Spotlight Exclusives

Racial Inequities Reveal a Profound Societal Failure

Jim Wallis, Sojourners Jim Wallis, Sojourners, posted on

Today, many want to believe we now live in a “post-racial” society. After the so-called “racial crisis” of the ’60s, white America, including some of those involved in the civil rights movement, had gone on to other concerns. The legal victories of black Americans in that period, as far as most white Americans are concerned, had settled the issue and even left many asking, “What more do blacks want?” In the decades since the passage of the momentous 1960s civil rights legislation, the personal racial attitudes of many white Americans and the opportunities for some black Americans to enter the middle class of society have changed.

But bigger challenges persist. Today, the systematic, pervasive, and durable character of racism in the United States and the conditions of life for what many call the “black underclass” continue to hold blacks back and unfairly benefit whites. And as members of the society that gave rise to and continues to perpetuate these inequities, we all share a moral responsibility to take action.

Profound racial inequality continues to exist in the United States of America. Despite landmark court decisions and civil rights legislation, nearly 30 percent of black Americans still live in poverty, a fact that should be morally unacceptable to all Americans.

In 2011, the median household income for a white family was $67,175, compared to $40,007 for a Hispanic household and $39,760 for a black household. The wealth gap is even more staggering: the median white household is 13 times wealthier than the median black household, and 10 times wealthier than the median Hispanic household.

Of course, economic inequality is both caused by and can be measured by factors beyond mere dollars and cents. For example, in 2013 the homeownership rate for white households was nearly 27 points higher than for minority households. The unemployment rate for African Americans has never been less than 66 percent higher than the unemployment rate for whites. Looking at higher education, 17 percent of African American kids graduate from college, compared to 31 percent of white kids.

And the area of society where we see perhaps the greatest racial inequalities is our criminal justice system. According to the Sentencing Project, which has extensively analyzed the data compiled by the government۪s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “More than 60 percent of the people in prison today are people of color. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and Hispanic men are 2.5 times more likely. For black men in their thirties, one in every ten is in prison or jail on any given day.”

Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that one in three African-American men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime. This compares to 1 in 6 Latino men and 1 in 17 white men.

All of these statistics suggest a troubling reality: Due to more than 200 years of brutal slavery and 100 more of legal segregation and discrimination, no area of the relationship between black and white people in the United States is free from the legacy of racism.

And white people in the United States have benefited from the structure of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is). Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white.

Here is a moral principle: to benefit from domination is to be responsible for it. Merely to keep personally free of the taint of racist attitudes is both illusory and inadequate. And if whites have benefited from a racist system, which we have, we must try to change it.

We must not give in to the popular temptation to believe that racism existed mostly in the Old South or before the 1960s. Neither can any of our other struggles against poverty, hunger, or homelessness be separated from the reality of racism. There are always connections. If we are ever to overcome poverty in America, we must all work together to make white privilege and structural racism things of the past. This means fully acknowledging the historical factors and continued discrimination that drive the vast inequalities we see today and implementing policies that help correct them.

Doing this will be incredibly difficult, take a lot of time, and will not rid our nation of poverty all by itself.  Yet it is a necessary precondition of creating a truly just society, with equal opportunities for economic success available to all people.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Jim Wallis is president and founder of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter at @jimwallis.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 

If you wish to submit for consideration a commentary to Spotlight, please visit our commentary guidelines and submission page.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives