At this time of heightened racial tensions in the U.S. it is worthwhile to step back and take a broader view of the economic and social status of blacks in America. The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson has done just this in a recent column. As pointed out by Mr. Samuelson blacks have made much progress since the 1960s:
Poverty. Black poverty has dropped from 39.3% in 1967 to 26.2% in 2014, which was still double the white rate of 12.7%
Education. In 1950 only 13.7% of adult blacks had completed high school. By 2014 this had jumped to 86.7%. Over the same period the percentage of black adults with a four year college degree jumped from 2.2% to 22.8%. The corresponding percentage for whites in 2014 is 36%.
Upward Mobility. The black upper middle class (with incomes of $100,000 or more, inflation adjusted) has grown form 2.8% of households in 1967 to 13% in 2014. For the U.S. population as a whole it is now 31%.
Politics. In 1965, when the voting rights act was passed, there were five blacks in Congress, now there 46. Over the same time period, the number of black state legislators grew from 200 to 700.
Life Expectancy. The life expectancy gap between blacks and whites shrank from 8 years in 1970 to 5 years in 2010.
Conclusion. Most people understand that life for blacks in America is more difficult than it is for whites. On the whole American society is trying to help blacks lift themselves up to be able to enjoy a more prosperous and satisfying life. Much progress has been made in this respect in the last half-century but there is clearly still a long way to go in achieving full equality with white America. In my next post I will discuss one of the biggest barriers which remain in achieving equality between races.
My last post, “Why Racism Exists in America,” attempts to explain not only the reason for this huge social problem, but also how to look for a solution. It turns out that the city of Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, is doing exactly this in an amazingly progressive manner.
It is well known and widely deplored that children from low-income families perform more poorly in school than children from middle class families. The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties was created by the Nebraska Legislature in 2007 to figure out how to close this so-called academic achievement gap in metro Omaha.
The LC has recently contracted with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska to implement the Superintendent’s Early Childhood Plan which will employ the latest national research findings to provide intensive preschool for three and four year olds at ten different Elementary School sites around the Omaha area. It turns out that Educare of Omaha has already been doing groundbreaking work in early childhood education for the past decade. A recent longitudinal study, conducted by the Munroe Meyer Institute (available upon request), has shown that children from low-income families, with two or more years of Educare training, perform well above state proficiency standards in both reading and mathematics all the way through the eighth grade (as far as has been measured to date).
As shown in the above chart, just one year in Educare is not enough to achieve this lasting proficiency. It takes two full years to get such a large boost in achievement. This is a hugely significant finding. It shows that early childhood education, if carried out in sufficient depth and for an adequate length of time, will produce long-lasting gains in academic achievement.
It is now up to the Learning Community, working with the Buffett Institute, to implement the Superintendent’s Plan, to show that the results achieved by Educare can be scaled up to a broader and more comprehensive level.
The First Unitarian Church of Omaha, to which I belong, has formed a sister church relationship with a predominantly black church in north Omaha, Clair Memorial Methodist Church. On Saturday we held a joint workshop, “Confronting Racism” at Clair. Several people said that we should “celebrate diversity, transcend race, and hope that things will be better in twenty or thirty years from now.”
I think the problem is much more fundamental and difficult than this. First of all, there are two main reasons why racism is so prevalent in America, one obvious and one perhaps less obvious:
The obvious reason is the very different colors of our skin.
The other reason, equally important, is that there are huge socio-economic differences between the two races. Whites are, by and large, better educated and more affluent than blacks. They also have a more stable family structure, with far fewer single parent families. People tend to live in homogeneous residential areas and associate with others of similar socio-economic background. All of these social factors serve to separate the races into largely non-interacting groups of people.
How do we confront and attack such deeply entrenched racism in our society? We need an approach which is more fundamental than programs like “welfare to work” or “residential integration.” Even equalizing educational opportunity is not enough. What we need is a long term effort to improve educational outcomes for blacks and other children from low-income families. As the above chart of Nebraska data shows, children from low-income families, who thus receive free or reduced price lunch (FRL), are already behind in reading proficiency by third grade and they just keep falling further and further behind in the later grades. This means that they need major intervention before they even get to kindergarten. In fact what they need is early childhood education, beginning no later than age 3. Conclusion: Racism is deeply embedded in American life and can only be eliminated with a long term fundamental effort to greatly improve educational outcomes for blacks. I will discuss proof that this can be done in my next post.
The death of another black man at the hands of the police, this time Freddie Gray of Baltimore, has again set off a national debate about poverty, inequality and racial injustice. The Washington Post journalist Marc Thiessen wrote about this several days ago in, “The Baltimore Democrats Built,” saying that:
City officials injected $130 million into the Sandtown-Winchester community (where the riots took place) in a failed effort to transform it.
The poverty rate in Baltimore is 24% compared with 14.5% nationally.
The unemployment rate for black men in Baltimore between the ages of 20 – 24 is 37%.
Among the nation’s 100 largest counties, the one where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is the city of Baltimore.
In 2014, Baltimore public schools ranked third in the country in per-pupil spending, yet 55% of Baltimore fourth graders scored below basic in reading.
In the Sandtown-Winchester community, nearly half of all high school students missed at least 20 days of school in 2011.
This community’s murder rate is double the average for Baltimore, which in turn had the fifth highest murder rate last year among major U.S. cities.
In other words, Baltimore’s problems cannot be blamed on racial prejudice or on a lack of resources to combat poverty and low educational performance. Clearly needed are better schools and more employment opportunities. Better state and local leadership would help in this respect. But what is most needed is faster economic growth for the whole country. There are many things which could be done to accomplish this. It’s a shame that our current political system is too fractured to allow this to happen.