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Raising Our Equity Grade

by Miriam Axel-Lute on March 29, 2012 · 1 comment

I adore the Capital Region, as most of you know. But when it comes to racial equity, we flunk.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the Urban Institute’s, which ranked Albany-Schenectady-Troy 93rd out of the largest 100 U.S. metros. (They gave Fs to the bottom 20.) We came in behind New Orleans for Christ’s sake.

Now, racial equity doesn’t measure attitude. It doesn’t measure how likely it is that a paranoid child killer will be backed up by a horrific vigilante laws and a blatantly criminal handling of the scene of his crime—and walk free. I am proud of Albany for joining the cities that gathered and spoke out loud and clear on the travesty of Trayvon Martin’s murder. (I was wearing a hoodie in my sick bed. Y’all didn’t want what I had. Trust me.) We may not be all sweetness and light here in upstate, but at least we know to be horrified by that.

What the Urban Institute did measure though, were five concrete statistics regarding segregation, neighborhood income, school test scores, employment, and homeownership rates that represent disparity between races. These things represent structural inequities that go beyond attitudes and individuals but represent real effects on opportunity.

For segregation they used the standard dissimilarity index, which measures how many people would have to move to achieve perfect integration. We scored a 58.6. Neighborhood income refers to the difference in average income for a neighborhood where the average white person resides and the average African-American resides. We scored 27.5 percent. (Note: they have a separate map addressing Latino-white equity. It’s a much smaller portion of our population; we do a fair amount better on these first two scores there, and a little better on the others, making us 74th overall.) On the difference between the average test-score ranking of schools attended by an average white student vs. an average black student, we came in at a disturbing 52.7 percent. Our employment gap, straightforwardly the difference in percent of each group employed, is 13.4 percent. Our homeownership gap is an astounding 67.1 percent.

All of those results ranked as “Ds” nationally, except homeownership, which pulled us into the F category. The Northeast and Midwest did poorly overall, while the West and South tended to do much better. If you want to check out the map yourself, see: bit.ly/yPRzfc.

Even on a strictly cold-blooded economic development scale, doing poorly on equity measures is bad news. Studies have found that regions with better racial equity also have better economic health—you can’t run a strong economy with some large segment of your population being left behind, neither allowed to contribute nor benefit to their full potential.

And demographically, that segment is our future. By 2042, the nation will be majority people of color. How do we think about building an inclusive, equitable economy in the middle of a recession?

Americans have always been proud of our penchant for entrepreneurship. Small businesses account for a large portion of job creation, possibly even more in a down economy. This dovetails well with the Buy Local backlash against big box stores exporting money out of local communities to distant headquarters, and which is starting to bear some tangible fruit. A survey last year found that independent businesses in places with a “buy local” initiative reported revenue growth of 5.6 percent on average in 2010, compared to 2.1 percent for those elsewhere.

Our own Capital District Local First is doing good work in supporting our local businesses—and they are hosting a symposium of interest to anyone running a business or a community organization, or considering doing so. It’s called “Local Lift,” and will be held on the morning of May 17 at the Hudson Valley TEC-SMART campus in Malta. (See capitaldistrictlocalfirst.org for more.)

It would be great to take the energy behind Local First, and see one of the things that comes out of it be an improvement in our region’s racial equity. The building blocks are there. Entrepreneurship won’t be a silver bullet, of course, even on just the economic equity factors. To move to where we need to go, we have to have a whole set of conversations about schools, fair housing and housing opportunity, foreclosure, and barriers to mobility. But if we can ride the wave of interest in “buying local” to some improvement on those neighborhood income and employment equity factors, that would be a win for every one of us.

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