by Allan Lichtenstein
The Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete and prompt improvement in his way of life. What will it profit him to be able to send his children to an integrated school if the family income is insufficient to buy them school clothes? What will he gain by being permitted to move to an integrated neighborhood if he cannot afford to do so because he is unemployed or has a low-paying job with no future?
—Martin Luther King, 1964
THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA foreshadowed for some the emergence of a “post-racial” period. At its most optimistic scenario, post-racialism envisioned a colorblind society that has moved beyond race and transcended racial divisions.
Six years into Obama’s presidency, the goal of post-racialism seems as distant as it always was. Fifty years since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, America is still a deeply divided society. Little progress has been made to narrow the gap between black and white Americans. Inequality is still deeply entrenched. Black Americans continue to trail the white majority across a wide spectrum of social and economic indicators.
Blacks today are less optimistic about their future in America than they were when Obama was elected. Obama has positioned himself as a spokesperson of “respectability politics.” Like Paul Ryan and others in the Republican Party, he has embraced the view that poverty is the result of personal failure. Obama has rebuked the “bad” traits of the black poor, and chastised black men, in particular, for failing “to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.” The understanding that inequality and poverty are inherent in the structural tendencies of capitalist society has not been grasped.
In 1965, after the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, King encouraged his listeners to “march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist.” Fifty years later, how do we assess this “march on poverty”? To what extent has America reduced black poverty, increased the employment of black women and men, narrowed the income and wealth gaps between its black and white residents, and eliminated residential segregation and the concentration of poverty in black neighborhoods? The charts in this short article highlight some aspects of the disparities between white and black Americans that still prevail. With respect to certain fundamental indicators — poverty, unemployment, household income, household wealth, residential segregation, and poverty concentration — there is still an immense divide between white and black Americans.
A PEW RESEARCH CENTER SURVEY, published in August 2013 on the 50th anniversary of King’s most famous speech, found that less than half (45 percent) of all Americans think the country has made substantial progress toward racial equity, and almost half (49 percent) believing “a lot more” remains to be done. Significant divergence of views exists between racial and ethnic groups: While about one-third of blacks believe there has been “a lot” of progress toward racial equality, 79 percent say “a lot” more needs to be done in order to achieve racial equality.
The same survey also found that the optimism that prevailed after Obama’s election had waned. Although 39 percent of African Americans in 2009 thought that blacks were in a better situation than they had been five years earlier, the percentage dropped to 26 percent in 2013. Among the white population, optimism had also dwindled, with the percentages declining from 49 percent in 2009 to 35 percent in 2013.
What is the reality?
The poverty rate for African Americans, which peaked in 1983, shrank markedly during the economic expansion of the 1990s, dropping to its lowest level in 2000, 22.5 percent. This was still three times the poverty rate for whites. Since the early 2000s, both black and white poverty have increased. Initially, with the white poverty growing at a faster rate than the black poverty rate, the ratio between the two declined, reaching a low of 2.74:1 in 2009.
But the effects of the Great Recession were more severe for the black population. After the conclusion of the recession, the trend reversed and the black poverty rate increasingly diverged from the white poverty rate. In 2013, with the white poverty rate standing at 9.6 percent and the black poverty rate at 27.2 percent, the ratio between the two grew to 2.83:1.
Poverty rates for backs and whites and the ratio between the two groups, 1973 to 2013:
Poverty is disproportionately more ubiquitous among the African American population than it is among the white population. In 1980, whites made up 80 percent of the U.S. population but only 56 percent of the poverty population. The reverse was true for African Americans: Their share of the poverty population was two and a half times greater than their share of the total population. Blacks comprised almost 12 percent of the total population but a far larger 29 percent of the poverty population. In 2013, thirty-three years later, this glaring disproportion remains. The white share of the U.S. population declined to 62 percent and their share of the poverty population declined to 42 percent. Blacks remained at about 12 percent of the total population but 24 percent of the poverty population — still twice their share of the total population, as the following chart indicates:
Share of total population and share of poverty population for blacks and whites, 1980-2013
THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE for black men and women has consistently been at least double that for white women and men, irrespective of the stage in the business cycle. Although the chart below shows unemployment rates dating back to June 1990, the black unemployment rate was double the white unemployment rate in 1963 when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place. Half a century later, the disparity is at the same level.
During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for black males rose sharply and continued to rise even after the official conclusion of the recession, reaching a peak of 19.3 percent in March 2010. Black female unemployment peaked at 13.8 percent the following month. Although the unemployment rates have declined for black women and men, as of January 2015, the ratio of black male to white male unemployment was 2.4:1, while the percentage of unemployed black women was double that for white women.
Unemployment rates for black and white women and men 20 years of age and above, 1990- 2014
Median income of African American households remained at about 60 percent that of white non-Hispanic households over the last forty years; since 1972, median income has consistently been about 1.7 times higher for white non-Hispanic households than for black households. The median income for white non-Hispanic households was $51,380 in 1972, compared to just $29,569 for black households (in 2103 dollars) — a ratio of 1.74:1. In 2013, median white non-Hispanic household income stood at $58,270, while median black household income was $34,598, only a slight decline in the ratio to 1.68:1.
Median Household Income for White non-Hispanic and Black Households, 1972 to 2013
THE MOST BLATANT DISPARITY between white non-Hispanics and African Americans is found in the immense magnitude of wealth inequality, which has been expanding since the conclusion of the Great Recession. The Pew Research Center reports the median net worth of white non-Hispanic households was thirteen times that of black households in 2013. That was the highest difference since 1989, when the gap was seventeen times.
During the recession, wealth decreased for all racial and ethnic groups. The median net worth of white non-Hispanic households fell from $192,500 in 2007 to $138,600 in 2010. After the recession, white non-Hispanic households started to rebuild their wealth, which climbed to $141,900 in 2013.
In comparison, black households have experienced a continuous decline in their net worth since the recession. Median net worth for black households declined from $19,200 in 2007 to $16,600 in 2010 and then to $11,000 in 2013 — a decrease of one-third between 2007 and 2013.
Overall, white families held 90 percent of the national wealth in 2013; in contrast black families held just 2.6 percent of the total wealth. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the wealth of the Walton family alone (the six Walmart heirs) is equal to the aggregated wealth of the bottom 79 percent of all black families.
Median net worth of black and white households, 2007 and 2013
ALTHOUGH BLACK-WHITE residential segregation has been declining, it is still widely pervasive. Blacks are disproportionately likely to be living in neighborhoods where other blacks live, although less than in the past. The Pew Research Center reports that 42 percent of blacks lived in census tracts that were majority black in 2010, typically in a census tract with a 45 percent African-American population — even though, as noted, African Americans comprised only 12 percent of the population. Thirty years earlier, in 1980, the typical African American lived in a neighborhood that was 58 percent African American. In contrast, the typical white person in 2010 lived in a tract that was 77 percent white, although whites comprised 63 percent of the population.
Blacks are still more likely than either white non-Hispanics or Hispanics to be the dominant group in high-poverty census tracts, although less than in the past. In his most recent research, Paul Jargowsky, a Century Foundation Fellow, found that high poverty neighborhoods are disproportionately comprised of minorities. Using 2007 to 2011 Census data, he noted that African Americans comprised the largest group in high-poverty neighborhoods even as their share declined — from 42 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2007-2011. In comparison, the number of white non-Hispanics residing in high poverty neighborhoods more than doubled in the same period, increasing from 20 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2007-2011.
Despite the decline in both residential segregation and concentrated poverty among the black population, the research findings of Patrick Sharkey, who teaches sociology at NYU, are especially distressing. Black American families who lived in black-majority, concentrated-poverty neighborhoods in the 1970s are still likely to be living in the same neighborhoods. Sharkey writes, “For the large majority of black families, the ghettos of the civil rights era have been passed on from parents to children, with little change.” He found that half of all black families have resided in the poorest quarter of American neighborhoods over the past two consecutive generations, compared to about seven percent of white families.
This persistence of the ghetto in the lives of black Americans reflects a broader pattern of continuity in neighborhood conditions across generations of family members. Families in America’s worst neighborhoods — where violence is common, schools are failing, economic opportunities are limited, and public resources are sparse — have been exposed to the same disadvantaged neighborhoods continuously over two generations. To put it differently: The ghetto appears to be inherited.
THE PERSISTENCE OF LARGE RACIAL DISPARITIES in poverty, unemployment, household income, and household net worth, as well in residential segregation and concentrated poverty, will not be solved by “lifting up thyself” as Barack Obama, Paul Ryan, and others propose. It requires adoption of the more outspoken social agenda advocated by Martin Luther King later in his short life, and emphasized by black leaders such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph when they called for “jobs” as well as “freedom” at the March on Washington. Real change requires anchoring the solutions to eradicating inequalities in the political economy rather than in behavioral psychology and individual effort. Raising the minimum wage and increasing the child tax credit, two recent proposals of Obama’s, are positive steps, but much more is needed, including programs specifically targeted at improving the lives of the black population.
As Adolph Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun, university researchers, have written, real change requires “moving beyond simply placing people on an equal starting line — ‘equality of opportunity’ — but also making sure they ended up closer to an equal finishing line.”
Allan Lichtenstein has a Ph.D in urban planning from Rutgers University and has been working in the field of poverty research for eight years. He grew up in South Africa, lived in Israel for sixteen years, and has lived in the U.S. since 1986.