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True Colors

How do you measure racial progress?

11:00 PM, Feb 14, 2008 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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ACCORDING TO TWO STUDIES cited by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in their 1997 book, America in Black and White, the percentage of African Americans with incomes below the poverty line in 1940 was "no fewer than 71 percent" and perhaps as high as 87 percent. By 1966, according to the Census Bureau, the figure had dropped to under 42 percent. By 1986 it had fallen to just over 31 percent. In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, it was less than 25 percent. Using 2006 dollars, Census data show that the median income of single-race black households went from $23,579 in 1968, to $26,468 in 1986, to $31,969 in 2006.

That is progress. But it is also relative. The 2006 black poverty rate was still much higher than the overall U.S. poverty rate (12.3 percent). Likewise, the median income of single-race black households trails well behind the national median income: in 2006, the difference between the two was $16,232. That same year, 20.5 percent of African Americans reportedly lacked health insurance coverage, compared to 15.8 percent of the general population.

Based on these numbers, it's not surprising that conversations about black progress tend to be frustrating: so much has been achieved, and yet certain racial gaps in America still seem rather severe. Those inclined to emphasize the good news have plenty of evidence--but so do the pessimists.

In recent decades, blacks have scaled the heights of business, politics, popular culture, and sports. Such corporate titans as Merrill Lynch, Time Warner, American Express, Kmart, and Aetna have all named black CEOs. Since 2001, America's top diplomat has been an African American: from January 2001 to January 2005, it was a black man raised in the South Bronx; from January 2005 to the present, it has been a black woman born in Jim Crow Alabama. The United States is a country where another black woman, billionaire Oprah Winfrey, can single-handedly turn a book into a bestseller. It is a country where wealthy, lily-white golf and tennis fans have embraced Tiger Woods (the world's best-paid athlete) and the Williams sisters. It is a country where white NBA fans pack arenas to watch a league in which the overwhelming majority of players are black.

These are all signs of progress. But an overly sanguine view of African-American progress collides with the harsh realities of income gaps, failing inner-city schools, crime and prison statistics, and a black out-of-wedlock birth rate hovering near 70 percent. As University of Chicago economist Derek Neal has written, "Existing trends in 1990 suggested that successive generations of black children were making steady progress toward approximate skill parity with white children. However, during the 1990s, black-white skill gaps as measured by test scores among youth and educational attainment among young adults remained constant or increased in absolute value. Further, there is evidence that black youth in large cities actually lost significant ground relative to white students during much of the 1980s and 1990s. Data on employment rates and incarceration rates also indicate that, since 1980, the number of young black men who spend more time interacting with corrections officials than employers has grown at an alarming rate."

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in September-October 2007 found that 88 percent of African Americans report being "very satisfied" (64 percent) or "somewhat satisfied" (24 percent) with their own lives, compared to 90 percent of whites. It found that 69 percent of African Americans believe blacks and whites get along "very well" (20 percent) or "pretty well" (49 percent) these days, compared to 77 percent of whites.

At the same time, Pew noted, "The survey also finds blacks less upbeat about the state of black progress now than at any time since 1983. Looking backward, just one-in-five blacks say things are better for blacks now than they were five years ago. Looking ahead, fewer than half of all blacks (44 percent) say they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57 percent who said so in a 1986 survey." While a majority (54 percent) of blacks told Pew that the values held by blacks and the values held by whites have become "more similar" over the past decade, an even larger majority of blacks (61 percent) said the values held by middle-class blacks and the values held by poor blacks have become "more different."