The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 16, 2012

Celebrating MLK Day—How Wide Are The Opportunity Gaps Today?

January 16, 2012

  “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Martin Luther King Jr. fought not only for civil rights, but also for economic justice. At the time of his death, most American urban areas, in the North as well as in the South, were highly segregated and African Americans were denied equal access to good schools, well-paying jobs, and homeownership—all essential pathways to economic success.

Today, more than four decades later, African Americans (on average) still don’t enjoy the same school quality, job opportunities, or homeownership access as whites. But the disparities have narrowed considerably and growing numbers of black Americans have succeeded in climbing the ladder of social and economic opportunity.

To complicate matters further, immigration has made our population dramatically more diverse. So the picture of racial inequity in urban America is no longer so stark—or so clearly evident. Some metros perform a lot better than others for their minority residents. And some serve members of one minority well, but not others. Take a look at Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example. The region’s average white elementary-school student attends a school that scores in the 70th percentile on state assessment tests. The average black student’s school scores 13 points lower and the average Latino’s 25 points lower. But those school performance gaps are even wider in most other metros. In the New York region, the average black student’s school scores a shocking 42 points below the average white’s, and the average Latino student’s school 41 points below. And in Pittsburgh, the average Latino student’s school scores 2 points higher than the average white’s school, while the average black’s school scores 38 points lower.

State Test Scores For Elementary Schools Attended By The Average White, Black And Latino Student

Source: Percentile ranking on state standardized tests (in 2004) of the school that the average child of a racial/ethnic group attends

The racial homeownership gap varies across metros as well. In all five metros shown here, whites are far more likely than either blacks or Latinos to own their homes. But the black-white gap is narrowest in the DC region (24 points) and widest in the New York region (35 points). Albuquerque performs relatively well on this score for Latinos (only an 8 point gap), while New York performs even more poorly for Latinos than for blacks.

Share Of White, Black, And Latino Households Who Are Homeowners

Source: Share of households owner-occupants, ACS (2010)

How about job opportunities? In the Washington, DC, region 67 percent of working-age whites are employed, compared with only 62 percent of blacks, but 74 percent of Latinos. The black-white employment gap is narrower in both Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. And again, Pittsburgh seems to perform well for Latinos but poorly for African Americans.

Share Of Working-Age Whites, Blacks, And Latinos Employed

Source: Share of adult population employed, ACS (2010)

Closing these opportunity gaps is no simple matter. And the solutions—such as targeted school investments, fair housing enforcement, and job training—have to be crafted locally. So today, as we celebrate King’s vision of racial opportunity and equity, policymakers and civic leaders in metros across the country should be asking: “How does our region perform?” and “What can we do to narrow the opportunity gap?”

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