2017 Policy Summit on Housing, Human Capital, and Inequality
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Derrick Darby will tell you: Our lived experiences play an important role in what we do with our lives and the views we hold.
Today a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, Darby grew up in the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in North America. This June, he’ll be one of 4 to speak during a plenary at the Policy Summit titled “Race and Inequality across Systems: Criminal Justice, Education, and Implications for Economic Opportunity.”
“In the United States, we’ve long been told that education should be the great equalizer,” he said. “If you look at my story, you might say it’s proof of that. But there are a lot of people who didn’t make it out of my neighborhood. The sad thing is that as much as we like to tell ourselves it’s the great equalizer, too many kids today can’t even count on school to get them out.”
During a telephone chat, Darby offered a sneak peek into what he will share during the plenary and more. An edited transcript of our chat follows.
Darby: Equitable public policy demands equal respect, not just equal opportunity. Typically, when we’re thinking about public policy, we’re thinking about how to address various kinds of barriers to achieving the ideal of equal opportunity. People basically want society to be fair, for people to have a fair shake. They don’t want arbitrary differences like race and gender to determine your lot in life. We think we can achieve that by removing certain kinds of barriers, so typically we think about fair or equitable policy in terms of realizing opportunity.
The point I intend to make is that we also have to think about how certain barriers prevent us from seeing and regarding one another as persons of equal worth and value. We all want respect. We want to be seen by our peers as equal human beings. My work suggests that certain barriers, particularly in the domain of education, can undermine people viewing themselves as people of equal value. Tracking, which takes place in schools wherein we distinguish who’s in the high math class, the low math class; disciplinary practices such as expulsion; special education programs—I think that all of these structural practices contribute in different ways to preventing certain students from viewing themselves as equal in value and to having others view them in that way. Not only are they viewed as stupid, but they’re seen as “less than.” Kids sent out for discipline, they’re viewed as criminal. So I think that’s a really important point for people concerned about policy to be paying attention to.
Darby: I don’t know if it’s a new idea, but there’s been a lot of attention [being paid]—in the circles that I’m in—to the lessons we can gain from history about the challenges to and the obstacles of realizing the goal of treating one another with equal respect.
A book I have forthcoming—I co-wrote with John Rury, a professor of history and education at the University of Kansas—is The Color of Mind: Why the Origins of the Achievement Gap Matter for Justice. In it, we tell the story of how the idea of racial differences goes back to antebellum and was used to justify no education for blacks, and later, to justify vocational education to make them better servants. We trace this development between race and schooling over time to the present. The big idea is history really matters for thinking about inequality, disparities, and injustice.
It’s easy to look at individual examples of black achievement—we’ve got African Americans who are heads of industry, [we had] an African American president—and so some say race can’t really matter anymore. If that’s the thinking, and it tends to be for many people, there’s a way of not appreciating the history. When you look at the big numbers, we see that people of color are disproportionally less healthy, are in the criminal justice system, live in impoverished neighborhoods, and have less income and wealth.
Darby: I’m a philosopher. Philosophy has a justly deserved reputation for being a sort of withdrawn discipline. [Philosophers are] often seen as scholars with their heads in the clouds, not sufficiently engaged with the problems in the world. I value trying to bring philosophy into conversations with people who are thinking hard about problems we all live with. My work is about putting philosophy into conversation, with a view toward thinking about ways to address this very complex social problem. I accepted this invitation because I thought speaking would be a wonderful way for me to give philosophy a seat at the table in what I hope will be an interdisciplinary conversation.
Timely session topics, engaging speakers, and opportunities to expand your network and learn from a few hundred practitioners, policymakers, academics, bankers, elected officials, and funders are all reasons to attend the 2017 Policy Summit in Cleveland this June.