U.S. Economic Crisis Also Crisis of Race, Penn Professor Argues

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460September 9, 2011

Soon after the historic 2008 election of the country’s first African-American president an intense public debate began in some quarters of the United States.

Did Barack Obama’s victory signal the beginning of the end of racism and discrimination in the country? Was America finally becoming post racial?  

The meteoric rise of the Tea Party movement quieted the debate. The downturn in the U.S. economy virtually ended it as public discussion turned to the U.S. housing meltdown, banking-industry bailouts and soaring unemployment rates.

University of Pennsylvania political science professor Rogers Smith’s research concludes that the nation’s economic crisis is also a crisis of race and that non-white Americans are more adversely affected by the crisis than white Americans.

According to the Pew Research Center, the median household net worth for blacks in 2009 was approximately $5,700, for Hispanics $6,300 and for whites $113,000, down from approximately $12,000, $18,500 and $135,000, respectively, in 2005.

Yet Smith argues that leaders in both political parties are ignoring the critical factor of race in the country’s economic woes.

 The nation’s political divides are over whether the U.S. should pursue color-blind policies in the hope that all will advance without racial favoritism, or whether public policies should explicitly target racial inequalities, as they do many other public problems,” he says.

Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn and chair of the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism. His research centers on constitutional law, American political thought and modern legal and political theory with special interests in questions of citizenship, race, ethnicity and gender. 

He contends that there is an insufficiently explored middle ground politicians should consider.

“There are often many policy options that do not use racial categories, but some will predictably lessen racial gaps, others will sustain or worsen them.  It is time to focus not on whether to have racial categories in public policies but on the racial consequences of different policies."

Smith is co-author of the just published book Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America, written with Desmond King, a political science professor at Oxford University.

Smith has co-authored an op-ed published by The New York Times: “On Race, the Silence Is Bipartisan,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/opinion/on-race-the-silence-is-bipartisan.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=rogers%20smith&st=cse