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Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black[…]

It starts with the Declaration of Independence, Harris-Lacewell says.

Question: What institutions perpetuate differences in opportunity?

Harris-Lacewell: Let’s take the Declaration of Independence.  It’s my most favorite document of all time.  And it’s my favorite document not because it’s a perfect . . .  Not because what happens after 1776 is a perfect story, but because we actually have a document that says some pretty amazing things, right?  And at its court it says that human beings have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  So if we take those three – life, liberty, and the capacity to pursue happiness – and we look at the question of race infused in social institutions around each of those – life, freedom, and what we might think of as happiness being both sort of property and the capacity to earn; but also sort of the ability for life fulfillment.  So let’s walk through those three quickly.

So one, life.  So one way to think about life might mean to talk about health – the capacity for good health.  And we know that racial health disparities remain . . . not only remain central to sort of the experience that Americans have of the world, but in some spaces have been growing.  So your likelihood, for example, of having health insurance if you’re African-American or Latino is significantly less than your likelihood of having health insurance if you’re White.  Your likelihood of getting a cancer from which you will actually die – not recover – is much higher if you’re African-American or Latino.  Your likelihood of having a child die before the age of one if you’re African-American is double that of your likelihood if you’re born White – of dying before the age of one.  So we can look at from infancy all the way to old age.  At each step along the way, African-Americans and Latinos in sort of differing spaces, but particularly African-Americans and Latinos have much, much worse health prognosis, right?  You’re more likely to get sick.  You’re less likely to have access to quality healthcare.  You’re less likely to be able to pay for the healthcare to which you have access, and you’re more likely to die from your illnesses.  So higher morbidity and more mortality rates; lower insurance and access rates.  So that’s kind of the life peace.

Now if we think about liberty or freedom, one central element to our conception of freedom is the question of crime and incarceration, right?  What does it mean to . . . for the state to deprive you of your freedom?  It goes kind of to the notion of the social contract – that, you know, your responsibility as a citizen is to follow the laws of the land, and then the state will provide protection for your general freedoms.  So what does it mean to say that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation?  And that that incarceration rate is mostly fueled through the incarceration of Black and Brown men.  And increasingly the fastest growing populations of incarcerated persons are African-American women.  So what does that mean?  Does that mean that we have a highly criminal population of Black people who have to be incarcerated . . . whose freedom has to be deprived in order to keep the rest of us safe?  I don’t think so.  In fact we see that there are sort of two pieces to this question of incarceration.  One, what kinds of behaviors are illegal?  And two, of the behaviors that are illegally, which one actually get punished for being illegal?  So I like to say that my students at Princeton break the law every Thursday through Sunday.  They engage in raucous, public, law-breaking behavior.  They drink as under-aged students every night of the week; hundreds and hundreds of them.  And anyone who wanted to arrest them or fine them for this behavior could very easily make many, many arrests.  And we think that’s foolish.  We think that makes no sense.  We say, “Well, you know, they’re young people.  They’re college students.  You know whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it on their own.  It doesn’t make them much of a difference.”  And yet we actually have a law about people under the age of 21 drinking.  So when we think about how Black people end up incarcerated at such high rates, it both has to do with illegal activity; and it has a great deal to do with the monitoring of that illegal activity.  What sorts of activities do we see as being fundamentally a threat to sort of the broader state, the broader community?  And it turns out that the sort of relatively benign and yet illegal activities of Black and Brown, and particularly urban populations are considered much more valuable for monitoring.  So that’s life.   That’s liberty.  And then we might take pursuit of happiness.

What does it mean to say that a person has the ability to become a fully realized human being?  To pursue their own goals, and dreams, and hopes?  And I wanna suggest that race also fundamentally structures the capacity to pursue happiness.  At its most basic level, there’s an enormous wealth gap in America.  What that wealth gap means is that even as African-Americans have made up some of the space on the income gap . . .  In other words Black men and women earn closer to White men and woman on dollar-for-dollar earnings, but the wealth gap over the past 30 years has grown such that now the median wealth for a White family is about 11 times that of the median wealth for a Black family.  Now what does wealth do?  Well wealth buys the capacity to pursue happiness, because wealth means that if somebody gets sick; if someone gets divorced; if you need to quit your job and write a book for a while; if you need to downsize to a small . . .  that you have sort of the ability to sort of weather financial storms; you have the ability to make choices that mean that each and every paycheck has to come in.  Whenever you have to work every single week in order to pay the bills, the groceries, the everything, then your ability to pursue happiness; to become a fully-realized individual is constrained; not impossible, but it’s constrained.  One of the things that even a small cushion – even $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 certainly $100,000 of banked wealth – means is it means choices.  It means options.  It means being able to think about going back to school for training in a new field because it turns out you really love literature instead of computers.  It means that when you send your kids off to college, you don’t have to tell them you must become an investment banker in order to support yourself, your kids, and us, but you might actually decide to become an actor instead.  So all of the ability in this country for human beings to pursue the things that are life-giving and happiness-giving, right, are in part related to these structures around wealth which have racialized meaning.  So if we look at life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, each of those three areas are structured in our country in ways that Whites overall have a great deal more access to them than African-Americans.