Throughout this month, my Urban Institute colleagues have offered facts and analysis on our nation’s progress toward realizing the goals of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Re-reading this series of 14 blog posts, I’m saddened by the stubborn persistence of racial inequality across so many dimensions of life.
I don’t mean to understate the huge achievements of the civil rights and Great Society statutes passed in the years following the march. They’ve opened doors that were previously closed to black Americans and contributed to measurable gains in education, housing, and health for people of all races and ethnicities. Young people today have a hard time imagining an era of separate water fountains, officially sanctioned housing discrimination, or white-only public universities.
But our history of racial exploitation, exclusion, and deprivation casts a long shadow:
- In housing, although the most blatant forms of "door slamming" discrimination are rare today, black homeseekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than if they were white, and residential segregation remains unacceptably high.
- In education, the racial gap in high school graduation rates has largely closed, the college graduation gap has widened, and public K-12 schools are just as separate—and almost as unequal—as they were five decades ago.
- In child health, although infant mortality rates have declined dramatically for all groups, black infants are 2.3 times more likely to die than white infants, and this disparity isn't explained by differences in mothers' poverty, education, or health coverage.
- In employment, although blacks are no longer locked out of well-paying public sector jobs, their unemployment rates remain stubbornly high, and the gap between white and black unemployment is actually wider now than it was at the peak of the Great Recession.
- Finally, among adults born into middle-class families in the 1960s, blacks are 2.8 times more likely than whites to have fallen to the lowest income quintile. And the black-white wealth gap has steadily widened over the past three decades.
What will it take to narrow these gaps in the years ahead? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer because the disparities are so intertwined that efforts to tackle one—like college graduation rates—are undermined by the persistence of others—like neighborhood segregation, public school quality, and family wealth.
A renewed national commitment to equality of opportunity must acknowledge these interconnections, compensating for leftover disadvantages in one domain while opening doors in another. For example, Sandy Baum argues for an initiative to help black high school grads choose colleges that will prepare them for well-paying jobs and upward economic mobility. But to succeed, such an initiative would have to include financial support (to compensate for the persistent racial wealth gap), remedial classes (to make up for poor-performing public schools in black neighborhoods), and supplemental health care (to overcome the insidious effects of discrimination, deprivation, and insecurity).
This month’s commemoration of the March on Washington has refocused public attention on the stubborn persistence of racial inequality in our country. I hope we don’t abandon the topic with the start of September, but that upcoming debates about jobs, schools, housing, health, and wealth all address the vexing racial gaps that slow our progress toward realizing Martin Luther King's dream.
Photo by AP; Wikimedia Commons