BMCC’s first Inequality Forum, sponsored by the Social Sciences & Human Services and Criminal Justice departments, was held on February 18 in Richard Harris Terrace.
The forum opened with a panel of BMCC professors sharing their research into the economic, social and political roots of inequality in the U.S. today.
The panel was followed by a presentation by key note speaker Richard Benjamin, author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America and a senior fellow of the nonpartisan research center, Demos.
The Inequality Forum was organized by BMCC professors Fabian Floran and Roger Foster.
“Our goal here is to think about inequality and the various ways it affects our life chances and prospects,” said professor Foster, whose academic background is in the area of philosophy.
He explained that the idea for the conference emerged in a BMCC faculty reading group that discussed Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which came out in English in 2014.
The book raises questions about the long-term evolution of inequality and concentration of wealth.
“Inequality has been one of the key problems in the United States for many decades now,” said the forum's co-organizer, professor and economist Fabian Balardini.
“Our students are very interested, and we as social scientists are very interested in finding out the causes and hopefully, the remedies.”
A panel examines roots of inequality
The Inequality Forum opened with a multi-disciplinary panel that examined inequality from the perspective of the presenters' fields of study.
Geography professor Arto Artinian spoke about today’s service economy and what happens to people who have been "de-skilled," giving the example of teachers who are not permitted to write their own lesson plans.
His colleague Professor Balardini commented that, “As someone with a doctoral in economics, I see capitalism as my patient,” one that he diagnoses with “acute addiction to profit” and showing symptoms such as “the destruction of the social fabric and natural environment."
Political science professor Peter Bratsis cited Aristotle’s observation that in a society where people are either very poor or very wealthy, "they cannot function well as citizens. The rich are overwhelmed with wealth protection and the poor are consumed by just getting by.”
Professor Yolanda Martin of the criminal justice department summarized her research into the correlation between deportation policy and the politics of countries involved.
Another criminal justice professor, Ilgin Yorukoglu, made the point that “equality doesn’t always mean justice,” and gave examples of separate justice systems in the U.S. that relate to different groups of people.
Sociology professor Charles Post expounded on points from Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, talking about a “logically incoherent” economic model in which the rate of return, or profit, always exceeds per capita output.
Professor Kelly Rodgers, who teaches psychology, discussed educational inequality and the value of culturally relevant pedagogy, and history professor Jamie Warren examined a 1643 tax law distinguishing between black and white women’s income, explaining how “myths of gender are used to support myths of race.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Richard Benjamin
Between 2007 and 2009, keynote speaker Dr. Richard Benjamin traveled throughout the United States “to do an ethnography of wealthy white people,” he said. “Usually ethnographers focus on the ghetto, and I wanted to turn the lens around.”
He described his time staying in small towns and exurban areas in Forsythe County, Georgia; Couer d'Alene, Idaho, and St. George, Utah.
In these communities—which are largely white and include residents who have moved from large, urban centers—he observed and took part in social gatherings and other events.
Sharing photos, video, graphs and anecdotes from his travels, Dr. Benjamin discussed the phenomenon of self-segregated white communities, anti-immigration movements, zoning laws, racist depictions of President Barack Obama and more—building a context for political and economic inequality.
He closed with a Claudia Rankine poem from her collection Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), a recent finalist for the National Book Award.
“I was delighted to see so many students out there talking about inequality, which many people are saying is the biggest issue of their time,” he said afterwards.
“I think it’s important for BMCC students to be part of this conversation so that when they do what they do in the world, and get out there and be active, that they have some information and knowledge and discussion to animate what they care about.”