Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech offered a vision of an inclusive America.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’….
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers….
“If America is to be a great nation, this must be true.”
How far have we progressed toward the great nation of King’s vision, toward genuine inclusion of African Americans?
Inclusion has three components: (1) Similar treatment by key institutions (schools, the legal system, etc.) and by other groups. (2) Opportunity to participate fully in society. This entails not just the absence of barriers, but also, where necessary, ample supports. (3) Embrace as part of the community.
The enslavement of Blacks in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is one of the worst things the United States has done, and progress in rectifying our policies and institutions came slowly. Slavery was outlawed in 1865, following the union victory in the Civil War. Yet physical violence, sharecropping arrangements, segregation laws, and poll taxes and literacy tests were used to subjugate Blacks for another century in much of the south, and residential segregation and employer discrimination hindered opportunity in the rest of the country. In his detailed study of African Americans in Philadelphia at the end of the 1800s, W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that “the condition of the Negro cannot be considered apart from the great fact of race prejudice — indefinite and shadowy as that phrase may be. It is certain that, while industrial cooperation among the groups of a great city population is very difficult under ordinary circumstances, that here it is rendered more difficult and in some respects almost impossible by the fact that nineteen-twentieths of the population have in many cases refused to co-operate with the other twentieth, even when the co-operation means life to the latter and great advantage to the former. In other words, one of the great postulates of the science of economics — that men will seek their economic advantage — is in this case untrue, because in many cases men will not do this if it involves association, even in a casual and business way, with Negroes.”1
In An American Dilemma, published in 1944, Gunnar Myrdal concluded that race relations in the United States were stuck in a vicious cycle in which whites oppressed Blacks and then used the consequent poor outcomes for Blacks as justification for the oppression.2
In 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson in the wake of urban disorders and violent protests, concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” “What white Americans have never fully understood, but what the Negro can never forget,” wrote the commissioners in their report, “is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”3
Yet in some respects the tide had begun to turn in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Following a decade of activism and protest by the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in school admissions, housing, hiring, and pay and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory barriers to voting and political representation. In the late 1960s state laws forbidding interracial marriage were banned and affirmative action policies began.
A generation later, in 1997, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom published a major assessment of racial progress titled America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Their conclusion was positive and optimistic. “Today,” they wrote, “almost three-quarters of black families are above the poverty line. In 1940, 87 percent of black families were in poverty; the figure was down to 47 percent in 1960 and 26 percent in 1995. The black college population has grown from 45,000 in 1940 to over 1.4 million today, a thirtyfold increase. Sixty percent of employed black women were domestic servants in 1940; today very few are. A majority, in fact, hold white-collar jobs. The number of black men in professional occupations has also risen impressively. Power and influence were exclusively white prerogatives in 1940; there was no Vernon Jordan and no Michael Jordan.”4 Nor, we can now add, was there a Barack Obama — America’s first Black president, elected in 2008 and again in 2012.
What does an updated look at inclusion for African Americans, about 13% of the country’s population, tell us? To what extent has progress continued?
- Economic well-being
- Integration in neighborhoods and schools
- Treatment by police and the criminal justice system
- Embrace by other groups
- What do African Americans think?
- Why such modest progress?
Measuring inclusion isn’t straightforward. Many of the available indicators are of disparities in outcomes. This is partly because we often lack direct measures of treatment or opportunity and partly because sharply and persistently unequal outcomes foster a feeling of exclusion.
Let’s begin with education. Figure 1 shows math and reading test scores for African Americans and whites in 8th grade. Both groups have improved significantly in math, though not in reading. There is a sizable gap between Blacks and whites, and it’s decreased only a little in recent decades.
Figure 2 shows that the share of African Americans completing high school increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, and by the mid-1990s it had caught up with the white share. Here progress toward inclusion, both absolute and relative, has been substantial.
African Americans also have achieved significant gains in college completion, as figure 3 shows. Whites have experienced a similar rise, so the size of the gap has remained fairly constant. Here we see a good bit of absolute progress but little progress relative to whites.
As figure 4 shows, African Americans are more likely to be employed today than half a century ago, despite the damaged wreaked by the 2008-09 economic crisis. And the gap with whites has narrowed.
Black Americans can get employed, but are they excluded from the top positions? Historically that has been the pattern, but things have been changing in recent decades. Figure 5 shows the share of board of directors seats in large companies that are held by African Americans. By the end of 2020, Blacks held 9% of those positions. That’s less than their 13.5% share of the population, but it’s not far away.
A useful if imperfect indicator of the well-being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder is the poverty rate — the share of people living in a household with an income below the poverty line (about $13,000 for a single individual and $26,000 for a family of four). As figure 6 indicates, according to the official measure, the poverty rate for all groups dropped sharply in the 1960s. That was especially true for African Americans. Since the mid-1970s there’s been little further progress for whites. For African Americans, the 1990s and 2010s saw further declines. While a sizable gap remains, it has decreased quite significantly.
Have African Americans made similar progress in the middle? One indicator is median earnings. The typical employed Black American earns about $12,000 per year less than her or his white counterpart. That hasn’t changed much in recent decades, as we see in figure 7. Since the late 1970s earnings have risen slowly for many ordinary Americans.5
When we turn to household income, the picture is similar. As figure 8 shows, median household income for African Americans has increased over the past half century, but the pace of increase has been slow. And there has been no progress in closing the gap with whites.
What if we look higher in the income distribution? Figure 9 shows household incomes at the 95th percentile. Here we see significant absolute progress among African Americans, with incomes more than doubling between 1967 and 2021. At the same time, the gap with whites hasn’t diminished.
When we turn to median wealth, shown in figure 10, we see a widening of the racial gap and very little absolute improvement for Black Americans.6
Homeownership is a marker of middle-class status, and also the principal source of wealth for most middle-class households. As figure 11 shows, we’ve seen no progress for African Americans in absolute or relative terms since the mid-1970s.
Figure 12 shows that fewer Blacks than whites say they are satisfied with their community as a place to live. These data are available for only a few years, so it’s impossible to tell whether or not there has been progress.
Since the early 1970s, the General Social Survey has regularly asked Americans whether they think they are lower class, working class, middle class, or upper class. Figure 13 shows that there is a sizable gap between African Americans and whites in the share saying they are middle or upper class, with only a small absolute increase for Blacks over time.
Next, let’s look at some “social” indicators of well-being. Figure 14 shows the share of 25-to-64-year-olds who are married. The share is lower among African Americans than among whites. It has been falling among both groups, but more rapidly among Blacks, so the gap has widened a bit.
Figure 15 shows the share of families with children that are headed by a single parent. Here too the gap is large and has widened a little over time.7
Life expectancy, shown in figure 16, is an indicator on which African Americans have made both absolute and relative progress. The average Black American born in 1960 could expect to live 63.5 years. By 2017 that had increased to 75.5 years, just 3.5 years shy of the average among whites.
African Americans are much more likely to be murdered than whites, as figure 17 shows. Yet after widening from the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, the racial gap in homicide victimization has closed considerably, and it’s now a good bit smaller than half a century ago.
Anxiety and depression are less common among Blacks than among whites, as figure 18 shows. Mental health is one of the rare components of well-being on which African Americans enjoy an advantage.8
Suicide, too, is less common among Black Americans than whites, as we see in figure 19. And since 2000 the Black advantage has increased.
White Americans have tended to be happier than Blacks, as figure 20 shows. But the gap has been decreasing. In the 1970s it averaged about 1.2 points on a scale of 0 to 10. By the second half of the 2010s it had declined by half.9
INTEGRATION IN NEIGHBORHOODS AND SCHOOLS
Inclusion doesn’t require full mixing. Not every neighborhood or school has to perfectly match the racial mix in the population. Yet we can’t have genuine inclusion if a group is heavily separated from others.
Residential segregation has been a core feature of the exclusion of Blacks from the American community, particularly in northern cities.10 Figure 21 shows that segregation in housing between Blacks and whites has declined significantly since 1970.11 Both of the standard measures, the dissimilarity index and the isolation index, suggest this. The level of segregation remains quite high; about half of Blacks and whites would have to move to a different neighborhood to get to full integration. Still, we do see progress.
In K-12 schools the pattern has been very different. Here a useful measure is the share of Black children who attend a majority nonwhite school. Prior to the mid-1950s Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, school segregation was the law in 17 southern states. As figure 22 shows, there was enormous progress in reducing school segregation in the south in the 1960s. But since 1970 there’s been no further advance, and even some backsliding.12
TREATMENT BY POLICE AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
As figure 23 shows, in 1960 young Black men were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to serve time in jail or prison. As the country adopted a “lock ’em up” approach to crime control beginning in the 1970s, this racial gap exploded.13 In 2000, 12% of African American males aged 20-24 were incarcerated, versus 2% of whites. The disparity has lessened a bit since then, but it remains huge.
Unequal and sometimes hostile treatment by police, judges, and other elements of the criminal justice system is a long-running source of African Americans’ perception of exclusion. “The police departments of your country,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people.”14
From 2015 through 2022, police killed approximately 1,000 Americans per year, 5-10% of whom were unarmed.15 As figure 24 shows, the incidence has tended to be higher among Blacks than among whites.
Among those stopped or arrested, Blacks aren’t more likely than whites to be shot at or killed by police, according to two in-depth studies.16 But Blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped or arrested by police.17 So it’s the fact that they are stopped and arrested more frequently than whites that makes African Americans more likely to end up shot at and killed.
Why are Blacks more likely than whites to be stopped or arrested by police? In a 2016 Pew poll, 18% of Blacks said they have been stopped by police unfairly in the past 12 months, versus only 3% of whites. A 2016 Justice Department investigation found that for years the Baltimore Police Department systematically stopped, searched, and arrested Black residents without sufficient rationale.18
Given the recent spate of highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black Americans, and more importantly the long history of disparate police treatment, it isn’t surprising that an April 2021 survey found that only 32% of Blacks believe “most police can be trusted,” compared to 72% of whites. At the same time, relatively few African Americans appear to support a reduction in policing. In the same poll, when asked “Do you think regular police patrols in your neighborhood would make you feel less safe or more safe?,” 65% of Blacks said more safe.19
At the beginning of the 1960s, only 1% of the members of the House of Representatives and 0% of Senators were Black, as we see in figure 25. Since then, African Americans’ presence in the House has steadily increased. In 2019-20, they held 12% of House seats, just shy of their 13.5% share of the American population. There has been far less progress in the Senate.
EMBRACE BY OTHER GROUPS
What does public opinion data tell us about the degree to which white Americans embrace their Black compatriots?
The American National Election Study routinely asks people to rate how they feel about various groups and institutions on a “feeling thermometer,” ranging from not favorable (0) to favorable (100). Figure 26 shows how Americans, on average, feel about Blacks and about whites. In 1964 there was a sizable gap, with the average feeling toward Blacks at 63 and the average toward whites at 83. The gap closed steadily during the ensuing decades, and in 2004 it reached parity. There was again a bit of separation in the 2010s, but the gap remained good bit smaller than it had been half a century earlier.
Figure 27 shows direct indicators of whites’ attitudes toward African Americans and toward their inclusion. Each suggests progress. Nearly all whites now say they would vote for a qualified African American for president, and indeed many did in 2008 and 2012. More than nine in ten approve of interracial marriage between Blacks and whites. About three-quarters say they’d be willing to live in a half-Black neighborhood. A sizable majority say they oppose housing discrimination and that Blacks aren’t lazy. Smaller but increased shares say it’s okay for Blacks “to push where not wanted” and okay for a close relative to marry a black person.
In the most thorough study to date of data on whites’ attitudes toward African Americans, published in 2012, Lawrence Bobo and colleagues conclude that “A Jim Crow-era commitment to segregation, explicit white privilege, revulsion against mixed marriages, and the categorical belief that Blacks were inherently and biologically inferior to whites collapsed. Broad support for equal treatment, integration, and a large measure of tolerance supplanted these views.”
But the news isn’t entirely good. They also find that “despite accepting integration as a general principle and a small minority presence in schools, neighborhoods, or other public social spaces, whites express strong social distance preferences.” And “negative racial stereotypes remain widespread, but they differ from past stereotyping in two important ways. Contemporary negative views of Blacks have a gradational or qualified, rather than categorical, character. The basis for such perceptions also appears to have shifted away from presumed biological or natural differences toward presumptions rooted in group culture.”20
Finally, as an indirect indicator we can consider the number of publicly visible Confederate symbols across the country — statues, monuments, government buildings, streets, and other things named after persons associated with the Confederacy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this number has decreased in recent years but is still quite large, as we see in figure 28.
WHAT DO AFRICAN AMERICANS THINK?
According to available public opinion survey data, African Americans are fairly pessimistic about how far the United States has moved toward racial equality, about whether the country has taken the steps needed to create equal opportunity, about the prevalence and importance of discrimination, and about race relations overall.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center asked a sample of Americans whether they thought the country “has made a lot of progress toward Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality over the last 50 years.” As figure 29 indicates, only a third of Blacks said yes.
Figure 30 shows that even fewer African Americans agree that “Our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.”
Figure 31 shows African Americans’ responses to a variety of questions about discrimination and its impact. A third of Blacks say they’ve experienced discrimination in the past year. Half to three-quarters say discrimination exists and is important in employment, living standards, and treatment by police.
Finally, figure 32 shows that the share of African Americans who think race relations in the US are bad has fluctuated a good bit in recent decades, falling sharply in the 1990s and 2000s but then rising just as sharply in the 2010s.
WHY SUCH MODEST PROGRESS SINCE 1963?
America has progressed toward greater inclusion of African Americans. We see this in the absolute improvement on a number of indicators and the relative improvement on some. At the same time, the amount of progress since the 1970s has been disappointingly limited. Why is that? There are three main explanatory candidates.
One stresses continued discrimination. Research consistently finds that discrimination still exists and that it matters. The clearest signal comes from “audit” studies, in which are large number of (fake) job applicants are matched along a host of relevant criteria, with the only noteworthy difference being their race.21 What’s less clear is the degree to which discrimination accounts for our limited progress toward racial inclusion in the past generation, particularly given that, although we have little hard data, discrimination almost certainly has continued to decrease.
A second hypothesis suggests that cultural factors matter most — in particular, a culture among African Americans that attaches less value to family stability, education, and employment.22 Culture surely does affect people’s life chances to an appreciable degree, but this account falls short in the face of research findings that less-educated African American women are just as committed as middle-class white women (perhaps moreso) to marriage and that many Black males from less-advantaged homes are no less dedicated to school and work than their white counterparts.23 The culture hypothesis also fails to account for limited progress by middle-class African Americans.
Probably the most important reason why America has stumbled in its movement toward greater racial inclusiveness was highlighted by William Julius Wilson in The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged, and When Work Disappears: economic restructuring has made employment more precarious and pay increases less likely for ordinary Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity. Because of the prior effects of slavery, racism, and discrimination along with the contemporary impact of the criminal justice system, African Americans are overrepresented among this group. More of them have thereby suffered from this economic transformation.24
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899, ch. 9. ↩
- Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Harper and Brothers, 1944. ↩
- National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, The Kerner Report, 1968. ↩
- Stephen Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 18-19. ↩
- Valerie Wilson and William M. Rodgers III, “Black-White Wage Gaps Expand with Rising Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, 2016. ↩
- Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Sam Osoro, “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” Institute on Assets and Social Policy, 2013. ↩
- Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks, “Was Moynihan Right?,” Education Next, 2015. ↩
- Christy L. Erving, Courtney S. Thomas, and Cleothia Frazier, “Is the Black-White Mental Health Paradox Consistent Across Gender and Psychiatric Disorders?,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 2019; Megan E. LaMotte, Marta Elliott, and Dawne M. Mouzon, “Revisiting the Black-White Mental Health Paradox During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 2022; Mary Pattillo, “Black Advantage Vision: Flipping the Script on Racial Inequality Research,” Issues in Race and Society, 2021. ↩
- See also Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress,” Working Paper 18916, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2013. Stevenson and Wolfers note that an alternative data source, a DDB-Needham Life Style Study question on life satisfaction, tells a similar story. ↩
- Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Harvard University Press, 1993. ↩
- Douglas S. Massey, Jonathan Rothwell, and Thurston Domina, “The Changing Bases of Segregation in the United States,” Annals of the AAPSS, 2009; Edward L. Glaeser and Jacob L. Vigdor, “The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods,” Manhattan Institute, 2012. ↩
- Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” New York Times, 2016. ↩
- Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. ↩
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Spiegel and Grau, 2015, p. 9. ↩
- Washington Post, “Fatal Force Database.” The “Mapping Police Violence” database has similar counts. ↩
- Roland Fryer and his research team found that in cases where the suspect didn’t have a weapon and didn’t attack the police officers, the officers were more likely to fire their weapon when the suspect was Black. But in a more detailed look at cases in the city of Houston, including not only instances in which a police shooting occurred but also those in which it could have occurred but didn’t, Fryer and his team found that police weren’t more likely to shoot Blacks. They also found that, across the nation, Black suspects stopped by police were more likely than white suspects to experience nonlethal use of force — to be handcuffed, to be pushed to the ground, to have a gun pointed at them. Roland G. Fryer, Jr, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” Journal of Political Economy, 2019; Fryer, “What the Data Say About Police,” Wall Street Journal, 2020. Sendhil Mullainathan found that 32% of those shot by police are Black and 29% of arrestees are Black. So given an arrest, a Black person is no more likely to be killed by police than a white person. If there is unfair or unequal treatment, it is in the rate of arrest, rather than in the likelihood of police shooting. Sendhil Mullainathan, “Police Killings of Blacks: What the Data Say,” New York Times, 2015. ↩
- Kalisha Dessources Figures and Joscha Legewie, “Visualizing Police Exposure by Race, Gender, and Age in New York City,” Socius, 2019. ↩
- US Department of Justice, “Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department,” 2016. ↩
- Vox and Data for Progress, Poll of Likely Voters, April 2-5, 2021. ↩
- Lawrence D. Bobo, Camille Z. Charles, Maria Krysan, and Alicia D. Simmons, “The Real Record on Racial Attitudes,” in Social Trends in American Life, edited by Peter V. Marsden, Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 74-75. ↩
- Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review, 2004; Roland G. Fryer, Jr, Devah Pager, and Jörg L. Spenkuch, “Racial Disparities in Job Finding and Offered Wages,” Working Paper 17462, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011; S. Michael Gaddis, “Discrimination in the Credential Society: An Audit Study of Race and College Selectivity in the Labor Market,” Social Forces, 2015. ↩
- Nicholas Lemann, “The Origins of the Underclass,” The Atlantic, 1986. ↩
- Kathryn Edin and Maria J. Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, University of California Press, 2005; Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood, 3rd edition, Westview Press, 2009. ↩
- William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race, University of Chicago Press, 1978; Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, University of Chicago Press, 1987; Wilson, When Work Disappears, Vintage, 1996; Eduardo Porter, “Black Workers Stopped Making Progress on Pay. Is It Racism?,” New York Times, 2021; Lane Kenworthy, “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society. ↩