The Structure of Inequity and Racism in the US
This is the central feedback loop for families in the US. We can start anywhere, but let’s start with housing quality. The higher the quality of housing/value of property, the higher the quality of education. This is a causal connection, meaning, on average, when housing values increase, the quality of education increases. Why? Good question. It’s because in the US, K-12 education is funded locally, predominantly through property taxes. This increases the dollars spent per student, and all else the same, increases educational quality. Place matters.
A quality education, among other things, enables one to express and present oneself and prepares a person to work, increasing the quality of a person’s jobs. Employment quality could be measured by income provided, including health and financial benefits provided. All these contribute to a person’s wealth over time, and allow them to improve the quality of their housing. This then increases the quality of education available to their children, which allows them to have high quality employment, to accumulate more wealth, and so on – generation after generation.
This is called a Reinforcing feedback loop. Reinforcing feedback loops cause powerful growth dynamic. And not just linear growth, but exponential growth. [Link to bank balance clip.]
Here’s the thing about reinforcing loops. They can drive incredibly powerful exponential increase over time, AND they can drive exponential decreases.
Historically in the US, real estate developers and regulators came up with a series of policies that segregated the housing stock in the US into categories: green, yellow, and red. The practice was known as “red lining” and relegated black people to live in the red areas, designated as risky for investors. Here we have two different stories happening at the same time; one is increasing value over time, and the other story starts with lower housing quality leading to lower quality of education, lower employment opportunity and quality, and no wealth accumulation. The dynamics in both types of communities keep going, generation after generation, reinforcing the initial change.
When you have the same structure driving these two stories – it’s a sign of a Success to the Successful dynamic. [More on the Success to the Successful dynamic here.]
But there’s more!
The families and kids growing up in the low wealth districts know exactly what has been going on. And they’re understandably angry and impatient. Generation after generation of free handouts to whites only (see GI Bill, Land Grants, etc.), no investment in their communities, just increased policing. They even have what’s called a School to Prison Pipeline. This is a practice of sending kids who express their anger and frustration in school directly into the criminal justice system — where they are pre-judged often based on the color of their skin.
That chain of cause and effect creates two more reinforcing feedback loops driving the American dream loop the wrong way.
In fact, when these feedback loops get going the wrong direction, they all drag down the quality of life and health for many people in these communities, not just those who were incarcerated.
Because employment is the primary source for quality healthcare, many people working part-time, (a strategic choice by employers to decrease their costs), do not have sufficient access to healthcare.
The quality of healthcare received while incarcerated is woefully lacking as well. And, in the US, disease and accidents can be catastrophic to one’s financial health, as well physical and mental health.
Another important causal connection to note is the one that connects housing quality to health. The historically red-lined poorer districts have long been known to be in the polluted parts of cities, closer to throughways, and in older buildings, with dilapidated housing, built with dangerous chemicals such as asbestos and lead paint. These factors lead to disease in adults – and children, making them less ready and able to flourish in traditional school settings.
So there are at least 5 reinforcing loops – aka vicious cycles, or doom loops, that bring and hold down entire populations health and well-being, and therefore earning potential.
Please note: these forces have nothing to do with individuals’ innate capabilities. Which isn’t to say those that innate gifts don’t vary or matter, but structure drives behavior. For example, would all the people you know continue working for their employers if they didn’t have to be? For better or worse, most of us spend our lives responding to these external forces.
Now your turn – let’s do a thought experiment. Typically high values in housing tend to increase investment in that community, and discourage investment in in areas with the lowest housing values. Let’s say, some businesses, maybe in an effort to improve community amenities, (but also to capture profits in an untapped market at relatively lower entry costs) develop outlets in areas where property values are low, but nearby property values have recently increased.
What happens next? More businesses invest. Young white people start to move into the community, increasing property values and rents. Then, the unintended side-effects develop. Over a period of years, unless the income level of the previous residents increases, they will be pushed out. This is the story of gentrification. Unbridled capitalism doesn’t solve everything, again it tends to reward the haves and punish the have-nots. Unmitigated capitalism leads to that Success to the Successful dynamic.
The income and wealth disparities of the population in the US tell both of these stories. This is structure that drives them both. The built assets in our communities, the education funding tradition, and the policies in, and connecting healthcare, housing, and justice together create almost inescapable burden for many communities.
There is bias in each of the institutional systems, and in the the links between them. They have been well-documented, and I’ll share some resources in a follow-up blog to give us a sense of the challenges we face in each area.
The only way to fix them is to consider how every historical policy has impacted communities differently – and to change those policies into ones that support wealth creation for everyone, but especially in the lower value communities, while minimizing unintended side-effects.
Systemic Insights for Prioritization
The institutions needing analysis and reform are Education and Justice, Housing and Health/Well-Being, with a priority on the first two. Education is essential to advancement and it is failing too many, and Justice at present time is unspeakably unjust.
But the many connections in between these areas are the ones that have given rise to this reinforcing Success to the Successful dynamic over the last 100 years. Here are key causal links to break as soon as possible:
1. Change education funding and programming to create equitable education for all children. Recognize there will be a significant delay to see the results.
2. Close down the school to prison pipeline. No more throwing kids’ lives away. Figure out different ways to get these youth on the right track, e.g. restorative justice is showing positive results.
3. Clean up the environment everywhere. Everyone must have clean water, air, and soil. This will take time too, though progress was being made until 2016.
4. Give everyone access to quality healthcare. Start with the ACA, and figure out how to make it sustainable. Shift investment focus to prevention.
After we cut these four causal links, we will have disabled these powerful vicious cycles that endow success only to those with previous financial success. It will still function to support the American Dream, but it won’t systemically trap those without means who falter.
Thoughts? I know you have them. Let’s hear it!
Many thanks, Kris
The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. “1934–1968: FHA Mortgage Insurance Requirements Utilize Redlining.” A Historical Shift from Explicit to Implicit Policies Affecting Housing Segregation in Eastern Massachusetts. Date accessed 21 October, 2020. https://www.bostonfairhousing.org/timeline/1934-1968-FHA-Redlining.html
Wile, Kristina. “Are You a Giver or a Taker?” STCollab.com WordPress blog. Systems Thinking Collaborative. June 12, 2018. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.stcollab.com/2018/06/12/are-you-a-giver-or-a-taker/
Blakemore, Erin. “How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans.” June 21, 2019. History.com. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits
Merritt, Keri Leigh and Haselby, Sam. “Land and the roots of African America poverty.” March 11, 2016. Aeon.co. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://aeon.co/ideas/land-and-the-roots-of-african-american-poverty
Nelson, Libby and Lind, Dana. “The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained.” February 24, 2015. Justice Policy Institute. Date accessed 21 October 2020. http://www.justicepolicy.org/news/8775
Adelman, Larry. “A Long History of Racial Preferences – For Whites.” RACE – The Power of an Illusion. 2003. Public Broadcasting System. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-02.htm#s
Wile, Kristina. “Incarceration & Health – Part III The Racial Divide.” STCollab.com WordPress blog. September 9, 2016. Systems Thinking Collaborative. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.stcollab.com/2016/09/09/incarceration-health-part-iii-the-racial-divide/
Avery, Beth and Lu, Han. “Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies.” September 20, 2020. National Employment Law Project. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.nelp.org/publication/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and-local-guide/
Wile, Kristina. “Incarceration & Health – Part II Families Repeating Patterns.” STCollab.com WordPress blog. August 16, 2016. Systems Thinking Collaborative. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.stcollab.com/2016/08/16/incarceration-health-part-ii-families-repeating-patterns/
Lerner, Michael. “One home, a lifetime of impact.” July 23, 2020. The Washington Post. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/23/black-homeownership-gap/