We are nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century and yet it is still true that the color of a person´s skin is probably the best predictor of their material standard of living. On my recent trip to Brazil I saw this firsthand and was struck yet again by the enduring legacy of slavery and racism.
In the elite neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities, the residents have almost entirely European features and the overwhelming majority of blacks are maids, street cleaners, or other service workers. The proportion of national income that goes to whites versus blacks has changed little in centuries and the concentration of wealth is even greater.
The same situation persists throughout Latin America, where the treatment of indigenous people also includes blatant human rights violations and virtual second-class citizenship. Whatever can be said about inequality in America and its racial component, we have come a long way and progressed much further than our Southern neighbors.
But we have a long way to go.
For four decades we have experimented with various methods of affirmative action based on raced-based preferences, which have resulted in significant upward mobility for blacks and other minority groups. That we have a fairly robust and sizeable black middle class and a rising Latino professional class is a testament to the success of affirmative action (which is not to say that many of these men and women would not have succeeded without racial preferences).
But there is a perception that racial preferences are un-American and amount to reverse discrimination. The perception has become widespread; there are too many examples of preferences being extending to the sons and daughters of the minority elite, and patience with affirmative action is wearing thin. Fortunately there is an easy fix that is starting to catch on. By simply changing preferences from race to economic status, we can lose the stigma of race and yet still lend a hand to those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic. If we also happen to assist poor whites from Appalachia or the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else, all the better.
The second thing that should be done to help ameliorate the effects of racism is to wholeheartedly promote universal preschool education. For a long time educators have realized that a child´s cognitive potential is largely determined before the child ever sets foot in kindergarten. From birth until the ages of 3-4 a child´s brain is absorbing information at a staggering pace. Without significant stimuli, a child´s development during these years is severely handicapped and their potential significantly stymied. Increasingly, researchers are showing that investments in preschool are some of the best that individuals and society can make.
Neither of these policies will completely end the legacy of racism, but they represent improvements over the status quo. They are policies that all countries should adopt, especially those where slavery once reigned.