New seminar series addresses Racism and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America

Hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program at Penn, 13 virtual panel conversations with faculty and guest experts tackle racial disparity.

Seated rows of workers with "CASA" shirts on hold signs saying "I deserve $15/hr"
(Pre-pandemic image) The inaugural session of the preceptorial centered on income and wealth disparities.

What is the current state of racial disparity in the United States? What are its root causes, and how can we address them? These are the questions posed to Penn faculty and guest participants in Racism and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America, a preceptorial run by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program in partnership with other Penn entities and consisting of 13 conversations running throughout the 2020-21 academic year.

The program, which is open to the public, is a collaboration between the SNF Paideia Program, the Office of the Vice President for Social Equity & Community, the Office of the Provost, the Andrea Mitchell Center, Civic House, and New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives as part of the Year of Civic Engagement.

A preceptorial is not a course taken for credit but rather a discussion of ideas, said Provost Wendell Pritchett, who introduced the first panel on Oct. 26.

“The killings and protests of this year have led many observers to wonder, and I include myself here, if the country is at a precipice of a steep decline or at the beginning of a welcome rise to a fair and more equal future. It’s safe to say it feels like a tipping point one way or another. I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that it’s the latter,” Pritchett said. “That said, this is our reality. There’s no corner of American life unaffected by racism.”

Provost Pritchett addresses a group over zoom
“Structural racism, its consequences, and its solutions, are the connective tissue of our preceptorial,” said Pritchett. 

The session centered on income and wealth disparities, with Amy Castro Baker of the School of Social Policy & Practice; Lisa Servon, professor of city and regional planning in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design; and Regina Smalls Baker, professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy at The New School.

The session was moderated by Michael Delli Carpini of the Paideia program. “We decided to start with this particular topic, income and wealth disparity, because, especially in an economic system like the United States, income and wealth are arguably at the center or foundation of many of the other race disparities,” Delli Carpini said.

This conversation is especially relevant during a pandemic where African Americans are dying at much higher rates than the majority population, Pritchett said. In Pennsylvania alone, “Blacks make up about 10% of the population and account for 30% of the cases and 20% of the deaths. And, of course, these cases are rising, unfortunately,” he said. COVID’s impact exposes the depth of structural racism across American society, which manifests in health disparities, quality of care differences, and economic inequality, he said.

Darrick Hamilton began the conversation by illustrating wealth and income disparities across racial lines. Prior to the pandemic, the top .01% of earners (those making above $1.5 million) controlled approximately 90% of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 50% control about 1%, he said. This gap “is larger than it’s ever been, dating at least back to the Great Depression, to a generation that was coming out of the Gilded Age,” and will only become more pronounced as the pandemic rages on, he said.

This disparity of wealth and class is even more pronounced when we look at race, Hamilton said. While Black people comprise 13% of the U.S. population, they own less than 3% of the nation’s resources. “The typical Black household has about a dime for every dollar” of the typical white household, Hamilton said. “The wealth disparity is dramatic, and it will get worse. That is, unless government acts.”

Wealth is not just about financial security; it also affords agency, he said. Economic security provides people with the ability to surmount medical challenges or fight an expensive legal system. “The problem with this is not only the economic concentration of resources but the plutocracy, the ability to convert those economic resources into political gain so that you can continue to accumulate,” Hamilton said. “It’s antidemocratic.”

Economic power can be converted into political power, he said. “Banks are able to target Black people because they’re politically marginalized. So, when we see fines and fees, it’s because the locality can exert influence politically on the population to balance their budgets.” As a result, Black people are labelled as a “surplus population,” allowing the U.S. to caricature them as “welfare queens, deadbeat dads, and super predators” and “define the poor as undeserving,” Hamilton said.

The situation in the U.S. is “even worse than the government statistics portray” because of the way we collect and interpret data, said Regina Smalls Baker. Many families do not qualify as “poor” according to the official poverty threshold but can’t afford to pay rent or medical bills or are suffering from food insecurity, she said. Based on current projections, the unemployment rate is higher among Black Americans, and that trend will continue to grow.

Woman in classes delivers a zoom presentation
“The creation of racial categories required racism, this ideology or belief that human groups can be hierarchically structured,” said Regina Smalls Baker. “Think about free versus enslaved people, human versus savage. Racialized categories gave legitimacy to this white racial identity as a privileged position.”

“We can get lost in these numbers,” said Amy Castro Baker. “And this is part of the problem. It’s so big that we forget that these are real people in real families, in real lives. It’s not just about data points.” Castro Baker has researched Black women ages 45 to 65, a sandwich generation that is both raising young people while caring for the elderly. These women are cornerstones, she said, so “it’s not just about the house that’s lost or the wealth gap; it’s about all the people that are relying on her to make ends meet.”

“The very structure of the system itself is set up to extract wealth out of Black and brown communities, Castro Baker said. “The ways in which Black communities were targeted for wealth extraction during the housing crisis was legal. It was legal, but unethical. When you have a broker saying, ‘My ideal customer is an uneducated widow, who’s behind on credit card payments, who has a car payment in addition to a house payment, and is having difficulty paying things off.’ That's a direct quote to Congress by a broker,” Castro Baker said. “They’re not hiding it because it’s legal.

“We intentionally designed the safety net such a way that doesn’t actually help people accumulate wealth,” Castro Baker said. “Beyond the numbers are individual folks, and they’re living at the nexus of policy system failures that are intentional.

Lisa Servon discussed two systems often taken for granted by many non-Black citizens: the banking system and the justice system. Black people “are not necessarily treated well by mainstream financial institutions,” and as a result “use alternative financial services like check cashers and payday lenders and pawn shops in greater numbers proportionate to their population” compared to white people, she said.

“That simple act of banking or managing your money has gotten to be really important in the last couple of decades” because it is now tied to your credit score, which didn’t exist before the 1980s, she said. Now, a credit score “represents financial citizenship that you need in order to apply for a job, to rent an apartment, or to buy a house.” This affects Black people’s ability to “participate equally in society and in the economy,” Servon said.

Woman in glasses with a headset addresses a zoom audience
“There are two systems that we take for granted that we use every day,” said Lisa Servon. “The banking system and the justice system.”

The justice system “has been incredibly financialized” as well, Servon said, citing the example of traffic tickets. A $200 ticket for running a red light would be easy enough for her to pay, Servon said. But if one doesn’t have the money to pay off a ticket up front, it will generate other surcharges, “and if I don't pay it in enough time, I might actually have to go to jail.” These systems don’t just impoverish individuals, “they impoverish families and communities as well,” she said.

Given this depiction of the wealth and income gap, “are we at a point where no one needs to hold racial animus anymore because it’s so embedded structurally?” Delli Carpini asked.

Structural racism is so embedded that “it’s sort of beside the point to try to pin the label of ‘racist’ on someone else or to claim that you’re not racist,” said Servon. “That’s not really the conversation.” Explicit policies have specifically benefitted white people over their Black counterparts, she said, citing the increase in imprisonment incarceration starting the late ‘70s and early ‘80s during the War on Drugs. “It’s not actually that so many more people started using drugs and so many more Black people started using drugs. It was the way in which the laws were created and carried out,” she said.

Regardless of individual intentions, “you can’t opt out of your era,” Castro Baker said. “If we start with the premise that our country is indeed structurally unjust and been predicated on structural racism, that means that I cannot opt out of it, I can’t somehow believe that I’ve kind of educated myself out of participating in a racist system, right? We’re beholden to it. We are a part of it.” By fixating on individual infractions, “we’re blinding ourselves to the various systems that we’re benefiting from,” she said. “We’re so focused on this microlevel piece because we want to worry about labels, rather than seeing the system as a whole, that oftentimes it can blind us to these ideas of accumulated disadvantage, and it becomes almost an arms race of awareness.

“This is a structure that is accumulating disadvantage in justice and racism and reproducing it on its own, whether I act, or I don’t act,” Castro Baker said. “Until we see that piece, we can't really understand root causes.

“Being at Penn means that you have a position of privilege and are in some way benefiting from a system,” she said. This “has to be the first step. If you can’t see it in yourself, you can’t begin to disentangle it in terms of data.”

Woman addresses zoom audience
“We start with the premise that our country is indeed structurally unjust and been predicated on structural racism. That means that I cannot opt out of it,” said Amy Castro Baker. 

Delli Carpini asked speakers to enumerate suggested policies as well as suggestions for “a more radical approach and more dramatic approach to dealing with these issues, given how fundamental they are.”

One thing that is necessary, said Smalls Baker, is an overhaul to “this longstanding narrative that it’s all about individual choices and behavior. If that’s the perspective that you have coming to the policy table, then the likelihood that your policy’s going to be positive and be effective in actually addressing the problem is not going to happen.” Instead of asking what accounts for these gaps, it’s more important to ask, what’s maintaining them, she said.

The solution is centering people in the policy making process, said Castro Baker. “Those of us who are social scientists or economists, we’re really good at solving complicated problems and we forget that people are the experts on their own lives.”

Castro Baker also urged colleagues to “think about different types of data beyond raw empirical statistics. That’s not going to change the public’s mind,” she said. “That’s not going to change politicians’ minds.” Narrative data is necessary to reimagine the social contract, she said.

Hamilton advocated for reparations coupled with an economic rights frame, “recognizing that political rights, civil rights are not enough,” he said. “When we have reparations, we will have the truth and reconciliation, which will include the full-throated acknowledgment of how we got so unequal today.” Hamilton recommended a federal jobs guarantee, which would include a care economy to provide quality care birth through elder care for all citizens.

At the end, Delli Carpini took questions from the audience, many of which centered around the query of Penn’s responsibility in addressing issues within our community, within Philadelphia, and more broadly.

Being a good neighbor means “having a lot more investment in the local community and really thinking about the culture of the place,” said Servon. Departments and schools are also thinking through how to make their curriculum more anti-racist and how to make programs more exclusive, she said, touting the online collaboration between the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Social Policy & Practice that resulted in a noncredit course, The Penn Experience: Racism, Reconciliation, and Engagement.

“Those of us that are in a position where we’re running things need to be willing to let go a little bit,” said Castro Baker. “It’s a good time to have this conversation.”

The next conversation, Workplace Diversity, Culture, and Leadership, will be on Nov. 11 at 5 p.m.

Amy Castro Baker is assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Michael X. Delli Carpini is faculty director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program, the Oscar H. Gandy Professor of Communication & Democracy at the Annenberg School for Communication, and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Darrick Hamilton is Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy at The New School.

Wendell Pritchett is provost of the University of Pennsylvania and Presidential Professor in the Penn Carey Law School and Graduate School of Education.

Lisa Servon is Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor, City and Regional Planning in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.

Regina Smalls Baker is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.