The twentieth-century economic adage that when America sneezes the rest of the world catches pneumonia has a tragic domestic counterpart in the relative economic condition of African-Americans. What for white Americans is a Great Recession amounts to a virtual depression for a substantial number of African-Americans. Unemployment rates stood at 15.5 percent in May, compared with the overall national rate of 9.7 percent. For black men the situation is almost as desperate as during the nadir of the Great Depression of the 1930s: more than one in six is unemployed, compared with the national average of 9.8 percent; among black teenagers, many of whom are out of school and seeking full employment, the rate stands at a shocking 38 percent.
The unemployment figures reflect only part of a broader pattern of socioeconomic disparity between blacks and whites; nearly all indexes—income, wealth, educational attainment, homeownership and foreclosures—show growing gaps and a retreat from gains made in the 1990s, gaps that are being devastatingly widened by the Great Recession. Black median household income, for example, the lowest of major US ethnic groups, has declined by 7.8 percent from its high point of $37,093 in 2000, when it was 65 percent of white median household income. At $34,218 in 2008, it stood at 61.6 percent of white household income. Even more troubling has been the stunning growth in disparity between white and black wealth. A report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy shows that black median family wealth hardly grew over the past quarter-century, standing at $5,000 in 2007; it is now probably much lower, in view of the disproportionate impact of the housing crisis on black homeowners. In contrast, white median family wealth in 2007 was $100,000, twenty times that of black families and a fourfold increase in disparity over this relatively short period.
But perhaps the most startling recent development has been the finding of several recent reports showing that the black middle class as a group is not only losing ground compared with other groups but is failing to reproduce itself. A 2007 Pew Foundation/Brookings Institution study found that a majority of black middle-class children earned less than their parents and, even more alarming, that almost half of downwardly mobile offspring had fallen to the bottom of the income distribution.
What happened? How is this possible in a nation that boasts an African-American president and justly celebrates its civil rights movement as one of the great social revolutions of the twentieth century? What became of the dream of black economic empowerment and economic parity with whites? Why are black Americans so uniquely vulnerable to every recessionary wind that blows in the American economy?
Answering this question takes us straight to the heart of a profound paradox in the changing situation of African-Americans over the course of the past half-century. The civil rights movement, we now know, succeeded wonderfully in the public sphere of American life. From being virtual outcasts in nearly every area of public life as late as the 1950s, black Americans are now an integral part of the political, cultural and civic fabric. They are a critical component of one of the nation’s major political parties; they are fully integrated into the military, making up more than 10 percent of the Army’s officer corps; they exercise disproportionate influence in popular culture—in music, sports, theater, dance, film and TV—and they have been incorporated into elite public and corporate positions to a degree unparalleled in any other white-majority nation in the world, including those, like Brazil, with far greater absolute and relative numbers of blacks. Barack Obama’s election is both the culmination of, and eloquent testimony to, this achievement in the public sphere.