The Road Not Taken

Part I: Then and Now

Part I: Then and Now

Amid Some Improvements, Inequality Persists in American Systems

We have mostly fulfilled the Kerner Commission warning that without dramatic reform, the nation would become “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Since the 1960s, in important respects, the lives of African Americans have improved. In many respects, they have remained unchanged. And in some respects, they have deteriorated. In almost all respects, unacceptable levels of racial inequality have persisted. 

The Black Middle Class

Perhaps the most important area of improvement has been the growth of the Black middle class, and its significant incorporation into the mainstream of American life. The most obvious symbol of this was the election and reelection of a Black president. The most obvious symbol of its limitations was the reaction in the subsequent election of a president whose campaign and subsequent actions emboldened white supremacists.36

In 1966, shortly before the Kerner Commission began its deliberations, one of us participated in a study of policymaking in Chicago’s corporate sector. We identified 4,000 such corporate leadership positions: not a single one was held by an African American. The only executives who were African American worked at insurance firms or neighborhood banks for which the segregated Black community provided a customer base.37 Today few, if any, mainstream corporations could function without racially diverse management.

This improvement has relied upon the growth of the well-educated African American population. In 1980, only 10 percent of young African American adults old enough to have completed college did so. Subsequently, this share grew steadily and by 2017, 23 percent had college degrees, an increase of 128 percent.

Although the growth in the share of African Americans who are college-educated represents progress, racial inequality in higher educational attainment has also increased. While the share of young adult. African Americans who had completed college grew by 128 percent, the growth for whites was 143 percent (from 17 to 42 percent of young adults). As a result, the college graduation gap has grown, not diminished. In 1980, for every young adult African American who had completed college, seven whites had done so. In 2017, for every young adult African American who had completed college, eight whites had done so.38

Mass Incarceration

In 1968, approximately 600 African Americans were incarcerated per 100,000 African Americans. In 2016, the share of African Americans who were incarcerated had jumped to over 1,700 per 100,000. The incarceration rate for whites had also increased by 2016, but not by as much as the rate for African Americans. In 1968, the African American rate of imprisonment was about five times the rate of whites. In 2016, the African American rate was six times the rate of whites.

Economic Conditions

In 1968, the African American unemployment rate was twice that of the white rate. This was unchanged in 2017: the African American unemployment rate was still twice that of the white rate.39

For those who were working, the real average hourly wage of African American production and non-supervisory workers increased by 31 percent from 1968 to 2016, much less than the growth of real per capita national income. Yet the real average hourly wage of

white production and non supervisory workers increased even less—only by 13 percent. Thus, African American workers gained relative to white workers. African Americans’ average hourly wages were 83 percent of white average hourly wages in 2016, up from 71 percent in 1968.40

Likewise, African American median household income grew faster than white household income, but a racial gap remains. From 1968 to 2016, African American median household income increased by 43 percent, while white median household income increased by 37 percent. Still, in 2016, African American median household income was only 62 percent of white median household income.41

The racial wealth gap is even greater. In 1968, African American median household wealth was only 5 percent of white median household wealth. From then until 2016, African American median household wealth grew, and by 2016 was seven times the 1968 figure. During the same 1968 to 2016 span, white median household wealth tripled. By 2016, African American median household wealth was still only 10 percent of white median family wealth.42

Most American families accrue wealth from owning homes that appreciate more rapidly than overall inflation, generating equity. The African American home ownership rate of 41 percent was unchanged from 1968 to 2015, while the white rate grew from 66 percent to 71 percent. Yet the wealth difference is not solely attributable to the difference in homeownership rates. Rather, it is also that whites typically own homes in white segregated neighborhoods where values appreciate more rapidly than in the segregated neighborhoods where African Americans typically own homes.43

Racial Segregation 

  • School Segregation
    • African American students are no less segregated in elementary and secondary schools today than they were in 1968. In the year of the Kerner Commission Report, only 23 percent of Black students attended schools that were majority white. That percentage increased to a high of 44 percent in 1988, after which it began to decline. By 2011, it was again the case that only 23 percent of Black students attended schools that were majority white.44
  • Neighborhood Segregation
    • The exposure of African Americans to whites in neighborhoods has remained almost unchanged since 1968. Although fewer African Americans now reside in all or mostly Black neighborhoods than in 1968, this is mostly because more members of other minority groups, frequently low-income families—often Hispanics and Asians—have located in predominantly Black neighborhoods. In 1970, the typical African American resident of a metropolitan area lived in a neighborhood that was 32 percent white. By 1990, African Americans’ exposure to whites increased, and the typical African American lived in a neighborhood that was 42 percent white. Yet since then, African Americans’ exposure to whites declined, and by 2010, the typical African American lived in a neighborhood that was only 35 percent white.45

Health ­ 

  • Life Expectancy
    • African American men born in 1968 had an average life expectancy of 60 years. Those born in 2014 had an average life expectancy of 73 years, a gain of 13 years. This is a substantial improvement and it narrowed the Black-white life expectancy gap for men. For white men, those born in 1968 had an average life expectancy of 68 years, and those born in 2014 had an average life expectancy of 77 years, a gain of nine years. Thus, African American men born in 2014 could expect to have lives that were four years shorter than those of white men born in the same year. This is half the racial life-expectancy gap of eight years for men born in 1968.46
    • For women, the change was similar. African American women born in 1968 had an average life expectancy of 68 years. Those born in 2014 had an average life expectancy of 79 years, a gain of 11 years. This is also a substantial improvement and it narrowed the Black-white life expectancy gap for women. For white women, those born in 1968 had an average life expectancy of 75 years, and those born in 2014 had an average life expectancy of 81 years, a gain of six years. Thus, African American women born in 2014 could expect to have lives that were two years shorter than those of white women born in the same year. This is less than one-third of the racial life-expectancy gap of seven years for women born in 1968. 
  • Infant Mortality
    • Specific health outcomes of African Americans have improved, and contributed to the narrowed gap in life expectancy. In 1968, the African American infant mortality rate was 4 percent (36 infant deaths per 1,000 live births). By 2012, it had fallen to 1 percent (11.3 per thousand). For whites, the 1968 rate was 2 percent (20 per thousand), falling to half of one percent (5.1 per thousand) in 2012. Thus, despite substantial improvement for both races, the African American infant mortality rate remained approximately twice that of the white rate.47

Basic Educational Attainment

Above, we described the increase from 1970 to 2017 in the share of young African American adults who had bachelor’s degrees. There was similar growth in the share who had completed secondary education, either by graduating from high school or by earning a GED (general educational development) certificate. From 1970 to 2017, this share increased by more than half, from 58 percent to 92 percent.48 This growth narrowed the gap between the secondary school completion rates of white and Black students. The share of young white adults with a complete secondary education grew during this period from 78 percent to 96 percent. Thus, by 2017, the Black-white gap in secondary completion rates had nearly disappeared (92 percent to 96 percent). However, while this is good news with regard to equality in literacy and quantitative skills necessary for democratic participation, the labor market value of a secondary school credential-only had diminished by 2017. 

  • 36. Noah Weiland, “Before ‘Unite the Right’ Rally, Trump Does Not Condemn Supremacists,” The New York Times, August 12, 2018, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/11/us/politics/unite-the-right-2018-dc-r....
  • 37. Harold M. Baron et al., “Black Powerlessness in Chicago,” Trans-Action 6, no. 1 (November 1, 1968): 27–33, https://doi.org/10.1007/ BF02806208. Rothstein was a member of the team that conducted this study.
  • 38. “Percentage of Persons 25 to 29 Years Old with Selected Levels of Educational Attainment, by Race/Ethnicity and Sex: Selected Years, 1920 Through 2017,” Digest of Education Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017), https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.20.asp.
  • 39. We report only the Black-white ratio and do not compare the actual rates. To be meaningful, a comparison of historical unemployment rates would require controlling for the point in the business cycle for the years being compared. Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson, “50 Years After the Kerner Commission” (Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, February 26, 2018), https://www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/.
  • 40. Jones, Schmitt, and Wilson.
  • 41. Jones, Schmitt, and Wilson.
  • 42. Jones, Schmitt, and Wilson.
  • 43. Jones, Schmitt, and Wilson.
  • 44. Gary Orfield et al., “Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future” (Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project, University of California, Los Angeles, May 15, 2014), https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/ research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/brown-at-60-great-progress-a-long-retreatand-an-uncertain-future/Brown-at-60-051814. pdf.
  • 45. John R. Logan, “Separate and Unequal: The Neighborhood Gap for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians in Metropolitan America,” US2010 Project (Providence, RI: Brown University, July 2011), http://www.s4.brown.edu/us2010/Data/ Report/report0727.pdf; John R. Logan and Brian Stults, “The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis. New Findings from the 2010 Census,” Census Brief Prepared for Project US2010 (Providence, RI: Brown University, March 24, 2011), https://s4.ad.brown.edu/Projects/Diversity/Data/Report/report2.pdf.
  • 46. Life expectancy data for 1968 is necessarily more accurate than for 2014. Data for 1968 can incorporate actual age-specific death rates for the 1968 to 2014 period. Data for 2014 must assume that age-specific death rates for future years will be unchanged from those observed in 2014. Differences in life expectancy is a “health outcome” but can have many causes: health care, environmental conditions, genetic factors, habits (e.g. exercise, smoking, diet), and violence. Whether the Centers for Disease Control can consider gun control a public health measure is a matter of political dispute. Elizabeth Arias, Melonie Heron, and Jiaquan Xu, “United States Life Tables, 2014,” National Vital Statistics Reports (Washington, D.C.: Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, 2017), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/ data/nvsr/nvsr66/nvsr66_04.pdf.
  • 47. R.A. Hahn, B.I. Truman, and D.R. Williams, “Civil Rights as Determinants of Public Health and Racial and Ethnic Health Equity: Health Care, Education, Employment, and Housing in the United States,” SSM - Population Health 4 (2018): 17–24.
  • 48. “Percentage of Persons 25 to 29 Years Old with Selected Levels of Educational Attainment, by Race/Ethnicity and Sex: Selected Years, 1920 Through 2017.”