Chinatown, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Caroline Léna Becker

Teaching Inequality

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Leslie Lewis

Every year a new crop of fresh-faced students enters my classroom. Some stroll in, some saunter, a few rush in headlong. Nearly all are eager to learn about the advertized topic of the course: culture & society, environmental & preventive health, health care systems, aging, women’s activisms. Few have any real understanding of the problem of inequality in society.

This does not surprise me. My students are, almost without exception, good-hearted, intellectually curious young people, but they are the product of an educational system preoccupied with standardized testing at the expense of critical inquiry and analysis. Further, they have been raised in a society that proclaims itself, in the loudest, most self-congratulatory of tones, to be about freedom, democracy, and equality. There is very little public discourse about inequality in this country. Any serious conversation on the topic would challenge our national identity, and the cultural narratives (about hard work and success, laziness and poverty) that undergird and perpetuate them.

The students are shocked by the statistics. Mouths drop open as I run through the numbers: the gaping, growing gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the population; the highly unequal access to quality education, jobs, healthcare; the racism, sexism, and a xenophobia that continue to be expressed in their institutional, interpersonal, and internalized forms.

What they own. Image courtesy Leslie Lewis

The top one percent of American families owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent combined. Image courtesy Leslie Lewis

By this point in the lecture, emotional reactions range from consternation to outrage. Students are alight with questions: why is there so much inequality in the US and across the world? Have we always lived with inequality? Is it a necessary aspect of the human condition? Are there any societies today that are egalitarian? Why does it continue when it is so clearly unjust? What can we do to change things? The subfields of anthropology (archeology, cultural, psychological, and others) offer a wealth of data, tools, and insights with which to consider these questions.

My goal is to help students grasp the mechanisms through which inequality is created, justified, and reproduced, but I do not want our engagement with these questions to be merely an intellectual exercise. I want them to be affected by what they learn, to be jolted out of complacency. I want to push them to consider these issues from multiple perspectives: as social scientists, yes, but also as citizens, community members, and fellow inhabitants on this beautiful but beleaguered planet.

On a subway ride from southeast Washington, D.C.., an impoverished African American neighborhood, to Montgomery County, Maryland, an affluent white suburb, life expectancy rises about a year and a half for every mile traveled –amounting to a 20-year gap.

On a subway ride from southeast Washington, DC, an impoverished African American neighborhood, to Montgomery County, Maryland, an affluent white suburb, life expectancy rises about a year and a half for every mile traveled –amounting to a 20-year gap. Image based on WMATA map. Image courtesy wikicommons

Facilitating this level of engagement necessitates stepping down off the podium and getting into the teaching trenches. It means asking thought-provoking questions, uncovering assumptions, and challenging beliefs. Over the past five years, I have developed several different activities and assignments that help students to understand, in a very concrete way, the roots and realities of inequality. I encourage students to reflect, cultivate new perspectives, and identify with people or groups that they did not previously see as “like” them.

For some of my courses, I have students conduct interviews with individuals who are economically, socially or politically marginalized, and then analyze the policy implications of their plight. In one course, I divide students into small groups representing different socioeconomic strata in order to demonstrate how class is reproduced.

In my aging course, I facilitate a group brainstorm in which we chart the life of two individuals from “womb to tomb.” Students articulate the likely (and very distinct) opportunities, experiences, and exposures of two individuals from very different social and economic circumstances. In so doing, they come to see the ways that burdens and benefits multiply and accumulate over the life course. Through these and other activities, my aim is to help students parse out cultural patterns, recognize intersectionalities, and see their social and psychological effects. I have described below two of my favorite teaching strategies.

Fieldtrip to Two Neighborhoods

I build this activity into a course I teach on environmental and preventive health. I do very little by way of preparing students for what to expect, preferring to have them collect their own data and draw conclusions from it. We meet first in La Jolla, a beautiful, well-to-do little neighborhood of San Diego, where sea lions laze on sun-baked rocks, and sea salty air wafts past multimillion dollar homes.

Before beginning, we sit together and discuss our assignment and expectations. I hand out written surveys I have prepared; these direct the students’ attention to different aspects of the built and social environment: the width of the sidewalk and streets, the presence or absence of plants, trees, benches, fountains; the kinds of foods available, the feel and smell of the place, the social norms (whether people are walking, jogging, biking, smoking, chatting, and so forth).

I divide them into groups of three or four, and have them stroll along different blocks, taking notes. I also ask them each to interview 3-5 people about their health, and any connections the respondents see between their environment and their wellbeing. We spend about an hour doing this, and then gather again to discuss our findings.

Afterwards, we pile into our cars and drive over to another San Diego neighborhood further south, called Barrio Logan. I have explained to the students that this area has a long, proud history of community activism. When we arrive, it is immediately clear why they have had to fight so hard; we can smell the chemicals in the air as soon as we climb out of our vehicles. Barrio Logan is a “toxic hot spot,” where concentrated amounts of toxins are released. Community members have been struggling for decades to change zoning laws so that local homes, schools and clinics can be separate from polluting industries, with buffer zones in between.

The students undertake their neighborhood stroll, and when they have finished, I ask them to reflect on the experience in writing. We discuss our findings and impressions at our next class meeting. I tally the results of our mini-survey, and add in the information I have on the demography of the two neighborhoods (percentage of households living at or below the poverty level, percentage of residents of color, percentage of residents who rent vs. own their home), toxic materials release data from the state, and health data on such markers as cancer, diabetes, and rates of hospitalizations for asthma.

The students learn that in Barrio Logan, a third of the residents live in poverty, 86% rent rather than own, and 95% are non-white. Most jaw breaking is the fact that fifty times the amount of toxins released into its air, water and soil as happens in La Jolla, a community twice its size and its near opposite demographically.

We talk in class about the historical, political, economic, and cultural factors that enable such disparities to exist. I show them a segment (Place Matters) of a PBS series, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? This adds a personal dimension, since it features the stories of families living in similarly challenging circumstances. It is a rare student who is not moved by the data we collect and analyze.

Thought Experiments

Thought experiments work well to lay bare assumptions, and broaden students’ thinking. I use a gender reversal narrative to help demonstrate the ways that language, family, peer groups, advertising, and consumerism all create and reinforce our constructions about gender (as well as sexuality, race/ethnicity, etc.). It begins:

(INTRO) Imagine you are a 5 yr old boy in a world of SHE. What affect might that have on your sense of yourself and your place in the world, especially as compared to girls?

You were a beautiful baby boy born to a family who loved you dearly. Both of your parents were affectionate, but as you transitioned from nursing to solid foods, your mom was around less and less (having to return to her job as the main breadwinner of the family). Your father, guided by his paternal instincts and supported by his dad network, was a constant source of nurturing, love, care and fun for you and your siblings. You hoped to be like him one day, and to marry a great, successful woman like your mom.

As you grew, you entered school and learned about the problems of womankind, but also the many social, economic, technological, medical and scientific advances of your fellow woman through the ages.

On family vacations, you visited woman-made lakes, dams, canals and other woman-made wonders.

You knew that firewomen and policewomen helped keep you safe, and the mailwoman brought your birthday cards from your grandparents.

Most of the toys you played with had to do with nurturing, caretaking, cleaning and enhancing your physical appeal. You loved these toys, spending hours playing with them. You had “Prince Parties” where you and your friends played dress up and primped each other. Everyone smiled at how cute you all were, which encouraged you. They gave you lovely, sparkly gifts of princely gowns and capes, and make-up to enhance your good looks. Your mom sometimes took you into her lap and called you her little prince. You loved this!

The narrative continues for two more pages. I use a similar device to demonstrate the extensive, though frequently “hidden” privileges enjoyed by white individuals in a society still steeped in racial inequality.

The challenges of bringing students to a richer understanding of inequality are daunting, but the effort is worthwhile. In our current climate of relatively unchallenged neoliberal policies, creeping corporatization of our public sphere, and growing economic inequality, we do well to cultivate empathy, creativity, and perspicacity in this up and coming generation of citizen-leaders.

Leslie Lewis is lecturer in the urban studies & planning program and the department of anthropology at UC San Diego, and the director the Community Hope Project (

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