The Unfortunate Durability of Good Inequality Scholarship

Being Black, Living in the RedDalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red is an important book about race, wealth and social policy. Published in the late 1990s, a version with a new afterword came out in 2010. It was important then and it remains relevant today. Many believe that rising inequality is one of the most pressing problems facing American today.

One stunning statistic inspired and summarizes the problem and serves as a keystone of Conley’s focus: in 2007, the median assets held by a white family in America were fifteen times that of the median assets held by a black family.

Conley is a polymath at Princeton with two PhDs (sociology and biology). His work extends across the sciences and the social sciences. He is prolific, brilliant, and a rigorous thinker. Data and facts drive the arguments in Being Black, Living in the Red.

The book opens by setting out an understanding wealth. It takes an historical lens to the lives of black Americans. He explains the multiple effects of their particular history. Conley looks closely at social capital – primarily education and educational opportunities, which have a direct effect on economic capital. He discusses employment, again through a large lens, and connects that to issues of community and public health. He is thorough in driving connections between these seemingly “disparate” issues. They are not. Housing, work, employment, school, jobs, wealth, and community are all deeply linked.

Conley believes that any serious investigation into the questions of race and class has to include analysis of net worth. Wealth has direct measurable effects and symbolic influence. Ownership of property (capital) is the most visible measure of wealth. Who owns what and where they live are the effects and causes of inequality. One visible consequence, evident across the country, is residential segregation. Incorporating wealth into thinking about race and opportunity means that the issue has to include factors such as equity and ownership – and not just admissions to schools and affirmative action in salaries.

The community college world functions within this dynamic. More than 50% of all community college students are non-white. The AACC reports that more than half of all black and Hispanic students enrolled in higher education are in the nation’s community colleges. Our ability to serve these students effectively means mindfulness of broader race, class, gender and wealth dynamics. Being Black, Living in the Red, is a key source in strengthening that understanding. If you missed this book the first time around, you may want to visit it today.

David Potash

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