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."
Pew also found that "most blacks believe that racial discrimination remains a pervasive fact of life." Yet 53 percent of African Americans "say that blacks who don't get ahead are mainly responsible for their situation, while just three-in-ten say discrimination is mainly to blame. As recently as the mid-1990s, black opinion on this question tilted in the opposite direction, with a majority of African Americans saying then that discrimination is the main reason for a lack of black progress."
Now we may be approaching what some consider a landmark measure of black progress: whether or not Americans will elect a black president. Should Barack Obama capture the Democratic nomination, the November election might well be portrayed as a litmus test of the nation's racial enlightenment. That's surely how many foreigners--and many Americans--would view it.
Yet this would be unfair to Obama and unfair to his opponents. Whatever motivates his supporters, the Illinois senator has not played the race card to curry favor with blacks and has not made overt appeals to white guilt. This is part of the reason why so many white voters--including some who disagree strongly with Obama on public policy--find his candidacy so compelling. To frame Obama's election as a referendum on U.S. race relations would be to ignore the essential message of his "post-racial" campaign.
It would also put Obama's critics in an impossible bind: opposing him would be painted as standing athwart historic racial reconciliation. On Election Day, some of Obama's opponents might vote against his inexperience. Some might vote against his liberal record. Some might vote against his national security agenda or his health and tax proposals. But it seems clear that most would not be voting against his skin color. After all, Obama has already won Democratic primaries or caucuses in some of America's whitest, most conservative states, including Idaho, Kansas, and Utah, despite running against a former first lady with a robust campaign machine.
Indeed, when Obama visited Idaho a few days before Super Tuesday, "more than 14,000 people turned out to pack the Boise State University Taco Bell Arena, many waiting in lines outside for more than an hour in the morning cold. That is nearly three times the number who turned out for the state's Democratic caucuses in 2004," reported Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post. "Plenty of folks in the crowd were independents and Republicans."
In a December 2007 Gallup poll, 93 percent of Americans said they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate even if that candidate "happened to be black," compared to only 53 percent who gave that answer in July 1967 and 37 percent who gave it in July-August 1958. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom point out, the November 1996 exit polls indicated that Colin Powell would have beaten President Clinton by 11 points--and "another poll shortly after had Powell smashing Vice President Gore by 28 points in the presidential contest in 2000."
Whatever the outcome in 2008, the nature and success of Obama's campaign thus far have prompted a renewed discussion of racial progress and how it should be calibrated. That discussion transcends any one political figure. Obama himself seemed to anticipate this in a February 2007 interview with National Public Radio. "African-American politics," he said, "is weighted with extraordinary history--often painful and tragic history. And so I think my candidacy for the presidency is going to bring to the surface a whole bunch of stuff. A lot of it won't necessarily have to do with me, but will have to do with the country being in a dialogue about where we are now, how far we've come, and how far we have to go."
Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.