Racial Parity Hits the Wall

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Black Americans have made considerable progress over the past two decades in reaching top positions in government, business, and the military. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, the third-highest position in government, being followed at State by Condoleezza Rice. Richard Parsons is CEO of Time Warner, Kenneth Chenault is CEO of American Express, Stan O’Neal until recently was CEO of Merrill Lynch, and black men and women are heads of other major U.S. corporations. Barack Obama, who is making a credible run at the presidency, is appealing not only to black and other minority voters but also to a wide cross section of independent voters.

Obama’s success so far has appeared to provide some closure to the “American dilemma”—this country’s unsatisfactory relations with African- American descendants of slaves (though Obama has a white mother and an African father). Yet the political, governmental, and business success during the past few years of small numbers of blacks does not accurately measure the progress of typical African-American men and women. Education, earnings, and health gaps between whites and blacks did significantly narrow during the forty-year period from the end of World War II until the late 1980s. From then until now, however, black people’s progress relative to whites has essentially stopped. A significant gap remains.

Derek Neal, a colleague at the University of Chicago, has documented this slowdown in black progress from many angles (see his “Why Has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped?” in the Handbook of the Economics of Education, volume 1, 2006). He shows that the racial gap in average years of schooling for men in their late twenties was about 2.25 years in 1965; that it declined to less than a year in the 1980s; and that it has essentially remained there into this century. The schooling gap between young black and white women has been smaller than that of men; it fell a lot until the mid-1980s, but may have increased since then to resemble the gap for young men. The same pattern—considerable progress and then stagnation— is found in racial gaps for high school and college graduation rates and in teenagers’ reading and math scores. Earnings of blacks and whites with the same amount of schooling are similar: convergent until the late 1980s and mainly stable since then, although there are increased racial gaps in some education groups.

The pattern carries over into differences in life expectancy and general health. Black life expectancy narrowed until about twenty years ago and then remained constant, at about six years below that of whites. This means that American blacks’ life expectancies are comparable to those in the much poorer countries of Paraguay and Mexico.

Why did black Americans’ progress stop well short of full equality with whites? Is the slowdown of the past twenty years temporary or does it forecast the racial situation of the next few decades? The sharp slowdown is surprising mainly because institutionalized and personal discrimination against African-Americans continues to decline.

Probably the most important offset to the decline in racial discrimination is the rapid growth since the 1960s in the fraction of black children raised in households with one parent or none. Such households also grew among whites but at a much slower pace. Moreover, white single-parent households mainly arise from a divorce between parents who had children while married (or living together), whereas never-married young mothers raise many black children.

In addition, young blacks growing up in segregated neighborhoods are pressured to engage in crime, including selling drugs, and to avoid “acting white,” meaning studying hard and investing in one’s human capital. These pressures are harder on black boys than on black girls, which helps explain why the achievements of black women are much closer to those of white women than is the case among men.

It is too early to tell whether these and other forces that have prevented blacks from achieving full parity with whites are temporary or long lasting. Growing up in families that invest little in their children casts a long shadow: children brought up in such families tend to invest less in their children, a process that is repeated to some degree over the generations that follow.

Similar patterns—considerable progress and then stagnation—are found in racial gaps for high school and college graduation rates, and in teenagers’ reading and math scores.

Yet it may be possible to overcome this intergenerational problem. In my opinion, the most promising approaches involve self-help programs that encourage better choices in black communities, the legalization of drugs, personalized medicine that recognizes differences in vulnerabilities to disease between blacks and whites, Head Start–type school programs, and school vouchers and charter schools that widen school choice and stimulate education innovations. On the whole, I am optimistic that some of these changes will be made and hence that the convergence between blacks and whites will resume after its twenty-year hiatus, although it will probably be many decades before blacks achieve anything close to full parity with whites.