I was born in 1981. The 1980s were a time of serious and entrenched racial inequality, but they were also a time of optimism about the long-term future of racial justice and reconciliation. Growing up in a world of Huxtables and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, I was raised to believe that while ending black-white inequality was the duty of all of us, it was also inevitable. Over time, racism got better. In school, racism was taught as an evil, but a historical evil, a sad period that our country had largely left behind in the Civil Rights Era. It’s hard to tell young people now how prevalent the feeling of racial progress was when I was a kid. And it’s hard, even for me, to acknowledge how wrong that feeling was, and how counterproductive it has turned out to be.
The culture of the early 1990s went a long way to dispelling this notion of inevitable racial progress. The Afrocentric positivity of bands like Arrested Development gave way to the grim realism of NWA. Music and movies by black artists served to inform white America about the conditions that our permanent black underclass was facing. We can debate whether these depictions actually ended up entrenching racism or not — certainly they provided plenty of talking points for conservatives eager to blame black America for its own problems — but it was a necessary message for white America to hear. Still, all these years later, and in the shadow of the constant and unchecked violence our police inflict on our black underclass every day, I am still surprised at how deeply many people believe that racial progress comes merely with the flipping pages of the calendar. When people talk about racial inequality, many or most seem to regard any time in the past as the bad old days when everything was far worse. But such talk is always vague and diffuse and relies a lot on the notion that there is more social pressure against vocalizing explicit racism now than there was in the past. I’m not even sure that last part is true; it was certainly considered existentially threatening to a national figure’s public reputation if they said a racist slur when I was growing up in the 1980s. But even if it is true, that social resistance to open racism cannot be regarded as sufficient to overwhelm the material dimensions of deepening racial inequality.
Economic and racial justice are not synonymous, but they are deeply and necessarily entwined. And though it surprises even bright and political people I know to hear it, the economic gap between white and black Americans is worse now than 30 years ago. The income and wealth gaps have not only not closed, they have grown:
Neither the black unemployment rate nor the black-white employment gap have meaningfully shrunk since 1980:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, via Outside the Beltway
Economic inequality is both a source of human misery and a self-perpetuating phenomenon, as those who lack economic power in our society lack political power as well.
I hardly need tell you that the Drug War and mass incarceration of black people have intensified since I was a child, not lessened.
When you include the effects of incarceration rate on black unemployment, the situation is even more stark, and once again, the situation is worsening, not improving over time.
Source: Pew Charitable Trust, via the New York Times
School desegregation, one of the most practically and symbolically important aspects of the Civil Rights movement, is worse today than when I was in elementary school.
Source: Economics Policy Institute, via Brad Plumer
More black students are graduating from college, which is good, but the gap in completion rates between black and white Americans has not meaningfully shrunk.
Source: Pew Social Trends
The homeownership gap is larger now than when I was a child, not smaller.
Source: Pew Social Trends
The gap in black and white high school dropout rates was identical in 2012 to what it was in 1990, although the past decade has seen some progress.
There is some good news. The life expectancy gap has shrunk somewhat. There were only 19 total black members of Congress in the 97th Congress and 44 in the 112th, although the number of Senators was identical. (At zero.) The poverty rate for black people has declined, and the white poverty rate slightly grown over this time, narrowing the gap, which is good, although the gap is still huge. And having a black president is both a practical and symbolic victory.
But with the fundamental economic differences having grown significantly in real dollars, and the incredible intensification of the criminalization of black people, resulting in mass incarceration, police violence, and rampant destabilization of black families, I feel confident in saying that racial inequality is worse today than it was when I was a child. Or, even more bluntly, racism is worse today than it was when I was a child, in the meaningful, material sense. Things are not getting better. They’re getting worse.
It’s a commonplace, since Martin Luther King, to say that the white moderate is the greatest impediment to racial justice, and for good reason. I would add, today, that racial optimism has become a similar impediment. Too many people continue to speak about racial progress as a clear and inevitable march to a better world. Instead, it’s time to acknowledge that we experienced a period of incomplete and partial but meaningful racial progress from the 1950s through the late 1970s, and have experienced a retrenchment and decline in racial justice since. Until we recognize that racial inequality has deepened and worsened in recent decades, we will never be capable of meaningfully confronting these problems.