Race and Consumption: Consumer Markets and the Production of Racial Inequality
Racial economic inequality is a major social concern in the United States. Sociological research on the issue has focused primarily on understanding disparities in the process of earning income and accumulating wealth. Much less clear, however, is what happens when individuals try to spend the money they already have. At similar income and wealth levels, can black and white families acquire the same quantity and quality of goods and services? This dissertation investigates this question by examining racial inequality in consumer market outcomes. Over the past thirty years, economic sociologists have argued that economic markets are complex social institutions that contribute to the production of social inequality. This insight, however, has been relatively confined to the study of labor and production markets. Consumption has instead been studied primarily from a cultural perspective that examines the use of good and services as markers of cultural capital and social distinction. This cultural sociology of consumption has made key contributions to the study of inequality, but it also misses some of the important stratification processes unfolding in consumer markets.
This dissertation addresses this gap by proposing an economic sociology of consumption that examines social structural sources of inequality in black and white households’ ability to acquire goods and services. Chapter 1 provides a brief introduction to the three studies that comprise this dissertation. The first study is presented in Chapter 2. This study provides a critique of current cultural approaches to consumption and consumer markets and sketches a new approach for a future economic sociology of consumption. The construct validity of this approach is then tested using household expenditure data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES). The next two studies draw on this contribution to examine racial consumption inequality in the United States. Chapter 3 uses CES data again to provide a detailed empirical overview of racial spending disparities and shows that black households have lower average consumption levels than white households, net of racial differences in income and wealth. This chapter also shows important patterns of racial consumption disparities for specific categories of goods and services. Chapter 4 builds on the previous findings by evaluating one potential explanation for racial disparities in total household spending: unequal access to consumer credit. Using CES data and data on variation in payday lending laws across states, this chapter shows that differences in access to credit at the state-level are is associated with significant variation in the size of the racial spending gap. The final chapter provides general conclusions and outlines future research directions.
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