These days, Derrick Darby is a "hip-hop scholar" and a respected professor of law and philosophy at the University of Kansas.
But decades back, he was just another kid in the Queensbridge projects of New York. And it was the development's famous hip-hop scene — rappers such as Nas grew up there — that he says first taught him the importance of "the fifth element," or knowledge.
Someday, Darby says he'd like to write a book about moving from the lowest economic rung of American society to the academic elite. And that book would likely fit in well with his current obsession: finding a way to pull America together and to help pass laws and policy that will narrow the wealth gap.
Darby has already spoken on inequality to audiences large and small, from a conference at the World Bank to a classroom at the University of Michigan (where an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling could decide the future of a state ban on affirmative action). With social psychologist and fellow KU professor Nyla R. Branscombe, he recently authored the first in a series of papers that will address the topic, and plans to lecture on the finer points of "Egalitarianism and Perceptions of Inequality" in an upcoming appearance at Colorado College.
So how do you effectively address economic equality and opportunity in America? Darby says it's by understanding that people think about the issue differently. For instance, consider a 2012 Pew Research study that asked "In your opinion, which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor, lack of effort on his or her own part, or circumstances beyond his or her own control?" Whites split on the question, but 62 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Hispanics blamed "circumstances."
Because of this difference in thinking, Darby says, assigning blame for inequality only creates friction. The key question, he says, isn't: "Who is responsible for everything that's gone wrong?" It's: "Who wants to be responsible for making things better?"
Here are excerpts from our interview with the professor last week.
Indy: In your research, you bring up that Occupy Wall Street focused on the idea that income inequality is unfair. But you argue that there are more concrete reasons to object to wealth inequality — such as the political instability it can cause. Can you describe your reasoning on the issue?
Derrick Darby: I think that the concrete reason that most interests me is the question of fairness. So, as we know from the stream of data that we've been bombarded with since the recession, and the aftermath of the Occupy movement, and movements like it around the country and around the world — people have been telling us that there are growing economic gaps between the Donald Trumps of the world and the Average Joes of the world.
What the recession did, what the Occupy movement did, was it caused us to ask two questions. "Are these economic inequalities unjust? And if they are, how do we do justice to them?"
So, as a political philosopher, I'm interested in answering those questions. But I want to answer them in a way that is informed by facts about how people think, how people behave, what identities we have and share. In a word, what we know about real people in the real world which we live in.
Indy: You describe a "choice egalitarian" as someone who advocates evening the scales for aspects of life that are beyond one's control, such as the circumstances into which one was born or a person's natural talent. At the same time, a choice egalitarian believes inequality that is caused by choice is OK. So if I could go to college free of charge and choose not to, and I therefore make less money, that's OK. That seems to make sense, yet you argue against it. Why?
DD: What I'm concerned about is what happens when we find out we can't so neatly draw the line between people's choices and their circumstances. Right? Because that's complicated.
Or what happens when we realize that the Donald Trumps of the world, or the people who are advantaged, are more inclined to have a standard for determining fairness that sees choice as being relevant versus circumstance, and the disadvantaged are going to have a standard that sees circumstance as more relevant? ...
Where do you draw the truth — and more importantly, insofar as we do care about inequality — how do you make arguments about why we should take on some collective responsibility for some of the costs, or bearing some of the burden, of dealing with inequality? Whether it's in the form of tax or whatever it happens to be, how do you make the case for collective responsibility?
And the upshot of our paper is that you're not going to do it by pointing the finger and trying to blame people for inequality. You've got to have some other way, that's not backward-looking, but forward-looking, to get people to see themselves as being responsible for doing something about inequality.
Indy: You make a really interesting point in saying the disadvantaged tend to judge progress in comparison to the ideal, whereas the advantaged judge progress in comparison to the past.
DD: That's a central problem.
Indy: You also note that the two sides differ on what reality is as far as discriminatory practices go. This reminds me of a graph I saw recently that showed what people thought the country's wealth distribution was, and what it actually was. The rich had so much more of the country's wealth than people assumed. So when it comes to discriminatory practices, I'm wondering: Which side is more accurately reflecting reality when we look at the numbers?
DD: That graph is a wonderful representation of why this kind of research is illuminating. ...
One way to think about the present in terms of race relations is to say, "Look, we don't have formal segregation in America anymore, blacks can go anywhere, they can even go to the White House, as we see." So there's no formal segregation. Now, some people will say that means America has fully realized the ideal of equality. But, clearly, they're thinking of equality in a more formal sense. They're thinking of inequality being the absence of formal segregation, for example.
Then what happens is, you start looking at some of the work coming out of sociology ... for example, Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's work on American apartheid [American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass]. And what they do is basically give data, post-1970, showing how segregated America still is.
And all you have to do is go to cities like Chicago and look at the south side. You go to any sort of urban center and, with some exceptions, you can see the segregation. And you can see how that's connected with quality of education, property values, levels of crime, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Now, disadvantaged people will say, "We haven't realized the ideal of equality because we are still living with segregation on some level, and that's having an effect on our life prospects."
Indy: It's interesting you bring up the president. A lot of people feel that the election of Barack Obama signified the end of racism in the country.
DD: Another thing that [perspective] is indicative of, in those cases, if you're looking at Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, LeBron James — people are looking at the exception as though it proves the rule ... but when you look at the aggregate figures, they tell a different story.
Indy: You're a scholar of hip-hop. How did that musical style reflect attitudes on wealth and inequality in its infancy?
DD: Certainly thinking about the development of hip-hop in the United States and the communities in which hip-hop music sort of developed, [they] are clearly disadvantaged, impoverished communities. And the art form, like many art forms, was and continues to be, youth-driven.
Now the point — and I've been all over the world and seen this in places like Brazil and Cuba and Africa — the youth in these disadvantaged communities, are giving expression as artists to the world around them. And whether you're in a favela in Rio [de Janeiro] or in a housing project in Chicago, the realities are fairly consistent. You got poverty; you got crime; you got failing schools ... the point is that these young people through their art draw attention to these inequalities. So that's one of the things that this art form does for us.
Now the parts that get the most attention, unfortunately, that's most commercialized, are the parts that seem to glorify violence, conspicuous consumption ... And this is where it gets interesting. Think about how people look at that part of hip-hop and use it to demonize hip-hop generally, or demonize young people generally.
Indy: How did attitudes about wealth change in hip-hop over time? Do you think that transition has helped or hurt poor blacks in America?
DD: I remember having this profound interaction with two gentlemen when I was teaching in Texas. And one of them — he was a cop and a preacher, you see a lot of that in Texas — he remarked that hip-hop was the worst thing that ever happened to black people. The first thing I thought — I didn't say this — but the first thing I thought was, "Really? Slavery was pretty bad. And so was segregation." ...
But if people are thinking of harm in terms of people's moral character and all that, then they're going to have a lot of negative things to say about it. If they're thinking about the economic benefits to a community — you think about the limited options that our young people have in these communities. Not all of them are going to go become a doctor and get a high-paying job, and they don't all want to be drug dealers, contrary to popular opinion. So this music is a route for them ... If you look at it that way, you tell a different story.
Indy: Right, but it's interesting how hip-hop used to talk about what it was like to be poor, versus now where you hear more bragging about being rich. That would seem to be negative, but I could also see that there could be an argument that seeing rich minorities is encouraging to youth.
DD: People have done studies of this as well. Try to calculate the impact of young, black kids in particular, seeing the Obamas in the White House. You could do a similar study about the impact of seeing Jay-Z on the podium when Obama's getting sworn in. The impact of seeing Jay-Z and Beyoncé on the podium, while there's a black president being sworn in‚ that's a story that needs to be told, too.
There's no question that the life of a Jay-Z, a Sean Combs, a Russell Simmons, looking at these now, not just as rappers but as entrepreneurs, as trend-setters — what young people wear, what they drink, where they want to go party — these people have shaped that in a deep and profound way, not just nationally, but globally.
Is that a good thing? Yeah, I think that's a good thing. And let me tell you why I think it's a good thing. Because one way I look at the history of race in the U.S. and globally — it's a history of dehumanization. Making people feel like they're less-than, not fully human, not fully a person, and then using that to justify their subordination. Denying their agency. So if it doesn't do anything else, seeing Jay-Z up there, seeing Sean Combs, seeing Russell Simmons, seeing all these trend-setters in the hip-hop world, it confronts that legacy head on.
Indy: There's a U.S. Supreme Court case right now on a Michigan ban on affirmative action. What's your view on that, especially when it comes to education?
DD: A lot of people think that affirmative action is about giving less-qualified people something because they're a woman or they're black or something ... If you think about it that way, who wants that, right?
And then what they think, of course, if they see a black, or a woman, or a Latino, they say, "Well, you got that job? It must be affirmative action, because you couldn't have been qualified for that."
So first of all, the problem is that there's this false idea out there about what it's all about. So once you tackle that, you can say, "Let's assume everyone in the room is qualified." Now, I may not have gotten my degree from Harvard, but I did get a degree from somewhere that was pretty decent, and I had to be able to write pretty well to get it, right? So let's assume that all of us are minimally qualified for the job.
Now let's have a discussion about what affirmative action means. What it means now is paying attention to this ideal that we claim to profess. We claim to be a society for equality of opportunity ... The question is, "Have you attended to differences that should be irrelevant to whether somebody can compete?"
So should a kid that's got a score that's in the ballpark to get into this institution be penalized because they didn't have parents that could afford to invest resources, so that they could take all these test prep classes, so that they could get a perfect score on the ACT instead of just a 27?
... If we claim to want [equality], then this way of proceeding has to be something we take seriously.
Indy: Wealth inequality is so clearly between the very rich and the rest of us, when you look at the numbers. It would seem like that would unite the poor and the shrinking middle class. But we actually see the opposite — more lines are being drawn on issues like welfare, immigration and health care. Is there a systemic issue that causes that?
DD: This is a deep question. This is sort of off-the-cuff — if we had more time, one could work out the arguments, and there is literature on this.
Why are the poor fighting the poor? Well, one place to start that conversation is, well, who controls the media? What are the messages being put out that make people feel that their enemy is somebody else poor, as opposed to somebody who basically sets up a financial system so that they can commit fraud and not go to jail? That's all I'll say on that.
Indy: Do you feel like there is a tipping point for the country, where wealth inequality will reach such an extreme that attitudes change?
DD: Think about the people that are in the so-called middle class or upper middle class — they're people that are struggling to put their kids through college. Because you got a lot more money than the people that are getting the free ride, let's say to Princeton, or to the Ivies. ...
These people aren't happy to hear all the stories about how the rich are getting richer. So there's a lot of room there for solidarity, that doesn't require seeing us all as one people. But it requires [us] to see that we have a common interest in getting some of the rules changed, so that they no longer completely favor the super-wealthy.
Indy: How can regular people apply your research to their lives and the way they think about others?
DD: I think the perfect example would be just think of the conversation we just had, and how awareness of some of the issues and the challenges may hopefully impact not only the way you think about it, but how you interact with people. That's the first step.