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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

In Selma, income inequality, education and race still deeply intertwined

For poor African-American students with little hope for a better future, the Civil Rights Movement is unfinished.

The racial divide has always been an economic divide. But, as the data illustrates, with income inequality on the rise in America, the two sides of this town seem more pulled apart than ever.

The city mirrors national trends. According to the National Poverty Center, 27 percent of black Americans, and 38 percent of black kids, are poor. Compare this to the 9.9 percent of whites, and 12 percent of white children, who live below the poverty line.

In other words, poverty hits the black population nearly three times as hard as the white population, including among children. As of the new year, 14 percent of blacks are unemployed in America, compared to seven percent of whites. And the median wealth of white households is twenty times that of black households.

A similar helix of race and class that has formed Selma is alive in Brazil. Though Selma’s population of 20,000 would make up only a quarter of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum, these two places — Selma and Brazil — have something in common. They share a Gini coefficient of 0.557, meaning that they experience a comparable wealth disparity.

It is especially shocking for Selma to match up with Brazil’s Rio, home to some of the planet’s wealthiest individuals. There, an influx of oil wealth translates into extravagant penthouses along Ipanema Beach, shadowed by mountainside favelas where basic human rights still elude many.

Divides are carved in black-and-white across Rio’s geography. Afro-Brazilians have faced notorious and systematic barriers to economic parity, despite being a demographic majority in Brazil. In one recent instance, an upscale shopping mall in Rio made a habit of escorting out black Brazilians who weren’t wearing nanny uniforms.

This is perhaps the type of discrepancy one might expect from Brazil, the tenth most unequal nation on the planet and the last in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, but not from a city like Selma, whose very mention recalls the hallowed ghosts of a racial struggle America largely credits itself as overcoming.

President Obama recently posited that class has eclipsed race as the nation’s greatest social divide. Many in Selma, however, feel that little has changed since the “separate but equal” status quo of the 1960s.

“Segregation isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact and a reality through all areas and aspects of Selma,” says Aqullia James, who grew up in the area.

Senator Sanders agrees, “You have two completely separate systems: one black and one white, one public and one private ... one poor and one rich.”

Nowhere is this division more starkly represented than in Selma’s education system. At Selma High School, there is not a single white student, despite the fact that Caucasians make up a full 20 percent of the population. And it wasn’t until 2008 that Selma’s largest private school accepted its first African-American student.

Private support

A senior high school math class at the Private Morgan Academy in Selma, Alabama
(Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)

The largest and most prestigious private school in Selma, Morgan Academy sits at the edge of city limits. A full trophy case greets visitors in the main office. Accolades run the gamut, from cheerleading and football championships to robotics team awards. On a colorful bulletin board hangs a constellation of stars, each star representing a different college that a member of the senior class will be attending. Names crowd the board.

Morgan Academy provides its 478 students K-12 with a fantastic education. After school, students receive check-up calls from a dedicated guidance counselor. Virtually all students graduate, and almost all head on to college.

“Morgan feels like a school used to feel in the old days, where the whole community supports the child,” says Director of Instruction Karim Oaks, a 1979 Morgan graduate whose parents served on the school’s founding board.

Most importantly, a Morgan education offers socio-economic mobility and hometown opportunity. School administrators say that an increasing number of Morgan graduates are returning to Selma to start successful careers. One recent graduate, for example, returned to take over the orthodontic practice of a retiring Morgan alum.