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The Long March of Racial Progress

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The story of race relations in America is one of extraordinary change and transformation.

There will be plenty of time to parse the exit polls, review the campaign, and predict how Barack Obama will govern as America’s 44th chief executive. But for now, we should pause to reflect on the long march of racial progress that made it possible for a black man to become president of a country that fewer than 50 years ago still tolerated discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Measuring racial progress is all about perspective. Since Appomattox, the struggle for racial equality has seen triumphs and setbacks alike. On balance, however, the story of race relations in America is one of extraordinary change and transformation.

According to Princeton historian James McPherson, the rate of black illiteracy dropped from roughly 90 percent in 1865 to 70 percent in 1880 and to under 50 percent in 1900. “From the perspective of today, this may seem like minimal progress,” McPherson wrote in his 1991 book, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (a collection of essays). “But viewed from the standpoint of 1865 the rate of literacy for blacks increased by 200 percent in fifteen years and by 400 percent in thirty-five years.”

McPherson also noted that the share of school-age black children attending school jumped from 2 percent in 1860 to 34 percent in 1880. “During the same period,” he said, “the proportion of white children of school age attending school had grown only from 60 to 62 percent.” 

University of Michigan sociologist Reynolds Farley notes that the black-white poverty gap ‘is much smaller now’ than it was in the late 1960s.

In 1908, 100 years before the election of America’s first black president, there was a bloody race riot in Springfield, Illinois, which began when an angry mob surrounded a prison where a black man falsely accused of rape was being held. As columnist George Will has observed, “The siege of the jail, the rioting, the lynching, and mutilating all occurred within walking distance of where, in 2007, Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy.”

Over the past century, the racial attitudes of white Americans have undergone a sea change. The shift toward greater racial tolerance was driven by many factors, including blacks’ participation in World War II, the integration of professional sports and the military, and the civil rights movement.

“Even as Americans were voting more conservatively in the 1980s, their views on race were becoming more liberal,” Wall Street Journal senior editor Jonathan Kaufman wrote recently. “More than three quarters of whites in 1972 told pollsters that ‘blacks should not push themselves where they are not wanted.’ Two-thirds of whites that same year said they opposed laws prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale of homes. Forty percent said whites had the right to live in segregated neighborhoods.” However, “By the end of 1980s, all those numbers had fallen markedly and [they] continued to fall through the following decades.”

As University of Michigan sociologist Reynolds Farley points out in a new paper, there are now 41 African Americans serving in the House of Representatives, compared to only six when the Kerner Commission issued its famous report on race and poverty in 1968. During the years following the Kerner Report, “The slowly rising incomes of black men and the more rapidly rising incomes of black women produced an important economic change for African Americans,” Farley writes. “In 1996, for the first time, the majority of blacks were in the economic middle class or above, if that means living in a household with an income at least twice the poverty line.”

If the lingering racial disparities in income and educational attainment are to be closed, we must somehow reverse the debilitating cultural trends of the past four decades.

According to Farley, “Only three percent of African Americans could be described as economically comfortable in 1968. That has increased to 17 percent at present. This is an unambiguous sign of racial progress: one black household in six could be labeled financially comfortable.” He notes that the black-white poverty gap “is much smaller now” than it was in the late 1960s.

Residential and marriage trends are also encouraging. “The trend toward less residential segregation that emerged in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s continues in this century,” says Farley. Meanwhile, interracial marriage rates have increased dramatically. “At the time of the Kerner Report, about one black husband in 100 was enumerated with a white spouse. By 2006, about 14 percent of young black husbands were married to white women.”

Long before Barack Obama vaulted onto the national stage, blacks had become megastars in politics, sports, movies, television, and business. President George W. Bush’s two secretaries of state have both been black. More than two-thirds of the players in America’s most popular professional sports league, the NFL, are black. In early 2007, Forbes magazine declared talk show queen Oprah Winfrey to be “the richest woman in entertainment.” The CEOs of American Express and Aetna are both black, as are the former CEOs of Merrill Lynch and Time Warner.

Of course, we should not be overly sanguine about black progress, which has been hindered in recent decades by social pathologies and family disintegration. Since the 1968 Kerner Report, “adult black men have fallen further and further behind similar white men in terms of being employed,” says Farley, emphasizing that the white-black gap in personal income is not closing, nor is the white-black gap in household income getting any smaller.” Indeed, both the white-black income gap and the white-black gap in educational attainment remain “persistent and substantial.”

Family breakdown has played a huge role in fostering and exacerbating social inequalities. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks ballooned from under 25 percent in the early 1960s to around 70 percent today. Had black family composition stayed constant from 1960 to 1988, the black child poverty rate in 1988 would have been more than 17 percentage points lower (28.4 percent, as opposed to 45.6 percent). That’s according to research by sociologists David Eggebeen and Daniel Lichter, whose findings were published in a 1991 American Sociological Review article.

If the lingering racial disparities in income and educational attainment are to be closed, we must somehow reverse the debilitating cultural trends of the past four decades. That will be an enormous challenge, but it’s one we cannot ignore.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of THE AMERICAN.


Image by Getty.


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