Posted on December 12, 2020

Why Did Racial Progress Stall in America?

Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert D. Putnam, New York Times, December 4, 2020

In the popular narrative of American history, Black Americans made essentially no measurable progress toward equality with white Americans until the lightning-bolt changes of the civil rights revolution. If that narrative were charted along the course of the 20th century, it would be a flat line for decades, followed by a sharp, dramatic upturn toward equality beginning in the 1960s: the shape of a hockey stick.

In many ways, this hockey stick image of racial inequality is accurate. Until the banning of de jure segregation and discrimination, very little progress was made in many domains: representation in politics and mainstream media, job quality and job security, access to professional schools and careers or toward residential integration.

However, on a number of other measures, the shape of the trend is surprisingly different. In our book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” we examine century-long data, tracking outcomes by race in health, education, income, wealth and voting. What we found surprised us.

In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white Americans well before the victories of the civil rights era. What’s more, after the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends toward racial parity slowed, stopped and even reversed. Understanding how and why not only reveals why America is so fractured today, but illuminates the path forward, toward a more perfect union.

In measure after measure, positive change for Black Americans was actually faster in the decades before the civil rights revolution than in the decades after. For example,

  • The life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans narrowed most rapidly between about 1905 and 1947, after which the rate of improvement was much more modest. And by 1995 the life expectancy ratio was the same as it had been in 1961. There has been some progress in the ensuing two decades, but this is due in part to an increase in premature deaths among working-class whites.
  • The Black/white ratio of high school completion improved dramatically between the 1940s and the early 1970s, after which it slowed, never reaching parity. College completion followed the same trajectory until 1970, then sharply reversed.
  • Racial integration in K-12 education at the national level began much earlier than is often believed. It accelerated sharply in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. But this trend leveled off in the early 1970s, followed by a modest trend toward resegregation.
  • Income by race converged at the greatest rate between 1940 and 1970. However, as of 2018, Black/white income disparities were almost exactly the same as they were in 1968, 50 years earlier. {snip}
  • The racial gap in homeownership steadily narrowed between 1900 and 1970, then stagnated, then reversed. The racial wealth gap is now growing as Black homeownership plummets.


These data reveal a too-slow but unmistakable climb toward racial parity throughout most of the century that begins to flatline around 1970 — a picture quite unlike the hockey stick of historical shorthand.


But if Black Americans’ advance toward parity with whites in many dimensions had been underway for decades before the Civil Rights revolution, why then, when the dam of legal exclusion finally broke, didn’t those trends accelerate toward full equality? Why was the last third of the 20th century characterized by a marked deceleration of progress, and in some cases even a reversal?

We have two answers to these questions.

The first is simple and familiar: White backlash. Substantial progress toward white support for Black equality was made in the first half of the 20th century, but when push came to shove, many white Americans were reluctant to live up to those principles. Although clear majorities supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a national poll conducted shortly after its passage showed that 68 percent of Americans wanted moderation in its enforcement. In fact, many felt that the Johnson administration was moving too fast in implementing integration.


And it is in that earlier period of American history where the second answer to the question of why racial progress stagnated after the civil rights era can be found, as made clear by new statistical evidence we present in “The Upswing.”

On the heels of Reconstruction came a period that Southerners called “redemption,” a violent project on the part of vanquished Southern elites to restore white hegemony in the wake of the progress Black Americans had made after the Civil War. Redemption coincided with the vast upheaval of industrialization and urbanization, when the United States more broadly plunged into the Gilded Age. {snip}

But as the century turned and the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era, America experienced a remarkable moment of inflection that set the nation on an entirely new trajectory. A diverse group of reformers grabbed the reins of history and set a course toward greater economic equality, political bipartisanship, social cohesion and cultural communitarianism. This shift and the long-run trends it set in motion are detailed in scores of statistical measures in “The Upswing.”

Some six decades later all of those upward trends reversed, setting the United States on a downward course that has brought us to the multifaceted national crisis in which we find ourselves today, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Gilded Age. {snip}

These interconnected phenomena can be summarized in a single meta-trend that we have come to call the “I-we-I” curve: An inverted U charting America’s gradual climb from self-centeredness to a sense of shared values, followed by a steep descent back into egoism over the next half century.

The moment America took its foot off the gas in rectifying racial inequalities largely coincides with the moment America’s “we” decades gave way to the era of “I.” At the mid-’60s peak of the I-we-I curve, long-delayed moves toward racial inclusion had raised hopes for further improvements, but those hopes went unrealized as the whole nation shifted toward a less egalitarian ideal.

A central feature of America’s “I” decades has been a shift away from shared responsibilities toward individual rights and a culture of narcissism. {snip} Whatever sense of belonging Americans feel today is largely to factional (and often racially defined) in-groups locked in fierce competition with one another for cultural control and perceived scarce resources. Contemporary identity politics characterizes an era that could well be described as a “War of the ‘We’s’.” {snip}