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Stat$: The State of America -- Racial Disparities in Income

Allan Lichtenstein
October 19, 2016

by Allan Lichtenstein

AFTER THE RECENT unrest in Charlotte, Robert Pittenger, a Republican Congressional Representative whose district includes parts of Charlotte, said of the black protestors: “The grievance in their mind is the animus, the anger. They hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not. I mean, yes, it is, it is a welfare state. We have spent trillions of dollars on welfare, and we’ve put people in bondage so they can’t be all that they are capable of being.”

Pittenger’s remarks were not only racist, revealing his overt prejudice, but also exposed the structural racism deeply embedded in our society. Whites are “successful” not because of particular character traits. Rather, America’s institutional and economic structures, by defining the contours of economic achievement, have provided whites with opportunities denied people of color.

Sizable increases in household incomes, publicized in the recent Census release, have been hailed because of the relatively larger gains at the bottom end of the income scale as well as the increases accruing to Hispanic and black households. Hillary Clinton, for instance, finally acknowledging the “poor”, wrote in a New York Times OpEd that with a rise of 5.2 percent in median incomes, “households at all income levels saw gains, with the largest going to those struggling the most.”

But the commentators failed to headline that income disparities between white households, on the one side, and black and Hispanic households, on the other, remain more or less as wide as they were forty years ago. Little has changed.

OVERALL, AMERICAN HOUSEHOLDS have recovered most of the losses suffered during the Great Recession, thanks to a 5.2 percent increase in median household income in 2015 (6.1 percent for Hispanic households, 4.1 percent for black, 4.4 percent for white). At $56,516, however, median household income was still below both its 2007 pre-recession level as well as its 1999 peak year level of $59,744 (2015 dollars). And for black households, median income was a sizeable 11.5 percent below its 2000 peak, while for white households it was 3.2 percent below its 1999 peak.

Meanwhile, the ratio of black and Hispanic median household income to white median household income in 2015 remains more or less the same as it was in 1972. In 1972, black median household income was 57 percent that of white households; in 2015 it stood at 59 percent. Hispanic median household income was 70 percent that of white households in 1972; in 2015 it was 72 percent.

IN ADDITION, POOR BLACK and Hispanic households are poorer relative to poor white households today than almost forty years ago, with the ratio of black and Hispanic mean household income to white mean household income for the bottom twenty percent of households smaller in 2015 than it was in 1972. (In 2015, the bottom twenty percent of all households, almost 250,000 households in total, had incomes of less than $22,800, which is under the official poverty level of about $24,000 for a family of four in 2015.)

In 1972, black mean household income was about 55 percent that of white households in that bottom quintile; in 2015, black mean household income was 47 percent of white mean household income. Similarly, for Hispanic households in poverty, the disparity grew: 96 percent that of white households in 1972; 73 percent in 2015.


At the other end of the scale, the gap between rich white households and rich black and Hispanic households — with incomes above $117,002 in 2015 — is as large today as it was in 1972. Blacks and Hispanics have made virtually no progress in closing the income gaps at the high end of the income scale.


IN 1972, black mean household income was 67 percent that of white households. In 2015, it was 68 percent. For Hispanics, mean household income was 72 percent that of white mean household income in 1972; in 2015 it was 77 percent.

All told, little has changed in the distribution of total money income since 1972. White households predominated in the upper income brackets in 1972, black households in the bottom income brackets and Hispanics in the middle. In 2015, the distribution had changed very little. A little more than half of all white households had incomes above $50,000 (2014 dollars) in 1972; in 2015, almost 60 percent had incomes above $50,000. In contrast, almost 60 percent of black households had incomes below $35,000 in 1972; in 2015, almost half of all black households were found in the three bottom income categories. Hispanic households predominate in the middle income categories: In 1972, almost 60 percent had incomes between $25,000 and $75,000; in 2015, almost 50 percent were in these three income categories.

IN A SHORT ESSAY entitled “The Negro Question,” Albert Einstein wrote in January 1946:
“There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the ‘Whites’” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes.”

Concluding this thought, Einstein wrote: “The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.”

Allan Lichtenstein, a contributing writer to our website and magazine, has a Ph.D in urban planning from Rutgers University and has been working in the field of poverty research for nine years. He grew up in South Africa, lived in Israel for sixteen years, and has lived in the U.S. since 1986.