Five years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, the Antiplanner noted that blacks had made a lot of political progress since then, but hadn’t made much economic progress. For example, black per capita incomes as a percent of white incomes had grown from 55 percent in 1963 to 58 percent in 2011, the last year for which data were available at the time I was writing. (According to tables B19301B and B19301H of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the actual percentage in 2011 was 56 percent.)
There have been some improvements in the last five years, but they are small. Black per capita incomes in 2016 — the last year for which numbers are available now and five years after the 2011 data I cited in 2013 — are 2 percent greater, as a share of of non-Hispanic white incomes (58 percent in 2016), than they were in 2011. According to tables B19013B and B19013H, black household incomes have grown from 60 percent to 61 percent of non-Hispanic white incomes. (The ratio is a little higher because black households have more people.)
One reason is homeownership rates, as homes are the primary source of wealth for low- and moderate-income families that own their homes. Black homeownership rates reached 49 percent in 2004 (compared with 76 percent for whites), but fell to 43 percent by 2011 (compared with 72 percent for whites). By 2016, black rates had fallen further to 41 percent (compared with 69 percent for whites–see tables B25003B and B25003H). Note that blacks (and low-income people in general) took a bigger hit than whites because they were more likely to lose their homes.
In other areas, blacks have made a little more progress. In 2011, only 18.4 percent of blacks over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree or better, compared with 31.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites (tables B15002B and B15002H). By 2016, the black share had grown to 20.9 percent (a 14-percent increase), which was an outstanding gain compared with non-Hispanic whites, which had grown to 32.7 percent (a mere 3 percent increase).
Politically, black progress is also stagnant. The measure I used in 2013 was the number of blacks in the Mississippi legislature, which was zero when King gave his speech. The first black in the post-reconstruction era was elected in 1967. In 2013, I wrote that “more than a quarter” of the legislature was black. The exact share was 27 percent. This year, that has grown to 29 percent, but this still falls short of black’s 38 percent of Mississippi’s population.
Curiously, there are more blacks in the Mississippi legislature than women, which is especially strange considering that women make up more than half the population of Mississippi. Also curiously, exactly half of the women legislators are black.
When Obama was president, some people said we lived in a post-racial society in which discrimination was a thing of the past (and therefore we could get rid of anti-discrimination and forced-integration laws). I think recent events have proven this to be wrong. I’d like to believe that our president, while crude, isn’t really a racist, but for some people his rhetoric has made racism appear respectable again.
Perhaps this is a good thing; drawing racists out from under cover reveals to everyone the problems that blacks still face today. Perhaps the me-too movement can prove a model for the civil rights movement by making it clear that racism will never again be acceptable.
Eliminating overt racism, however, won’t be enough to bring black incomes, wealth, homeownership rates, and other economic measures equal to whites, as there remain major obstacles to all low-income people, regardless of color or ethnicity, who want to enter the middle class. High school graduation rates for low-income people are much lower than for middle-class students. The costs of higher education have grown prohibitive for anyone whose parents aren’t wealthy. One path towards wealth is homeownership, but policies that make housing unaffordable to many families are actually forcing blacks out of many urban areas. Until we remove these obstacles, blacks and other low-income minorities are not going to see a fair deal in our society.