Why Has Black Progress Stalled in America?


The noted author, Robert Putnam, has recently addressed the topic of black economic and social progress in America.  He and his coauthor, Shaylyn Garrett, show that blacks had already made much progress before the civil rights era of the 1960s.  For example:

  • The life expectancy gap between black and white Americans narrowed most rapidly between 1905 and 1947 (see chart), after which gains were much more modest.

  • The black/white ratio of high school completion improved dramatically between the 1940s and early 1970s, after which it slowed (see chart).

  • Income by race converged at the greatest rate between 1940 and 1970, and has since stalled (see chart).

  • The South saw a dramatic increase in black voter registration between 1940 and 1970 which has since slowed down (see chart).

The authors attribute the lack of faster progress in the above measures since the civil rights era to:

  • white backlash and
  • a widespread change in American society from a sense of shared values to a more self-centered culture. The authors measure this trend with an inverted U-shaped I-We-I curve (see chart) which, they show, has fundamental social significance.

I do not doubt the value of the I-We-I interpretation of American history and society.  It will prove to be a useful explanatory tool in many contexts.  But it is not a major factor in understanding the stalled black progress of recent years.

As I have already discussed, too many blacks consider themselves victims of white supremacy and therefore unable to make it on their own.  The American way, the reason we are the most economically and socially advanced societiety on earth, is based on our belief that personal success depends on individual initiative.
Of course, some people have a head start in life.  But the answer to this reality is to strive to provide more opportunity for everyone, and especially better opportunities for the disadvantaged.   More on this coming soon!

Conclusion.  The inverted U-shaped I-We-I curve is an important sociological discovery with many ramifications.  But blacks will move up more rapidly in American society as they take more personal initiative for their own success and stop considering themselves as victims of white supremacy.

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2 thoughts on “Why Has Black Progress Stalled in America?

  1. The inverted U-shaped I-WE-I phenomenon is associated with a wide variety of social-political-economic phenomena that have occurred since 1890. The data is extensively described by Professor Putnam in his book THE UPSWING that was published in October 2020. Leading up to its final Chapter, it is a readable captivating analysis that ends with an optimistic view. If you view our nation’s heritage with a current level of dismay, this will affirm the need for a daily commitment to our special place in time since homo sapiens first began to use language for survival around 40-60,000 years ago. Given at 24 hour clock since our sun’s solar universe began, our knowable time represents just a few microseconds.

    • The Upswing is a very interesting book which I am trying to understand, especially how it relates to the demonstration by Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist), Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now), and others that human progress has increased steadily for at least the past two hundred years (since the industrial revolution).
      Somehow this will involve taking into account the importance of individual initiative (the I part of I-We-I). In other words, the theory implied by the inverted U shaped chart in the Upswing is not the whole answer.
      If you have any further thoughts about this, let’s get together again soon for coffee and discussion!

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