Inequality and Urban Space: Some Notes on Institutional Isolation and Social Connectedness

Here I call attention to three kinds of institutions that I consider to be at the heart of urban inequality: politics, schools, and labor markets.

The capacity for political participation is my core concern. Although I admire efforts to define the “just city,” I don’t really believe in this concept. I perceive justice to be something that must be continually demanded and contested through social movements, political organizations, and electoral politics. I have completed some research on a specific aspect of this topic – the effects of electoral regulations on voter registration and turnout. Working with data through 2008 I found that voter ID laws had consistent negative effects on minority electoral participation, and I suspect that the effects have been magnified as many more states invoke such procedures. But perhaps more important is the lag between recognizing a group as a substantial voting bloc and incorporating it into the party system.

All aspects of the legal framework that channel and obstruct political participation – institutions related to citizenship, incarceration, registration, voting – deserve what legal experts call “heightened scrutiny.”

Another important institutional arena is the public school system. Public schools are no more than partially desegregated, and the combination of residential segregation by race/ethnicity and class with systems of supporting schools has created a system with high levels of inequality. More recently the emergence of charter schools on a large scale is a significant institutional innovation, and one of my current projects is directed toward understanding to what degree (and in what places) charter schools have narrowed or expanded opportunities for minority children. Education continues to be a principal mechanism of stratification in urban America, when its presumed mandate is equalizing opportunity.

The third key area is labor markets. I use the plural form because there are many labor markets even in a single metropolitan region, based on new forms of the old dichotomy between the monopoly and competitive sectors. The increasing overall wage inequality that is so nicely documented in recent research is better understood as an amalgam of many different systems of channeling people into jobs. Employment opportunities and payoffs are strongly organized along racial and ethnic lines, again reinforced by residential segregation and also by segregated information networks and selection mechanisms.

Political systems, schools, and labor markets are examples of the many kinds of institutions that structure inequality in urban America. They interact with one another and with the underlying differentiation of the population by race and ethnicity, education and skill levels, and residential separation.

About the Author
John Logan is a professor of sociology at Brown University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.