Breaking the Myths of Education and Racial Inequality

Popular myths attempting to explain racial inequity range from the importance of two-parent households, to full-time employment, to financial literacy. Their focus stems from an American ethos built on the value of individual responsibility and work ethic, the ability to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps to earn a better life for yourself and your family. Most prominent among these explanations for racial inequality — and the resulting wealth gap — between Black and White Americans is education. But what does research suggest is the true value of education and its limitations when it comes to achieving a more equal society?

Adjusted for similar education levels, disparities in Black and White wealth and mobility persist: The median White adult who attended college has 7.2 times more wealth than the median Black adult who attended college, and 3.9 times more wealth than the median Latinx adult who attended college. Similarly disparate, among households under age 55, the median White high school dropout has similar wealth to the median Black adult who graduated high school and attended at least some college, according to data from the Survey of Consumer Finance.

This is not to suggest there is no value to education in building wealth, but that the ethos of hard-work-and-education has its limits in building an equitable society. The challenge of inequality is not an individual one, but a societal one. Research suggests that, while individual efforts can be helpful to improve lives, it is unlikely that two-parent households, full-time employment, financial literacy, or even education paves our pathway to broader equality. One of the most pernicious factors is racial inequality not only in income, but in wealth. 

Why is wealth important? 

While research suggests some truth to the saying “money can’t buy happiness,” evidence also suggests that money can provide opportunities and access to experiences on which happiness can be built. For an American family, wealth offers providence and freedom for the American dream: healthcare and quality food for improved quality of life; higher likelihood to overcome illness, and longer lifespans; childcare and tutoring support to alleviate pressure on parents; adequate housing in a community of one’s choice. What money buys, if not happiness, is the time and freedom to allow happiness to more successfully develop. 

The largest source of wealth is generational, passed down from grandparents, to parents, to you, and likely to your children. It’s built on land, home, and business ownership, serves as collateral for loans, a buffer for hard times, and investments on which to build. Most wealth is inherited from the previous generation, which means that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and structural racism in education, housing, and finance create and sustain the racial wealth gap we see today.

Looking beyond the myths toward potential solutions

When we accept that neither education, nor family structure, nor full-time employment, nor consumption habits alone can address unequal outcomes, we can focus closer on what such factors can provide when working in conjunction, and in their proper historical contexts. There is no single panacea to solve inequality, but each remedy brings opportunities to help build more equitable wealth distribution and, ultimately, broader access and opportunity for American families. 

If education is not the sole solution for an equitable society, what specific role can it play? One can wonder whether education can break the cycle of inequality, or whether breaking the cycle of inequality can fix education. Yet given what we know about the impact of education on income and wealth across races, this chicken-or-egg question becomes clearer: address privilege and inequality, and education outcomes will inherently benefit. 

Not only do wealthier parents tend to send their children to better resourced schools that help equip them to thrive as adults, but those children may also grow up to receive their generational inheritance. The root of fixing the problem is based on how we finance schools through fairer funding practices to ensure our education system serves all our children regardless of wealth. Fixing our education system is inextricable from fixing our financial inequity; that is, focus on the financial inequities, and the educational playing field will more naturally level, creating a cycle of higher educated students, who feed a stronger workforce, informed voters, a stronger democracy, and more equal wealth. 

Creating an environment where everyone can thrive

Breaking myths of inequality begins with acknowledging the inherent shortcoming of individualism against systemic inequality. While individual responsibility is important, a focus on systemic equality — specifically wealth as a means towards access and opportunity — creates the environment for people to thrive both significantly and long term. 

Only when we break the cycle of inequality can education truly matter in helping close societal gaps. Education alone will not create a more equal society, but a more equal society will promote better education access for all. 

One organization working to address these inequities in a systematic way is the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race’s Schools Committee. Read more about the work of that committee.