Ferguson and the Race Barometer

Professor of Economics
Ferguson and the Race BarometerFerguson and the Race Barometer

Following the events in Ferguson, Missouri many wonder why race is still an issue in the United States. The answer might be simple: because no one dares to discuss poverty. Growing inequality means income distribution mechanism is failing in the US; however political parties are not ready to have that debate.

The headlines have stopped as the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.  Still the events of Ferguson brought forth the issue of race once again. An African American woman made headlines by simply holding a poster reading “I can’t believe I still have to protest this….”  The demonstrations surprised and horrified many, who believed the Civil Rights Movement belongs to history. However the images were there: an overly aggressive police force armed more like an army dealing with unrest in an impoverished neighborhood. They ask why race is still an issue, 50 years after Civil Rights Movement.

It is not easy to look at Ferguson and its events without thinking of race. The victim, Michael Brown, was an African American.  In a land known globally as the land of opportunity he met his end walking in his neighborhood. Still it is hard to say had he lived he would have enjoyed the American dream.  If one believes in statistical analysis, there is little data these days supporting any hypothesis on lasting prosperity for some like Michael Brown.

An African American male is more likely to be imprisoned than any other American male. One in three African American men will go to jail in his lifetime.  While African Americans make up 13.2 percent of population nationally, their share of prison population is three times more hovering around 39 percent.

This is not the entire story. There is still a wage gap between average Afro-American worker and the average American worker. This is not to say that racial discrimination is encouraged, this is to say that there is a racial element to the income structure in United States. Some might argue that African Americans as a minority have fallen victim to hidden discrimination and are not given enough opportunities to make up for their disadvantages and compromised social standing.

When African American households make less money on average than the average American household their socio-economic reality becomes drastically different. You would guess that they cannot afford the same housing and the same life style as others.  However, what you may not imagine is that these families might lose access to high quality public service in health and education as well. The fact is that these families will end up living in low income neighborhoods and counties. They will soon discover that there exists a direct relationship between the quality of public school system and the regional economy.

Unlike many countries education is not centralized in the US, it is neither funded nor run by the federal government. Providing education is the right and the obligation of state governments. Different states have adopted different funding formulas for public education. One such formula is to use tax revenues collected locally to pay for the public school system.  It is a noble idea to make communities responsible to pay for their schools. The system is not so noble when it punishes the children because their parents are poor.  It seems one valid statement is that  African American families are behind not because of their race or the color of their skin, at least not as much as many commentators wish to think, but because they are impoverished. Their poverty, not the color of their skin, has denied them quality education and public service. They are competing in a society made uneven by inequality.

It is not easy to have a public debate about US poverty these days. Political parties are more into their ideologies than the interests of their constituencies. To speak of increasing the quality of public education is to advocate an increase in public spending in an era of budget cuts. This is considered treason by many politicians and treated as suspiciously by the recession weary voters. 

On the other hand, to increase public spending means to increase tax collection; either through increasing efficiency or through increasing taxes. To talk of the latter is political suicide these days. One party is set to reduce taxes everywhere, the other feels powerless to stop the mania. The public services suffer as the result. The outcome is the tragedy of Ferguson, young men with no hope ignored by a society too busy with the glamour of politics gunned down in the middle of the street.

Let us not forget poverty does not recognize race. It destroys households and communities indiscriminately. However when one cannot talk about poverty, one uses a proxy.  Here using a proxy is acceptable because talking about the reality is not politically correct. In this context race is still an issue in the self-styled superpower. It is high time to talk of the real roots of racial gaps and not blame them all on race.   And remember when race becomes an issue, the root cause is elsewhere.

 Ali Dadpay is Associate Professor of Economics at Clayton State University.