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Divided We Fall

New Essay Collection Aggressively Outlines American Disparities But Fails to Rally a Response

Tom Chalkley

By R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 1/4/2006

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences

The New Press, hardcover

When maneuvering through Baltimore you often feel as though you’re traveling between two worlds. One world sparks tourists to compliment the city’s beauty. The other world provides the empirical evidence behind the city’s sixth-place finishes in national rankings of the country’s poorest and most dangerous cities. In this world you find working families, mostly black, desperately trying to make ends meet despite the incredible forces working against them. You find an unrelenting drug trade, havens for homicide, extreme poverty, and nihilism exacerbated by unemployment and a public school system in disarray. That the city resides in the third-wealthiest state in the country might feel contradictory, if not for that pesky word we try in earnest to avoid: inequality.

American sociology is littered with books telling us how much race, democracy, and class matter. Discussion of broad social inequality is less pervasive. Exactly how unequal are things in the land of the free and home of the brave? In 2001, the wealthiest 1 percent was 4,440 times wealthier than the bottom 40 percent. Nationwide, $1,348 more is spent per pupil in affluent districts as compared to high-poverty districts. Black people earn 57 cents to every white dollar. And black infants are 2.4 times more likely than white babies to die before their first birthday.

Such disheartening figures—and there are sadly many, many more—are found
in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences, edited by James Lardner and David A. Smith. The duo, employing the talents of 23 contributors, discusses at length matters of inequality and how it, well, matters: This essay compilation covers a good deal of ground, moving from topics such as the growing gaps in college enrollment by race and class to disparities in health care and the racial divide. An admirable effort indeed, but as Bill Moyers notes in the introduction, change only occurs if its readers get “mad enough to get organized.”

Inequality Matters features a star-studded lineup of progressive and liberal activists, writers, and academics, among them Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times reporter David Kay Johnston, American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, Sojourners Magazine founder Jim Wallis, and the aforementioned Moyers, TV journalist and president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. These people know their stuff, and you can’t easily find fault in their collective efforts. Each essay is well argued, informative, and nuanced, all of which should be expected from such an experienced, talented, and diverse group.

But the book’s greatest strength is in its diversity. Discussion of inequality is usually sectarian and is rarely ever a united front. Black activists advocate for black advancement, feminists fight sexism, and labor leaders bemoan de-unionization. Refreshingly, the writers of Inequality Matters concern themselves with every form that inequality takes.

For example, Richard Kahlenberg attacks the re-segregation of schools with the aptly titled “The Return of ‘Separate but Equal,’” while Meizhu Lui’s “The Snow and the Treadmill” highlights the economic chasms between ethnic groups, complementing one another with aplomb. Kahlenberg, a white male, writes: “America does not have an education system. It has, to oversimplify slightly, one system for middle-class students, which is working fairly well, and one for low-income and minority students, which is working very badly.” Lui, an Asian-American woman, recalls how she learned her place in America’s economic hierarchy as a Dunkin’ Donuts employee. “As an Asian, I would be expected to work harder, for less pay, than the white ‘counter girls’ beside me.”

These essays illustrate that an equal America has yet to be achieved, yet their claims of two Americas understate the case. The purpose of the collection, however, isn’t to inundate you with factual information but to evoke action. And the book fails in this mission, which, to be fair, is a nearly impossible task to accomplish. Inequality Matters’ premise is that horrifying statistics will enrage and guilt us into action, but absent is a critique of the indifference and lack of empathy that allows for these inequalities to continue. While Inequality Matters is a well-intentioned, well-written treatise, the cynic must question its rationale. Before committing their efforts to this collection, and before demanding that its audience “get mad enough to organize,” the writers should have posed this question to themselves: Does inequality, no matter how enormous, anger us at all? That would be a topic worthy of scholarly examination.

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