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Race and American inequalities

March 18, 2008


Douglas Massey is a leading US social scientist who has worked on issues of inequality in America throughout his career. He is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. His most recent book (Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System) is a huge contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms producing inequalities in American society, and it amounts to a stunning indictment of racism and anti-poor public policies over a seventy-five year period. And, unlike other interpretations that attribute current racial inequalities to past patterns of overt discrimination, Massey argues that these inequalities can be traced to current discrimination by individuals and institutions alike. (An earlier book, American Apartheid, co-authored with Nancy Denton, is also very important.)

Massey leads off his analysis with a theory of the social psychology of racism and discrimination against poor people. He argues that the stereotyping that is inevitably associated with social cognition leads to a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans, immigrants, women, and poor people that deepens and entrenches their unequal shares in American society. The twin mechanisms of discrimination and opportunity-hoarding both flow on the basis of the categories of discrimination created by these mental constructs – hence “categorical inequality”. (Visit a recent posting for a related argument about the social psychology of prejudice.)

Massey hypothesizes two dimensions of mental categorization, leading to four gross categories of people in one’s social category scheme: warm-cold (appealing-unappealing) and competent-incompetent. People who are like us are considered “warm” and “competent”. The other three quadrants are categorized as “other”: warm but incompetent (pitied), competent but cold (admired), and incompetent and cold (despised). And he asserts that American racism places African-Americans in the final category. This in turn is used to explain the harshly negative tilt that US legislation has shown across lines of race and poverty.

Massey argues that these cognitive mechanisms work at a pre-conscious level, and are operative even in the behavior and choices of people who consciously experience their values as democratic and egalitarian. These patterns of ongoing discrimination reinforce and reproduce social institutions that assign very different outcomes to African-Americans, poor people, and other dis-valued people. This works itself out in employment, advancement in a career, access to healthcare, and public policy and legislation.

A particularly valuable part of the book is the mass of elegant graphs that Massey has assembled. These represent in composite an astounding narrative of discriminatory public policy over almost a century of legislation.

Read the book — it will change your understanding of taxes, policies, safety nets, civil rights, and racism.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. syonparkecostreet permalink
    April 5, 2008 1:21 am

    I did read the book, and its a facinating window on the US.

    I was particularly struck by the role that race had in scuppering plans for national health, the way in which predatory loans can be seen as a new phase of financial racism and also the sheer rate of incarciration of young black men.

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