Most (White) citizens believe we solved White/Black inequality in the 60s, by passing such sweeping regulations as the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968). All of these were a great first step, and remedied egregious acts of discrimination across the country. The problem, is that by the time these laws were passed, the course of Black citizens in the U.S. was largely set, and the profound inequalities that were found in society by that point could not be remedied by simply making discrimination illegal—not to mention that many of these laws didn’t abruptly end such practices, but were resisted for decades by state governments and local communities. The long-term effects of the original discrimination, and the continued violation of federal anti-discrimination law, are still seen today, measurable by differences between Black-White poverty rates and unconscionably high incarceration of racial minorities.
We are almost 150 years passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which ideally put Black residents in the U.S. on a path to citizenship, together with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (all were measures in the 1860s). However, these Reconstruction Era gains were subverted by state and local resistance, such as the sharecropping system and Jim Crow laws that limited Black economic self-sufficiency and voting rights. To a large degree it should be unsurprising that Blacks in the South failed to make significant economic or political progress as a group, until a century later, which culminated in the violence and chaos of the Civil Rights Movement. A more difficult question is the lack of improvement for the majority of Blacks in the North, since many of these impediments were never part of an institutionalized northern history, particularly in the large industrialized cities. The fact remains that Blacks in the North today remain far poorer and far less politically mobilized than their White counterparts. The “American Dream” narrative, along with our belief in meritocracy, suggests that individuals succeed or fail on their own hard work, or lack thereof. The data indicates otherwise, that group disenfranchisement plays a striking role in perpetuating the inequalities between Blacks and Whites in the U.S. The preceding history sets the stage for these patterns.
There were several large northern migrations of poor farm workers from the South, most of whom were disenfranchised Blacks, motivated to leave their homes by a lack of work and basic civil rights, deplorable living conditions, and lynchings. The motivation to move often came in the form of better opportunities in the growing northern cities where factories promised good jobs. The migration process transitioned U.S. Black demographics from 90% in South in 1900, to 50% by 1970 (see Table 1), and most of the northern migrants lived in large cities. This trend only shifted after the 1973 collapse, when northern cities faced mass unemployment. The migration pattern itself was structured by the need to be located near work, since most of these poor farmers had no transportation, so focused the migrants into urban central cores. Not only proximity to work, but several specific practices led to racial concentration and thus segregation, such as blockbusting, restrictive covenants, redlining and refusal to rent to minorities. Blockbusting was the trend whereby a real estate agent would move a poor black farm family into an urban, white neighborhood, then warn white residents that the “neighborhood is changing” and offer them a home in the growing suburb, access to which is made easy by the rapid construction of urban highway and interstate systems from the 1950s-1970s. Within just a few years, neighborhoods could transition from entirely White to entirely Black. Restrictive covenants were legally enforceable neighborhood documents preventing a homeowner from selling a house to a racial minority. Redlining, while not intentionally racially discriminatory, had racial repercussions, since most of the poor Black southern farmers moved into poor neighborhoods, which were “redlined” by banks and mortgage companies, indicating that they were high risk borrowers, therefore could not get home loans, or were charged high interest.
All of these practices created profound segregation in northern U.S. cities. In fact, by comparison, both Asian and Hispanic segregation levels in the US are in approximately the 30%-50% ranges (dissimilarity index; see Denton and Massey, American Apartheid, 1993), Black segregation in the North averages 75%, and in Chicago is an unbelievable 90%. These rates are not getting better as we enter the 2000s, and in fact in many cases are getting worse. My own studies of race in Indianapolis, from the 2000 census, indicate segregation in Center Township of 72%, and Marion County as a whole at 75%, compared with Asian and Hispanic segregation around 50%.
However, the persistence of urban segregation, created by discrimination in the North, is only part of the larger puzzle, and does not directly answer the question of the increasing poverty gap between White and Black. The more intractable problem is that contemporary discrimination is not nearly so much “bias” discrimination that we normally think about, where one person, organization or business intentionally refuses service to racial minorities because of skin color. Today’s discrimination is rooted in class patterns that were solidified by the segregation history. William Julius Wilson calls this the “concentration of poverty”, which he describes in When Work Disappears (1997). The explanation goes back to the fact that most of the migrants from the South to the North were poor farmers, so came with few assets or job skills. They came for the jobs available in the factories in the cities. The migration began to successfully build an early Black middle class in the North. However, within a few decades of migration, industrialization began to slow, and the booming northern cities quickly became the “Rust Belt,” as technology put many laborers out of work, and foreign outsourcing displaced the few remaining factory workers. This, along with the intersection of several economic crises, led to the 1970s collapse of many northern city economies. All workers were affected, but those most vulnerable were those who had little wealth “buffer” to ride out the changes and transition to new kinds of work.
Specifically, one source of economic buffer were those who had the generational benefits of home ownership from long-time community residence—most northern Blacks were recent residents whose families had been poor farmers. A second source of buffering was educational benefits from the GI Bill most of which went to White veterans--by 1973, almost 50% of White veterans had been able to utilize their benefits, compared to only 25% of Black veterans. Much of this can be understood in terms of the greater ability for White veterans to afford to be able to quit their jobs to go back to work, and to subsidize the remainder of their tuition left unpaid by the GI Bill. Both of these buffers, education and home-ownership, were stalwarts of the middle and upper classes, both of whom were able to flee the declining 1970s urban central cores, which many refer to as “White flight,” since most of those urban-to-suburban transitions were by middle class Whites, but middle class Blacks also moved if they were able. Wilson refers to this as “concentration of poverty,” since the only remaining urban residents were those who were financially unable to move, leaving predominantly low-skill, low-asset residents in areas where city governments had decided they could no longer afford to maintain. Thus, many northern cities saw the rapid decline in infrastructure in their urban cores, with a subsequent large-scale declines in education and health, together with rising unemployment, drug use/selling, and violent crime.
All of these changes can be seen as the confluence of both race and class. Originally, race played an overt role, since bias discrimination was legal and rampant. However, as bias discrimination was made illegal during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, class and segregation effects became powerful constraints on equality. Previous racist housing, hiring and voting practices created geographic, economic and skill disenfranchisement, which froze future opportunities for any resident trapped in these poor areas. By the 1970s those primarily found in impoverished central cities were the first and second generation descendants of the poor farm migrants who came north for jobs, only to find those jobs quickly disappear, and few viable opportunities for either work or education. A recent Ohio case highlights the desperation of mothers whose children are in dangerous and substandard schools—Kelley Williams-Bolar was recently found guilty of two felony counts for using her children’s father’s address to get them into a better school. While the question remains whether this case is overtly about race, it is clearly part of the “concentration of poverty” that disproportionately affects Blacks in northern cities. It is also part of the racist legacy of political institutions preferencing middle and upper class families (predominantly White), while allowing the continued devolution of poor neighborhoods (disproportionately Black), even to the extent of imprisoning a parent for trying to create a better life for her children.
The final pieces of this history bring us to the current day, since explanations rooted in slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the collapse of northern city economies take us only to the 1980s. The situation today is partly a continuation of the same patterns of segregation and concentration of poverty post-WWII, patterns that we failed to remedy by more aggressive legislation to increase neighborhood race and class diversity and quality of life. However, the other part of the contemporary explanation of the profound difference between black/white poverty, is that not only have we created new patterns of racial discrimination, but we have exacerbated unfair patterns of generational wealth accumulation typically associated with the “American Dream.” For the latter case, current inheritance laws allow the wealthy to continue to consolidate wealth. In fact, the legal affirmation of inheritance patterns violates our fundamental belief in meritocracy, and is one of our few exceptions to our cultural value that “you get what you earn,” since parents often give significant resources to their children in life, and then everything else in death, regardless of the productivity or laziness of the child. Poor families, by contrast, can offer very little in terms of inheritance, thus leaving children born into poor families with solely their own capacities to survive. These patterns, as documented by Shapiro (Hidden Cost of Being African American, 2004) demonstrate the continued disenfranchisement of poor families, primarily black families, as a result of our cultural desire to keep all wealth “in the family,” even after death. As of 1999, Shapiro found that median White inheritance is around $10,000, while the median Black inheritance is $800. Analysis of recent census data indicates this disparity has grown significantly from 2000-2010, rather than getting better, as we might hope if Whites and Blacks operated on a level-playing field. In fact, the lack of a “buffer” for the poor, disproportionately Black, has created a devastating situation during the recession—while both Black and White median household income has been generally increasing since Pew first began collecting wealth data in 1984, both groups saw wealth declines since 2004, when the percent of Black wealth compared to White wealth plummeted from 10% to 5% (see Table 2).
As for the other piece of the contemporary inequality explanation, new patterns of racial discrimination, there are multiple sub-parts. First, we are facing the mass incarceration of young Black men across the U.S. (see Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2011). Much of this can be tied back to Wilson’s concentration of poverty thesis. There are typically no legitimate job opportunities in poor communities, and poor public transportation out of such communities to where jobs are. Even if an individual can get transportation to a suburban fast-food job to fill out an application, employers often engage in hiring discrimination based on the zip code origin. Applicants from poor communities, often high-crime areas where residents have poor access to education, are assumed to similarly have unreliable transportation to work, a greater likelihood to be a criminal, or to have a poor education making him/her unsuitable as an employee. While any of these may or may not be reasonable assumptions, the outcome is the same—no work, even for those residents of poor neighborhoods who take the initiative to apply to jobs in the suburbs.
With no available work, few opportunities exist to feed one’s family, other than illegal work, like drug-selling. Unemployed fathers often discover that intact families are not eligible for welfare benefits, so both mother and father may decide not to marry or live together since the best chance for food security for their children is food stamps. This creates a disadvantageous situation for children in poor, segregated communities, depleting their social and family resources. The current emphasis of national discourse about welfare is to protect the system from “welfare cheats” (a group of mothers whose existence is difficult to prove, and available data indicates they constitute at most 5-10% of welfare recipients). However, the negative consequence of restrictive welfare availability is that it incentivizes families to remain broken, and since the total of welfare benefits is typically 1/3 of the poverty line, it never creates a path towards self-sufficiency.
Further the education and health of children in poor communities is compromised by the massive funding of prisons in the U.S. We are, by far, the world’s largest jailer, surpassing Russia, and almost triple South Africa. Europe, Canada, and Australia all imprison approximately 1/1000 citizens, while we imprison at 8x that rate (as of 2006), much of which is racially skewed. Studies indicate that 96% of drug-related defendants are racial minorities, whereas drug users themselves are 88% white. Drug laws themselves, as well as enforcement patterns, have led many to question whether the “War on Drugs” is actually a “War on Blacks,” given decades of consistent and specific racial effects. The NAACP this year published a report, Misplaced Priorities, which documents the link between the concentration of poverty, poor educational opportunities, and crime, all of which disproportionately affects Black citizens, including a specific study on Indianapolis. Solutions exist for these patterns, such as changing drug laws and sentencing to reflect medical and legal reasonableness, diverting funding from prisons to drug rehabilitation programs (found to be both cheaper and more effective), and funding education for children and job-training for adults, paid for by downsizing prisons so that non-violent offenders can be reincorporated into society, rather than warehoused with violent offenders. While perhaps in inflammatory analogy, it could be argued that while, during slavery, we extracted Black men from their homes and families in Africa to enslave them as workers on sugar and cotton farms, today we extract Black men from their homes and families here in the U.S. to warehouse them, not as productive slaves, but as unproductive prisoners.
Indianapolis itself has been in the midst of tumultuous debates about our public schools. But with data indicating that poverty, segregation, and lack of neighborhood resources (including male role models who are imprisoned rather than allowed to be fathers and mentors) are the predictor for poor performance of students, the resolutions to these issues will not be found by closing schools that fail to pass standardized tests, or by giving those schools to profiteers as a business venture. The problem is with impoverished communities, and unprepared students, not teacher unions, or the public school system itself, although few would disagree that both teachers and schools could always be improved. Further, the problem of impoverished communities is not one of individual laziness or moral incapacity, since history determines much of our life course, especially when the previous and current generations face(d) such profound economic disenfranchisement, not to mention political inequalities. Sociologists are in agreement that the vast majority of poverty is created by institutional and historic disadvantages, and that individual free-will accounts for very little possible upward social mobility (See Table 3). With this as a framework, it is unreasonable to expect poor communities to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and fix themselves. Rather what is needed is a renewed sense of national unity and shared sacrifice that will create a social and economic climate whereby all benefit, not just Whites, and not just the wealthy. While the current generation did not create this pattern of inequality and there is far less bias discrimination than 50 years ago, generational benefit still accrues by those born into middle and upper class families to the profound disadvantage to those children born into an impoverished community, and a rigged system.