As faculty members and co-directors of the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at USC, we lead action research using CUE’s Equity Scorecard. The mission of our center is to create the “tools” needed for colleges and universities to bring about racial/ethnic equity in students’ collegiate experiences and outcomes. In the action research process structured by the tools and activities of the Equity Scorecard, our focus is unremittingly on closing the equity gaps found among students of different racial-ethnic groups. These gaps too often shortchange African American, Latina and Latino, Native American, and Southeast Asian students. That said, it is clear that social stratification, income inequality, poverty, and class-based ideologies matter a great deal and that economic inequities also exist. We are repeatedly asked, “What about income?”, or told outright that class matters as much as or more than race.
To point out that race and poverty are highly correlated, that racially minoritized groups have been deprived of the wealth accumulated in white and Asian communities, that the median value of assets held by white families today is 15 to 22 times higher than that of Hispanic and Black households only gets us so far. Although poverty is more prevalent and severe in racially minoritized communities, there are more White non-Hispanic people among the poor than people of any other race. The dissenters to our focus on race and ethnicity know these families and communities well and deeply feel their plight. How does our work address those concerns? How does it relate to the AERA theme of education and poverty, beyond the clear (and devastating) overrepresentation of people of color among the poor?
The answer lies in answer to another question: What are we as educational practitioners going to do about it? To this we answer, take institutional responsibility for reducing race-based and class-based inequities. And do so in particular ways based on knowledge of the problems at hand.
Doing so requires distinct processes of organizational and cultural change specifically designed to address the problems of racism and poverty. We want to be clear we are not making an argument based on hierarchies of oppression. This is a “right tools for the job” argument. Before we can fix a problem we must name it, see it, define it, and find its roots. Conflating race and income accomplishes none of that. The problems must be viewed distinctly. Such discipline is likely to expand our repertoire of solutions to improve educational opportunity for the poor, because we will also see those problems more clearly.
The change we envision and the work we do to bring it about is centered “in here,” in academia, rather than out there in society, separate from our agency and control. In the doing something about it, we have turned to action research. The word “tools” in our center’s mission statement has a very “hands on” connotation, and that is apt for what we do. We believe that change will come about by changing, through practitioner involvement in action research, the artifacts that college and university practitioners use in their daily work life, artifacts like data, syllabi, brochures, student learning assessments, admissions policies, and job responsibilities. As action researchers we design protocols, activities, and social interactions intended to spark new ways of seeing and doing among practitioners who are “color blind” to the ways that schools, colleges and universities perpetuate race-based inequities.
If we were to design an action research process focused on addressing class, wealth, and income-based inequities, it would be different from CUE’s current Equity Scorecard process. The tools and aims would differ because the mechanisms of exclusion and marginalization of poor and low-income students differ from the mechanisms of racial discrimination in education.
An equity scorecard for addressing class inequities, if one were to be developed, would focus on affordability, public subsidies for housing and health care, time to degree, parenting and child care, opportunity costs, and job prospects. It would rely on tools intent on redefining notions of the “traditional” student in ways inclusive of the poor. And it would address these issues front and center, rather than issues of meritocracy, because low-income and impoverished students are hampered by these more so than the insistent and insidious questioning of one’s abilities that students of color experience whenever they walk into the classroom, whether prompted by contemporary events and learning environments or by structural, interpersonal, and internalized forms of racism. Students of color experience financial barriers to college the same as their white peers of limited financial means; on top of that they experience the racism that is part of education’s history, legacy, and DNA. We focus on race because it is too easy to deflect an accounting of racial discrimination by solely emphasizing financial constraints as the chief culprit of racial inequities.
So, our contribution to the AERA theme of Education and Poverty: Theory, Research, Policy, and Praxis, with our unremitting focus on racial-ethnic equity, is to suggest that others design and take up with unremitting focus an action research agenda to address the issues of income- and class-based inequities. We have not solved the problems of equity based on skin color—not by a long shot—but we and our partners in schools, colleges, and universities have learned a great deal about what it means to move from deficit-minded to equity-minded assumptions concerning the challenges facing students of color and to take institutional responsibility for them. Racial and income inequality are two sides of the same coin. But they are two sides with distinctive features, each of which must be brought into sharper relief by educational researchers.
Alicia C. Dowd is an associate professor of education and co-director, Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Dr. Dowd's research focuses on political-economic issues of public college finance equity, organizational effectiveness, and accountability and the factors affecting student attainment in higher education.
Estela M. Bensimon is a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her current research is on issues of racial equity in higher education from the perspective of organizational learning and socio-cultural practice theories.