Ferguson, Watts and a Dream Deferred

Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, August 20, 2014

When rioting broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965, African-Americans didn’t–couldn’t–know it yet, but the next three decades would turn out to be a period of sustained gains in terms of income, jobs, education and the status of blacks relative to whites.

The rioting this past week in Ferguson, Mo., by contrast, follows more than a decade of economic stagnation and worse for many black Americans, a trend that appears unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

The Watts riots–set off by the traffic arrest of a 21-year-old black driver by a white police officer–left 34 dead, 1,032 people injured, and 600 buildings damaged or destroyed.

The week of violence in L.A. began just five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and 13 months after he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964–the impact of which had not yet been felt in the daily lives of African-Americans.

During the decades following this landmark legislation, African-Americans made immense progress. The percentage of blacks over the age 25 with a high school degree more than tripled, going from just under 20 percent, or less than half the white rate, to more than 70 percent, nearly matching the white rate. The percentage of blacks over 25 with a college degree quadrupled from 3 to 12 percent over the same period.

Similarly, black median household income grew, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $22,974 in 1967 to $30,439 in 2000, a 32.5 percent increase, more than double the 14.2 percent increase for whites. Although black household income remained well below white levels in 2000–66.3 percent of the white median–it was significantly better than it had been in 1967, when it was 57.1 percent of white median income.

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While the economic downturns of the last decade-and-a-half have taken their toll on the median income of all races and ethnic groups, blacks have been the hardest hit. By 2012, black median household income had fallen to 58.4 percent of white income, almost back to where it was in 1967–7.9 points below its level in 1999. {snip}

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From 1965 to 2000, the poverty rate among blacks fell from 41.8 percent to 22.5 percent. Since then, it has risen to 27.2 percent. The white poverty rate also rose during this period, but by a more modest 3.2 points.

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A 2007 pre-recession Brookings Institution study by Julia Isaacs, “Economic Mobility of Black and White Families,” found that “a majority of blacks born to middle-income parents grow up to have less income than their parents. Only 31 percent of black children born to parents in the middle of the income distribution have family income greater than their parents, compared to 68 percent of white children from the same income bracket.”

White children, Isaacs reports, “are more likely to move up the ladder while black children are more likely to fall down.” Thirty-seven percent of white children born to families in the middle quintile of the income distribution move up to the top two quintiles, compared with only 17 percent of black children. Forty-five percent of black children from solidly middle class families “end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared with only 16 percent of white children,” Isaacs found.

A more recent April 2014 study of black and white mobility by Bhashkar Mazumder, a senior economist at the Chicago Federal Reserve, showed similar results. That report is even more explicitly pessimistic.

The Chicago Fed study found that among black children born between the late 1950s and the early 1980s into families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, half remained there as adults, compared with 26 percent of whites born in the bottom quintile.

Of black children born to families in the top half of the income distribution, 60 percent fell into the bottom half as working age adults, compared with 36 percent of similarly situated whites.

Mazumder concluded that if future generations of white and black Americans continued to experience the same rates of intergenerational mobility, “we should expect to see that blacks on average would not make any relative progress.” He noted that this recent time period stood “in direct contrast to other epochs in which blacks have made steady progress reducing racial differentials.”

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Competing explanations for the difficulties that continue to plague African-Americans are a central element in the contemporary polarization between left and right; in fact, they help define it.

Liberals and conservatives disagree vehemently over the role of such factors as the decline of manufacturing jobs, the rise of single parenthood, racial discrimination, the poor quality of public schools, residential segregation, high incarceration rates, test score differentials, parental investment, crime rates, welfare incentives, the lack of engaged fathers–the list goes on.

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The urban riots of the second half of the 1960s prompted Washington to pump out money, legislation, judicial decisions and regulatory change to outlaw de jure discrimination, to bring African-Americans to the ballot box, to create jobs and to vastly expand the scope of anti-poverty programs.

Civil unrest also drew attention to the necessity of addressing police brutality.

Today, however, political and policy-making stasis driven by gridlock–despite a momentary concordance between left and right on this particular shooting–ensures that we will undertake no comparable initiatives to reverse or even stem the trends that have put black Americans at an increasing disadvantage in relation to whites–a situation that plays no small part in fueling the rage currently on display in Ferguson.

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