In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

Disproportionalities, Disparities, and Discrimination

Friday, December 18, 2020

Author: Cora Bagley Marrett

Consider the trifecta of forces that have recently shaken the United States: the coronavirus pandemic, economic dislocations, and social justice protests. All three show that the actions and dispositions of individuals matter, as do group processes, community forces, and directions in the broader society. They indicate, too, the interplay across these developments. I relate complex systems thinking to each of these three problems to examine the racial and ethnic inequalities that persist and to illuminate the patterns of inequality.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities Highlighted by the Coronavirus Pandemic

It’s been clearly shown that across the nation, racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to fall ill and die from covid-19 than are Whites. Such discrepancies result from health-related disparities as well as social and economic ones. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely than Whites to have diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, morbid obesity, and kidney disease. Additionally, minority group members are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality and other adverse conditions.

Individual attitudes and behaviors also bear on health outcomes. In some instances, members of the majority group behave in ways unfavorable to minority group members. In other cases, concerns lie within the minority community, as appears in research about trust: Studies show that Blacks are less likely than Whites to trust physicians and hospitals (Blackstock 2020).[1] One consequence is that these patients are not inclined to either seek treatment or comply with plans for treatment.

These factors add to the complications in unraveling the conditions that explain racial differences in health outcomes, including those connected with covid-19.

Disparities Associated with Economic Dislocations

Recent headlines show a plunging US economy, reflecting the shuttering of businesses and unemployment rates unseen in recent years. During the second quarter of 2020, the gross domestic product underwent its worst drop since 1947. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed to levels unknown since the Great Depression. Covid-19 has been pivotal to these economic dislocations.

But not all groups have been affected identically by the economic downturn. The unemployment rate for White Americans stands at 12.4 percent; for Blacks, at 16.8 percent; and for Hispanics, at 17.6 percent (Garcia and Vanek Smith 2020). Differences between minority- and majority-group persons before the pandemic worsened after its onset.

Unraveling the conditions accounting for economic disparities requires assessing the broader economy. Over the past two decades, changes in the economy—in tax rates, for example—have redounded to the benefit of the highest income groups. Blacks are almost completely absent from those groups and hence profit little from the changes.

There are extensive studies of the character and correlates of economic disparities in American society and explanations for the patterns (e.g., Chetty et al. 2020). These studies and other sources undoubtedly could be mined and augmented to delineate the interconnections—and not merely the elements—-associated with the prevailing disparities.

Disparities in Social Justice

Social justice exists when the administration of law does not depend on a person’s ethnicity, race, gender, or standing. Protests erupted in 2020 after the police--related deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Blacks. Although actions spawned by similar events had taken place earlier in the decade, they paled in comparison with these recent ones. People mobilized after the police-related deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 and Freddie Gray in 2015: In the 2 weeks following the death of Michael Brown, over 25,000 persons participated in 130 protests. Two weeks after the death of George Floyd, over 690,000 participants were counted in 1900 protests.

Of course, public protests centered on racial matters did not appear only in this decade. Marches, sit-ins, and similar activities marked the civil rights movement of the 1960s, although to some observers a systems perspective applies less adequately to that movement than to current developments. The principal reason: nationally visible persons—such as Martin Luther King Jr.—and organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Analysts tend to separate activities with clear leaders from ones without positions of authority.

Social justice issues cover more than police-related deaths. Blacks and Latinx Americans are arrested, charged, and sentenced to jail time more often than are Whites, even for comparable offenses. Significant differences appear, then, in the composition of the prison population. Blacks constitute 14 percent of the total US population, but 36 percent of the population in state and federal prisons. Whites, representing 64 percent of the general population, account for 31 percent of the imprisoned. Latinx persons represent 16 percent of the nation’s citizens but 24 percent of those in prisons.

The conditions accounting for these patterns are remarkably intricate. Some lie in the criminal justice system and others outside it. Legal factors (conditions internal to that system) include the nature of the offense and the record of the offender. Extralegal circumstances are not tied to the offense itself but may include a person’s educational and income level and social networks.

But differences between groups need not indicate discrimination. Sometimes a reported difference is disproportionality, indicating statistical over or underrepresentation of a group. In other cases, the contrast reflects disparity, meaning that given outcomes are more favorable for one group than for another. Discrimination obtains when the disproportionality or disparity results from actions taken deliberately to foster inequities.

Developments affecting social justice are not limited to actions taken in the legal system or by protesters, they are much broader. Therefore, what should more systemic and unified work on racial and ethnic disparities produce?

Using a Systems Approach to Understand Disparities

Quite likely, few would dispute the need to eliminate the disparities, to reduce the inequalities found widely in US society. Does such an outcome move inevitably toward assimilation?

Analyses undertaken in earlier decades assumed that reductions in levels of discrimination signaled, and probably demanded, the assimilation or acculturation of minority groups. These groups, however, have challenged the view that removal of disparities requires absorption into the larger society. Multiculturalism emerges as the alternative. With multiculturalism, groups maintain distinctive properties but are neither censured nor denigrated for doing so. Discussions of complexity, then, should consider the question, Can models be generated that reduce disparities but simultaneously allow for differences?

All the corporate press releases and timely public statements—including by the leadership of the National Academies—have not invariably generated the results their authors intended. Critics have depicted the statements as patronizing, inconsistent with practices within the organization, or subtly promoting assimilation. The mixed responses suggest, again, the importance of understanding complexity, including the recognition that different participants in a system need not have identical experiences or goals.

Complicating any response is the reality that not all conditions, and their consequences, can be fully explicated. This should not eliminate a quest to consider social inequalities in a systems framework. It does, nonetheless, raise an issue whether complex systems can be changed, or designed, through deliberate actions.

Clearly, there are interdependencies in the world of racial and ethnic relations, but the extent to which they are systematic—or subject to principles associated with unity or unifiability—remains to be more clearly specified. What, in the case of the inequalities, is the system of interest? What are its interacting components? How might we grapple with several aspects of the system simultaneously, if disparities emerge and are sustained through various forces?

A focus exclusively on race or ethnicity as the defining characteristic might well ignore the multiple roles and identities involved. The concept of inter-sectionality designates the multiple positions a given individual might occupy, each of which could carry its own unique modes of discrimination and privilege. What a Black working-class mother experiences could depend on whether her race, her economic status, or her gender is of paramount importance for the given context or problem.

Concluding Thoughts

The racial and ethnic disparities found with covid-19, in economic outcomes, and in social justice arenas all have connections to historical forces, cultural conditions, and social configurations. This circumstance -raises a third problem: the impossibility of mapping every element, relationship, and activity. Despite these challenges, complexity science could help advance research on race relations by sharpening the notion of systems of relations.

Recognizing that social inequalities derive from complex forces does not invariably plot a path toward action. But social movements and research on specific topics illustrate cases in which deliberate changes have been wrought in complex systems. The effects seen might depend on the nature of the system under analysis, such as its size and intricacies.

Complex unifiable systems thinking offers possible new ways to think about inequalities and new questions that should be posed and answered rather than concrete steps that should be taken. This implies that analyses of racial and ethnic inequalities might not merely draw on complexity science and engineering but offer directions for them.


Blackstock OJ. 2020. How did we get here? Historical perspectives. Conf on Addressing Medical Mistrust in Black Communities: Implications for COVID-19, HIV, Hepatitis, STIs and Other Conditions, Aug 29.

Chetty R, Hendren N, Jones MR, Porter SR. 2020. Race and economic opportunity in the United States: An intergenerational perspective. Quarterly Journal of -Economics 135(2):711–83.

Garcia C, Vanek Smith S. 2020. Unemployment and the racial divide. NPR, Jun 5.


[1]  See also the current research project of Wilkins CH, Griffith DM, Engendering Trust: Efforts to Measure and Increase Trust among African American Men (grant period: 07/15/18–01/14/21; information available at efforts -measure-and-increase-trust-among-african-american- men).

About the Author:Cora Marrett is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and former deputy director of the National Science Foundation.