a more conservative court declared that public school systems cannot try to achieve or maintain integration based on explicit race rules. . . . At issue in the case were programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that tried to maintain racial diversity by limiting transfers and admissions.

“The Supreme Court case law isn’t clear. There aren’t bright lines and clear guidance,” said attorney Deborah Archer, director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School. “It’s very difficult to extract a rule from those cases that can be applied across the board.” Instead, “they have tended to be concerned with a specific aspect, and the decisions are made on case-by-case basis,” said Archer.

To summarize, through the years, the Supreme Court has basically ruled that consideration of an applicant’s race/ethnicity is legal, if there is a direct and specific reason supporting it, which includes the goal of creating a racially and ethnically diverse student population at colleges and universities and in private sector companies. However, the Supreme Court has also ruled that blanket policies such as quotas and allocating points to minority candidates are illegal and unconstitutional.

As the article also mentions, the Supreme Court is not likely to make any broad or sweeping decisions on affirmative action in general any time soon, instead preferring to make judgments about specific programs and policies on a case-by-case basis.

Within this ongoing debate about affirmative action, MSNBC has another recent article that seems to coincide with arguments of affirmative action supporters — that racial inequalities continue to persist in terms of pay between Whites and Blacks/Latinos even among workers with similar educational qualifications:

Blacks and Hispanics lag behind whites for higher-paying jobs at the largest rates in about a decade . . . Blacks overall slightly narrowed the gap in 2007 with whites in average salary, but the pay disparity widened for blacks with college degrees. Blacks who had a four-year bachelor’s degree earned $46,502, or about 78% of the salary for comparably educated whites.

It was the biggest disparity between professional blacks and whites since the 77% rate in 2001, when the U.S. fell into a recession due to the collapse of the tech bubble and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. College-educated blacks had previously earned as much as 83% of the average salary of whites in 2005.

Hispanics saw similar trends. . . . Hispanics with bachelor’s degrees had an average salary of $44,696, amounting to roughly 75 cents for every dollar made by whites — the lowest ratio in more than a decade — after hitting a peak of 87 cents to every dollar in 2000.

The numbers highlight some of the barriers for minorities, said Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau. He said the pay disparities could widen further since blacks and Hispanics tend to be relative latecomers to the professional world and thus more vulnerable to layoffs in the current recession.

This finding that Blacks and Latinos are especially vulnerable in times of economic recession has been consistently documented. Some of this disparity has to do with the fact that many Black and Latino college-educated workers have less seniority and overall years of experience than many White workers, and therefore earn less.

At the same time, as social science research has also shown, even among workers in the same occupation and same area of the country with almost identical educational qualifications and years of experience, Blacks and Latinos still lag behind Whites in terms of pay. As many sociologists argue, once you control for all these variables that might affect differences in pay, the only thing left to explain such disparities and pay inequalities is racism, pure and simple.

On the flip side of this issue about affirmative action, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the University of California has officially approved changed to its policies on eligibility for admissions (i.e., on who qualifies to be considered for admissions, not who actually gets admitted). Many Asian Americans and other people of color argue that these changes will disproportionately hurt the chances of Asian American applicants and other applicants of color and that these policies basically amount to “affirmative action for Whites.”

All of these developments illustrate the complex and often contradictory nature of this issue. Like I said, as a sad legacy of our country’s racialized history, it’s an issue that will unfortunately continue to perplex use for years and likely generations to come.

As the economy continues to worsen and as average American families encounter more difficulties trying to make ends meet, two “social trends” that have been constant through these recurring cycles of bust and boom are that (1) getting a good education is crucial to social mobility and financial security and (2) each succeeding generation has been able to improve their rates of getting a college degree.

But now, as Inside Higher Education reports, new data from the American Council on Education shows that perhaps for the first time in American history, some racial groups may actually be doing worse then their predecessors in terms of achieving a college education:

The latest generation of adults in the United States may be the first since World War II, and possibly before that, not to attain higher levels of education than the previous generations.

While White and Asian American young people are outpacing previous generations, the gaps for other minority groups are large enough that the current generation is, on average, heading toward being less educated than its predecessor. . . .

For Black and Latino women, for example, the most recent generation outperformed the prior ones, but the opposite is true for men. And across racial and ethnic groups, women are achieving a higher educational attainment than men.

Educational attainment by age group and race

To summarize, the data basically show that comparing the percentage of adults with at least an associate’s degree, younger Whites and Asian Americans (those between 25-29 years old) had slightly higher attainment rates than their older counterparts (those who are age 30 and older), and this corresponds with the long-established trend that succeeding generations improving their educational attainment rates over previous generations.

However, the opposite seems to be true for African Americans, Latinos, and Native American Indians — those in the younger group have lower educational attainment rates than their older counterparts, which means the younger generation seem to be falling behind the older generation.

The data also shows that across all racial/ethnic groups, women have higher rates of having at least an associate’s degree than men.

So what are some possible reasons behind this trend of African Americans, Latinos, and Native American Indians falling behind, in contrast to Whites and Asian Americans? It may be tempting, especially among nativists and those who are racially ignorant, to say that these three minority groups are less qualified, motivated, and/or intelligent enough to complete college and attain social mobility.

However, the rest of the Inside Higher Education article provides more details for us to understand this situation more fully. Specifically, the article also notes that high school graduation rates for these three groups of color have remained constant over the past two decades (even though they still trail that of Asian Americans).

Further, the article notes that “Total minority enrollment increased by 50 percent, to 5 million students, between 1995 and 2005.” This tells us that after graduating high school, Black, Latino, and Native American Indian students are still entering college in large numbers.

So the problem seems to be, once they get into college, somewhere along the line, these minority students are not able to complete their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

Is it because they are unprepared for the academic demands involved? That is one possible reason. But more likely, and as other studies have suggested, since these three racial minority groups tend to be less affluent than Whites or Asian Americans, the main reason may be that as college expenses keep skyrocketing, these students eventually are unable to afford completing their college education and are more likely to drop out of college because of lack of finances.

As other studies also show, there are still gaps at many colleges in terms of racial inclusion — cultivating a welcoming atmosphere and social environment in which students of color feel supported and secure:

Intolerance, threats and verbal insults pervaded the campuses of three predominately White institutions, the University of California, Berkeley, Michigan State University, and Columbia College, according to a student survey in the recently released report, “If I’d Only Known.”

The report reveals that more than 60 percent of students at MSU reported witnessing or personally experiencing such incidents of violence based on intolerance, followed by 49 percent of students at UC Berkeley and 43 percent of students at Columbia. . . .

Research shows that comfortable environments play a major role in minority persistence. Scholars agree that isolation and racial violence contribute to the high minority drop-out rates at some institutions.

Ultimately, this trend of Black, Latino, and Native American Indian students beginning to fall behind their older counterparts in terms of educational attainment involves many factors. While some reasons undoubtedly relate to individual abilities or motivations, as studies continue to show, there are still many institutional inequalities and barriers that make it more difficult for these students to complete their degrees.

Whatever the causes, this is a disturbing trend that all of us as Americans should be concerned about.