The Catch 22 of Racial Disparities

In a study that affirms conventional wisdom and common sense, a team of Georgetown University researchers reported recently that an advanced college degree is the necessary ticket to employment and economic security. But in a breakthrough of sorts, the co-authors of the report spoke on National Public Radio and then with me about the unspoken evidence in the report that underscores continuing racism in our society.

Economists at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce write in “The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings” that college graduates will earn substantially more over their lifetimes than those who don’t have a sheepskin. Who doesn’t know this?

When record numbers of Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to not only afford outrageously expensive college tuition and fees, this study strikes me as a particularly cruel academic exercise. In fact, many graduates are finding it nearly impossible to find or keep a job. Still, studies such as these draw attention to the wage and class divisions that underscore an inherent lack of fairness in our national economy.

Specifically, the economists went to great data-mining depths to disclose the median lifetime earnings, over a 40-year working career, for all workers. The total comes to about $1.7 million, or slightly less than $42,000 per year (or $20 per hour). Worse, they tell us, a bright dividing line separates highly educated Americans from all others.

Workers without a high school diploma or GED have median lifetime earnings of $973,000, or about $24,000 a year ($11.70 per hour). By comparison, all graduate degree holders can expect lifetime earnings at least twice that of those with only a high school diploma. The figures soar even higher for workers with professional degrees (mainly doctors and lawyers), who earn more than $3.6 million ($91,200 per year; $44 per hour) over the course of a lifetime.

OK, maybe, without the scholars’ work, we wouldn’t have the specific numbers to give the aura of certainty to what every school kid intuitively learns by the sixth grade. Dropouts struggle, while doctors and lawyers must study hard to earn big bucks. Perhaps the value of this study is that it might focus that school kid’s attention on homework. After all, studying hard is what separates the high-income surgeon from the low-wage greeter at big box stores across the country.

Or is it something else?

Hidden in the less obvious contours of this study is a troubling puzzle, one that even when pressed to explain, the scholarly researchers say they can’t answer with precision: Why doesn’t education improve the earnings potential for black and Latino workers? As the Georgetown study makes clear, “[f]or African Americans and Latinos, there are large gaps between earnings when compared to Whites, especially at the lowest levels of educational attainment.”

Appearing on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace Morning Report,” Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s three co-authors, acknowledged the discrepancy and noted the report makes it clear that whites earn more than black and Latino workers—even when master’s and professional degrees are taken into account. “What comes through here very strongly is, irrespective of occupation, there’s a difference in earnings that we can’t account for,” he explained.

Say what? Why can’t the expert economists explain or say what immediately came to my mind—racism? Indeed, ask any person of color, with or without an advanced degree, and they can explain the obvious.

Stephen J. Rose, another of the report’s co-authors, nodded and smiled when I mentioned this to him. But he said he couldn’t argue convincingly with African Americans and Latinos who know the score. But he was unwilling to say as much in this report. “We certainly do suggest that something like that, some unknowable reason, is at play, and we highlight the fact that there are racial gaps,” he said. “But we’re not as aggressive as naming it, or using the R-word.”

The R-word? What’s that about? Well, researchers know racism factors into the income gap that yawns between black and Latino workers and white workers, but the conventions of academic rigor prevent them from saying so explicitly and unambiguously. Scholarly researchers are constrained from saying clearly what they find if they can’t use statistical measurements to describe it.

“We feel that we’re calling attention to what’s happening in the economy,” Rose said, noting the study goes as far as possible but doesn’t cross the line. “We take the reader up to the water and say look at the water. But we can’t say or do any more than that within our econometric approach.”

That is precisely the Catch-22 of racial disparities. Since institutional racism can’t be measured within the boundaries of empirical science, average Americans can—and do—assume it no longer exists.

Even when the evidence is clear, as in the 33 pages of unimpeachable facts and detailed graphs in the “College Payoff” report, the racism within goes without remark or condemnation. Such scholarship is long on describing the obvious but falls way short of telling the truth.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.