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Is racial inequality an unwelcome intruder to the new discourse on economic inequality? The present discourse on economic inequality emphasizes decades-long trends that have increased economic inequality, whether as a result of reoccurring features in the structure of capitalist economies or more recent changes in institutional, structural, and economic conditions. Researchers direct us to the rising fortunes of the top earners and asset holders relative to the rest, the declining fortunes of the middle class harmed by stagnating wages, and the declining share of industries (like manufacturing) in the economy. This new economic inequality discourse has preoccupied economists, garnered its own "beat" in leading publications, led to bestselling books, transfixed current political debates, and now (finally) seduced legal academia. The new economic inequality is salient in part because it is a phenomenon not fully constrained by race, ethnicity, or geography that risks altering the fortunes of all "our kids," including those formerly firmly ensconced within the American dream.

Racial inequality, by contrast, is not new. One might debate the extent, trend line, and causes of racial inequality, but the fact of racial inequality (that socioeconomic status differs on the basis of race or ethnicity) is neither much in contention nor novel. Perhaps for this reason, the role of racial inequality in this new calculus is uncertain. One may note that certain racial, ethnic, or gender groups have experienced greater income and wealth losses from the recession, losses as yet unrecovered. Or even that trends that affect many Americans, such as wage stagnation for lower skilled jobs, declines in unionization, or changes in the relative share of manufacturing jobs, affect some groups more than others. But the fact of racial inequality is a given. Indeed, what is "new" about the present discourse on American inequality is that it emphasizes changes that affect us all. As one commentator recently put it pointedly: "[S]tructural inequity has leapt the racial barrier."

Add to the unremarkable, un-newness of racial inequality that race may complicate the search for solutions. The proffered solutions to the new economic inequality are not typically targeted at particular racial or ethnic groups. Rather, solutions seek to increase the rewards from work for all (through stronger worker organizations and wage gains), alter the general tax structure, and increase investments in and the quality of training and credentialing institutions like college and apprenticeship programs. And momentum on economic inequality seems most vigorously organized behind movements such as minimum-wage increases and paid sick leave that eschew a racial lens not just, it seems, for expedience, but because these remedies urgently address the immediate harm of wage and work conditions. Indeed, even highlighting racial inequality as a distinct problem does not necessarily require adopting race- or ethnicity-specific solutions. Many of the interventions needed for everyone in the emerging economic reality – better education and training, higher wages – may simply be needed more urgently for historically disadvantaged groups. But the interventions are not fundamentally different.

Given this account, what does one gain from highlighting racial inequality in contemporary inequality discourse? One can start by acknowledging that sometimes nothing is gained. For reasons of social-movement solidarity, tactics and strategy, and efficacy of solutions, race is often not the point. The workers who benefit from recent wage reforms or affordable housing creation are typically racially and ethnically diverse, and a majority are women. The role of racial, ethnic, or gender stratification may be salient in the condition of these workers and families, but it need not always be the dimension around which the remedies are organized.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Law | Law and Economics | Law and Race


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