Why Race Relations Should Be a Cabinet Post

President Clinton's commission for an Initiative on Race has now been working for a year and will soon submit its report on how "to move the country closer to a stronger, more just, and unified America, one that offers opportunity and fairness for all Americans." Is it too much to expect that the commission will address the persistent problem of poverty in the inner city and affirm its commitment to tackling this problem by recommending the establishment of a cabinet department on race relations?

The forthcoming report promises to supercede the Kerner Report of 1968, which warned "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal." In the intervening years, poverty and unemployment have persisted in the inner city, while affirmative action programs, designed to compensate for past patterns of racial discrimination, have been progressively whittled away.

One of the most urgent problems the president's Initiative on Race must address is how to help the residents of the inner city break out of the vicious circle of poverty. This is a tightly interconnected system of race and poverty. The diagram (see above, right) sets forth the causal linkages among a set of 11 variables that perpetuate the vicious circle. Here's a synopsis of this dynamic which summarizes decades of social-science research:

The inner-city residents tend to have (1) low-marketable skills which result in (2) a very high level of joblessness. One reaction to the deprivations of unemployment is to develop an "underground" economy of (3) drug dealing and drug abuse, as well as (4) other criminal activities, which eventually expose the participants to (5) high rates of arrest and incarceration.

Since most defendants in the criminal justice system are males, a high incidence of (6) female-headed households results. And in the absence of parental supervision, (7) the teenage pregnancy rate tends to be high.

Given low-marketable skills on the part of women and their grown children as well as labor-market racial discrimination, (8) the family income from work and welfare tends to be low, which means they can afford only low-rental or (9) poor housing.

Living under these circumstance promotes (10) a high rate of alienation from society; and attending school in such an environment undermines the motivation to learn, resulting in (11) a high rate of school dropouts.

It should not come as a surprise that school dropouts, having few marketable skills, are likely to wind up unemployed - whereupon we go around the vicious cycle again.

The realities of poverty in the inner city are much more complex than this simplified causal model conveys. The 11 variables of the model are embedded in a rich matrix of historical and social-cultural experiences.

Two sets of external forces - one economic and other other a pattern of public-policy decision making - activate the interconnections of the vicious circle. Structural changes in the economy, due to technological innovations, are reducing the demand for low-skilled workers. And the failure of local, state, and federal governments to invest in human capital by creating high-quality schools in the inner city results in poor schools that produce high dropout rates. Imagine if every inner-city classroom were geared to meeting the educational needs of the children by having an appropriate teacher-student ratio and by providing computers linked to the Internet. Many students would acquire marketable skills that would enable them to break out of the poverty trap.

Unless the vicious circle of poverty - which exacts enormous costs from American taxpayers - is eradicated, it will expand in scope over time. To address the complexities of the systemically-linked problems of race and poverty requires a think tank focusing on novel public-policy issues and the sustained attention and budgetary resources of a high-level federal official, such as a cabinet secretary.

Clinton's commission for an Initiative on Race should, therefore, recommend the establishment of a new cabinet department to cope with the pathologies of poverty and racism. Such a cabinet department is at least as crucial to the well-being of our country in the 21st century as such existing cabinet departments of agriculture, labor, transportation, and commerce. A cabinet department on race relations is long overdue. The time bomb of race has been ticking long enough. Let's defuse it before it explodes.

* William M. Evan, professor emeritus of sociology and management at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of 'Social Structure and Law' and 'Organization Theory: Research and Design.' His email address is evanw@wharton.upenn.edu

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