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.
However, accompanying this historic public achievement has been a stunning failure: the persisting exclusion of blacks from the private sphere of American life. Outside elite circles, blacks are as segregated today from the private domain of white lives—their neighborhoods, schools, churches, clubs and other associations, friendship networks, marriage markets and families—as they were fifty years ago. The failure of school desegregation tells one part of this tragic story. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California shows that black and Latino schoolchildren are more segregated from whites than at any time since the 1960s: some 40 percent of black and Latino children attend schools that are almost entirely composed of blacks or Latinos. Religious institutions are as segregated today as in the ’60s, when Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed that 11 o’clock Sunday morning is America’s most segregated hour.
Both these forms of separation reflect a crucial source of racial apartness: residential segregation. The nation is as segregated today as it ever was, with hypersegregated and growing metropolitan areas—where blacks are concentrated in vast inner cities. Nowhere is the paradox of public integration and private exclusion better reflected than in the fact that America’s most segregated places are its most liberal metropolitan areas, where blacks play major roles in public life—New York City (with its black state governor), Chicago, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and Boston (which also has a black state governor).
It is a cherished dogma of liberal social science that the causal relation runs the other way: segregation—and its attendant separations from white schools, relationships and institutions—results from economic inequality and racism. But such arguments are immediately undermined by one simple fact: middle-class black Americans are as segregated as their poor and underclass inner-city counterparts. The wealthy live in gilded ghettos; those with average middle-class incomes live in segregated communities that overlap with lower-class black neighborhoods, sharing services and social problems.
What does private-sphere separation have to do with inequality and persisting socioeconomic problems? Seventeen years ago sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton argued forcefully that liberal social scientists had committed a major error in neglecting segregation as a primary cause of the ongoing inequality of black Americans. After some initial skepticism on my part, I have come to believe that they were right and that their argument carries even more force today. In modern America, like all other major industrial societies, economic success stems as much from network location and access to cultural capital as from formal schooling. Getting a job, as sociologist Mark Granovetter showed in his pathbreaking work, is as much a function of who you know as what you know, and this holds as much for working-class as for high-tech and managerial positions. Of equal importance, however, is the finding of the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: the transmission of cultural capital—the often tacit knowledge gained from family and friends that is reproduced in the extracurricular socialization of elite schools—is a critical factor in explaining economic inequality and other forms of social distinction. It is precisely such crucial networks and cultural capital that segregation excludes black Americans from. This, along with persisting, though declining, racism, explains, too, why black middle-class young people still lag far behind their white counterparts in school achievement and in career rewards from educational attainment. It explains also the looming tragedy of massive downward mobility and the failure of the black middle class to reproduce itself.
Policy has a crucial role to play in remedying this persisting source of black inequality: housing policies vigorously focused on desegregation; educational policies that aim at reversing the escalating resegregation of public schools; and renewed emphasis on antidiscrimination laws, especially in housing and employment. This, however, is the easy part. Of equal importance is the need for black Americans to do some serious soul-searching and re-examination of the prevailing cultural politics of identity, which sometimes explicitly, often implicitly, disdains the critical role of networks—both weak and strong, intimate and formal, sexual and marital—as well as full socialization in those areas of America’s hybrid cultural processes vital for success.
No one more powerfully exemplifies the value of such an alternate path as the black American who sits in the White House.
Also in This Forum
Robert Reich, "Unjust Spoils"
Dean Baker, "The Right Prescription for an Ailing Economy"
Katherine Newman and David Pedulla, "An Unequal-Opportunity Recession"
Jeff Madrick, "American Incomes: Soaring or Static"
Matt Yglesias, "A Great Time to Be Alive?"