Op-Ed: Americans are finally acknowledging inequality. Now we need to examine its racist roots

Black Lives Matter protesters.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

In the aftermath of this year’s annual celebration of our country’s birth, here’s some food for thought: inequality, once considered anathema to American ideals of fairness and democracy, is now accepted as a fact of American life.

This is not exactly something to celebrate, but it is progress of a sort. Since the Occupy movement nearly a decade ago, we have been on a steady path to mainstreaming the hard truth that the U.S. is not the meritocracy of historical myth, but a place in which the rich and their corporations are powerful and increasingly unrepentant about it. The consensus around inequality is forcing us to think more critically, to automatically question the shibboleth that America is inherently free and open. Even the right is no longer seriously advancing trickle-down economics as a solution for inequality, because it’s clear to just about everybody in 2019 that rising tides don’t lift all boats and likely never will.

But even as there has been a monumental shift in our national self-image, we haven’t shifted far enough. Discussions of inequality are focused overwhelmingly on economics — on money and jobs and wealth and the lack thereof. We’ve all read and seen countless stories in the news about down-and-out Americans -- the homeless, the unemployed, the vanishing middle class now working three and four jobs to make ends meet. Devastating stuff.

But we don’t then explicitly connect this devastation to the larger human inequality that has beset us from our beginning, racism first and foremost, but also all the other kinds of in-group/out-group thinking that makes economic inequality all but guaranteed.


We may never achieve real equality, but it’s the effort to get there that truly measures who, and what we are.

Not that we don’t talk more honestly about “other-ing” these days; we do. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have broken open new and important conversations about the nature of oppression, hopefully for good. Another long-taboo idea that’s moving into the mainstream is white privilege. Lots more white people can talk about it without reflexively flinching or protesting, and the phenomenon of white supremacy is also moving—more slowly and uncertainly, to be sure—toward the center of public discussions. The fatal police shooting of a black man that happened recently in South Bend, Ind. is pushing that city’s mayor, presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, toward just such a discussion with his black constituents and with potential black voters everywhere.

This is encouraging. But South Bend notwithstanding, these conversations tend to be in the context of pop culture and academia, not as a part of daily water-cooler talk. Whiteness is a hot topic for books, PhD dissertations, Internet dialogues: from these vantage points we break down the elements of whiteness, such as white fragility, privilege and unconscious bias. But these things are seldom identified as contributing factors in the now regular reports about inequality.

Media rarely delve deeply into race when examining employment trends, even though it shapes work opportunities and always has. At virtually every stage of life, both black men and black women are far more likely to be unemployed than their white, Asian or Hispanic peers. Yet in the thousands of news stories about struggling Americans, have you ever read about a black person who can’t find work due to racism? To the degree race makes its way into unemployment stories, it is presented merely as data and numbers, not evidence of a deeper truth about the country.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

I know I’m asking a lot. White Americans seeing the existence of white supremacy is one thing, seeing its specific role in the daily struggles of non-white Americans — in their own struggles, for that matter – requires a very thick skin and a whole other kind of honesty. Plus, it’s a downer. In this time of Trump, when unvarnished racism and name-calling feel depressingly re-mainstreamed, many of us want desperately to cling to the notion that we’re still a nation of possibility, that despite rampant inequality, there is still a reasonable possibility of achieving equality.

This determination to hold fast to idealism is important; it’s the basis of progressive thinking, and it drives change. But it also obscures truth.


Truth and idealism may feel like they’re eternally in conflict, especially in a country begun not really as a country so much as a social experiment. The fact that the experiment is not over, that after nearly 250 years it remains deeply imperfect but still evolving is reason for hope. We may never achieve real equality, but it’s the effort to get there that truly measures who and what we are.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.