Black People Are Not All ‘Living in Hell’

Thomas B. Edsall, NY Times, April 27, 2017

Contrary to Donald Trump’s indiscriminate portrayal of African-Americans as “living in hell,” the black upper middle class is ascending the economic ladder at a faster rate than its white counterpart.

Prof. William Julius Wilson

Prof. William Julius Wilson

Scholars have begun to focus their attention on this phenomenon. William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard and the author of “The Truly Disadvantaged,” is working on a book about upward social mobility among African-Americans. In an email, he wrote me:

One of the most significant changes in recent decades is the remarkable gains in income among more affluent blacks. When we adjust for inflation to 2014 dollars, the percentage of black Americans earning at least $75,000 more than doubled from 1970 to 2014, to 21 percent. Those making $100,000 or more almost quadrupled to 13 percent (in contrast white Americans saw a less striking increase, from 11 to 26 percent).

In an NBER paper issued in November 2016, Patrick Bayer, an economist at Duke, and Kerwin Charles, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, published comparable findings, reporting that

higher quantile black men have experienced substantial gains in both relative earnings levels and their positional rank in the white earnings distribution.

In a summary of their work, Bayer and Charles made the same point more succinctly: “Over the past 75 years, the gap in economic rank” — that is, the gap between blacks and whites — “has narrowed sharply among men at the top of the earnings ladder.”

Bayer and Charles conclude that the improvement in earnings for upper-income black men have had an uneven impact on African- American communities generally:

While the entire economy has experienced a marked increase in earnings inequality, this increase has been even more dramatic for black men, with those at the top continuing to make clear gains within the earnings distribution, and those at the bottom being especially harmed by the era of mass incarceration and the failing job market for men with low skills.

Census income data supports the conclusion reached by Wilson, Bayer and Charles that there was significant income growth among well-off African-Americans during the first 15 years of this century, in contrast to much smaller percentage gains among affluent whites.

African-American households on the highest rungs of the economic ladder — the top 5 percent of all black households — experienced a substantial 19.8 percent income increase from 2000 to 2015. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars, these households saw a $41,871 gain, from $211,425 in 2000 to $253,296 in 2015.

The top five percent of white households had incomes above those of African-Americans in this category, but they experienced a $4,498 or 1.2 percent, household income loss between 2000 and 2015, from $368,852 to $364,354.

There remains a wide disparity in absolute income levels. In 2014, 8.1 percent of black households had incomes of $100,000 or more compared with 14.0 percent of white households.

In addition, the income gains among the top fifth of African-American earners from 2000 to 2015 stand in contrast to declines for each quintile in the other 80 percent. Mean income in the bottom fifth of African-American households, for example, fell from $8,555 in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2000 to $7,020 in 2015. For those in the middle fifth, mean income fell from $40,731 to $37,184 over the same period.

In terms of wealth (as opposed to income), a 2014 study by Credit Suisse and Brandeis University found that wealth is more highly concentrated at the top among blacks than among whites, and that the concentration is growing at a faster pace among blacks than whites:

The concentration of wealth in the hands of the top segment of the African-American population is high. In 2009, the top 10% of African-Americans accounted for 67% of the wealth held by all African-Americans, up by 8 points from 59 percent in 2005.

For whites in 2009, the top 10 percent owned 51 percent of all white-owned wealth, up from 46 percent of wealth in 2005.

Just as income patterns are exacerbating inequality among African-Americans, so too are changes in the distribution of wealth. While wealth among the top 10 percent of blacks has become more concentrated, Pew found that the gap in average wealth among all blacks compared to all whites has worsened: In 1983, the median net worth of white households was eight times higher than the worth of black households. By 2013, white household net worth was 13 times that of black households.


What to make of all this?

“Black people now inhabit all levels of the American class and occupational structure,” Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at Yale, writes in his forthcoming book, “Black in White Space.”

They attend the best schools, pursue the professions of their choosing, and occupy various positions of power, privilege, and prestige.

But for the ascendant black upper middle class, Anderson continues, “in the shadows lurks the specter of the urban ghetto. The iconic ghetto is always in the background,” shaping

Americans’ conception of the anonymous black person as well as the circumstances of blacks of all walks of life.


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