Race, Class, and Education – The Web of Inequality

Table of Contents

Attending a middle-class school exposes minority students to higher expectations and more educational and career options, mainly because middle-class parents are typically more invested in the schools’ and their children’s performances than low-income parents, who have other needs to take care of first.

The relationship between housing and schooling is profound: in many parts of the country, the district that a student lives in will determine the school he or she attends, and, to the extent that school quality varies by location, the district one lives in will determine the quality of education one receives. As such, housing policies are de facto education policies.

That seems simple enough, but throw in the historical evidence of residential segregation by both race and class, as the two are inextricable, and the web of inequalities becomes even more entangled. It becomes apparent that as long as the quality of education is racially allocated, class inequality is racially distributed – which now sounds not so simple. We will be investigating this web to better understand the threads that construct and maintain it, but if one wishes to merely perceive it as a whole, one will see that the interdependence between racial, class, and education inequalities ensures that all elements must be considered when trying to combat social inequality.

Segregation by race is systematically linked to segregation by socioeconomic status and in turn, segregation by residential location. Since the 1970s, there has been a gradual increase in white families from large metropolitan areas moving to suburbs and small cities, leaving a dense concentration of black and Latino students in central cities. These majority-minority communities commonly reflect adversity – housing decay, failing infrastructure, and shortage of jobs – all of which are detrimental to children’s educational success.

On top of this racial segregation, public education is becoming increasingly segregated based on the class since schools are mostly financed by real estate taxes. Neighbourhoods with expensive homes fund schools where children of the wealthy may learn and play together. On the contrary, isolated in inner cities, high poverty schools (where the majority of students receive free or reduced lunch) must deal with challenges from a student body lacking health and proper nutrition, exposed to crime and gang violence, and living in unstable home environments.

The stigmatization of people living in these communities often sustains this vicious feedback loop of stagnation and unequal opportunity. Middle-class and even low-income whites can expect their children to attend low poverty schools. On the other hand, even middle-class minority families will end up in neighbourhoods and schools with high poverty concentrations because of housing discrimination and other factors that perpetuate segregated residential patterns.

In essence, schools tend to reflect and intensify racial stratification in society. Compared to high poverty schools, middle-class schools typically have better resources, more qualified teachers, tougher academic competition, and access to more developed social networks. Attending a middle-class school exposes minority students to higher expectations and more educational and career options, mainly because middle-class parents are typically more invested in the schools’ and their children’s performances than low-income parents, who have other needs to take care of first.

As such, there is a strong correlation between the percentage of poor and percentage of a minority in a school: the share of high poverty schools increases as the minority population in a school increases. 88 percent of high minority schools (where more than 90 percent of students identify as minorities) are high poverty schools. In contrast, 15 percent of low minority schools are also high poverty schools. These patterns of segregation by race and poverty show that, while the majority of white students attend middle-class schools, minority students in racially segregated schools are likely attending schools of concentrated poverty.

Furthermore, the achievement gap between more affluent and less privileged children is only widening as the education premium increases. College has virtually become a precondition for upward mobility. Men with only a high school diploma earn about a fifth less than they did 35 years ago, and the income disparity between those with a college degree and those without one is greater than ever: on average, American workers with a degree are paid 74 percent more. Paradoxically enough, though, despite the fact that educational attainment is more vital than ever before, access to higher education is increasingly becoming reserved for the elite. The children of college-educated parents are more than twice as likely to go to college as children of high school graduates, and seven times as likely as those of high school dropouts.

The demand for highly educated workers remains intense, as globalization and fast-paced technological change have substituted low-skill, manufacturing jobs with which a worker with a high school degree could support a middle-class life. As a result of the failure of our public education system to keep up with the demands of the globalized workforce, people who can afford private education have an advantage as competitors in the job market, ultimately accentuating socioeconomic class inequality.

Educational, racial, and class inequalities are intertwined insofar as racial segregation compounds educational inequality, which then exacerbates socioeconomic inequalities. One may not move a single thread without changing the entire structure of the web. Minorities are more concentrated in areas that are not able to make as much of an educational investment compared to that of whites. Consequently, they are less equipped to utilize the increasing returns to education, and the income gap increases as those that obtain post-secondary degrees go on to acquire higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs while increasing the likelihood that their children will do the same. Thus, the cycle of poverty as a function of educational attainment continues.

Written by: Tran Le