December 10, 2014

Race, Poverty, and Change in America: The Persistent Dilemmas of Equity and Equality

By: Vivian L. Gadsden

The themes of race, poverty and change in America are as relevant as ever, as our nation grapples with the recent tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. Racial politics, the realities of living as a minority in our country, and the complex and charged emotions attached to these themes are making front-page headlines every day. In the face of such tragedy, and at a time when questions of equity and equality are at the forefront of the public consciousness, how can we further the dialogue about true and meaningful change?

To look at some of these pressing questions in a historical context, and to commemorate the Brown v. Board decision, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, and the Lau v. Nichols decision, I helped organize a recent symposium here at Penn, entitled Race, Poverty, and Change in America: The Persistent Dilemmas of Equity and Equality.1 The symposium, held on Dec. 4th and 5th, was sponsored with support from the William T. Carter Chair in Child Development which I hold, the Graduate School of Education, and the Center for Africana Studies, and co-sponsored by the Annenberg School for Communication, the Law School, the School of Arts and Sciences, the School for Social Policy and Practice, the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, and the Penn Institute for Urban Research. 

More than 50 leading scholars, researchers, and other specialists from Penn and around the country, representing different disciplines and fields, offered perspectives on this 60-year struggle for civil and equal rights within contemporary environments and on the realities and limitations of a “post-racial” society.  The symposium featured discussions on historical to current-day problems, such as joblessness, employability, poor schools, neighborhood blight, and incarceration. Participants grappled with the seemingly intractable problems in cities and rural areas alike that create vulnerability and hardship for large numbers of Americans and subtle or covert discrimination for many others.

Bryan A. Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and Professor of Clinical Law at New York University Law School, offered a thought-provoking keynote address urging the audience to take up the problems of the less fortunate members of society, and Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History, challenged the audience to consider the origins and persistence of protests for justice.  Panelists and roundtables focused on longstanding and emerging issues of access and equity and broad matters of social welfare, education, and social justice. A student poster session at the end of the symposium highlighted award-winning essays that focused on the four commemorative events, culminating in an essay competition open to middle and high school students throughout Philadelphia. 

Several themes emerged from the discussion in the symposium:

  • Race, place, poverty, and change prohibit families, communities, and neighborhoods from sustaining themselves and individual family members from participating in the workforce and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their children.
  • The school crisis, the future of education, and quality of schooling, evident in recent problems facing urban school districts such as Philadelphia, Camden, New Orleans, and Chicago, are examples of the ways in which issues of funding, parent engagement, community support, students’ and teachers’ school experiences, student achievement, and the political economy converge to create a “perfect storm.”
  • Politics, government policies, and the law enter into the lives of Americans, particularly for poor communities and poor communities of color in ways that revise the construction of opportunity, the right to justice for all Americans, and the persistence of racial and class discrimination.  Well over seven million children are affected by the criminal justice system through parent incarceration.
  • Who counts as an American and what and how does language matter? The recent crisis around “border children” highlights the urgency to address the problems, as do the ongoing questions of immigration policy, legal documentation, language, and humans as documented in America.
  • Race is embedded in the American identity and in American politics.  We must question what drives political actions, and how color-blind versus race-conscious policies are implicated, negotiated, and manipulated in these actions.
  • Poignant images presented through multiple media highlight the persistence of the problems of race, poverty, and difference. Among the questions raised were: What is captured in an image: that is, how are pictures and the words associated with them used to represent the diversity of experience in America, how do they influence observers, and what do they portend for the future of equity and equality? 
  • Discussions about gender equality in and out of the workplace, ongoing efforts around reproductive rights, and controversies about sexuality and same-sex marriage have led to some changes in social and public policies at different levels of government.  Among the questions raised were: How are these issues represented and understood in political and public perspectives, and how are they likely to be situated in future discourses on equity and equality?

Not surprisingly, the recent tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York and the resulting protests constituted a significant part of the discussion, particularly their relationship to our national history and their prominence in the contemporary racial politic.

Participants agreed that the Brown v. Board decision, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, and the Lau v. Nichols decision, as well as the policies that resulted, represented the potential to reshape the experiences of millions of disenfranchised American children and families.  They provoked debates, resistance, opposition, polarization, and social conscience while confronting the major barriers that reduced quality of schooling and quality of life for many Americans, disproportionately Black, Latino, and poor.  However, a critical question persists: Has the potential been realized, and who should assume responsibility for achieving this in the future?

While there have been clear changes in access and equity in America, and few would deny such change, the path to change is worth noting, as is the continued challenge of whether and how justice is enacted.  The discussion among participants and with the audience focused on “remembering”—in not forgetting the multiple sacrifices made by renowned and nameless Americans in the struggle for access, opportunity, and equality—and on future efforts to effect positive change for countless others.  As we move forward, we ask: What questions and problems persist in the multiple contexts in which children and families grow?  Where does America go from here? What is the change that we seek?  What actions are necessary to effect this change?

Vivian L. Gadsden is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow. She is also the William T. Carter Professor of Child Development and Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education; Faculty in Africana Studies as well as Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies; and Director of the National Center on Fathers and Families.

1The Symposium will be planned as an annual event.  View the list of participants or watch a video of the keynote.  


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