Racial Inequality in the 21st Century: The Declining Significance of Discrimination
NBER Working Paper No. 16256
There are large and important differences between blacks and whites in nearly every facet of life - earnings, unemployment, incarceration, health, and so on. This chapter contains three themes. First, relative to the 20th century, the significance of discrimination as an explanation for racial inequality across economic and social indicators has declined. Racial differences in social and economic outcomes are greatly reduced when one accounts for educational achievement; therefore, the new challenge is to understand the obstacles undermining the development of skill in black and Hispanic children in primary and secondary school. Second, analyzing ten large datasets that include children ranging in age from eight months old to seventeen years old, I demonstrate that the racial achievement gap is remarkably robust across time, samples, and particular assessments used. The gap does not exist in the first year of life, but black students fall behind quickly thereafter and observables cannot explain differences between racial groups after kindergarten. Third, we provide a brief history of efforts to close the achievement gap. There are several programs -- various early childhood interventions, more flexibility and stricter accountability for schools, data-driven instruction, smaller class sizes, certain student incentives, and bonuses for effective teachers to teach in high-need schools, which have a positive return on investment, but they cannot close the achievement gap in isolation. More promising are results from a handful of high-performing charter schools, which combine many of the investments above in a comprehensive framework and provide an "existence proof" -- demonstrating that a few simple investments can dramatically increase the achievement of even the poorest minority students. The challenge for the future is to take these examples to scale.
An online appendix is available for this publication.