On the Wednesday morning that marked the start of classes on Duke’s campus, fourteen undergraduate students began with an abrupt dive into the world of economic inequality.
The seminar on the racial wealth gap kicked off the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke’s inaugural semester on Global Inequalities: Inequality in the U.S. and China, a bi-national exploration taught through the Duke Immerse educational initiative. During the semester, students will explore, through a concentrated cluster of four courses, the effects and realities of social mobility and public policy in employment, education, wealth, health, political participation, legal treatment, and other areas.
As the opening introductions passed from the Cook Center educators–senior research associate Adam Hollowell; visiting scholar Kunfeng Pan, associate professor at the school of education at Renmin University in Beijing, China; and William A. Darity Jr., the Center’s director and the Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics–to the students, the interdisciplinary nature of the project became apparent: Across the fourteen students, they named at least ten declared (or prospective) majors.
“You’ll note that [Darity] asked about your ideas for potential research topics,” said Hollowell following the initial introductions, “and you’re thinking, ‘We’re only twenty-one minutes into the semester, how can I have a topic already?'”
“Well, welcome to the Cook Center,” he said, noting the Center’s–and the overall program’s–“aggressive” approach toward these research projects. Students will present their semester-long research at a capstone conference in May, with the aim of subsequently submitting their works to academic journals.
The latter portion of the class provided a summary of overall economic inequality in America, with an examination of its particularly heightened disparities across race and gender lines. “I hope you’re feeling good,” said Lucas Hubbard, a research associate at the Center and Darity’s co-presenter, “because this PowerPoint won’t make you feel better.”
The slideshow documented how, in the past half-century, the depths of both income inequality and wealth inequality in the U.S. have grown immensely, with the top 0.1 percent now possessing approximately as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Black Americans have a uniquely dire situation: Despite claims of this country’s recent advancement to a post-racial state, at every level of educational attainment black Americans still experience unemployment at twice the rate of white Americans. In the aggregate, despite representing nearly 13 percent of the country’s population, black Americans possess less than 3 percent of its wealth.
Darity concluded the presentation with a quick discussion of the Cook Center’s 2018 report, What We Get Wrong about Closing the Racial Wealth Gap. Emphasizing that these inequalities are the product of structural issues, not behavioral ones–as Darity said by way of example, what matters more than a group’s financial literacy is actually having finances–he turned to a slide entitled “Bold Policies for a New America.” Pausing briefly, he elected to save that discussion for a later time, opening the floor for questions and then dismissing the class a few minutes early.
The solutions, at least for today, would have to wait. But by the end of this semester, after months of concentration and commitment from educators and students to better understand these pressing and global issues, perhaps they will be a little bit closer.
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University