Sociologist Regina Baker finds that Black people in southern U.S. states with significant institutionalized historical racial practices experience worse poverty today. These states also have a wider poverty gap between Black and white populations.
To understand modern racial inequalities, historical context is crucial. That’s according to new research from Penn sociologist Regina Baker published in the American Journal of Sociology.
Baker found that in southern states with a strong historical racial regime—a notion she conceptualized and then measured using a scale she created—Black populations today experience worse poverty. These states also have a wider poverty gap between Black and white populations.
“In general, Black people are more likely to be poor than white people,” says Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. “Living in a state that has a stronger historical racial context exacerbates that poverty.”
‘I was meant to dig deeper’
Baker grew up in Georgia, and both her parents came from South Carolina. “The South has always been of interest to me,” she says.
In graduate school, she knew she wanted to research poverty and inequality, but she didn’t home in on what would eventually become this research until one particular news article got her thinking.
The piece ranked states in many categories, from poverty to child well-being and health care. “For nearly every category, so many of the states at the bottom were in the South,” she says.
She wondered why, yet looking through the previous literature got her nowhere; little sociological research existed on poverty in the contemporary South.
She happened upon a paper from respected sociologist Ronald C. Wimberley making a plea to colleagues to do more research about the South and to use their expertise to better understand social problems like impoverishment through a Southern lens.
“Here I am reading this article. I had all these questions in my mind about why the southern states were coming up in indicators as being worse off.