February 26, 2016

Is unequal schooling to blame for US racial wage gap?

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the extreme differences in the quality of schools attended by black and white students during the “Jim Crow” era of the 1940s catalyzed a large racial wage gap that still has not been closed in the contemporary US labor market.

Using new data on the quality of schooling, the study discovered that a truly “separate but equal” school system for both races would have reduced wage inequality by 40-51%. Instead, the system was separate and unequal with inherent racial discrimination in all aspects of civic life; black children attended schools of a far lower quality, with large implications for their accumulation of human capital and knock-on effects for their earning potential.

Black children spent far less time attending school, and were taught by inferior educators. The study found on average that white teachers’ salaries were 1.5 times higher, and black students had terms 20% shorter that their white counterparts.

This disparity in the quality of schools attended by segregated white and black children widened the black-white wage gap far beyond what can be attributed to “traditional labor market discrimination” and bias. This is reflected in historical wage data: In 1939 black men earned roughly $225 per annum, whereas white men earned $379.

This study brings to light contemporary labor market race issues. The study’s authors highlight that racial inequality in today’s labor market is worse than in the 1940s Southern USA noting, for example, that black people are twice as likely to be unemployed than whites nationally.

In her IZA World of Labor article, Slavery, racial inequality, and education, Graziella Bertocchi writes: “Educational attainment is a key causal factor of continuing inequality, since it influences human capital accumulation and, as a consequence, the unequal distribution of earnings.” Bertocchi also highlights the impact of race on educational attainment in the US: “Educational inequality displays a racial dimension that is particularly persistent and difficult to eradicate through policy measures. Its roots lie in the colonial institution of slave labor, which was widespread in the US and Latin America up until the 19th century.”

Intrinsic racial inequality due to past slavery is hard to remove, and policies to eliminate racial inequalities from education do not offer an immediate solution. “Nevertheless,” writes Bertocchi, “education policy clearly has a strong influence over time.” 

Related articles
Slavery, racial inequality, and education, by Graziella Bertocchi
Read more articles on education and human capital.