The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 8, 2018

Say African American or Black, but first acknowledge the persistence of structural racism

February 8, 2018

In February, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire will explore racial disparities in housing and criminal justice and the structural barriers that continue to disadvantage the black population in the United States. Other posts in this series:

Can racial and ethnic impact statements address inequity in criminal justice policy?

Mapping the black homeownership gap

Racial segregation is a stubborn feature of our nation's history, but it doesn't have to be our future

For Americans with criminal records, the fight to ensure full voting rights continues


In February, the United States and several other countries celebrate black history. In the United States, this time is also called African American History Month. The evolution of this celebration and its names over the years reflect differences in views of the population and how we perceive the legacy of racism and structural disadvantage faced by black people in the United States.

The designation of February as the month to celebrate African American achievements originated with Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The monthlong celebration grew out of Negro History Week, chosen as the second week in February because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Yet some cynics have suggested that February was selected because it was the shortest month of the year, and once again, black people were being shortchanged even as they were being celebrated.

Today, some people view “black” and “African American” interchangeably. But many have strong opinions that “African American” is too restrictive for the current US population. In part, the term African American came into use to highlight that the experiences of the people here reflect both their origins in the African continent and their history on the American continent. 

But recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have different combinations of history and experience, so some have argued that the term “black” is more inclusive of the collective experiences of the US population. About 10 percent of the 46.8 million black people in the United States are foreign born. 

Contrary to the perception of some, immigrants from Africa are more likely to have a college education than the black population as a whole and the US population as a whole. Data on children of immigrants reveal that 44 percent of children in the United States with parents from Africa and the West Indies have parents with at least a college degree, compared with 24 percent of all black children and 40 percent of all children with native-born parents.

Structural racism disadvantages black people in America

Diversity of opinion and disparities in educational attainment are not the only differences within the black population. People often focus only on the median income of black households ($39,490) versus non-Hispanic white households ($65,041), which leaves the impression that all black households have lower incomes.

But the range of household incomes within the black population is broader than within the white population. Mean 2016 household income for the bottom fifth of black households was $7,334, while it was $153,249 for the top fifth, nearly 21 times the income of the bottom 20 percent. This ratio is higher than the ratio (15 times) for white households. Nevertheless, black households in the highest income group within their race have mean incomes about 68 percent of white households in the highest income group.

Structural barriers that stand in the way of black achievements can help explain these disparities. For example, in housing and criminal justice, race predicts outcomes even after controlling for income and education. In a series of blog posts that will be released this month, the structural racism initiative at Urban will focus on housing and criminal justice because they indicate how structural racism and racial stereotypes keep black people from reaching goals comparable with their white counterparts.

Housing disparities lead to other disparities

Low levels of homeownership and limited access to decent and affordable housing keep black households from building wealth and accessing high-quality neighborhood services, such as education. Less than half of black households are homeowners, compared with nearly three-quarters of white households.  

Consequently, high-achieving black families find it harder to pass on economic and educational advantages at the same rate as white families. 

Strategies to change that dynamic have been offered but are not part of the national agenda.  Recommendations for new initiatives will soon be released by the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.

The criminal justice system is also racially unequal

Black people are more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. Many of these disparities arise from differences in how certain actions by black people versus white people are treated by schools, police, hospitals, and other institutions, with serious consequences for black people. 

Black people make up more than one-third of people in federal and state prisons, nearly three times their representation in the population. Once they become involved, black people are more likely to carry the consequences throughout their lives. We can implement strategies that change how people are treated after they have been incarcerated and strategies that reduce encounters with law enforcement and the negative consequences that follow those encounters. Some of these strategies will be explored in the structural racism blog series this month.

While we have much to celebrate about black achievement in the United States, many structural barriers continue to keep black people from achieving more. As a country, we should not be content to recognize the many accomplishments of black people, but we should acknowledge how much more we have to do to promote equitable outcomes.

Protesters at the March on Washington. Photo by Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.