Fifty years after the historic Kerner Commission identified “white racism” as the key cause of “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing,” there has been no progress in how African-Americans fare in comparison to whites when it comes to homeownership, unemployment and incarceration, according to a report released Monday by the Economic Policy Institute.
In some cases, African-Americans are worse off today than they were before the civil rights movement culminated in laws barring housing and voter discrimination, as well as racial segregation....
Among the study’s shattering findings…
…7.5 percent of African-Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared with 6.7 percent in 1968 — still roughly twice the white unemployment rate.
…The rate of home ownership, one of the most important ways for working- and middle-class families to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African-Americans in the past 50 years. Black home ownership remains just over 40 percent, trailing 30 points behind the rate for whites, who have seen modest gains during that time.
…The share of incarcerated African-Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — one of the largest and most depressing developments in the past 50 years, especially for black men, researchers said. African-Americans are 6.4 times as likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned, compared with 5.4 times as likely in 1968.
…The wealth gap between white and black Americans has more than tripled in the past 50 years…The typical black family had zero wealth in 1968. Today the median net worth of white families — $171,000 — is 10 times that of black families.
After all the rhetoric, all the safety nets, The Great Society, the Civil Rights Act, nothing. After busing, 50 years of affirmative action and diversity training in employment and educational institution admissions, nothing. After an explosion in the numbers of African American House members, police commissioners, judges, lawyers, doctors, big city mayors, and governors; after home rule in the District of Columbia, after Barack Obama…no progress. After 50 years that saw attitudes on mixed race marriages, cultural representation in academia, media and entertainment, broadcasting and sports; after Barbara Jordan, Michael Jordan, Bernie Shaw, “The Cosby Show,” Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Serena Williams, Flip Wilson, Johnnie Cochran, Spike Lee, Oprah, Michael Jackson, “Hamilton,” “Scandal,” “The Butler,” “Hallelujah Baby!”, Rhianna, Beyonce, Jay-Z…how can this be possible?
Naturally, the Post article on the report’s first answer is simple: it’s racism, that’s all:
“We have not seen progress because we still have not addressed the issue of racial inequality in this country,” said John Schmitt, an economist and vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, citing the racial wealth gap and continuing racial discrimination in the labor and housing markets. “One of the key issues is the disadvantages so many African-Americans face, right from the very beginning as children.”
If that’s going to be the reflex response to this disaster, then the next 50 years will bring minimal progress as well. There is more, much more, to this multi-level failure of policy, planning, education, leadership and culture. I have mentioned before that just about 50 years ago I took an excellent course on the problems facing African-Americans in the United States. The Professor was a renowned expert in the field, Thomas Pettigrew. It was also the most depressing course I ever took. We studied how poverty and the lack of leadership and positive role models led to crime and destructive cultural norms; how this led in turn to prison and single parent, female-headed families, which encouraged single women to have children, which fed the cycle. We studied various innovative policy initiatives, and why they seemed doomed to failure.
I reflected on that course in a post almost two years ago to the day, while ruefully observing recent statistics about black social mobility. I’ll republish most of my observations then, because I have nothing to add to them now:
1. The United States cannot ethically continue to follow a series of policies that have not sufficiently improved the lot of black Americans.
2. It should be self-evident that this persistent languishing state of inequality for a large group of Americans is a national anchor, impeding the nation in many ways, causing division, wasting resources, wasting lives and human capital.
3. Why did the first black President fail to make this national crisis a major priority? He was perfectly situated to do so. Instead, he concentrated on health care insurance, undermining immigration policy, and speculative climate change policies.
4. Why has the black community refused to demand accountability from the President and Democrats? Obama’s popularity with African Americans is still near 90%.
5. Why has the issue of lack of black economic and social progress been ignored in the campaign so far? The Democratic theme is income inequality, which is purely class warfare. The racial inequality is right there to see, and nobody’s talking about it. It isn’t all racism, as Pettigrew made clear decades ago. The orientation of the civil rights activists is exactly backwards, for example focusing on “mass incarceration” as if the stalled social and economic progress of black society does not contribute to the fact that a disproportionate number of black men end up in prison.
6. Similarly, the tactic of blaming whites for all the intransigent problems of the black population interferes with productive discussions and practical policy options. Relative white (and Asian, and soon, Hispanic) success is not the sole or even the greatest reason for black failure, though it is comforting and popular to claim so. Moreover, the “white privilege” approach is just blame-shifting, causing anger and resentment and straining what needs to be a biracial alliance for the long term best interests of the nation.
I can answer those questions in 3, 4 and 5. The first black President didn’t concentrate on addressing the plight of black Americans because he didn’t have to; he knew he had their votes anyway. This response was his because Barack Obama was a fraud, without competence, integrity or courage. He used race as a tactical wedge, which is a primary reason race relations and tensions are worse now than at any point since the Sixties. The black community hasn’t demanded accountability because it has been gulled into passivity by generations of Democratic Party exploitation and soothing rhetoric, and because black leadership has been largely corrupt and inept. The answer to #5 is the easiest of all. Democrats couldn’t focus on the lack of black progress, because that failure was on Barack Obama’s doorstop. It was, and is, far easier to continue to engage in race-bating, and calling Republicans racists.
I said that this was most of my observations. I left out the main message of that post, which was that only something radical could have a chance of cutting this Gordian Knot, and maybe it was time to start seriously considering reparations, block grants to African-American citizens, as a policy option.
That was stupid and desperate, and I retract it. Such a proposal is like saying it’s time to ban guns. It can’t happen, and it’s both foolish and unethical to waste time arguing over fictional policies.
So now I’ve got nothing, and apparently, so does the country. This is an ethics issue, perhaps the ethics issue of our time. It is the ultimate challenge to our faith in democracy itself. There has to be a solution.
But I don’t have it.