Annual average U.S. unemployment rates, by race and education, 2017. Graphic: EPI

By Lauren Victoria Burke
15 March 2018

(NNPA Newswire) – Late last year, The Washington Post wrote that African Americans were the only group that showed no economic improvement since 2000.

They based their conclusions on Census data. This year, there was even more sobering news in a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

The new study issued found “no progress” for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years.

Much of what was included in the EPI study was stunning data on African American economic progress. Fifty years after the famous and controversial Kerner Commission Report that identified “white racism” as the driver of “pervasive discrimination in employment and education” for African Americans, EPI concluded that not much has changed.

The EPI study stated the obvious and pointed to glaring statistics.

Regarding the justice system, the share of incarcerated African Americans has close to tripled between 1968 and 2016, as Blacks are 6.4 times more likely than Whites to be jailed or imprisoned. Homeownership rates have remained unchanged for African Americans, over the last 50 years. Black homeownership is about 40 percent, which is 30 percent behind the rate for Whites.

Regarding income, perhaps the most important economic metric, the average income for an African American household was $39,490 in 2017, a decrease from $41,363 in 2000.

A press release about the report said that, “Black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be in poverty than Whites, and the median White family has almost ten times as much wealth as the median Black family.”

In 2017, the Black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and still roughly twice the White unemployment rate. In 2015, the Black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968 and trailing a full 30 points behind the White homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. [more]

It’s all about the Money: Stats on African American progress are sobering


By Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson
26 February 2018

(EPI) – The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.”1 The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968.

Following are some of the key findings:

  • African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968 but still lag behind whites in overall educational attainment. More than 90 percent of younger African Americans (ages 25 to 29) have graduated from high school, compared with just over half in 1968—which means they’ve nearly closed the gap with white high school graduation rates. They are also more than twice as likely to have a college degree as in 1968 but are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree.
  • The substantial progress in educational attainment of African Americans has been accompanied by significant absolute improvements in wages, incomes, wealth, and health since 1968. But black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites, and the median white family has almost 10 times as much wealth as the median black family.
  • With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened. In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate. [more]

50 years after the Kerner Commission


Median income gain or loss since 2000 for American ethnic groups. Graphic: The Washington Post

By Richard Rothstein
1 March 2018

(EPI) – In 1967, young black men rioted in over 150 cities, often spurred by overly aggressive policing, not unlike the provocations of recent disturbances. The worst in 1967 were in Newark, after police beat a taxi driver for having a revoked permit, and Detroit, after 82 party-goers were arrested at a peaceful celebration for returning Vietnam War veterans, held at an unlicensed social club.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission to investigate. Chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner (New York City’s mayor John Lindsay was vice-chair), it issued its report 50 years ago today. Publicly available, it was a best-seller, indicting racial discrimination in housing, employment, health care, policing, education, and social services, and attributing the riots to pent-up frustration in low-income black neighborhoods. Residents’ lack of ambition or effort did not cause these conditions: rather, “[w]hite institutions created [the ghetto], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it… [and is] essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

The report warned that continued racial segregation and discrimination would engender “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” So little has changed since 1968 that the report remains worth reading as a near-contemporary description of racial inequality.

Of course, not everything about race relations is unchanged. Perhaps most dramatic has been growth of the black middle class, integrated into mainstream corporate leadership, politics, universities, and professions. We’re still far from equality—affirmative action remains a necessity—but such progress was unimaginable in 1968. Today, 23 percent of young adult African Americans have bachelor’s degrees, still considerably below whites’ 42 percent but more than double the black rate 50 years ago.

In the mid-1960s, I assisted in a study of Chicago’s power elite. We identified some 4,000 policymaking positions in the non-financial corporate sector. Not one was held by an African American. The only black executives were at banks and insurance companies serving black neighborhoods. Today, any large corporation would face condemnation, perhaps litigation, if no African American had achieved executive responsibility.

In other respects, things are pretty much as dismal now as then—the commission condemned “stop and frisk” policies and equipping police with military weapons “that have no place in densely populated urban communities.” Some conditions are now worse: the “two societies” warning has been fulfilled, not only in our economic and social live, but in the racial polarization of politics exposed in the last election. It threatens the foundations of our democracy.

The commission said the nation faced three alternatives. First, continue present policies, resulting in more riots (or rebellions—the commission debated what to call them), economic decline, and the splintering of our common national identity. This is the course we have mostly followed. Second, improve black neighborhoods, what the commission called attempts to “gild the ghetto,” something we’ve half-heartedly tried with little success for the last 50 years—for example, with enterprise zones, empowerment zones, extra funding for pupils from low-income families, and charter schools. These, the commission predicted, would never get sufficient political or financial support and would confirm that separate can never be equal; they would fail to reverse our “two societies” trajectory. Or third, while doing what we can to improve conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods, we could embrace programs to integrate black families into white communities. We’d have to remove discriminatory and financial barriers that prevented African Americans from moving out of overcrowded, low-income places that lacked access to good jobs, schools with high-performing students, adequate health services, even supermarkets with fresh food. It was this alternative the Kerner Report strongly favored.

Surprisingly, the report was unanimous, even gaining support from commissioner Charles Thornton, CEO of Litton Industries, then one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. Johnson had appointed this Texas conservative to ensure modest recommendations, but even commissioners initially inclined to blame riots on “outside agitators” were radicalized by visiting black neighborhoods.

The report’s integration proposals need updating, but not much. One was a law banning discrimination in housing sales and rentals. Two months after the report’s release, horror over Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination gave President Johnson political support to pass the Fair Housing Act. But enforcement provisions waited another 20 years, and remain weak. The report suggested rent supplements for low-income families and tax credits for low-income housing developers. These were adopted—supplements are commonly termed “Section 8 vouchers” and the government now issues developer tax credits. Yet these programs now reinforce segregation because most recipients can use vouchers only in low-income neighborhoods and developers mostly use credits to build in such areas. Both programs could instead prioritize rentals and construction in integrated communities. For this to happen, we’d need to prohibit suburban zoning ordinances that bar construction of townhouses, low-rise apartments, even single family homes on modest lot sizes.

The commission called for constructing low-rise public housing on scattered sites throughout metropolitan areas. Yet shortly thereafter, after the Supreme Court prohibited placement of public housing exclusively in black neighborhoods, federal and local governments responded by ending public housing construction altogether

The commission also recommended subsidies for black homebuyers, something we’ve never seriously considered. They are needed because in the mid-twentieth century, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration unconstitutionally prohibited African Americans from purchasing affordable suburban homes, contributing to today’s overcrowding and segregation in urban black neighborhoods. Suburban property appreciation now makes those homes unaffordable to working-class families of either race. We’ll never desegregate if this historic wrong remains unremedied.

Is it too late to adopt the Kerner Commission’s third alternative? Racial polarization—the almost inevitable result of persistent residential segregation—may make it so. But perhaps re-reading the report can awaken a passion to reform what the commission didn’t hesitate to term an “apartheid” nation.

EPI is cosponsoring an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission.

A version of this piece ran in the New York Daily News.

Many of the policy recommendations from the Kerner Commission remain relevant 50 years later


By Valerie Wilson
26 February 2018

(EPI) – Anniversaries of major events are nearly irresistible opportunities to reflect on the past, often with the hope that there has been some progress. So it is this year, 50 years after the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders found systemic inequality and racial discrimination to be at the root of riots across America.

In a new report, Janelle Jones, John Schmitt and I present statistics showing what life was like for African Americans in this country 50 years ago compared to now. That document is a straightforward, unfiltered presentation of the facts, covering a wide range of economic, social, and health outcomes. In the spirit of reflection, I want to use this blog post to focus on racial economic inequality in the labor market, which directly affects approximately 20 million African Americans who get up every day and either go to work or go to find work.

The bottom line is simple. Despite decades of policies, programs, protests and outstanding achievements by African American men and women in many aspects of American life, race far too often remains a deciding factor in the economic status of African Americans relative to whites.

Great strides have been made toward raising educational attainment among African Americans and closing the education gap relative to whites, especially with regard to completing high school. In 1968, just over half (54.4 percent) of African American adults age 25-29 were high school graduates, compared to nearly three-quarters (75.0 percent) of whites. In 2016, 92.3 percent of African American adults age 25-29 were high school graduates with 22.8 percent having gone on to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher (up from 9.1 percent in 1968). Among whites, 95.6 percent are high school graduates and 42.1 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher (up from 16.2 percent in 1968).

The important thing to understand about education is that it is undeniably important for economic mobility—at higher levels of education, African Americans have lower unemployment rates, and higher earnings than they would otherwise. Believe me, I do all I can to encourage and prepare my children—and any others who will listen—to get a college education. But education has not been enough to eliminate racial economic inequality. This is reflected in the persistent gaps in unemployment rates, median hourly wages, median household income, and poverty rates.

Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the black unemployment rate in 1972, it has almost always been about twice the white unemployment rate—in good economic times and in bad, as well as at every level of education.

Comparing unemployment rates by education we find that in 2017, having a bachelor’s degree substantially reduced the unemployment rate for African Americans, from 9.5 percent for those who only had a high school degree to 4.1 percent for college graduates and 3.0 percent for those with advanced degrees. However, African Americans with advanced degrees still had an unemployment rate higher than whites with a only a bachelor’s degree (2.3 percent) and African Americans with a bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate that was closer to the unemployment rate of whites with only a high school diploma (4.6 percent). [more]

50 years after the riots: Continued economic inequality for African Americans

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