Essays and Commentary
Reflections and analysis inspired by the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide wave of protests that followed.
My Mother’s Dreams for Her Son, and All Black Children
She longed for black people in America not to be forever refugees—confined by borders that they did not create and by a penal system that killed them before they died.
By Hilton Als
June 21, 2020
How do we change america.
The quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone.
By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
June 8, 2020
The purpose of a house.
For my daughters, the pandemic was a relief from race-related stress at school. Then George Floyd was killed.
By Emily Bernard
June 25, 2020
The players’ revolt against racism, inequality, and police terror.
A group of athletes across various American professional sports have communicated the fear, frustration, and anger of most of Black America.
September 9, 2020, until black women are free, none of us will be free.
Barbara Smith and the Black feminist visionaries of the Combahee River Collective.
July 20, 2020, john lewis’s legacy and america’s redemption.
The civil-rights leader, who died Friday, acknowledged the darkest chapters of the country’s history, yet insisted that change was always possible.
By David Remnick
July 18, 2020
Europe in 1989, america in 2020, and the death of the lost cause.
A whole vision of history seems to be leaving the stage.
By David W. Blight
July 1, 2020
The messy politics of black voices—and “black voice”—in american animation.
Cartoons have often been considered exempt from the country’s prejudices. In fact, they form a genre built on the marble and mud of racial signification.
By Lauren Michele Jackson
June 30, 2020
After george floyd and juneteenth.
What’s ahead for the movement, the election, and the protesters?
June 20, 2020, juneteenth and the meaning of freedom.
Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones.
By Jelani Cobb
June 19, 2020
A memory of solidarity day, on juneteenth, 1968.
The public outpouring over racism that has been taking place in America since George Floyd’s murder feels like a long-postponed renewal of the reckoning that shook the nation more than half a century ago.
By Jon Lee Anderson
June 18, 2020
Seeing police brutality then and now.
We still haven’t fully recognized the art made by twentieth-century black artists.
By Nell Painter
The History of the “Riot” Report
How government commissions became alibis for inaction.
By Jill Lepore
June 15, 2020
The trayvon generation.
For Solo, Simon, Robel, Maurice, Cameron, and Sekou.
By Elizabeth Alexander
So Brutal a Death
Nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s brutal killing by police officers resonates with immigrants, and with people around the world.
By Edwidge Danticat
An American Spring of Reckoning
In death, George Floyd’s name has become a metaphor for the stacked inequities of the society that produced them.
June 14, 2020, the mimetic power of d.c.’s black lives matter mural.
The pavement itself has become part of the protest.
By Kyle Chayka
June 9, 2020
Donald trump’s fascist performance.
To the President, power sounds like gunfire and helicopters; it sounds like the silence of men in uniform when they are asked who they are.
By Masha Gessen
June 3, 2020
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Race and Ethnicity
Race is a concept of human classification scheme based on visible features including eye color, skin color, the texture of the hair and other facial and bodily characteristics. Through these features, humans are ten categorized into distinct groups of population and this is enhanced by the fact that the characteristics are fully inherited.
Across the globe, debate on the topic of race has dominated for centuries. This is especially due to the resultant discrimination meted on the basis of these differences. Consequently, a lot of controversy surrounds the issue of race socially, politically but also in the scientific world.
According to many sociologists, race is more of a modern idea rather than a historical. This is based on overwhelming evidence that in ancient days physical differences mattered least. Most divisions were as a result of status, religion, language and even class.
Most controversy originates from the need to understand whether the beliefs associated with racial differences have any genetic or biological basis. Classification of races is mainly done in reference to the geographical origin of the people. The African are indigenous to the African continent: Caucasian are natives of Europe, the greater Asian represents the Mongols, Micronesians and Polynesians: Amerindian are from the American continent while the Australoid are from Australia. However, the common definition of race regroups these categories in accordance to skin color as black, white and brown. The groups described above can then fall into either of these skin color groupings (Origin of the Races, 2010, par6).
It is possible to believe that since the concept of race was a social description of genetic and biological differences then the biologists would agree with these assertions. However, this is not true due to several facts which biologists considered. First, race when defined in line with who resides in what continent is highly discontinuous as it was clear that there were different races sharing a continent. Secondly, there is continuity in genetic variations even in the socially defined race groupings.
This implies that even in people within the same race, there were distinct racial differences hence begging the question whether the socially defined race was actually a biologically unifying factor. Biologists estimate that 85% of total biological variations exist within a unitary local population. This means that the differences among a racial group such as Caucasians are much more compared to those obtained from the difference between the Caucasians and Africans (Sternberg, Elena & Kidd, 2005, p49).
In addition, biologists found out that the various races were not distinct but rather shared a single lineage as well as a single evolutionary path. Therefore there is no proven genetic value derived from the concept of race. Other scientists have declared that there is absolutely no scientific foundation linking race, intelligence and genetics.
Still, a trait such as skin color is completely independent of other traits such as eye shape, blood type, hair texture and other such differences. This means that it cannot be correct to group people using a group of features (Race the power of an illusion, 2010, par3).
What is clear to all is that all human beings in the modern day belong to the same biological sub-species referred to biologically as Homo sapiens sapiens. It has been proven that humans of different races are at least four times more biologically similar in comparison to the different types of chimpanzees which would ordinarily be seen as being looking alike.
It is clear that the original definition of race in terms of the external features of the facial formation and skin color did not capture the scientific fact which show that the genetic differences which result to these changes account to an insignificant proportion of the gene controlling the human genome.
Despite the fact that it is clear that race is not biological, it remains very real. It is still considered an important factor which gives people different levels of access to opportunities. The most visible aspect is the enormous advantages available to white people. This cuts across many sectors of human life and affects all humanity regardless of knowledge of existence.
This being the case, I find it difficult to understand the source of great social tensions across the globe based on race and ethnicity. There is enormous evidence of people being discriminated against on the basis of race. In fact countries such as the US have legislation guarding against discrimination on basis of race in different areas.
The findings define a stack reality which must be respected by all human beings. The idea of view persons of a different race as being inferior or superior is totally unfounded and goes against scientific findings.
Consequently these facts offer a source of unity for the entire humanity. Humanity should understand the need to scrap the racial boundaries not only for the sake of peace but also for fairness. Just because someone is white does not imply that he/she is closer to you than the black one. This is because it could even be true that you have more in common with the black one than the white one.
Origin of the Races, 2010. Race Facts. Web.
Race the power of an illusion, 2010. What is race? . Web.
Sternberg, J., Elena L. & Kidd, K. 2005. Intelligence, Race, and Genetics. The American Psychological Association Vol. 60(1), 46–59 . Web.
- Chicago (A-D)
- Chicago (N-B)
IvyPanda. (2023, November 7). Race and Ethnicity. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-ethnicity/
"Race and Ethnicity." IvyPanda , 7 Nov. 2023, ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-ethnicity/.
IvyPanda . (2023) 'Race and Ethnicity'. 7 November.
IvyPanda . 2023. "Race and Ethnicity." November 7, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-ethnicity/.
1. IvyPanda . "Race and Ethnicity." November 7, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-ethnicity/.
IvyPanda . "Race and Ethnicity." November 7, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-ethnicity/.
- Homo Sapiens, Their Features and Early Civilization
- The Rise of Anatomically Modern Homo Sapiens
- Homo Sapiens and Large Complex of Brains
- Biologically Programmed Memory
- Is homosexuality an Innate or an Acquired Trait?
- Family History Project
- Key Highlights of the Human Career
- How Homo Sapiens Influenced Felis Catus
- Racial Disparities in American Justice System
- White People's Identity in the United States
- Multiculturalism and “White Anxiety”
- Multi-Occupancy Buildings: Community Safety
- Friendship's Philosophical Description
- Gender Stereotypes on Television
- Karen Springen's "Why We Tuned Out"
Diverging employment pathways among young adults
Download the Data Appendix here
In this essay, we explore how wage and benefits pathways differ between Black, white, and Latino or Hispanic adults who experienced socioeconomic disadvantage in a dolescence. We find:
- Upward career mobility leads to higher wages for white adults than for Black and Latino or Hispanic adults. On average, Black and Latino or Hispanic adults in their respective highest-earning trajectory groups earn between 68% to 75% of the average annual earnings of white adults in the highest-earning group. In the second-highest-earning groups, Black and Latino or Hispanic adults also consistently earn less than white adults.
- Higher-earning groups had relatively high rates of military service, particularly among Black and Latino or Hispanic adults.
- Among the lowest earners, Black adults had the highest incarceration rates and white adults had the highest rates of work-limiting health conditions.
In a perfectly equitable society, race or ethnicity would not be systematically associated with advantage or disadvantage . But when we examine how employment pathways vary among Black, Latino or Hispanic, and white adults who experienced socioeconomic disadvantage in their teens, that is not what we find (nor is it what other researchers have found when examining economic mobility).
In fact, in Essay 3 of this series, we found that race and ethnicity play a role in predicting the outcomes experienced by these young people even when controlling for a host of other factors. Simply being white or Latino or Hispanic increases the probability of being in an upwardly mobile trajectory group compared to being Black. And as shown in this essay, the wages of Black and Latino or Hispanic adults in higher-earning trajectories are considerably lower than the wages of white adults in higher-earning trajectories.
Who is in the study population?
To identify adults who experienced socioeconomic disadvantage in adolescence, we assess whether they met any of the following criteria in their teens:
- Lived in a low-income family
- Neither parent had a postsecondary degree
- Mother was aged 19 years old or younger when her first child was born
- Family received public assistance
Anyone who met at least one of the above criteria is included in the analysis.
Early career mobility looks different for white young adults than for Black and Latino or Hispanic young adults
After running separate analyses by race/ethnicity, we find that each population falls into four trajectory groups with similar patterns. They all have one group with very low wages, little wage growth, and few benefits, and they all have three more groups with gradations of higher wages and steeper growth. But wage levels and the rates of growth vary substantially between racial/ethnic populations.
Indeed, economic mobility looks strikingly different depending on race and ethnicity. Among white people, every trajectory group at age 30 has higher earnings than the corresponding trajectory groups among Black and Latino or Hispanic people.
In the lowest-earning group, Group 1 , average annual wages are very low for everyone ($5,000 or less) and poverty rates are extremely high at age 30: 78% of Black people in this group live below the poverty line, as do 46% of Latino or Hispanic people and 42% of white people. Very few people of any race/ethnicity receive any employer-related benefits. More than one-quarter of the Black population falls into this group, compared to 19% of the white population and 15% of the Latino or Hispanic population.
Group 2 has relatively low earnings and sluggish growth for all races and ethnicities. At age 30, average annual earnings for White Group 2 are about $20,000, compared to $17,000 for Latino or Hispanic Group 2 and $14,000 for Black Group 2. Benefit levels are fairly low for everyone, but are slightly higher among white people. Among both Black and white young adults, Group 2 is the most common trajectory group, accounting for 34% of the Black population and 38% of the white population.
In the second-highest-earning group, Group 3 , white adults also have a substantial advantage. At age 30, their average annual earnings are $46,000, compared to about $30,000 among Black Group 3 and $35,000 among Latino or Hispanic Group 3. White Group 3 has a slightly higher benefits index (2.4) than Black Group 3 (1.9) and Latino or Hispanic Group 3 (2.0). (See Essay 2 for a description of the benefits index scoring.) This is the most populous group among Latino or Hispanic people, accounting for 41% of the population.
Economic mobility is greatest among Group 4 for all races/ethnicities we analyzed. It has the steepest wage growth and the highest earnings by age 30, but average annual earnings among Black Group 4 and Latino or Hispanic Group 4 at age 30 are $65,000 and $70,000 respectively, compared to $108,500 among White Group 4. Benefit levels at age 30 are fairly high for everyone. Relatively small shares of each race/ethnicity fall into this group: 9% of white adults, 11% of Black adults, and 15% of Latino or Hispanic adults.
The trajectories of all three populations reflect common patterns, but also differ in important ways
Despite their differences, the trajectories of the different racial/ethnic groups are all shaped by the same well-established labor market and societal patterns, and thus bear certain resemblances to each other. Indeed, they align with the patterns described in the second essay in this series, which reported on the analysis of the study population as a whole, not disaggregated by race/ethnicity.
We list these similarities below and refer you to Essay 2 for more detail:
- Adults who started with the fewest economic resources in adolescence struggle the most to achieve economic mobility.
- Poverty rates are extremely high for lower-earning trajectory groups.
- Those in higher-earning trajectory groups work more consistently, are more likely to work full time/year-round, and have higher education levels than lower-earning trajectory groups.
- Incarceration, work-limiting health conditions, teen parenthood, and disconnection from school and work are most common among the groups with the flattest earnings trajectories.
- Military experience and working in a job that is covered by a union contract are most common among the groups with the highest upward mobility.
However, beyond these similarities, trajectories for racial/ethnic groups also differ in important ways.
The racial wealth gap persists, even among those from disadvantaged backgrounds
Among all races/ethnicities, those in the higher-earning trajectories come from families with greater wealth than those in lower-earning trajectories. But wealth levels are higher among the white population at every earnings level. For example, median parental wealth among White Group 4 is approximately $114,000—about four times that of Latino or Hispanic Group 4 ($28,000) and three times of Black Group 4 ($36,000). These disparities apply in the lowest-earning groups as well, with median parental wealth at about $31,000 for White Group 1, $12,000 for Latino or Hispanic Group 1, and $6,000 for Black Group 1.
White and Latino or Hispanic women are disproportionately likely to be low earners compared to white and Latino or Hispanic men
About two-thirds of the members of White Group 1 and Latino or Hispanic Group 1 are women, and females account for decreasing shares of the trajectory groups as earnings rise. Only 17% of White Group 4 and 23% of Latino or Hispanic Group 4 is female. Gender segregation is not nearly as prominent among the Black trajectory groups, as women make up between 43% to 53% of each trajectory group. In fact, women are slightly underrepresented among the lowest Black earners, making up 43% of that group, compared to 49% of the study population as a whole.
Work-limiting health conditions are most common among white low earners
Among all races/ethnicities, work-limiting health conditions are more common among the lowest earners. But rates are highest among White Group 1 members, 28% of whom have a work-limiting health condition at age 27, compared to 18% of Black Group 1 members and 20% of Latino or Hispanic Group 1 members. Since survey respondents define “work-limiting health condition” for themselves, these conditions likely refer to a wide range of situations and problems.
Incarceration rates are high among all low earners, but particularly among Black people
Across races/ethnicities, a history of incarceration is much more common among Group 1 and 2 than the higher-earning groups. But among Black people, rates are very high: More than one-third of Black Group 1 members and 17% of Black Group 2 members have been incarcerated. Rates are lower (although still high) among the other lower-earning groups: More than 20% of both white and Latino Group 1 members have been incarcerated, as have about 15% for white members and 14% for Latino or Hispanic members of Group 2.
Military experience is most common among Black and Latino or Hispanic Group 4 members
The highest-earning groups among both Black and Latino or Hispanic people are disproportionately made up of those with military experience. Twenty percent of Black Group 4 and 17% of Latino or Hispanic Group 4 served in the military, compared to 5% of the Black study population and 7% of the Latino or Hispanic study population. Among Black Group 3 and Latino or Hispanic Group 3, about 8% and 9% percent have military experience, respectively. Among white individuals, about 11% of both Group 3 and 4 served in the military, relative to 7% of the white study population as a whole.
Among the highest earners, white people are more likely than Black and Latino or Hispanic people to work in construction and production occupations
Across all races/ethnicities, members of higher-earning trajectories are more likely to work in management and professional jobs. By age 30, approximately 40% of Black Group 4, white Group 4, and Latino or Hispanic Group 4 are in these roles. White Group 4 also has high shares of workers in construction, production, and transportation at age 30 (39%)—considerably higher than Latino or Hispanic Group 4 (29%) and Black Group 4 (23%). Similarly, members of lower-earning trajectories are much more likely to work in service occupations. Notably, Black Group 1 has substantially higher shares of members in service occupations at age 30 (55%) than other trajectories and other racial/ethnic groups.
Too many young people are falling behind in the transition to adulthood. This is true for every race and ethnicity. But notable differences between groups point to stressors and barriers affecting some more than others.
The high incarceration rates among Black people in our analysis reflect the higher rates of surveillance and racial bias in law enforcement and sentencing that Black communities face. This sets off a deeply negative spiral —damaging future employment prospects for those with a criminal record, disrupting family and community bonds, and increasing the likelihood of future criminal justice involvement.
The prevalence of work-limiting health conditions among the lowest earners (particularly among white people) tracks with other research on the potential causes of declining labor force participation . Most notably, researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton found an increase in sickness and death among white people with a high school diploma or less. Subsequently, they linked this declining health with the cumulative disadvantages experienced by white people with less than a college degree as the economy and labor market have shifted.
The military, by contrast, appears to play a disproportionately positive role in the economic prospects of Black and Latino or Hispanic individuals. This aligns with the argument that the military provides a path to socioeconomic advancement for people of color and people from low-income backgrounds. Of course, fighting racism in the ranks is an ongoing concern . And others critique the military as a route for social mobility, arguing that its recruitment efforts disproportionately target high schools with student bodies that are predominantly low-income, Black, or Latino or Hispanic —trading on these groups’ more constrained postsecondary opportunities.
Lastly, although this analysis did not address racial discrimination in the labor market, our findings are consistent with research findings on discrimination. For example, job seekers with stereotypically “Black” names on their resume are less likely than those with “white” names to get callbacks from employers, even when they have similar qualifications. Other research makes it clear that Black and Latino or Hispanic workers face undeniable discrimination in the labor market, noting that the “magnitude and consistency of discrimination” in hiring is a “sobering counterpoint” to more optimistic assessments about the declining significance of race. In addition to hiring, racial discrimination manifests itself in the assignments workers are given and the ways their performance is judged and rewarded, which in turn affects career progression . Thus, the lower payoffs people of color experience reflect racism at every stage in the pathway to higher mobility.
Essay 1: Defining socioeconomic disadvantage and identifying employment trajectories
Essay 2: Less than half of adults from disadvantaged backgrounds attain decent wages by age 30
Essay 3: Race, gender, and other factors affect earnings and benefits
Essay 4: Women are more likely than men to be in lower-earning pathways
Essay 6: Policy ideas to expand economic opportunities for young adults
About the Authors
Martha ross, senior fellow – brookings metro, gabriel piña, research scientist ii – child trends, kristin anderson moore, senior scholar and past president – child trends, jessica warren, senior research analyst – child trends, nicole bateman, former senior research analyst – brookings metro.
Household Financial Stability
- Center for Household Financial Stability
- The Demographics of Wealth
- "Tipping Points" Household Debt Symposia
Essay No. 1: Race, Ethnicity and Wealth
The Demographics of Wealth How Age, Education and Race Separate Thrivers from Strugglers in Today's Economy Essay No. 1: Race, Ethnicity and Wealth
Hello. The St Louis Fed established a Center for Household Financial Stability in 2013 to research and otherwise draw attention to the balance sheets of struggling American families. A balance sheet shows what a family saves, owns, and owes, their wealth or their net worth. Families with healthy balance sheets are more economically stable and more likely to move up the economic ladder. And when families are economically strong, so is the economy.
This year, the center is examining the demographics of wealth. We will publish several papers on the roles that race, education, and age increasingly play in determining whether someone is a thriver or a struggler. In fact, a new economic divide is emerging between thrivers and strugglers, one that Bill and Bryan will say more about in a minute. Our primary data source is the 40,000 families who have been interviewed over 25 years through the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. This survey provides the nation's most comprehensive picture of American families' balance sheets and financial behavior over time.
Thriving families typically earn above average incomes, make sound financial choices, and accumulate significant wealth in the long run. Typically, these are families headed by someone who is middle aged or older, White or of Asian descent, and with at least a college degree. Families in these groups, whom we call thrivers, represent about one in four families. They own about 2/3 of the economy's wealth, however, despite being just 1/4 of the population.
The other 3/4 of the families are in groups that are struggling. They are accumulating little or no wealth. Together, they own about 1/3 of the country's wealth, far less than they did 25 years ago. In comparison to the thrivers, they are younger and less educated, make less conservative financial choices, and earn average or below average incomes. They are also more likely to be Black or Hispanic.
the focus of our first paper in this series. With few exceptions, the financial patterns evident in 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, echo those apparent throughout the period since 1989, at least among Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks. Asian families have changed the most, moving away from the relatively low wealth levels of Hispanic and Black families toward the higher level of Whites. Given the remarkable increase in educational attainment by younger Asians in recent decades, virtually all measures of their income and wealth will surpass those of Whites eventually.
In 2013, the median wealth estimate for Whites was about $134,000. For Asians, it was $91,000. For Hispanics, it was just $14,000, and for Blacks, it was even less at $11,000.
The picture looks a bit different when you look at just income, which is a major factor in wealth accumulation, but certainly not the same thing, despite what many people think. Black and Hispanic families earn about 40% less income than Whites. This time, Asians rank above Whites. The median family income among Asians has, in general, grown faster than median White incomes since 1989.
Whites and Asians have much more liquid balance sheets than do Hispanics or Blacks, on average. These cash reserves buffer a family against financial shocks that could lead to high-cost borrowing, distressed asset sales, or costly default on debts. White and Asian families also have a greater share of their assets invested in financial assets and business assets, which provide both asset diversification and higher average returns in the long run than a portfolio consisting mostly of tangible assets, like a house or cars.
And whites and Asians have about half as much debt as Hispanic and Black families as a share of total assets.
And it's true that both White and Asian families, on average, have more education than do Black and Hispanic families. But on closer examination, these two factors, age and education, account for only a small part of the difference in wealth accumulation among Whites, Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics. There must be other reasons for these differences.
In our subsequent presentations, we will say more about our research into the roles played by education and age and wealth accumulation. We hope you read the entire report about race and ethnicity and stay tuned for our upcoming reports on education and age. Together, we hope that these reports shed light on who's thriving and struggling today in America and why. Thank you.
This first essay in the "Demographics of Wealth" series examines the connection between race or ethnicity and wealth accumulation over the past quarter-century. As with subsequent essays, this one is the result of an analysis of data collected between 1989 and 2013 through the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. More than 40,000 heads of households were interviewed over those years.
Our key findings in this essay:
- When looking at median family wealth (assets minus liabilities), the ranking of the four racial or ethnic groups did not change order between 1989 and 2013. White families ranked first, followed by Asian families, Hispanic families and black families.
- In inflation-adjusted dollars, the median wealth of a white family in 1989 was $130,102. In 2013, it was $134,008. For an Asian family, the two medians were $64,165 and $91,440. For a Hispanic family, they were $9,229 and $13,900. For a black family, they were $7,736 and $11,184.
- Although the financial patterns over this period have changed little for whites, for Hispanics and for blacks, they have changed dramatically for families headed by Asians. Asian families' median income already has surpassed that of whites, while Asians' median wealth soon will surpass the white median level, most likely because of the remarkable increase in educational attainment by younger Asians in recent decades.
- Median Hispanic and black wealth levels are about 90 percent lower than the median white wealth level, yet median income levels of Hispanics and blacks are only 40 percent lower. The larger wealth gap could be due to Hispanics' and blacks' investing in low-return assets like housing, as well as to borrowing at high interest rates. Hispanics and blacks could also feel less of a need to save for the future because society's progressive old-age safety-net programs will replace a relatively larger share of the normal incomes they earned during their working years.
- Whites and Asians have stronger balance sheets—a key factor in wealth accumulation—than do Hispanics and blacks. The balance sheets of the former show more liquidity and asset diversification and less leverage (debt as a share of assets).
- On our financial health scorecard—designed to measure whether a family is making sound, everyday-financial decisions—whites and Asians fared much better than Hispanics and blacks. The gap was even wider when restricting the comparison to just middle-aged, well-educated families in each of the four groups.
- Age and education would seem to be logical explanations for the persistent differences in wealth accumulation across the racial and ethnic groups. However, an analysis of the data indicates that these two factors play only small roles in explaining the gaps. In particular, holding constant the age and educational attainment of a family head, racial and ethnic differences in average financial-health scores correspond closely to differences in the groups' median wealth levels.
Read all the essays and watch all the videos in this series »
Writing About Race, Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, and Disability
View in pdf format.
As language evolves alongside our understanding of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and disability, it is important for writers to make informed choices about their language and to take responsibility for those choices. Accurate language is important in writing about people respectfully and in crafting effective arguments your audience can trust. This handout includes writing practices and language tips to help you discuss various groups of people respectfully and without perpetuating stereotypes.
- Use people-first language. Use terms that focus on people rather than on the method of categorization to ensure your language is not dehumanizing. For example, use “people with mental illness” rather than “the mentally ill,” “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people,” and “enslaved peoples” rather than “slaves.”
- Don’t use adjectives as nouns. Using adjectives as nouns is not only grammatically incorrect, it is often demeaning to the people you are describing. For example, use “Black people,” not “Blacks.”
- Avoid terms that imply inferiority or superiority. Replace terms that evaluate or might imply inferiority/superiority with non-judgmental language. For example, use “low socioeconomic status” rather than “low class,” or “historically marginalized population” rather than “minority.”
- Be specific. When these descriptors are relevant, be as specific as possible to avoid inaccurate or generalized statements. For example, use “Dominicans” rather than “Hispanics,” or “people who use wheelchairs” rather than “people with disabilities.”
Writing About Race and Ethnicity
When writing about race and ethnicity, use the following tips to guide you:
- Capitalize racial/ethnic groups, such as Black, Asian, and Native American. Depending on the context, white may or may not be capitalized.
- African Americans migrated to northern cities. (noun)
- African-American literature. (adjective)
- The terms Latino/Latina/Latin are used mostly in the US to refer to US residents with ties to Latin America .
- Avoid the term “minority” if possible. “Minority” is often used to describe groups of people who are not part of the majority. This term is being phased out because it may imply inferiority and because minorities often are not in the numerical minority. An alternative might be “historically marginalized populations.” If it is not possible to avoid using “minority,” qualify the term with the appropriate specific descriptor: “religious minority” rather than “minority.”
- Note that the terms “people of color” and “non-white” are acceptable in some fields and contexts but not in others. Check with your professor if you’re uncertain whether a term is acceptable.
Writing About Socioeconomic Status
When writing about socioeconomic status, use the following tips to guide you:
- “Avoid using terms like “high class” or “low class,” or even “upper class” or “lower class,” because they have been used historically in an evaluative way. Also avoid “low brow” and “high brow.” Instead, if you must incorporate adjectives like “high” or “low,” use the term “high” or “low socioeconomic status” to avoid judgmental language.
- The word “status” (without the qualifier of “socioeconomic”) is not interchangeable with “class” because “status” can refer to other measures such as popularity.
- When possible, use specific metrics: common ones include level of educational attainment, occupation, and income.Use specific language that describes what is important to the analysis.
- Be aware of numbers: there are no distinct indicators of “high” and “low,” but there are percentages that make it easy to determine, via income bracket for example, where on a range an individual falls.
When writing about disability, use the following tips to guide you:
- uses a wheelchair rather than confined to a wheelchair
- diagnosed with bipolar disorder rather than suffers from bipolar disorder
- person with a physical disability rather than physically challenged
- Do not use victimizing language such as afflicted, restricted, stricken, suffering, and unfortunate.
- Do not call someone ‘brave’ or ‘heroic’ simply for living with a disability.
- Avoid the term “handicapped,” as some find it insensitive. Note that it is widely used as a legal term in documents, on signs, etc.
- Do not use disabilities as nouns to refer to people. For example, use “people with mental illnesses” not “the mentally ill.”
- Avoid using the language of disability as metaphor, which stigmatizes people with disabilities, such as lame (lame idea), blind (blind luck), paralyzed (paralyzed with indecision), deaf (deaf ears), crazy, insane, moron, crippling, disabling, and the like.
- Capitalize a group name when stressing the fact that they are a cultural community (e.g. Deaf culture); do not capitalize when referring only to the disability.
Referring to people without disabilities
Use “people without disabilities,” or “neurotypical individuals” for mental disabilities. The term “able-bodied” may be appropriate in some disciplines. Do not use terms like “normal” or “healthy” to describe people without disabilities.
Writing with Outdated/Problematic Sources
When analyzing or referencing a source that uses harmful language (slurs, violent rhetoric, etc.), either:
- Explain that the author or character uses harmful language without stating it verbatim. For example: “The author uses an ableist slur when discussing [context of the quote], indicating that [analysis].”
- Acknowledge its offensive nature in your analysis if you must quote the harmful language verbatim.
Do not change the quote or omit harmful language without acknowledging it. If you must use outdated and problematic sources, it is best to acknowledge any harmful language or rhetoric and discuss how it impacts the use and meaning of the text in your analysis.
Note that if you do need to use dated terminology in discussing the subjects in a historical context, continue to use contemporary language in your own discussion and analysis.
If you are still unsure of what language to use after reading this, consult your professor, classmates, writing center tutors, or current academic readings in the discipline for more guidance.
As we have noted, language is complex and constantly evolving. We will update this resource to reflect changes in language use and guidelines. We also welcome suggestions for revisions to this handout. Please contact the Writing Center with any questions or suggestions.
Thank you to the following people who contributed to earlier versions of this resource: Emma Bowman ’15, Krista Hesdorfer ’14, Jessica LeBow ’15, Rohini Tashima ’15, Sharon Williams, Amit Taneja, Phyllis Breland, and Professors Jessica Burke, Dan Chambliss, Christine Fernández, Todd Franklin, Cara Jones, Esther Kanipe, Elizabeth Lee, Celeste Day Moore, Andrea Murray, Kyoko Omori, Ann Owen, and Steven Wu.
Adapted from prior Writing Center resource “Writing about Race, Ethnicity, Social Class, and Disability.”
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SCOTUS Says You Can Discuss Race in Your College Essay. Should You?
The us supreme court banned colleges’ affirmative action admission practices, raising a question about students writing about race in their college essay.
Although the Supreme Court says college application essays may discuss race and disadvantage, BU experts say inauthentic or traumatic recollections won’t cut it. Photo by Delmaine Donson/iStock
Should You Discuss Race in Your College Essay?
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.” — Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. …Universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”—Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
Confused? So are many in higher education. When the United States Supreme Court sacked affirmative action racial preferences in June, Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion, while spotlighting applicants’ personal essays, also put vague guardrails around their use. And anyway, not every young person who has suffered racial discrimination wants to revisit it in their essay, that critical part of applying to college where students tell their story in their voice.
After the SCOTUS decision, the advice from Boston University admissions and college guidance experts is this: your story must always be authentic. It can be about discrimination or other challenges met and dealt with, but it need not be. And it shouldn’t be , if writing about it means revisiting traumatic experiences.
“The essay for us is just going to continue to be as important as it always was,” notwithstanding the new legal landscape, says Kelly Walter (Wheelock’81), BU dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment. She has discussed the ruling with the University’s legal office, she says, and her office has tweaked BU’s two essay question options applicants must choose from. (The University also asks potential future Terriers to complete the Common Application for college, which has its own essay requirement.) The tweaks were partly in response to the court ruling, Walter says, but also to ensure that the questions conveyed to students “what BU stood for, and that we value diversity. We thought it was very important to put that out there front and center, and for them to be able to specifically respond to our commitment, our values, as it relates to one of these two essay questions.”
Those questions are:
Reflect on a social or community issue that deeply resonates with you. Why is it important to you, and how have you been involved in addressing or raising awareness about it? What about being a student at BU most excites you? How do you hope to contribute to our campus community?
While the chief justice exhorted students to share discrimination episodes in answering such questions, recent alum and current student Erika Decklar (Sargent’22, SPH’24) says that may not be comfortable for some. She is an advisor with BU Admissions College Advising Corps (CAC-BU) , which gives college application counseling to low-income and other marginalized high schoolers.
“In my experience,” Decklar says, “students from marginalized backgrounds gravitate towards writing college essays on traumatic experiences, whether they are comfortable sharing these experiences with admissions counselors or not. We have always advised and encouraged students to write about a topic that highlights their strengths, personalities, and passions—whether it is a ‘resiliency’ essay or an essay about their culture, values, or a unique passion.”
After the SCOTUS ruling, Decklar says, her advice to students has not changed. “We should continue motivating students to write about a passion, something that makes them unique, but not coach them to write about their traumatic experiences.”
Katie Hill, who directs CAC-BU, says applicants sharing in their essays what makes them special “does not require them revisiting their pain. If students so choose, we can help them write about their families and cultures, what is beautiful and makes them proud to be” of that culture.
Students from marginalized backgrounds gravitate towards writing college essays on traumatic experiences, whether they are comfortable sharing these experiences with admissions counselors or not. Erika Deklar (Sargent’22, SPH’24)
But what BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) students do not need, Hill says, is to hear from their advisors that in order to get into college, they need to open themselves up beyond their comfortable boundaries.
Walter agrees that an applicant’s story need not be an unrelenting nightmare. It’s true that some of them “are sharing things about their personal lives that I’m not sure I would have seen 20 years ago,” she says. “Students are certainly talking about their sexual identity in their essays. And some will say to us, ‘I’m telling you this [about my identity], and my parents don’t know yet.’”
But she can reel off the opening lines from three of her favorite essays over the years that were hardly gloomy. One began, Geeks come in many varieties. “We laughed. It makes you want to keep reading,” she says. Then there was the woman who started, Life is short, and so am I.
The third: By day, Louis is my trusty companion; by night, my partner in crime. “Doesn’t that make you want to read more and find out who or what Louis is?” Walter asks. (He was the applicant’s first car, a metaphor for this woman’s passion for the independence it conveyed, preparing her for the next step of going to BU, where she indeed matriculated.)
The essay is so important because it’s a given that applicants to BU can manage the academics here. “We have 80,000 students applying for admission to Boston University [annually],” Walter says, “and I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of them can do the work academically. We’re also shaping and building a class.
“For some, it may be leadership. For some, it may be their cultural background. For others, it might be writing for the Daily Free Press. We really want to think about a wide variety of students in our first-year class.” The essay fills in blanks about applicants for admission, along with teacher and counselor recommendations, their high school activities, and their internships or jobs.
That’s not to say there aren’t lethal don’ts to avoid, most of them emphasizing the necessity of having a proofreader.
“We often get references to ‘Boston College,’” says Patrice Oppliger , a College of Communication assistant professor of communication, who solicits faculty reviews of applicants to COM’s mass communication, advertising, and public relations master’s program before making a decision.
And need we say, do your own work? Walter recalls an essay from a couple of years back where the applicant discussed life in Warren Towers. “And I was like, wait, you couldn’t have lived in Warren Towers, you’re not here yet. And it became very clear that the parent, who was an alum—I think in an effort to help—was telling her story. And somehow no one [in that family] caught that.”
So writing about dealing with discrimination, race-based or otherwise, is fine if it’s not traumatic for you to revisit— and if it’s authentic. Authenticity also includes avoiding over-reliance on artificial intelligence in crafting your essay. According to Admissions’ AI statement ,
If you opt to use these tools at any point while writing your essays, they should only be used to support your original ideas rather than to write your essays in their entirety. As potential future Terriers, we expect all applicants to adhere to the same standards of academic honesty and integrity as our current students. When representing the words or ideas of another in their original work, students should properly credit the source.
“We want to think about not just who will thrive academically at BU,” Walter says, “but also who will enrich the University community and make diverse contributions.”
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The resiliency essay is the archetypical admissions essay of our time, but it has its drawbacks: https//www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/against-land-acknowledgements-native-american/620820/
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