Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Toxic Inequality (2017)

Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future (2017), by Thomas Shapiro, is a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and the Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy Brandeis University. He is the leading figure on racial inequality and public policy.

From the book cover:
Since the Great Recession, most Americans' standard of living has stagnated or declined. Economic inequality is at historic highs. But inequality's impact differs by race; African Americans' net wealth is just a tenth that of white Americans, and over recent decades, white families have accumulated wealth at three times the rate of black families. In our increasingly diverse nation, sociologist Thomas M. Shapiro argues, wealth disparities must be understood in tandem with racial inequities--a dangerous combination he terms "toxic inequality."

In Toxic Inequality, Shapiro reveals how these forces combine to trap families in place. Following nearly two hundred families of different races and income levels over a period of twelve years, Shapiro's research vividly documents the recession's toll on parents and children, the ways families use assets to manage crises and create opportunities, and the real reasons some families build wealth while others struggle in poverty. The structure of our neighborhoods, workplaces, and tax code-much more than individual choices-push some forward and hold others back. A lack of assets, far more common in families of color, can often ruin parents' careful plans for themselves and their children.


i an a fan of Shapiro's work, which has generated much discussion on the widening racial wealth gap and economic inequality in the U.S. He uses a sociological lens to examine how years of homeownership, household income, and unemployment created racial disparities in wealth between white families and black families. Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, it has not stopped the practice of redlining. Black neighborhoods tend to have lower home equities than white neighborhoods which has huge implications on intergenerational wealth. Black families also tend to live in neighborhoods with higher proportion of blacks (or adjacent to working-class neighborhoods) than white families. For the past fifty years, black families have been playing catch-up to white families but neoliberal policies and the Great Recession eliminated much of black wealth. Overall, I highly recommend the book because it is easy to understand for the general audience to see that black families are NOT on an equal playing field with white families when it comes to wealth accumulation.

I would even further argue that this data supports why affirmative action is still necessary in elite college admissions. With fewer assets, black families are less likely to afford test preparation programs that can boost their child's scores on the SAT (which is poor predictor of college success) and must rely on student loans to finance their children's college educations. As the recent college admissions cheating scandal revealed, these racial inequities create an unfair advantage to already privileged students who do not have to financially struggle to gain admission into elite colleges and universities.

If you have not read Thomas Shapiro's previous books, I highly recommend his other phenomenal books, Black Wealth/White Wealth (2006) and The Hidden Cost of Being African Americans (2005).

Monday, April 29, 2019

Review: The Gilded Years (2016)

The Gilded Years (2016), by Karin Tanabe, is a historical fiction novel. It is based on the true story of Anita Florence Hemmings, the first African American woman to attend Vassar College, a prestigious women's college, in the 1890s. As the descendants of slaves, Hemmings passed as white so that she could enter Vassar and finds herself in the elite world of aristocrats and capitalists. She is treated as an wealthy, highly-educated white woman until she got attached to the wrong person--who could unravel everything she risked to accomplish for a better life. Passing meets House of Mirth in this best-selling historical novel on how race, gender and class intersected to influence social mobility and access to higher education during America's Gilded Age.

From the book cover:
Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country’s most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, the scion of one of New York’s most prominent families.

Though Anita has kept herself at a distance from her classmates, Lottie’s sphere of influence is inescapable, her energy irresistible, and the two become fast friends. Pulled into her elite world, Anita learns what it’s like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman—the person everyone believes her to be—and even finds herself in a heady romance with a moneyed Harvard student. It’s only when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s brother, Frederick, whose skin is almost as light as his sister’s, that the situation becomes particularly perilous. And as Anita’s college graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret.


I read this historical novel for a graduate-level course on the history of higher education. I had no idea that this novel would bring back memories of my own undergraduate courses on African American Literature. The early 20th century was considered the "nadir era" where both legal segregation (Jim Crow laws) and increasing racial violence were common occurrences against African Americans. For example, Harlem Renaissance writers such as Nella Larsen ("Passing", "Quicksand") and James Weldon Johnson ("The Autobiography of the Ex-Colored Man") knew about the dangers of passing for American Americans of mixed-race ancestry. Some made this choice to achieve upward social mobility and to escape the racial terror that limited educational and employment opportunities for African Americans. Those who did pass successfully had to completely detach themselves from their former lives, including their relatives and acquaintances who might expose their hidden secrets. Tanabe adds to this literary tradition to portray the danger and loss that occurs when one decides to pass and never look back.

I was so thrilled to read Gilded Years because I could apply my background on race and educational inequality in a historical novel that intrigued me. Tanabe, who is also a Vassar alumna, does an excellent job of creating the setting for the Gilded Age. Anita's story takes her from her working-class neighborhood of Roxbury, Boston to the wealthy parts of Boston and New York City. The Gilded Age was a period of industrialization, the rise of modern capitalism, and imperialism abroad. It was also a dark, racist period in American history where African Americans were largely excluded from attending elite colleges. It is remarkable then that the real Anita Florence Hemmings (Class of 1897) (see picture on the right) represented one of the very few black women who was able to pursue an elite college education. Although she was a descendant of slaves, her light complexion was often mistaken for a Mediterranean look. Had she marked down "colored" on her application, her admittance surely would have been rejected. Despite this physical advantage, as the book reveals, her college peers start to question her ancestry weeks before graduation and her true racial identity is discovered in a tragic way. The real lesson then is, despite her academic accomplishments, not even Anita could escape America's obsession with race and the toll it would have on her family.

I highly recommend this novel. Meanwhile, I heard great news that Tanabe's novel may soon hit the big screens. Sony’s TriStar Pictures has won the worldwide rights to the psychological thriller “A White Lie,” produced by Reese Witherspoon and staring Zendaya as the first African-American woman to graduate from Vassar College. Stay tuned for further updates!

Monday, April 22, 2019

CSWE Releases Report on the Careers of Social Work Graduates

In April 2019, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) recently released a report on the careers of social work graduates. The report, From Social Work Education to Social Work Practice: Results of the Survey of 2018 Social Work Graduates, The George Washington University's Health Workforce Institute surveyed graduates of more than 100 MSW and BSW programs across the country to better understand the job market for social workers and the demographic background of new social workers, their educational and career pathways, employment outcomes, and job satisfaction. Below are the key findings from the report:
  • Social workers are employed in a wide variety of settings serving clients with diverse needs. More than a third of MSW graduates focused on children and families, and a quarter focused on mental health issues.
  • Most social workers are employed at private not-for-profit organizations, health-care organizations, and government agencies.
  • Most new MSW graduates are providing direct services to individuals, families, and groups. Relatively few (7.8%) are providing indirect social work services, such as public policy, administration, management; planning; program evaluation; and research.
  • More than three-quarters of MSW graduates are entering social work jobs, although not all such jobs require an MSW. More than 17% of MSW graduates are going into positions that do not have social work titles but in which they are using their social work education and skills.
  • The profession is largely female; there are some differences in practice patterns by race and gender.
  • Salaries of new MSWs are relatively low for individuals with a master’s degree.
  • Online education offers access to educational opportunities in rural and semi-rural areas and to African Americans.
  • The job market for new MSWs is mixed: There are opportunities, but many are not what the new graduates are looking for and the pay is lower than desired.
  • More than one of three jobs taken by new graduates were with organizations with which the graduates had field placements during their social work education.
  • The majority (80 percent) of new MSWs plan to become licensed clinical social workers.
Not surprisingly, macro social work practice ("indirect social work") is severely underrepresented in the social work profession. This reflects social work curriculum primarily focusing on clinical practice (I have nothing against clinical work, but we also need more social workers doing advocacy work in addition to providing direct assistance to high-need populations). This reflects two factors: (1) schools' unwillingness to invest in macro social work curriculum, and the (2) state licensing boards refusing to offer licensure in macro social work. Some states, such as Michigan, do offer a macro practice licensure, but the vast majority of states do not offer this option. For example, the ASWB (which is the equivalent of a state bar exam for lawyers) offers the Clinical and Advanced Generalist exams. Clearly, the latter option could incentivize states to offer macro practice licensure. 

Another surprise is the increasing use of online education ("distance learning") in social work education, especially among African Americans. Rural students who live more than 30 miles from a social work school would benefit under online education. But why are more African Americans shifting to online education? Researchers need to look into why students are seeking online education over brick-and-mortar schools. Is it cost? Is it convenience? The urban areas, in particular, tend to offer many social work schools. Does online education provide a means for some students to keep their day jobs and attend school at the same time? A problem with most social work schools is that they generally offer daytime instruction and prioritize full-time enrollment. While this scheduling works for young college graduates with few family responsibilities, it is not feasible for working parents who need full-time employment to cover child care expenses and transportation.

Overall, this report was timely and necessary to gain a better sense of the social work profession. More work needs to be done to promote macro social work practice and provide more scheduling options for working parents. My recommendation for macro practice social workers is to pursue another degree (e.g., public policy, law, business, education) in your field that will give you a leg up both in terms of salaries and career advancement. Macro social workers have to be entrepreneurial to employers on how the skills they learned in social work can transfer into a non-social work-title position. It is my hope that policymakers use this report to improve social work education.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

New Short Film: Segregated by Design by Richard Rothstein

This short film was just released on August 8, 2019!!

"Segregated By Design" examines the forgotten history of how our federal, state and local governments unconstitutionally segregated every major metropolitan area in America through law and policy. This legacy of segregation in cities across the country (through a practice known as redlining) had deep social and economic repercussions on African Americans, in terms of where they could live, where they could attend school, and how they could generate wealth. The short film (about 18 minutes) is based on the best-selling book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, by Richard Rothstein. The book is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local bookseller.

From Economic Policy Institute (EPI):

“Segregated by Design,” a short film based on The Color of Law by EPI distinguished fellow Richard Rothstein, examines the forgotten history of how federal, state, and local governments used law and policy to segregate every major metropolitan area in the U.S. The film illustrates how racially explicit, unconstitutional policies created patterns of residential segregation that persist today, driving Rothstein’s conclusion that we are obligated to remedy it. “Segregated by Design” premiered at the American Documentary Film Festival on March 29 in Palm Springs, California.


The key takeaway is that segregation was not by choice. Discriminatory public policies at the local, state and federal level forced African Americans to live in segregated neighborhoods not of their own choosing. This legacy has led to structural inequalities that persist to this day. Click here to watch the film.

NPR also created an excellent short video on the history of race and redlining in the United States:



Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: Great Job for Sociology Majors - Third Edition (2009)

Great Job for Sociology Majors - Third Edition (2008) by Stephen Lambert is a comprehensive career guide book that highlights the myriad of careers that someone can do with a sociology major. I picked this book because sociology was one of my specializations in college. This book helps students and recent college graduates on how to present a major in sociology as a workplace asset during an interview, how to conduct a job search, and ways to use the major in sociology in the real world. The advice on cover letter and resume are very useful for recent college graduates on how to craft their skills and work experience in sociology for future employers.

The book covers five common career paths with a major in sociology:
  1. Human Services (Community Organizations and Social Services)
  2. Human Resources Management
  3. Public Employment
  4. Social Research and Data Analysis
  5. Teaching with an Advanced Degree (Master's and Ph.D.)
The major in sociology, as you can tell above, is an ideal preparation for careers in social work, education, public policy, law, and the private sector. Lambert, who is a career counselor by training, does an excellent job breaking down sociological concepts to real-world application. If you think your sociology major has on real value, Lambert helps you re-think that idea. If your specialization is sociology of the family, then it's ideal background for work with children and youth in social service agencies. Do you like learning how human relations operate in the workplace? That sociology of labor coursework is ideal for careers in human resources management. Sociology has portable skills; thus, the possibilities are endless. Lambert outlines how to conduct a self-assessment of your personal values, skills, areas for improvement, and long-term goals. Then he identifies what it is like to work in that career path from recommended skills to employment outlook. He also provides a listing (directory) of organizations in the common career paths. Overall, I believe this book is a great resource for those who are seeking ideas on what career to pursue. The content is still relevant even a decade later.